Need to know basis

‘You’ve got termites in the basement,’ said my friend the journalist after I poured out my story about the faltering capacity of Australian universities to teach and research about Asia. ‘Termites aren’t a story. It’ll be a story when the house falls down.’

‘But a large chunk of the house fell down on September 11,’ I said. ‘Another bit broke off when the club in Bali blew up.’

‘I don’t think newspaper editors see the connection,’ he said sympathetically, as one who suffers from editors.

As globalisation drags us into daily dealings with folk far away, you’d think that study preferences, educational policies and all those Thai, Chinese and Indian restaurants would lead to a steady diffusion of knowledge about Australia’s geographical and economic place in the world—that is, south-east of India and south of China, with more than half our trade flowing in those directions.

But you’d be wrong. In most universities, the vigorous but tiny base of research and teaching about Asia, built since the 1950s, is imperilled by funding cuts and restructurings.

Maximizing Australia’s Asia Knowledge, a report of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, illustrates the on-again, off-again quality of Australia’s attempts to understand its Asian surroundings. In 1988, when a push for ‘Asia literacy’ began, fewer than three per cent of Australian university students did any serious study of Asia. Maximizing Australia’s Asia Knowledge estimates that the proportion in 2001 stood at less than five per cent.

In areas like Chinese and Japanese language study, there have been increases—but from tiny bases—so that in 2001, no more than 9000 university students were studying Japanese and no more than 5000 Chinese. Students of Indonesian narrowly exceeded 2000. That means 16,000 in a student population of 830,000 individuals who represent Australia’s elite—the proportion of the population able to study at university. And a significant component were overseas students who would return to their own countries.

Study of regions like west Asia (the ‘Middle East’) and south Asia (India and its neighbours) have shrunk. In 1988, 15 universities taught about India; in 2001, only five. Five universities taught Arabic to a total of about 400 individuals. Hindi/Urdu, the second largest spoken language in the world, had a secure base only at the Australian National University (ANU).

Australia’s problem lies in creating an imagination that fits with its place on the globe. At one level, Australians have it too easy, sensing themselves part of an English-speaking, white-skinned set of kings-of-the-hill and cocks-of-the-walk. There are perils in such complacency, especially for a country of 19 million people, located far from the cocks-with-whom-they-would-like-to-walk. For long-term survival, Australia needs the ability to look with much more discernment across the back fence into neighbours’ yards, not to gaze wistfully across the ocean to Global City Hall in Washington, DC.

People and cultures can change. Kerala—the corner of south-west India that I have explored longest—was in the 1920s the most caste-ridden part of the country, where low-caste people were ‘unseeable’ and had to flee the roads when high-caste people approached. In 1957, Kerala returned the world’s first elected communist government and became known for having India’s stroppiest, most assertive people.

It also became the corner of India with by far the highest rates of literacy, lowest infant mortality and longest life expectancy.

Australians need to make similar leaps. Not into stroppiness—Australians are pretty good at that already—but into changed attitudes about the possibilities and dangers of their own locality. Australians need to acquire some of the attributes of the Dutch, Scandinavians or Swiss, particularly in relation to language learning and interaction with the world. The targets set in 1989—ten per cent of undergraduates studying an Asian language, 20 per cent doing some study of history or culture of an Asian country—are desirable and achievable.

Relations with Asia have been part of the national story since European settlement in Australia began. But it was the war with Japan from 1941 that led to policies aimed at enabling some Australians to put themselves in the shoes, sandals and bare feet of people who lived around them.

The perils of not doing so were cruelly apparent in 1942. Accounts of briefings given to Australian soldiers in Malaya are worth repeating:

[The Japanese were] fanatical and tough but not very bright. They were armed with small calibre rifles, were not good shots because of defective eye-sight, and rarely hit their targets. If by any chance you were shot, the bullet only made a small hole which healed quickly ... (Ron Magarry, The Battalion Story: 2/26th Battalion, 8th Australian Division—AIF. Brisbane, 1995, p56. Quoted in A Bitter Fate. Canberra, Dept of Veterans’ Affairs, 2002, pp55–6)

After the war, Australian governments set up and generously funded the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University (now the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies)
to improve knowledge of Australia’s region. A number of universities encouraged modest programs in the history and politics of Asian countries.

People like the late Herb Feith, killed in a railway-crossing accident in November 2001, blossomed from such engagement. After being at the University of Melbourne, Feith went to Indonesia in 1951 as a volunteer. He became a friend of that country and a legend in the scholarship about it. Similarly, Peter Reeves, who now heads the South Asian studies program at the National University in Singapore, went to India for the first time in 1958 while doing an MA at the University of Tasmania. There are a number of other examples—20 or 30 at most—of university-educated Australians who drank the spirit of that time, grasped the opportunities and became outstanding scholars of places in Asia.

However, when Australia got involved in the Vietnam war in the mid-1960s, knowledge of Southeast Asia was not wide­spread in the community as a whole. ‘I didn’t even know bloody Vietnam existed,’ a soldier said. ‘I’d never even heard of the country ... I didn’t know where Laos or Cambodia ... were ... I didn’t know the French had been in Vietnam.’ (Stuart Rintoul, Ashes of Vietnam. Sydney, Heinemann for the ABC, 1988, p5)

If the Malaya experience of 1942 helped provoke a focus on Asia in higher education, Vietnam led to the realisation that the wider community needed to know where Laos, Cambodia and a lot of other places were. As Education Minister, Malcolm Fraser established the Auchmuty Committee in 1969, which identified vast gaps in Australian education when it came to the countries and languages of the neighbourhood. (The Teaching of Asian Languages and Cultures: Report of the Commonwealth Advisory Committee, 1971) Other reports—and action—followed: in 1980, Asia in Australian Education (the FitzGerald Report) and in 1989, Asia in Australian Higher Education (the Ingleson Report).

Maximizing Australia’s Asia Knowledge is the fourth such document in 32 years. But where the earlier inquiries found relatively receptive audiences, Maximizing has had a muted response. Earlier, a push for Asia knowledge grew out of the common-sense recognition that the histories, cultures and politics of the countries of Asia were almost unknown to most Australians, yet they would increasingly affect Australia’s economy, security and internal harmony. So why has the push faltered?

At one level, restructuring of tertiary education, and contraction of funds, have made lower-enrolment subjects vulnerable. As ageing academics retire, cash-strapped universities replace only those who teach subjects of highest student demand—business, computers, etc. Few universities can afford the luxury of, say, two teachers of Chinese history or someone ‘expensive’—like a professor of Indonesian.

And success has had its own consequences. Between 1997 and 2001, at least a dozen professorial level scholars of Asia were headhunted for strategic jobs elsewhere. The National University of Singapore, intent on becoming a ‘Harvard of the East’, is a special beneficiary, with Anthony Reid (ex-ANU) heading its Asia research centre, Peter Reeves (Curtin) its South Asian studies program and languages area, and Rey Ileto (ANU) in Southeast Asian studies. The University of Sheffield attracted two top China scholars from Western Australia—Beverly Hooper and Tim Wright—to support its specially funded China programs. Andrew Watson (Adelaide) runs the Ford Foundation in Beijing. And there are half a dozen other top Australian scholars of Asia in senior posts in Asia and Europe.

Why do such people leave? Simple: the money is better; salaries in Singapore can be nearly double those of equivalent levels in Australia, and tax rates are lower. And among those who have left, some also cite ‘the crazy amount of administrative work I was required to do’, shrinking pools of research funds and class sizes that rose by 60 per cent in five or six years.

Few of these people are replaced in their Australian universities. And when a cadre of specialists numbers no more than a few hundred, to lose a dozen movers and shakers sucks vitality from the system.

Policy-makers and citizens cherish widely held but mistaken beliefs that:

• globalisation means Australians need to know less, not more—English is now the all-conquering global language;
• the market will take care of demand—if people want to know a language, they’ll sign up for it and pay to learn it;
• autonomous universities must make decisions about what to teach as they see fit—they can teach about Asia if they really want to;
• language teaching in Australia is too hard—there are too many ‘community’ and Asian languages—a small population can’t manage to offer eight or nine languages in a coherent, sustained way;
• and, anyway, Australia is doing pretty well as it is—what would be gained by doing anything differently?

Each belief is misguided, in the following ways:

• global capitalism reaps increasing profit from business in the great languages of Asia. The growth of Hindi-language newspapers in India, driven by advertisers seeking to sell products, represents the most vigorous newspaper growth in the world. And why does the Murdoch media empire so cherish its reach into China?
• left to themselves, few Australians will learn languages unless convinced of the advantages. Governments and universities need to proclaim the needs and benefits;
• coherent and sustained availability of language teaching is possible, but it needs national initiative—something that will happen only through the creation of a national body. Individual universities, or even state education systems, cannot supply it alone;
• and how much better might Australia do—in securing its prosperity and security—if a far higher proportion of the population knew the languages, and something about the history, politics and cultures, of the neighbours?

India provides a thundering example of the potential profit to be gleaned from paying better attention than we do now. India today, for example, has the fastest growing newspaper industry in the world—in 12 major languages. It is driven by an advertising boom that in the 1990s stunned even old-time Indian marketing people. India has an estimated 82 million television households—400 million people sleep each night in a place where there’s a TV. Indian cable operators offer 40 or 50 channels, always with five or six language choices.

There are plenty of anecdotes illustrating the old saw that knowledge is power—or at least, that it works better than ignorance. In East Timor, Indonesian-speaking members of the Australian Defence Force have been widely praised for their work in making contacts, explaining intentions and heading off conflict. At least one fluent Mandarin-speaking official was a key figure in the prolonged negotiation of the Woodside gas contract with China.

The webpages of two university Asia centres—Griffith University in Brisbane and Murdoch University in Perth—highlight possibilities. There’s the Murdoch graduate in Chinese who became ‘executive floor manager’ of the Marriott Hotel in Chongqing. Or the Griffith graduate who became a translation specialist for the Tokyo Metro Government. But there’s also a depressing side: the Perth high school where the hotel manager started learning Chinese has stopped teaching the language. And both young women were working for foreign, not Australian, entities.

Ignorance is costly and can be cruel. Consider:

• the days after September 11 when angry Americans attacked and even killed Sikhs simply because Sikhs wear turbans and most Americans had no idea about religious differences;
• how much more effectively the ‘processing’ of refugee claims might proceed if a sizeable proportion of immigration officers knew a language of South or West Asia;
• and how much more comfortable Australian business people might feel—and how much less gauche they might appear—if more of them absorbed from their youth an understanding of the histories of the neighbours.

As an American in Jakarta told the New York Times in February, ‘Other Americans here who do not speak the language ... are more concerned’ about their safety. He lives in an apartment block where he is the only foreigner. ‘Because of his close ties to the people and his familiarity with the culture ... he remains essentially at ease’. (NYT, 24 February 2003)

Both symbols and substance are necessary to improve Australia’s capacity to acquire the power of knowledge. The symbols can come only from signals sent by the national government. Principals, parents, business leaders, vice-chancellors—and neighbouring countries—need to see that Australian governments rank widespread understanding of our neighbours as a high priority. When the Commonwealth ended the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools scheme a year ago, the symbolic setback was as great as the financial one.

The federal Minister for Education in a recent defence (Symposium, Newsletter of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, January 2003, p7,) of language policy points out that a survey of Year 5 and Year 8 students across the country showed more than 40 per cent ‘in the top category’ of understanding of Asia. This, of course, is partly the result of the leadership—and practical programs—of the Asia Education Foundation (AEF), founded in 1993 to promote study of Asia from Kindergarten to Year 10 in schools across Australia. About 20 per cent of Australian schools are now part of the AEF-led Access Asia network.

Similar effort is necessary to preserve the shrinking Asia expertise in the universities and to extend it throughout university curriculums and into Years 11 and 12 of secondary school. Maximizing Australia’s Asian Knowledge recommends the creation of a ‘Council for Maximizing Australia’s Asia Knowledge and Skills’ to highlight such an Australian commitment and co-ordinate, over a period of four or five years, a series of measures to provide substance.

Australia has been slow to preserve and take advantage of the Asia knowledge it has. In the US, the Luce Foundation committed $US12 million in 1999 to the creation of 40 new positions for Asia specialists in liberal-arts universities and colleges. In Britain in 1999, the government set up a five-year program, at a cost of 1 million pounds a year, to extend the study of China in British universities. In 2000, as part of a general exercise in scholarly renewal, the Canadians began creating 2000 research chairs at a cost of $Can900 million over five years. Close to half of those chairs are going to social sciences and humanities. Canada’s Asia-oriented universities thereby have a chance to renew and extend their pools of talent.

There are three reasons why Australia needs to work harder at learning about the near neighbours.

First, for security. The advantages of being able to recognise one’s friends—and enemies—are obvious. How many of the dozens of federal police who have worked in Indonesia have fluency in an Indonesian language or much understanding of the politics and culture of the place? Australia needs a far higher proportion of its citizens with these sorts of skills. That’s what was advocated and widely accepted after the Ingleson Report of 1989.

Second, for commerce and economics. It is possible to work through interpreters and other countries’ citizens, but would you buy your family home through an interpreter? There is no substitute for wide, accurate, Australian capacity to communicate with possible business partners. Such communication works not merely at the level of sealing deals, but in imbuing Australians with the cultural skills to be happy and welcome in other people’s countries while deals are done and projects delivered. It is possible, for example, for an American to live in an Indonesian apartment block in Jakarta in 2003 but language and cultural understanding are the keys to his comfort.

Third, for Australia domestically. The capacity of large proportions of citizens to put themselves in the shoes of others—others who have not come from Christian-influenced, English-speaking backgrounds—increases harmony and cohesion. And the more people of ‘old’ Australian background move comfortably with the million or so Australian residents who were born in Asia, the more ‘Asia skills’ and ‘Asia comfort’ rub off. The process increases the pool of Australians who can work with the neighbours with ease, grace and understanding.

Modest national initiatives can make this happen widely and effectively. Investment of $15 million over five years, according to Maximizing Australia’s Asia Knowledge, would have far-reaching effects in repositioning and renewing knowledge of Asia in the universities and the wider community. That’s the cost some estimates put on the ‘alert Australia’ public relations campaign.


These are small sums in national budgetary terms. Nor should they necessarily all come from the Department of Education, Science and Technology. The United States launched its great ‘area studies’ initiative through a ‘National Defense Education Act’, after the orbiting of Sputnik in 1957. In Australia in 2003, the Departments of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry and Tourism all have an interest in—and might bear part of the cost of—seeing that Asia knowledge spreads and deepens.

Australians can’t avoid our rendezvous with Asia. The question is: do we arrive ill-equipped, awkward and unknowing or skilled, sensitive and discriminating? But you don’t pick up skill, sensitivity and
discrimination from a management manual in an airport bookshop. They have to be learned. ?

Robin Jeffrey is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, and was one of the writers of Maximizing Australia’s Asia Knowledge.

 

 

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