Be proud of your rice, but don’t be afraid to try new rice - by Ross Maddock

Wednesday 23 August, 2017

If there’s anyone who knows about Australia-Asia relations, it’d be Ross Maddock. Chairman of the Australia-Taiwan Business Council, his career has included service in military, defence, intelligence and diplomatic roles at Saigon, Canberra, London, Hong Kong, Peking and Taipei. And with expertise in China and Taiwan politics, trade and more, he spoke to the Warrane boys on Wednesday 23 August about observations from his line of work, as well as tips for a successful life.

“I’ve decided to call my address tonight ‘foreign rice’,” he told the boys, continuing, “The reason will become obvious a little bit later in my talk.”

Observations of Asia

Maddock is a wealth of information when it comes to China and other Asian countries. As he told the boys, he has done numerous things over the years, and many of these had something to do with China.

His first experience of the nation was in 1972, when he was studying Mandarin at a language school in Hong Kong. He found himself back in Peking on the 1976 morning when Chairman Mao died, and experienced the sorrow of the people. And while no foreigners were invited to the funeral, Maddock got a glimpse from the balconies of an apartment.

Maddock told the boys about how in those days, Taiwan was very similar to China in a number of ways. A rich country by any standard, with hardworking and civil people, it was the introduction of democracy in recent decades that allowed it to evolve more than China in a political sense. In Maddock’s eyes, China has certainly changed a lot – for example in the fact of having 500 million more people than 40 years ago, as well as more wealth and power - but in terms of politics and cosmology, so little has changed.

A trade experience with Japan is what led Maddock to the term, ‘foreign rice’. When Australia asked Japan to reduce its amazingly high tariff on imported rice, Japan’s government replied that it had to remain high “……because the Japanese people do not like foreign rice!” Such a simple sentence, but such a parallel to how Maddock saw Asian dealings with the Western world!

Dislike for foreign rice, in a way, was indicative of what was lacking in a great nation such as China. As Maddock put it: “They wouldn’t share in the free play of ideas which is a feature of the Western way of doing things. And that resulted – as historians would agree – in some wonderful things, but also atrophy.”

Be proud of your rice, but don’t be afraid to try new rice

At this point, Maddock wanted to give some advice to the boys.

“The first thing I want to advise is: take pride in our values. If you are Australian or from another Western country, be proud of our values and traditions, and be prepared to stand up and speak out for them. Though some of our institutions and practices, particularly political ones, are under stress today, they have stood the test of time, trouble and tribulation... Surely it is obvious that our values, institutions and practices are under attack from some who don’t share them. And more serious, and more shameful still, is the damage we do ourselves if we don’t love and nurture our democratic institution. These traditions and practices – they are the work of centuries, if not thousands, of years of thought and struggle. And I for one do not believe that anything in the competing systems, developed over the last few decades in China or elsewhere, have much to offer us. Those systems are yet to be tested, and I don’t applaud the way they attempt to exclude the ‘foreign rice’.”

He continued: “Now if you’re not Australian or from another Western country, do take advantage of all this country, and this university, and this college, have to offer you. You will find few places in the world more genuinely tolerant and accepting. Do not shut yourselves away, leaving Australia – yes, with a good degree – but perhaps little understanding of the history, culture and politics. Don’t be frightened to try the ‘foreign rice’.”

Other life advice

Maddock finished with a few more points of life advice for the boys.  

“The second point is about circumspection,” he said. “It’s taken me a long time to realise how easy, and often dangerous, it is to take things at face value. How simple it is to jump to conclusions; how hard it is to listen carefully to what another person is saying, when what that other person is saying offends us, or seems patently absurd. Now that it’s almost too late for me, I’ve learned the trick: when I find myself in strong disagreement with someone, of assuming, deliberately, for a moment, that they might just be right, or at least have some interesting or useful new perspective. Try that. And then the intellectual exercise of thinking: if you’re right and I’m wrong, what’s gone wrong with my assumptions and reasoning? Have I given way to prejudice?”

Maddock continued - “My third point is: don’t drift! At least not for long periods. I drifted a bit too much, without a plan. I was luckier perhaps, better than I deserved to be. My drifting did take me to many interesting places, and I bumped into many interesting people. And from time to time I made small contributions to my family, friends, and even my country, and I’m proud of them. But in earlier years, I was not mindful enough of the responsibilities that the education and opportunities my country had given me. So have a plan, and keep it up to date. It should include goals for health and wealth of course, but more importantly, for contributions to friends, family and country. As you get older, perhaps like me, you’ll come to see that what counts most of all is not fortune, not fame – no. It’s honour. Honourable behaviour earns respect, and the respect of our family, friends and colleagues is what sustains us in the end.”

“Last point...,” Maddock said to finish up. “A few years ago, I worked out that the conventional measure of a life, three score years and ten, is in fact, a bit less than 26,000 days. 26,000 days – that’s all... If every beat of your heart was one day, then your life would be over in less than eight hours. So: each of our days is a scarce and precious commodity. We should treasure each day and live our lives well and full of optimism... If I’m careful and my luck holds, I might have a few thousand days left. For me, no more drifting. I intend to make the most of it. And I wish you all good luck and God bless you.”

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