Australia and Asia: still carrying
the baggage of history
SCMP June 2
Australia and Asia. Is one part of the other or not? It is a subject
of ongoing debate, at least among Australians, and from time to time
it attracts some comment from the relatively few Asians who think about
Australia at all. Most of the time, Australians think in terms of how
they should react to and deal with their numerous, ethnically distinct
- but ethnically diverse - neighbours to the north.
A new book by a diplomat turned academic is making waves in Australia
by attempting to describe Asian attitudes to Australia in the present
as well as the past, and looking at the attitude of some Asian migrants
to Australia, their adopted country.
About Face - Asian Accounts of Australia will not make very happy
reading for Asians or Australians. And its author, Alison Broinowski,
displays some prejudices of her own that help explain some Asian prejudices
about Australia. But it is a valuable and interesting exercise, which
comes at an appropriate time. Not only is Australia now facing the aftermath
of being part of the US-British campaign to conquer and occupy Iraq.
This year is also the 30th anniversary of the formal abolition by the
Whitlam government of the White Australia policy, started in 1901 to
curtail Asian immigration.
In practice, the policy was abandoned in the late 1960s, but it took
a while before the nation fully accepted Asians on equal terms as migrants.
Now, more migrants come from Asia than any other continent.
Since 1973, Australia has been spasmodically taken with the notion
of "enmeshing" with Asia, and Asian migration was the prime
cause of its adoption and espousal of multiculturalism. That somewhat
vague concept fell somewhere between full integration into the Anglo-Celtic
culture of its British origins and the multiracialism of countries such
as Malaysia, in which the preservation of ethnic identity was formalised
by the political and educational structure.
Most independent observers would surely conclude that Australia has
undergone a remarkable transformation in these 30 years, absorbing huge
numbers of migrants from Asia, as well as non-Europeans from Africa
and the Caribbean, with very little friction. The non-European communities
are now so entrenched that they will continue to increase as a percentage
of the population, even if new migration is much reduced, because they
are, on average, younger and more fertile than the population at large.
The evidence of generally successful integration is everywhere - and
not just in the proliferation of Asian restaurants. The backlash against
Asian immigration, championed by One Nation founder Pauline Hanson,
never took deep root. Her movement fed on other grievances as much as
Yet the brutal fact is that Asian views - or at least the official
views of governments and the media - of Australia are still rooted in
the days of White Australia, of Australia as an adjunct of imperial
Britain or foot soldier of the US. Smarting from the humiliations of
the past, many in Asia are unwilling to concede that anything much has
changed. Australians are still mostly white and unable to understand
Asian ways. Asians are acceptable only on the basis of conformity to
the Anglo-Celtic culture.
Whatever the rhetoric, and the commercial advantage of the Asian association,
emotionally, say many Asians, Australia remains linked to Britain by
a monarch and to the United States by security interests. Politically,
this is reflected in the rejection of Australian attempts to be acknowledged
as part of Asia in its dealings with groups such as the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations. Other Asian countries have never felt willing
to challenge the positions of the region's most virulent anti-Australian,
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The price for white Australian
entry into the Asian club rose with Asian wealth and confidence.
There was a measure of truth in Dr Mahathir's claims that Australia
was not, and could not be, part of Asia. Prime Minister John Howard
said in 1996 that Australia "did not claim to be Asian". His
subsequent enthusiasm for following the US and Britain into war in Iraq
would come as no surprise to Australia's Asian critics. As Broinowski
puts it: "As if jilted by its Asian fiance, [Australia] has gone
back to its old western flame."
But if Australia was at fault for failing to give up old linkages,
Asian hypocrisy was also well to the fore. Race-obsessed autocrats,
such as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, felt able to insult Australia by borrowing
the "poor white trash of Asia" description, and Malaysians
of no intellectual distinction poured scorn on Australian standards
of academia and civilisation.
The worm had indeed turned, and Australia was lectured by regimes of
dubious distinction, which reacted virulently to any criticism from
their southern neighbour.
Multiculturalism was rejected as a sham by leaders of societies which
had institutionalised racism. It often seemed that however much they
had railed against White Australia, Asian societies that were racially
exclusive - like South Korea, Japan and China - or that kept races in
separate compartments - such as Malaysia - really would have preferred
an all-white Australia. If Australia had never had an immigration policy,
and thus no basis for a formal "whites only" one, its all-white
identity might have been easier to handle.
As it is, multiculturalism could be a threat. Criticisms of the treatment
of Aboriginies, justified though they have been, also look odd coming
from the elites in Asian societies who routinely exclude their own aboriginal
groups or look on dark skins with distaste.
Most Asians who did migrate to Australia appear to have been happy
with their decision, and appear to enjoy freedoms not available in many
of the societies proclaiming "superior" Asian values. But
judging from their literature, immigrant academic and intellectual elites
- especially those of Chinese origin - seem to find it hard to stop
comparing their thousands of years of civilisation with young Australia.
Few seem to think of what wrecks those ancient Asian civilisations had
become, or to acknowledge that the intellectual roots of modern Australia
reached to ancient Greece and the Bible, at least as surely as those
of contemporary China were rooted in Confucius.
But Broinowski has her problems with perspective, too. Like many Australians,
particularly from academia and the media, she can barely disguise her
hostility towards Indonesia and is obsessed with the notion of "Javanese
She appears to have little sympathy for the racial dilemmas that confronted
Malaysia in 1969, and demonises Dr Mahathir as much as he demonises
Australia. Sometimes, Australia's prickly nationalism shows through
as clearly as that of new, non-white, post-colonial states.
This book is a reminder of the complexity of Australia's relationship
with a complex Asia, and that the baggage of history has a half-life
that is far too long. But it should not hide the reality that Australia
remains a land of freedom, stability, equality and opportunity for many
Asians, particularly those who have shed their own historical baggage,
and do not expect to pay foreign maids a pittance to do their dirty
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