Securing Australia's Future in Asia


Peter Kell


The production of an edition which features articles on education's role reaffirming the relationships between Australia and Asia comes at a crucial point in time. The familiar themes that have recently identified the Asia region as "Tiger" economies has now been replaced by metaphors of economic catastrophe and system "meltdown". Dramatic images of plummeting currency values and corporate closure in Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia have supplanted the confident and prosperous images of growth and stability that Australians have now grown accustomed to seeing and hearing.

At the same time in Australia there is a continued questioning of Australia's role in Asia which has been backgrounded with re-emerging racism as part of the public culture since the election of the Howard government. Australia's image in Asia has been damaged by the failure of leadership on both sides of the political divide to confront the re-emergence of irrational racism that nurtures support for Pauline Hanson, Graeme Campbell, Bruce Ruxton, a host of talkback radio hosts and other ultra conservative right wing groups in rural Australia. Australia's performance in regional diplomacy has declined with increasing instances of embarrassing diplomatic blunders like that experienced at the Pacific forum in Cairns where trivial comments on Pacific leaders personal qualities were the subject of leaks to the media. These blunders, as well as Australia's position on such issues as Greenhouse gas emissions, reveal a failure to accept that Australia has a responsible role as part of the Asia and Pacific region.

The former Australian ambassador to China, Dr Stephen Fitzgerald sees this as an inability to develop an Asian "mindset". He suggests that there is a reluctance to accept a role alongside the colonial "whiteman" heritage that focuses Australia's sense of belonging to Europe and America . Fitzgerald suggests that Australians, and more particularly the leadership elites in government and business, need to reconceptualise Asia as being connected to Australia rather than a separated otherness that reflects an "orientalist" view of Asia. This means relating more closely to developments in Singapore, Djakarta and Kuala Lumpur rather than concentrating on reviving nostalgic longings for the protective umbrella of London and Washington.

The challenge for Australia is now to turn the platitudes of belonging to Asia into meaningful action. Australia's multiculturalism with its linguistic and cultural assets are an advantage in providing the platform to establish the links with Asia. Already the benefits of multiculturalism are evident in securing closer business ties. One of the most recent successes has been the relocation of the Asian offices of American Express Banking to Sydney on the basis that this is where more Asian languages are spoken than any other city in Asia.

Schools, Colleges and universities now need to address the issue of "renovating the Australian mind" to recognise and acknowledge our position as part of Asia. The current depth of the economic decline in Asia is exposing the paucity of many of these relationships as Australian universities fail to extend credit lines for hard pressed Asian students and programs in the same way that American universities have done to secure these long term strategic alliances.

There is clearly the need for a broader view of internationalising education that provides both a connectedness with the region and establishes long term partnerships. It means that narrow orientalist views of Asia focussing on the exotic and "shonky" educational marketing extravaganzas to Asia need to be replaced by more mature and equitable educational practices.

This issue is designed to stimulate thought and discussion to encounter this challenge of changing the Australian mindset and analyse the role of education in that process. The contributions from Australia and Asia critically address the issues confronting educators and provides some theoretical frameworks for action; structural alliances for administrators; models for teaching practice; graphic illustrations of events and classroom examples to signpost directions for the future.

Troughs in the business cycle in Asia and the periodic re-emergence of racism in Australia are temporary challenges in an inevitable quest for Australia to seize the opportunities that a closer involvement with Asia offers. Education has an important role in ensuring that Australia's future is linked to the region in a manner which secures, prosperity, security, tolerance and democratic institutions in partnerships characterised by equity and reciprocity.

Peter Kell is Head of the Department of Industry, Professional and Adult Education at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

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