Still carrying the baggage of history
Australia and Asia. Is one part of the other or not? It is a subject of ongoing debate, at least among Australians, and from time to time it attracts some comment from the relatively few Asians who think about Australia at all. Most of the time, Australians think in terms of how they should react to and deal with their numerous, ethnically distinct - but ethnically diverse - neighbours to the north.
A new book by a diplomat turned academic is making waves in Australia by attempting to describe Asian attitudes to Australia in the present as well as the past, and looking at the attitude of some Asian migrants to Australia, their adopted country.
About Face - Asian Accounts of Australia will not make very happy reading for Asians or Australians. And its author, Alison Broinowski, displays some prejudices of her own that help explain some Asian prejudices about Australia. But it is a valuable and interesting exercise, which comes at an appropriate time. Not only is Australia now facing the aftermath of being part of the US-British campaign to conquer and occupy Iraq. This year is also the 30th anniversary of the formal abolition by the Whitlam government of the White Australia policy, started in 1901 to curtail Asian immigration.
In practice, the policy was abandoned in the late 1960s, but it took a while before the nation fully accepted Asians on equal terms as migrants. Now, more migrants come from Asia than any other continent.
Since 1973, Australia has been spasmodically taken with the notion of 'enmeshing' with Asia, and Asian migration was the prime cause of its adoption and espousal of multiculturalism. That somewhat vague concept fell somewhere between full integration into the Anglo-Celtic culture of its British origins and the multiracialism of countries such as Malaysia, in which the preservation of ethnic identity was formalised by the political and educational structure.
Most independent observers would surely conclude that Australia has undergone a remarkable transformation in these 30 years, absorbing huge numbers of migrants from Asia, as well as non-Europeans from Africa and the Caribbean, with very little friction. The non-European communities are now so entrenched that they will continue to increase as a percentage of the population, even if new migration is much reduced, because they are, on average, younger and more fertile than the population at large. The evidence of generally successful integration is everywhere - and not just in the proliferation of Asian restaurants. The backlash against Asian immigration, championed by One Nation founder Pauline Hanson, never took deep root. Her movement fed on other grievances as much as migration.
Yet the brutal fact is that Asian views - or at least the official views of governments and the media - of Australia are still rooted in the days of White Australia, of Australia as an adjunct of imperial Britain or foot soldier of the US. Smarting from the humiliations of the past, many in Asia are unwilling to concede that anything much has changed. Australians are still mostly white and unable to understand Asian ways. Asians are acceptable only on the basis of conformity to the Anglo-Celtic culture.
Whatever the rhetoric, and the commercial advantage of the Asian association, emotionally, say many Asians, Australia remains linked to Britain by a monarch and to the United States by security interests. Politically, this is reflected in the rejection of Australian attempts to be acknowledged as part of Asia in its dealings with groups such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Other Asian countries have never felt willing to challenge the positions of the region's most virulent anti-Australian, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The price for white Australian entry into the Asian club rose with Asian wealth and confidence.
There was a measure of truth in Dr Mahathir's claims that Australia was not, and could not be, part of Asia. Prime Minister John Howard said in 1996 that Australia 'did not claim to be Asian'. His subsequent enthusiasm for following the US and Britain into war in Iraq would come as no surprise to Australia's Asian critics. As Broinowski puts it: 'As if jilted by its Asian fiance, [Australia] has gone back to its old western flame.'
But if Australia was at fault for failing to give up old linkages, Asian hypocrisy was also well to the fore. Race-obsessed autocrats, such as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, felt able to insult Australia by borrowing the 'poor white trash of Asia' description, and Malaysians of no intellectual distinction poured scorn on Australian standards of academia and civilisation.
The worm had indeed turned, and Australia was lectured by regimes of dubious distinction, which reacted virulently to any criticism from their southern neighbour.
Multiculturalism was rejected as a sham by leaders of societies which had institutionalised racism. It often seemed that however much they had railed against White Australia, Asian societies that were racially exclusive - like South Korea, Japan and China - or that kept races in separate compartments - such as Malaysia - really would have preferred an all-white Australia. If Australia had never had an immigration policy, and thus no basis for a formal 'whites only' one, its all-white identity might have been easier to handle.
As it is, multiculturalism could be a threat. Criticisms of the treatment of Aboriginies, justified though they have been, also look odd coming from the elites in Asian societies who routinely exclude their own aboriginal groups or look on dark skins with distaste.
Most Asians who did migrate to Australia appear to have been happy with their decision, and appear to enjoy freedoms not available in many of the societies proclaiming 'superior' Asian values. But judging from their literature, immigrant academic and intellectual elites - especially those of Chinese origin - seem to find it hard to stop comparing their thousands of years of civilisation with young Australia. Few seem to think of what wrecks those ancient Asian civilisations had become, or to acknowledge that the intellectual roots of modern Australia reached to ancient Greece and the Bible, at least as surely as those of contemporary China were rooted in Confucius.
But Broinowski has her problems with perspective, too. Like many Australians, particularly from academia and the media, she can barely disguise her hostility towards Indonesia and is obsessed with the notion of 'Javanese imperialism'.
She appears to have little sympathy for the racial dilemmas that confronted Malaysia in 1969, and demonises Dr Mahathir as much as he demonises Australia. Sometimes, Australia's prickly nationalism shows through as clearly as that of new, non-white, post-colonial states.
This book is a reminder of the complexity of Australia's relationship with a complex Asia, and that the baggage of history has a half-life that is far too long. But it should not hide the reality that Australia remains a land of freedom, stability, equality and opportunity for many Asians, particularly those who have shed their own historical baggage, and do not expect to pay foreign maids a pittance to do their dirty work.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator