[lg policy] Australia is coming to Asia, speaking Asian languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Nov 2 15:42:11 UTC 2012

Australia is coming to Asia, speaking Asian languages
Dewi Anggraeni, Melbourne | Opinion | Fri, November 02 2012, 7:29 AM

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard released the Australia in the
Asian Century White Paper last Sunday. It is a policy paper that
spells out various important objectives and strategies on how to
achieve them, in relation to Australia’s role in Asia and its
ever-developing economy. It is important inasmuch as it states the
government’s commitment to work in a coordinated way to find a place
in this seemingly unstoppable regional economic growth. It is no mean
feat, as it involves the country’s public and private sectors, all
wanting a slice of the cake.

On the other hand, the fact that there needs to be such a paper in the
first place speaks volumes of the general disconnectedness in
Australia in terms of Asia. Neither Australia nor any of the Asian
countries have recently moved into the region, yet they seem to have
just noticed each other.

Or have they? Discounting the early 20th century “discovery” of Asia
by Australia, which led to White Australia Policy, Australia, or some
sections of Australia, did discover Asia and had enough awareness of
the importance of this region. However, the nature of this awareness
evolved with time.

After World War II, Radio Australia’s broadcasts to the Asia Pacific
region were to raise awareness of Australia and her proactive role in
the region. Then, in the 1960s, visionary individuals like Herb Feith
brought Indonesian studies into universities. Indonesian was
subsequently taught, but in reality more for security and intelligence
purposes rather than for the friendship-building as intended by Feith.
The fear of the “yellow hordes” from the north was still strong.

Things began to look up in the late 1980s and early 1990s when
organizations like the Australia Indonesia Institute and the Myer
Foundation began to fund and promote innovative programs with the
objective of creating mutual cultural understanding, prominent among
them being the Institute’s Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program
and the Myer Foundation’s funding of programs run by the Asia Pacific
Journalist Centre, which sadly has been discontinued.

Asialink and the Asia Education Foundation with funding from the Myer
Foundation have been running various cultural exchange programs with
countries like Indonesia, India, China, Korea and Vietnam, and lately
the Asia Education Foundation’s BRIDGE program has been very popular
among teachers and students in schools in the
respective countries.

Worth mentioning also is ACICIS (Australian Consortium for In-country
Indonesian Studies), run by 26 member universities, which provide
opportunities and facilities for Australian students to study in
Indonesian universities together with local students.

It is important to note that all these programs have been successfully
run on relatively tight budgets. This really shows that Australia has
commitment and competent human resources as well as a fair number of
young people and adults who are interested in deepening their cultural
knowledge of Asia. These are valuable assets not to be wasted.

It would seem bewilderingly short-sighted therefore, when the
government stopped the funding for Asian studies across Australia in
2002. Then when it was resumed in 2008, the funds, to be released
throughout a four-year span, were too small to achieve much. This
year’s May budget shows that the funding was not even renewed.

In that context, the paragraph in chapter six of the paper sounds
rather incongruous, “The capacity for Australians to build deeper ties
with Asia will be hampered if there is not an increase in the
proficiency of languages other than English.

Relying on the language capabilities of Asian-Australians for all of
Australia’s relationships and engagement will not be adequate.
Proficiency in more than one language is a basic skill of the 21st

Maybe Australians just cannot see the point of learning another
language when they can get by with English much of the time.
Unfortunately, as those who took the trouble of learning a second (or
third) language will testify, those who didn’t, miss out on a whole
world of knowledge and experience.

As long as policymakers belong to the latter group, this fact eludes
them, Australia will continue to ignore, and waste, its own valuable
resources of people who are competent in more than one language and
more widely, culturally aware.

This general cultural unawareness became obvious in the general tone
of the paper. It is heavy on the message that Australia needs to know
Asia better, and light on Asia’s need to know Australia better, except
as a resource-rich country in the fields of natural, financial,
technology know-how and industry know-how. In fact, one cannot help
seeing between the lines: “Now that you show promise to be
economically significant, we’d like to make friends with you”.

The desire to learn from Asian countries, it seems, is not motivated
by the belief that they have some good things to teach Australia, but
that Australia needs to know how they operate to avoid “pitfalls” in
doing business with them, or in dealing in other matters, such as
regional security. To think that countries in Asia are unable to sense
this patronizing attitude is downright careless.

The paper will most likely be generally well-received in Indonesia
where people are more used to different types of behavior from its own
diverse population, and do not take patronizing attitudes too
seriously. And I believe that Indonesians of various sectors and
groups are astute enough to perceive the great potential the proposals
in the paper have.

However I certainly cannot speak for the whole of Asia. And for this
endeavour to succeed, the paper must find a favorable spot in each of
these countries.

The writer is a journalist and adjunct research associate at the
School of Political and Social Inquiry at the faculty of arts, Monash
University, Melbourne.


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