Australians have always been uncomfortable with their nation’s geography.
Ever since Europeans invaded and began to colonize the Antipodean continent in the second half of the 18th century, settlers — whether there of their own accord or sent by force as convicts — have viewed their new country as an Anglo-Celtic enclave in a region populated by assorted Asian hordes. Enclave, fortress and haven all apply to the way white Australians viewed their country with guarded exclusivity — while regarding their northerly neighbors with suspicion and racist disdain.
But that all began to change in the early 1970s, when Australia started opening its doors to Asian migration and embarked on a multicultural journey. While the political and corporate establishment was still largely Anglo-biased, the popular consciousness was gradually shifting as people traveled in Asia, particularly young backpackers, and Asian migrants began to arrive in Australia.
The 1970s saw a boom in the study of two Asian languages: Japanese and Indonesian. For 30 years, Japanese was studied by more Australian students than any language other than English.
In the last decade, though, the number of students of Japanese has gone down by 16 percent, despite a rise in the school population. The number studying Indonesian has similarly plunged to the point where of 726,870 children currently enrolled from kindergarten to 12th grade in the public schools of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, fewer than one in 10 now studies an Asian language.
Indications were that, at the beginning of the current so-called Asian century, Australia was de-emphasizing the Asian component of its multiculturalism. Until, that is, the publication last month of a government white paper titled, “Australia in the Asian Century.”
“In this century,” it states, “our region will be the world’s largest producer of goods and services and the largest consumer of them. … The Asian century is an Australian opportunity.”
The comprehensive paper, the result of a year’s research by experts in all aspects of Asian affairs, goes on to say that “Australia is located in the right place at the right time.” And it calls for “deeper and broader engagement” with Asian countries.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard went on the national broadcaster, ABC Radio, on Oct. 29 to confirm her government’s commitment to the goals of the white paper. She admitted that the number of teachers of Asian languages was “a problem,” but emphasized that “we have the world’s first online national curriculum to penetrate all localities.”
“Australia in the Asian Century” was welcomed by everyone in the community, in and out of government. Yet, most commentators pointed out that the paper was short on specifics. Highly respected independent economics expert Alan Kohler wrote in his “Business Spectator” blog: “(The white paper) is a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Among the 25 national objectives outlined in the paper, education is at the core. The aim is to make Australians “Asia literate” by having every single child in Australia learning an Asian language in school by 2025 — with emphasis on Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese. Why Korean and Vietnamese, to name two, were left off the list is a mystery.
Contemporary statistics portray a truly multicultural nation.
Five million of Australia’s approximately 21 million people were born overseas; and 4 million Australians speak a language other than English at home. But despite the large numbers of recent permanent migrants from China and India, the number of Asian-studies programs in schools and universities is markedly down.
It is well and good to have Asian immigrants who contribute immensely to the richness of Australian life. But the vast majority of non-Asian Australians, not Asian immigrants, are the focus of the white paper. Australia needs bilingual scientists, engineers, business mavens and artists. It should be compulsory, for instance, for anyone seeking an MBA in an Australian university to master an Asian language.
The goal is not merely learning the fundamentals of a language, but acquiring feelings of cultural familiarity with an Asian society. All non-Asians who aspire to deal with Asian countries need to feel affinities with the very different societies there. An ease of communication does not come automatically in the grammar. How are things talked about and done? What are the values, manners and codes of behavior? You don’t get yourself into the inner workings of a Japanese corporation or artistic medium with a bow, an exchange of name cards and a quick ogenki desu ka (how do you do)?
The white paper, for all its virtues, is significant for what its fails to address, and that is the colonial heritage of Australia and how this presents to Asians today. British racial domination of its colonies in Asia and, in our own era, American neo-colonialism, are still vicariously ingrained in the subconscious of the Australian attitude toward Asia. The Japanese expression haku o tsukeru perfectly describes how many Australians aggrandize their “position” in the Asian region. Haku o tsukeru means “to make yourself look more important than you are.” By sitting next to the Americans at the diplomatic and strategic tables and cuddling up to them in virtually every aspect of foreign policy, Australians are often conspicuous as the “little self-aggrandizers” of Asia.
Australia has not only followed the United States into every one of its wars since the end of World War II in 1945, it has urged the U.S. to throw its weight about in Asia from as far back as the early 1960s in Vietnam to the present day, when it has offered up its northernmost city, Darwin, as a staging post for American troops.
Moreover, Australia is still tied, through a heady nostalgia, to the British crown. The movement to become a republic, strong as it was in the late 1990s, sits on the cold backburner today. Until Australia demonstrates a sincere and viably independent foreign policy, and until it becomes a republic, thereby standing on its own two feet in terms of sovereign governance, can the country genuinely expect Asian countries, naturally wary as they are of the Euro-American colonial complex of superiority, to accept it as a regional equal?
“Predicting the future is fraught with risk,” writes Gillard in her foreword to “Australia in the Asian Century.” “But the greater risk is in failing to plan for our destiny. As a nation, we face a choice: to drift into our future or to actively shape it.”
Her thoughts and the goals of the white paper are certainly admirable.
But for Australians to be an integral part of Asia in the coming decades, they will have to do a lot more than just say a few words in a local language. They will have to prove that they are ready and capable of playing on an Asian field, not as a transplanted relic from another zone and era, but as an equal, engaged and enthusiastic free agent.
That is the only way to shape an Australian destiny in Asia.