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Is Australia finally ready to embrace Asia?


Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently presented a stark message to Australia - the country that's still an outsider in the fastest-growing region in the world. Mr Lee said that compared to the city state, 'Australia is a luckier country, with a huge continent, resources and more secure position. But in 50 or 100 years time, will Australia be on top of its destiny or will Asia have moved forward and left Australia out of the game? Much will depend on what Australia does to engage Asia.'

Mr Lee has identified the biggest challenge Australians of the next three generations will face: will they become an irrelevant Anglo-Saxon rump in the Pacific, or grasp the opportunity given by chance of its geography and history.

Established as a prison by the British in 1788, Australia grew to become a free nation surrounded by what its colonial overlords considered the 'backside' of the world. More than two centuries later, the tables have turned. China's economy is now bigger than that of Britain, and Asia is the world's most dynamic region.

Unfortunately, Australia's mindset has not moved as fast, and it is still unsure of itself in the region.

Australians have to realise that going on holiday to Bali does not constitute moving closer to Asia. For politicians, the occasional free-trade deal or cultural exchange does not make them Asian. Becoming part of the region - and reaping the enormous benefits - will mean becoming more ethnically part of Asia.

That will require a massive boost of migration to Australia from the China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. About 74 per cent of its population is Anglo-Celtic and 19 per cent is classed as 'other European', according to the Australian Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. Only 4.5 per cent is Asian.


Yet, for many potential immigrants, Australia - a nation of 20 million on an island the size of the continental United States - is still too small to offer adequate opportunities. An industrialised nation with solid legal and political infrastructure, Australia has the ability to take more smart and entrepreneurial people from this region - and it must. The prime goal of any Australian government must be to lift the population to at least 50 million people in the next 50 years, a good proportion of whom should be of East Asian origin.

So, what could a Eurasian Australia of 50 million people achieve?

First, it would mean respect and inclusion. The era of 'neither fish nor fowl' - when Australia was derided as the small, white man of Asia or, worse, a stooge of the British or Americans - would be over. No Asian government could dismiss an Australia with a substantial population of Chinese, Malays and Vietnamese.

Could they ignore Australia when it had benches of Asians or Eurasians in parliament (as opposed to less than a handful now) or even an Asian prime minister? What an opportunity to provide leadership in the fields of rule of law, human rights and representational democracy.


Change must start with the young. The Northern Territory - whose capital, Darwin, is closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney - stipulates that all students must learn the Indonesian language.

A compulsory Asian-language programme should be extended to all Australian children.


Australia's economy is benefiting from China's insatiable demand for iron ore and other metals. But the nation's political leadership must realise that mining booms come and go. An economy has to build things, create ideas and sell services.

A 50-million strong Australia, with strong ethnic and cultural ties with Asia, would be better equipped to hitch up with the economic growth engine of the century.

This does not mean losing its distinct, easy-going culture. On the contrary, a bigger and more influential Australia will have the opportunity to spread its values to less democratic areas of the region.


Glen Norris is a business news editor at the South China Morning Post