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Can Australia ever be part of Asia?

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Opinion and Editorial – October 30, 2003


Singaporean Prime Minister Goh’s recent comments that Australia cannot be considered “part of Asia” until its Asian population reaches 51 percent should be questioned. What is an Asian? How culturally homogeneous is Asia. What does Muslim Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have in common with the Confucius world of the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, and Singapore?

What do these societies share with Teravada Buddhist Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand? What about Roman Catholic Philippines and East Timor, Shinto Japan, Mahayana-Zen Buddhist Tibet and Mongolia?

How do they fit into a definition of what it is to be Asian? Indeed 51 percent of all South Koreans are Christian; many Koreans are strongly influenced by American-style Protestant Christianity. Does this now make South Korea technically “Western”?

Various comments about Australia’s place in the region made during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) have revealed a startling reality. The difference between cultures is like an iceberg; 90 percent is unseen. Australia is only one example.

In terms of the relationship between the culturally diverse nations of Asia, the ten per cent we see, such as physical appearance, styles of dress and demeanor, lead many to think that so called “Asians” share more in common than they really do. This is not about how you present a business card. It is about radically different worldviews, assumptions, ethics, morals and prejudices. Differences in beliefs, thought processes, time orientation, gender roles, rituals, conflict resolution, and even leadership images can not be easily brushed aside.

These areas of distinctiveness have to be acknowledged and investigated through a process of mutual tolerance and adaptation. Singapore knows this better than most. Australia is learning.

Contrary to Goh’s comments Australia’s role in the region is precisely defined by “differentness” and how to prosper from it. As the only “Western” nation (whatever that means) to share a common boarder with Asia, the opportunities for Australia in cross-cultural engagement are enormous.

Indonesia, for instance, needs Australia to work with them in partnership to ensure that they remain, democratic, prosperous and unitary, and to advocate their complicated problems to the United States (who by the way can hardly understands Australia despite the fact that both societies are allegedly “Anglo-Saxon” — i.e. President Bush’s misinformed comments about Australia being a regional Sheriff).

Australia needs an advocate in ASEAN. Australia needs markets. Australia needs regional security. As General Secretary Sutjipto of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) said recently, “Australia’s best defense is a better relationship with Indonesia”.

It is strange, however, given Goh’s APEC comments, that Singapore has actually been Australia’s best friend in Asia since the end of the Vietnam War. This is because Singapore is undergoing exactly the same process as Australia. There is an argument that the Island State is not really “Asian” at all, nor is it for that matter “Western”.

It is rather uniquely “Singaporean”, a perfect blend of many influences — British, Chinese, Malay, and Indian. Likewise Australia is in the process of transforming itself into neither a “European” nor an “Asian” society, but rather something uniquely “Australian”. Many Australians understand better now than at any time since Federation in 1901, that their destiny is in the region. As Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans once said, Australia does have a place in Asia — as “the odd man in”. There is a well-established precedent for this process in, yes, Singapore.

Under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore discovered that even a country without natural resources could prosper if they applied global logic. That is, if they could integrate both Eastern and Western practices into managing capital they could attract the right level of co-operation from multinational corporations and expand into new markets.

Singapore has been able to integrate two very different approaches to social organization. These are the “rule of man”, or a 3,000-year-old Confucius code of behavior and conduct, and a millennium-old system of British jurisprudence. Because of the meshing of these two very different, and ancient, value systems, Singapore has been able to successfully compete in both Asian and European/North American markets.

They have done this by building on the social strengths inherent in group orientation and collectivism with the prerequisites of post-industrial Western commercial rationalism — rule of law, policy predictability and bureaucratic transparency.

For Australians the greatest challenge is actually to follow Singapore, by adapting Australians natural problem-solving abilities, initiative, and goal orientation to the network-based relationship building skills of Australia’s northern neighbors.

A good example of far-reaching adaptation is that in 1980 Lee made the decision to adopt English, a Germanic-based tongue, as the first language of the Island State — a brave initiative in a country where more than 70 percent of its citizens also speak one of a number of Chinese dialects.

Can the leaders of the region who gathered in Bangkok image a time when Australian’s political leaders could be prepared to make similar pragmatic compromises for the sake of greater regional economic integration and general prosperity? The answer is — it is already happening. And like the story of Singapore it is about engagement. It has little to do with ethnic composition.