Skip to main content


The Asianisation of Australia?

Race Discrimination

Keynote speech to Asian Studies Association of Australia Annual Conference, “AsiaScapes: Contesting Borders”
University of Western Australia

Your conference theme of “contesting borders” touches on some matters in which I take a close interest. This is because so many of our conversations about race and human rights indeed involve a contest: over the boundaries that we draw around culture and identity, and those that we draw between public and private.

This theme should have particular utility for our thinking about Asia and Australia’s relationship with the region. But when it comes to borders, any contest may follow something else. You might say that any contest is preceded by encounter. When you think about Australia and Asia, it is the crossing of borders that is most striking. More Australians are now travelling to Asia than ever before; the same is true for Asians travelling here.

It is on this note of encounter and crossing borders that I’d like to begin. One of the joys of travelling for me is to sit in a foreign city, pick up a newspaper and see the world through the eyes of another society. I recently returned from Hong Kong, where last week I acquainted myself each morning with the South China Morning Post. It was an interesting week to have been in Hong Kong. On the day marking the 17th anniversary of the handover of British rule of the territory to China, there was a massive protest, involving an estimated 140,000 people, in the centre of the city. I watched democracy protesters marching down the street in the summer rain, singing Cantonese lyrics to the strains of Do You Hear the People Sing?, that stirring anthem immortalised by Les Miserables.

Naturally, this was covered in extensive detail in the South China Morning Post. But last Saturday, the world section of the newspaper caught my eye. The paper carried two stories about Australia, one above the other. The first was a report of the Australian navy intercepting a boat of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and transferring the asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities. The second was a report of the much-publicised racist incident on a Sydney train, where a woman by the name of Karen Bailey abused another passenger of Asian background. The average reader of the South China Morning Post could have been forgiven for drawing certain conclusions about Australia.

On the matter of asylum seekers, I will say this: Australia has legal obligations, into which it has entered voluntarily, not to return those in danger of harm to places from whence they are fleeing; regardless of how they arrive in Australian territory, a person breaks no law in seeking asylum. We should honour both the letter and the spirit of our obligations as a signatory to the Refugee Convention. And we should be concerned about any public debate that dehumanises those who are vulnerable and require protection. This is a debate that can spill over into our social cohesion as a multicultural society; some say it already has.

It is that second story about racist abuse, however, that has particular relevance for my remarks. Most of you, by now, will be familiar with the details. A 55-year-old woman launched into a tirade on a train carriage, after children wouldn’t vacate their seats for her. Her initial target is a man who has began filming her on his mobile phone. The man is sitting next to a woman of Asian background. “He can’t even get a regular girlfriend; he’s got to get a gook,” Bailey says. As the woman speaks back, Bailey begins to mock her accent, making slit-eyed gestures, before saying: “What’s wrong with Hong Kong? Why did you come to this country? This is our country.” Bailey would later issue an apology, though she explained that her behaviour was due to her having to deal with some personal difficulties. She has since been charged by NSW police with offensive behaviour.

Such nasty episodes of racial abuse frequently attract media attention. Some rightly say that such ugly incidents – while abhorrent – can detract from more systemic manifestations of racism. But one thing is indisputable. Public incidents of racial abuse, whether on public transport or at the sporting ground, constitute a genre of contemporary racism. And they draw considerable attention because they capture the social contest that comes with cultural diversity. Thus, to that poor Asian woman on the train, Karen Bailey says: “Why did you come to this country? This is our country.”

Which brings me to the topic of my remarks today. Such a sentiment, revealed in an inglorious moment of bigotry, voices an anxiety that has often accompanied the Asianisation of Australia. Time and again, the Asian presence in Australia has revealed both Australians’ hopes and fears; both the kind of society it is and the kind that it aspires to be.


The story of Asianisation

To what extent can we say there has been an Asianisation of Australia? The numbers tell a good part of the story.

First, the reality of multicultural Australia is that it contains Asian cultures and identities. Nearly 50 per cent of our population were either born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas. While it is difficult to offer a precise figure, it is estimated that close to 10 per cent of the Australian population have Asian cultural origins or ancestry. Of the top ten overseas birthplaces of Australians, five are countries in Asia: China, India, Vietnam, the Phillipines, Malaysia. China and India now represent the two largest source countries for immigrants to Australia.
Of the 4 million people who speak a language other than English at home, close to 1.3 million speak an Asian language – including more than 650,000 who speak Chinese.

There has been an increasing orientation of economic activity towards Asia. China and Japan are our two largest two-way trading partners; this week saw the finalisation of a free trade partnership between Australia and Japan. Looking at the region more broadly, it is striking that of Australia’s top 10 two-way trading partners, seven are part of the Asia-Pacific region. Only one of the top five isn’t an Asian nation (that being the United States).

Beyond the numbers, there has also been a shift in mindset. Australians understand that we can’t divorce our society from the fate of Asia. It is the case, of course, that every Australian generation believes that they have discovered this for the first time. As early as 1964, long before notions of an Asian Century were current, Donald Horne argued in The Lucky Country that Australians needed to be more serious about living with Asia. He condemned Australia for playing “an aristocratic role in the society of Asia – rich, self-centred, frivolous, blind”. Still writing at a time when the White Australia policy, he wrote that the future “holds dramatic possibilities for Australia which may necessarily include racial change”.

The growth of Asian economic power has only deepened our consciousness of the region. As Michael Wesley has observed, there has been an inversion of Australia’s world. Where once Australians thought of Asia as “poor, backward and unstable”, another Asia has emerged:

… an Asia that showcases the future in the same way that America used to; an Asia that builds infrastructure with an ease that appears beyond our capacities here in Australia; an Asia through whose streets flows wealth that is eye-popping to Australians who have grown up thinking they lived in the rich, lucky country.

The Asianisation of Australia has occurred, for the most part, with public acceptance. But there have been occasional periods of dissent. Exactly 30 years ago, in 1984, the historian Geoffrey Blainey launched the first challenge to Australia’s non-racially-discriminatory immigration policy. It came in a speech delivered in Warrnambool, Victoria. “Rarely in the history of the modern world,” Blainey said, “has a nation given such preference to a tiny ethnic minority of its population as the Australian government has done in the past few years”. Asians were the “favoured majority” in Australia’s immigration intake. According to Blainey, this wasn’t accepted by “everyday Australians”.

Blainey would later elaborate on these ideas in his book All for Australia. There, he wrote about “old Australians”, who “live in the front-line suburbs” where Asians immigrants were most likely to settle. He quoted letters from these Australians complaining about their neighbourhood pavements spotted with phlegm, and about chocking under the greasy smoke of exotic meat cooked on verandahs. Referring to one woman who wrote him, Blainey wrote of the fears she harboured for her eight-year-old son, and what would become of him when he grows up only to find that all the jobs will probably be taken by new migrants. He noted that this woman privately predicts race riots: “There will be bloodshed in this country.”

Blainey’s intervention had more than a touch of Enoch Powell, the Conservative politician who issued an apocalyptic warning about immigration in Britain. Like Powell, Blainey quoted from letters he received from “ordinary people” under siege from foreigners. And while Blainey’s warning was not as colourful as his counterpart’s – Powell infamously declared that, “like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood – it was nonetheless clear.

Indeed, Blainey would provide a template for subsequent panics about Asianisation. There would be the debate about Asian immigration in the late 1980s sparked by the intervention of the then opposition leader John Howard. In much of the rhetoric of Hansonism, during the 1990s, there would also be rehearsals of the themes, which Blainey first presented. As Pauline Hanson put it in her maiden speech to parliament, Australia was “in danger of being swamped by Asians”, who “have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate”.


Contest and national identity

Debates about Asian immigration reflect a contest over Australian national identity. For some, immigration has meant a repudiation of Australia’s British cultural heritage – a rejection of all that was, in their eyes, traditionally Australian. For such people, Asia – to be more precise, immigration from Asia in significant numbers – was a source of cultural corruption or degradation.

As demonstrated by periodic anxieties, a proportion of the Australian population has regarded multiculturalism as a threat to social unity. “A nation of tribes” was what Blainey called a multicultural nation. According to Hanson, “[a] truly multicultural country can never be strong or unified. The world is full of failed and tragic examples, ranging from Ireland to Bosnia to Africa, and closer to home, Papua New Guinea. America and Great Britain are currently paying the price.”

In more recent times, the concern about multiculturalism has been shaped by social convulsions in Europe. Governments in Germany, France, Britain and the Netherlands have sounded a retreat from official multiculturalism. Sure enough, many here in Australia are saying the same thing. Multiculturalism in Europe has failed. Therefore, it is argued, multiculturalism is bound to fail here as well.

And yet, for all of its pungency, the rhetoric about multiculturalism’s imminent failure hasn’t been proven correct. Australian multiculturalism has endured. In last year’s Scanlon Foundation survey on social cohesion, 84 per cent of respondents agreed that multiculturalism is a good thing and benefited Australia. There are very few questions where numbers of that sort can be found to agree on a social question.

Australian multiculturalism hasn’t only endured, it has succeeded – and it has done so, with all the Asian inflections that it has taken on since the 1970s. The passage of time has proved interesting. Where once the threat of multiculturalism was synonymous with the inassimilable Asian, this seems no longer the case. Geoffrey Blainey remains one of our most distinguished historians, but thirty years on from his intervention, we can comfortably say that history does not judge him kindly on the issue of Asian immigration.

The facts speak for themselves. On any measure of integration, those Australians of Asian background have proved in every way capable of participating in the life of the nation. They have excelled when it comes to educational attainment or economic participation. Suburbs such as Cabramatta in southwest Sydney or Springvale in eastern Melbourne – once regarded as ethnic ghettos – are now thriving communities.

To be sure, it could be argued that our success has a lot to do with the character of our immigration program. It has been to Australia’s advantage that governments since the late 1970s have favoured selective migration intakes involving highly skilled immigrants.

But the composition of immigrants doesn’t alone explain why multicultural Australia has worked. Multicultural policies – for the most part endorsed in a bipartisan fashion by our political leaders – have played an important role in equipping immigrants to participate in Australian society. As a result, Australian society has been able to deal with social change with much less friction than what may have otherwise been the case.

When policy and leadership come together, the task of integration can look easy. Its success may even look organic. Yet there is clearly a formula. Where people feel that they belong to a society, and feel accepted as who they are, they will have a better chance to participate in a society as full and equal members.

In this respect, multiculturalism is not about diversity in and itself. It has been about a muscular expression of citizenship.

By this I mean that Australia has had a multiculturalism that has been distinctive from versions elsewhere. Australia has had a liberal multiculturalism, a nation-building multiculturalism. Multiculturalism has always been something that was meant to strengthen Australian national identity rather than supersede it.

Even in its early formulations during the late 1970s, multiculturalism was expressed in the context of an overarching sense of Australian national identity. It was in the 1980s that multiculturalism became codified most explicitly in terms of the values of citizenship. The proposition was this. All Australians have the right to express their own culture and beliefs. But there was also an obligation to accept the right of others to do the same – and to offer an overriding commitment to Australia. Any right to cultural identity was balanced by a civic responsibility to accept the basic structures and principles of Australian society. Subsequent policy formulations of multiculturalism have affirmed this balance of rights and responsibilities, of cultural freedom and civic duty.


The limits of Australian multiculturalism

There has, then, been an Asianisation of Australia, and it has been part of multiculturalism’s emphatic success. Even so, an honest appraisal would say that the cultural impact of Asian immigrants on Australian national identity remains open to debate. I say this not because there has been a negligible impact, but because the impact may not yet be fully known. It may take more than a few generations to gauge the cultural effects some groups may have on a prevailing national identity.

To be sure, there was a significant presence of Asian people – primarily Chinese – in Australian history. We can trace this to the goldrushes of the 19th century, although some contend that the fleet of the legendary Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He may have in fact arrived in Australia in 1422.

Yet apart from the legacy of phrases such as “Fair dinkum” – which some believe originated from Chinese miners on the goldfields – there is little that has been carried over from the early colonial days. As for Admiral Zheng He, strong material evidence confirming his early discovery of Australia remains to be uncovered, assuming it exists. Perhaps the greatest cultural impact of Asians in Australian history has been their exclusion. Anxieties about yellow hordes played a crucial, if not decisive, role in the development of what came to be known as the White Australia policy.

Even with all that has happened since the 1970s, it would be premature to proclaim that waves of Asian immigration have seen a comprehensive Asianisation of Australia. Asianisation seems a misnomer if we are merely referring to something like 10 per cent of the population. Even beyond numbers, the impact may not be as dramatic as what we might think – at least, if one is to resist the triumphalism of Modern Australian fusion cuisine. For that matter, I remain unconvinced that the fashion of adorning one’s living rooms or gardens with Buddhas is compelling evidence of genuine cultural learning.

If there have been areas where Asian cultural influence is palpable, they would be the arts. Chinese-Australian artists such as Guan Wei, Zhou Xiaoping, and the brothers Ah Xian and Liu Xiao Xian have enjoyed enormous influence and critical success. Australian writing has taken an exciting cosmoplitan turn through young writers such as Nam Le, Alice Pung and Benjamin Law.

Here, the very reason behind Australian multiculturalism’s success may also explain the limited nature of any Asianisation of Australia. Being defined by citizenship, a nation-building multiculturalism is premised on certain values and institutions being protected from political contest. Those who arrive as immigrants may have the right to express their cultural identities, but there is no right to repudiate, say, a commitment to parliamentary democracy. This may ensure that Australian society is highly adept at absorbing cultural difference. But it also restricts the ways in which new arrivals may be able to shape or transform the countries in which they settle.

To put it another way, the kind of contest that is sanctioned by Australian multiculturalism involves the boundaries of national identity – it is about who can be admitted into what Al Grassby called the “family of the nation”. Where once that family may have been formally defined in racialised terms it is now open to non-whites and non-Europeans. But the civic content of that national identity hasn’t been open to fundamental challenge.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The alternative – constant flux and radical contest – would mean a very different kind of multiculturalism. It would likely mean a more highly polarising form of identity politics.

Some may be drawn to the prospect of a more strident multiculturalism. It is possible, however, that its pursuit would have the effect of making broad public support for cultural diversity more difficult. Certainly, it would mean that any formal multiculturalism may become susceptible to the criticisms that have been directed at it: the charge that it involves a cultural relativism, that it leaves the door open to all sorts of abhorrent illiberalisms. By ensuring that there are clear limits to diversity, a nation-building multiculturalism avoids these pitfalls.


Social power and leadership

A citizenship model of multiculturalism has the virtue of providing for equality of opportunity. In the modern experience of immigration around the world, this is not always extended to new arrivals. One can think of many countries where ethnic or racial minorities are formally denied equality. Where this happens, it is a sure recipe for entrenching social or economic disadvantage across generations.

Australia’s immigration experience, though, is marked by remarkable social mobility. The children of Australians of migrant background outperform the children of native-born Australians when it comes to educational attainment and employment. If in doubt, you need only look at the undergraduate faces of those who are enrolled in the faculties of our prestigous universities. And compare that to the undergraduate faces you are likely to find at Oxbridge, Sciences-Po in Paris, or Goethe University in Frankfurt.

All this is grist to the mill for our self-image of egalitarian meritocracy. Progress, though, is never complete. Our achievement is not quite perfect. Because while Australia does extremely well in social mobility for immigrants, including those from Asia, equality of opportunity isn’t enjoyed in all spheres. We may boast about education and employment, but our efforts in opening the doors of power to all who knock are more questionable.

Our cultural diversity is far from proportionately represented in positions of leadership.

For example, in the current Federal Parliament, there are only a handful of MPs and senators who have non-European ancestry. There are only two Aboriginal people in the Parliament: Ken Wyatt (the Member for Hasluck) and Nova Peris (Senator for the NT). To my count, there are only four who have Asian cultural origin: Senators Penny Wong, Lisa Singh and Dio Wang, and Ian Goodenough (the Member for Moore). In percentage terms, only 1.7 percent of those who sit in the Federal Parliament bear an Asian cultural background.

It is similar when it comes to the federal government bureaucracy. Let me read to you a list of the names of the 17 heads of federal government departments: Wilkins, Grimes, Clarke, Richardson, Paul, Leon, Tune, Varghese, Halton, Campbell, Bowles, Beauchamp, Mrdak, Pratt, de Brouwer, Watt, Lewis, Parkinson. There is only one of these 17 who comes from an Asian cultural background. The situation does not markedly improve once you look at the next rung of leadership: departmental deputy secretaries. Of the 64 deputy secretaries in the Australian federal public service, there are only two who have Asian origins. So, of the 81 departmental secretaries and deputy secretaries, there is a total of three (3.8 per cent).

Consider as well the senior leadership of Australian universities. I did a quick informal audit of the Group of 8 at the vice-chancellor, provost, deputy vice-chancellor and pro-vice chancellor levels. Of the 49 senior executives at these ranks in the Group of 8 universities, there were two who were of Asian cultural background (3 per cent). (There was a grand total of 4 who were had non-European cultural background, which comes to proportion of 7 per cent.)

The private sector doesn’t fare much better. Last year Diversity Council Australia studied the cultural origins of Australia’s business leaders. They found a very low representation of leaders with an Asian background. Compared to 9.6 per cent of the Australian community with an Asian background – based on a methodology using names – only 1.9 per cent of executive managers and 4.2 percent of directors have Asian cultural origins.

To be fair, the issue of representation and power isn’t confined to Australians of Asian background. There is something much broader at play. CEOs of major Australian companies who happen to have visible or obvious markers of cultural difference aren’t always given a fair go. For example, there has been no shortage of anti-Irish jibes directed at Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, and mockery of his Irish accent. And remember Sol Trujillo? The former CEO of Telstra, an American who has Mexican heritage, was subjected to what can only be described as occasions of crude racial prejudice.

Turning specifically to those of Asian backgrounds, however, there is a question to be asked. Is there a bamboo ceiling that exists in the same way that a glass ceiling exists for women?

A charitable view would be that any under-representation of Asian backgrounds in leadership positions simply reflects a time lag. Diverse leaders are still in the “pipeline”. We should be confident that time will take care of the issue.

There is some cause for optimism. Look at how second- or third-generation Australians of Italian, Greek or Lebanese background who have emerged as figures in government and business – just look at Anthony Albanese or Arthur Sinodinos or Ahmed Fahour (and that’s just people with names starting with an A). In time, you could say, there will be second- or third-generation Australians of Asian background who will likewise emerge.

Then again, people were saying that ten or twenty years ago. If we were to adopt a more critical view, we could ask whether unconscious bias is contributing to the pattern of representation. The poor level of Asian Australians in leadership positions appears to replicate a pattern of invisibility that exists within Australian culture.

Consider the gulf between the reality of Australian society and the image of Australian society presented in the Australian media. In our major cities and suburbs the Asian presence is, by now, familiar. In our media, Asians still assume a distinctly exoticised character – or at least one that is quarantined to carefully designated realms. For the most part, Asian faces are confined to presenting programs about the culinary delights of modern Australian fusion food. We see few Asian faces reading or reporting the news, particularly on our commercial channels. We see few Asian faces intruding upon spheres that we may describe as the domains of mainstream Australia. I see few Asian faces on the Block or House Rules, on Neighbours or Home and Away.

Such invisibility may point to some persistent cultural assumptions and stereotypes about people of Asian background. In particular the apparenty positive “model minority” stereotype of Asians – that of law-abiding, hard-working and studious Asians – can disguise a more negative stereotype. Those seemingly laudable qualities of being inoffensive, diligent and prodigous can sound a bit like the qualities of passivity, acquiescence and subservience. These are the sort of qualities that map nicely on to the state of invisibliity.

Any unconscious bias against Asians may have long antecedents, the details of which many of you would know better than I would. With such cultural form, we shouldn’t be all that surprised to hear some people say that people of Asian background may not be in positions of leadership because it may not be something to which they aspire.

There is one thing that we must avoid. We must avoid the creation of a new class: a class of professional Asian-Australian coolies in the twenty-first century. A class of well-educated, ostensibly over-achieving Asian-Australians, who may nonetheless be permanently locked out from the ranks of their society’s leadership.


Setting the right tone

It is an interesting time to be speaking about race in Australia. As I said at the outset, an unedifying public discourse about asylum seekers has the potential to contaminate our social cohesion and racial tolerance. Public episodes of racial vilification attract widespread media attention at regular intervals. Racist abuse is readily expressed on commentboards, social media sites and video sharing sites on the internet.

There is some evidence to suggest that racism may be on the rise. The Scanlon Foundation’s survey last year found that 19 per cent of respondents say they have experienced racial or religious discrimination. This represents a jump from a figure of 12 per cent in 2012.

There is, as well, the public debate about the Racial Discrimination Act’s provisions concerning racial vilification. The currrent law under section 18C of the Act makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone on the grounds of race or ethnicity. Under section 18D, the law protects anything that is artistic work, scientific or academic inquiry, or fair comment or reporting of a matter of public interest – provided it is done reasonably and in good faith.

Earlier in March this year, the Federal Government released an exposure draft of a proposed repeal of section 18C. Under the proposed changes, only those acts which incite racial hatred or physically intimidate on racial grounds would be unlawful. There would also be a broad category of exception for anything done in the course of participation in “public discussion” (even if it isn’t done reasonably or in good faith).

In my view, these are not amendments that are justified by any compelling reason. It is a classic case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Federal racial vilification laws have existed for almost two decades and have enjoyed community support. A Fairfax-Nielsen poll in April showed that 88 per cent of Australians believed it should remain unlawful to offend, insult, or humiliate someone on racial grounds.

The response to the Federal Government’s exposure draft has also been telling. More than 5500 submissions were received (although these have not been made public). Aboriginal and multicultural communities, the legal profession and human rights experts, religious groups and civil society, psychologists and public health professionals have all made clear their strong misgivings about weakenening racial vilification laws. Of particular concern has been the idea that Australians should enjoy a “right to be a bigot”, which should outweigh a right to be free from bigotry’s effects.

Last week, the Federal Attorney-General said he would wait at least a few months before he returned to cabinet on the issue. Again, I retiterate that I see no good reason for changing the law. The case for repeal has not been made out. As yet, I have not heard any free speech advocate for section 18C’s repeal answer the following question: What is it that you want to say that isn’t already protected by section 18D?

This may not be a question that the supporters of a repeal want to answer, but they do make one distinctive argument. Namely, that combating racism may be done more effectively by using the sanction of public debate, without any resort to the law.

The idea here is that we should fight “bad speech” with “good speech”. That we should allow for public debate to expose bigotry, and let others judge bigotry for themselves. In the case of Karen Bailey on that Sydney train, for example, it has been said that “civil sanctions independent of the law appear to have worked well enough; the offender has been humiliated and the boundaries of acceptable behaviour have been reinforced”. And, “when the ordinary Australian citizen, armed with an iPhone, encounters a bigot on a train, they can generally be trusted to do the right thing.”

I wish to say a few things about this line of argument – and why I don’t think it stands up to scrutiny.

First, it is true that fighting bad speech with good speech can do the job in some circumstances. But for every example where bystanders have stood up to racism, there are countless others where they have not. And not every instance of racist abuse will receive the same public attention as something like the Karen Bailey incident. What are we to do then? It seems rather cold comfort for a society to tell targets of racist abuse and harassment that they can only rely on the goodwill and solidarity of their fellow citizens – and hope that their incident of racist abuse can potentially be exposed on Youtube – when the power of the law is also available.

Second, it is rather limiting to presume that we must choose either the law or civil society – that we cannot have both on our side in responding to racism. The fallacy is to believe social values somehow sit in a sphere that is completely separate from the law. After all, the law exists to express a society’s values and commitments. It exists to signal standards of acceptable conduct and behaviour.

The law regulates many aspects of our lives, and imposes multiple restrictions on what we can say or do. If, as a society, we can readily accept that laws concerning matters such as public order, trade practices and defamation can place limits on our freedom of speech, why should we not accept that such laws can also exist in the area of racial vilification?

Finally, there is an implied suggestion that any law on racial vilification has the effect of censoring opinion – that it makes it less likely for people to have the kind of healthy and robust public debate that must be part of a liberal democracy. The current law does no such thing. It cannot be invoked to prevent someone from saying something. It provides a wide range of exemptions for speech that is conducted for a purpose connected to a legitimate public purpose.

What the law does do is it ensures someone can be held to account for something they have done, if it may have the effect of degrading or denigrating another person because of their race. The law, in other words, draws a line between free speech and hate speech. And it provides an additional source of sanction and assurance for people who are subjected to racial abuse.



Much has been said in recent years about the Asian Century, of Australia being poised to prosper from Asia. Our geography has divined our twenty-first century destiny. As economist Tim Harcourt has put it, the tyranny of distance has given way to the power of proximity.

Yet there are three things on this that stand out for attention. It is on these issues that I will conclude my remarks. Each highlights some of the challenges that remain in Australia’s engagement with Asia.

The first has to do with the language in which we speak about Asia. I use language here in more than one sense. As many others have pointed out, Australia’s Asia literacy remains alarmingly under-developed, at least for a country that likes to think of itself as proximate to Asia. While it is true that more than 1 million Australians speak an Asian language, it is sometimes assumed that the task of engaging with the region can somehow be outsourced to those Australians of Asian cultural background. The thinking runs thus: Why should we or our children bother with mastering an Asian language, difficult as they are to master when starting with an Anglo tongue, when Australia will continue to take in immigrants from China, India and elsewhere in the region?

This goes to another aspect of our language concerning Asia that is a problem. Part of the reason, I believe, for our lack of Asia literacy is that our framing of regional engagement is so nakedly mercantilist. Where once Australians may have spoken in hysterical terms about the teeming yellow hordes, we now endlessly marvel at the billions-strong middle class emerging in Asia. People talk about how we can maximise the “rent” from our relationships with the region, of how we can “capitalise” on Asian growth. I have no doubt some of this has to do with the triumph of economism in our society at large, but some of it also has to do with the instrumental mindset we have taken towards Asia. We should not be surprised if we have failed in the area of Asia literacy. Cultural engagement can’t be sustained by economic ambition by alone.

The second issue arises from this. If Australia is to embrace its Asianisation, it must be thoroughly cultural in nature. We must be willing not just to see Asian neighbours as economic partners, but also be open to learning from them. Is there not something that we can learn from young emerging democracies? From societies that have had to develop cities and infrastructure to sustain much larger populations? Is there something in Confucian practices from which we can borrow or learn in dealing with our ageing population? Could there not be aspects of Asian practices of communal obligation or responsibility that may give us a new perspective on so-called Australian values, such as mateship and egalitarianism?

The third point concerns expectations. As I said earlier, it seems as though each generation of Australians believes they have discovered Asia for the first time. This sense of discovery can lead to a lack of proportion when it comes to sizing up Australia’s role in the region. For a country of some 23 million, living beside countries much larger in population, and whose economies may develop with enormous speed, we may need to be fully aware of the limits of our power and influence.

As former prime minister Paul Keating has noted, it may be time for us to recognise that our old sphere of influence – the dominant Anglosphere of the post-World War Two period – is diminishing. The world has changed. According to Keating, “we have to be propelled not by regard of withering associations but by our enlightened sense of self”. The place where Australia can be most effective and make the greatest difference is in south east Asia – namely, the wider ASEAN. This, Keating says, “is the natural place for Australia to belong; indeed, the one to which we should attribute primacy.”

All this confirms that the reality of Asia today is much different. Its exponential progress may just catch many by surprise – no matter how much we tell ourselves that we are ready. But none of this is separate from the internal or domestic task that we have in coming to grips with Asianisation. How we handle the task of multiculturalism within our borders, how we manage the various contests around race and national identity, will go a long way to determining whether we will be a success as a nation in a century that will see Asia ascendant.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner