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Asian relations

I never thought I’d say this about a book: Australia’s ambivalence towards Asia is not for the faint-hearted.

In the last few years, a number of books have been published looking into Australia’s relationship with the other countries in the Asian region. It is fair to say the consensus is that Australia has problems fitting in.

Vin D’Cruz and William Steele’s Australia’s ambivalence towards Asia stands out, however. They consistently and relentlessly identify the reasons behind Australia’s failure to be accepted as a neighbour by Asian countries. The subsequent report is disturbing, to say the least. Professor David Walker, from the school of Australian and International Studies at Deakin University, who provides the afterword, writes of Australia’s ambivalence that:

It disrupts many of the comfortable notions we may have formed about how best to interpret the relationship between Australia and Asia. I am right behind them in this enterprise.

Although the book focuses on Australia, it also projects Australia against the background of Western nations in general. Most of the discrepancies between professed ideology and practiced policy that abound in Australia can also be found in other nations that belong to the Western European intellectual and cultural tradition. However, some instances of glaring hypocrisy are idiosyncratically Australian.

The foreword by Ashis Nandy, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, does not prepare the reader for the contents of the book itself, because while it is incisively critical of Australia’s stance and attitudes towards Asia, the blows are somewhat broken by his delightful wit and humour.

Australia may have been ambivalent towards Asia ..., but the Asians too have been ambivalent towards Australia for more than a century ... All through our childhood teens, we never got any inkling that Australia was or had been, like India, a colony. Unlike the Irish, the Australians hid that part of the story quite successfully from us. At least in India, Australia projected itself as an extension of Britain—a slightly declassé, provincial, off-colour Britain, but Britain nevertheless ...

In the pages following Nandy’s foreword, all gloves are off.

Australia is uncomfortable positioning its psyche in Asia, according to D’Cruz and Steele, not only because Asians are people of colour and the majority of Australians are white, but also because Australia is obsessed with its desire to prove itself equal to Britain and other Western nations. While Britain and continental Europe believe they are superior, Australia feels it has to prove its worth.

One sure way of proving one’s own superiority is, of course, to treat others as inferior. It is providential that in Australia’s case, these ‘others’ are close by, in Asia and the Pacific, and in its own land. The feeling of superiority overshadows even Australia’s intended good gestures towards its Asian neighbours and its own Indigenous people, and refuses to fade away though it is clear that it is causing considerable offence.

This patronising stance is extended to the former subjects of Asian countries who have migrated to Australia and become Australian citizens. For Australia, it seems, multiculturalism involves these new citizens accepting the existing cultural benchmarks that were initially set up by Anglo-Australians—namely, the current notions of what is good.

Prominent among the ideas about ‘what is good’ are democracy and liberalism.

D’Cruz and Steele demonstrate that Australian public figures are unable to see that the liberalism dominant in Australia’s political life is flawed, because it allows for an insidious racism. They uncover and display evidence of this racism in almost all sectors of life, revealing an undercurrent of unconscious racism that affects not only the social interactions between white Australians and their Aboriginal and Asian-born fellow citizens, but also policy-making at the institutional level.

The authors use Turtle Beach, the award-winning novel by Blanche D’Alpuget, as a case study. It has a number of instances of this subliminal racism. As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, I see another dimension to many of these examples. The fiction writer draws from his or her own psyche when writing a novel, so what is written reflects not only what the eyes see, but what the subconscious has absorbed.

They are reflections of the writer’s social conditioning. Whether the story is offensive or not depends very much on who sees the reflections.

Though I would be reluctant to call those instances racism, I would see them as proof that deep down Australians are yet to discard their sense of superiority and their tendency to be judgmental towards their Asian neighbours. Australia’s ambivalence uncovers this attitude in many parts of Turtle Beach. Only when Australians begin to regard Asians as equal and accept Asian-Australian voices as part of Australia’s orchestra of opinions will Australia be better accepted in the region, because only then will the discomfort and awkwardness ease all round.  

Australia’s ambivalence towards Asia, J.V. D’Cruz and William Steele.
Monash University Press, 2003. isbn 1 876 924 098, rrp $49.90

Dewi Anggraeni’s latest book, Who did this to our Bali?, Indra Press, will be released in February 2004.



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