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Multicultural expert calls on Aussies to make a bigger effort

Neville J Roach AO

Leading businessman and expert on Multiculturalism in Australia, Mr Neville J Roach AO, has called for Australians to make a greater effort to build bridges with their Asian neighbours.

Mr Roach, who is a former chairman of the National Multicultural Advisory Council, issued the challenge to fellow Australians while presenting the 2013 Warrane Lecture on the topic “Australian Multiculturalism in the Asian Century”.

Among Mr Roach’s recommendations were that Australians become more “Asia savvy” by visiting countries in the region more, by studying there and by learning to speak Asian languages.

He also recommended that Australians should :

  • do more to achieve reconciliation with indigenous Australians, particularly by raising the living standards of the country’s indigenous population to parity with the rest of the population;
  • treat overseas students studying here as “valued customers” and ensure that the rules for permanent residency do not fluctuate during the course of their studies;
  • improve the treatment of asylum seekers at a time when both sides of mainstream politics have been treating them so harshly that they risk damaging Australian Multiculturalism and international reputation;
  • strive to improve the standard of sportsmanship of Australian cricket teams in international matches.

Mr Roach explained that he came from India to what was then “White Australia” in 1961 and had “enjoyed a ringside seat” observing the country’s “amazing evolution” into today’s Multicultural Australia.

“Moreover, I have had the privilege of being given the opportunity to contribute to the development of national policy designed to encourage the development of Australian Multiculturalism and maximise its benefits for all Australians,” he said.

“The context in which I have chosen to discuss Australian Multiculturalism, namely the Asian Century, is also something I am passionate and know quite a bit about.”

Mr Roach worked for Japan’s largest computer company, Fujitsu, for some 24 years and has worked for India’s largest IT company, Tata Consultancy Services since 2005. Because of his origin and business and social connections, he had the opportunity to serve on numerous state, national and international councils, boards and associations focused on Australia-Asia relations.

He pointed out that the phrase “Asian Century” is probably best known because of the Australian Government’s “Australia in the Asian Century White Paper”. He said the introduction to the white paper captured the essence of the term very well when it stated:

“Asia’s rise is changing the world. This is a defining feature of the 21st century – the Asian century. These developments have profound implications for people everywhere.

Asia’s extraordinary ascent has already changed the Australian economy, society and strategic environment. The scale and pace of the change still to come mean Australia is entering a truly transformative period in our history.

“Within only a few years, Asia will not only be the world’s largest producer of goods and services, it will also be the world’s largest consumer of them. It is already the most populous region in the world. In the future, it will also be home to the majority of the world’s middle class.

“The Asian century is an Australian opportunity. As the global centre of gravity shifts to our region, the tyranny of distance is being replaced by the prospects of proximity. Australia is located in the right place at the right time – in the Asian region in the Asian century.”

Noting the development “from White Australia to Multicultural Australia”, Mr Roach said the greatest advantage of diversity is that it enhances creativity and stimulates innovation.

“A society or even an organisation without diversity becomes insular and stuck in its ways because everyone thinks the same and no one is willing or able to challenge the status quo,” he said. “This severely discourages innovation, which is often the unexpected outcome of people daring to be different.”

He said that while multiculturalism recognised our right to express and share our individual cultural heritage, this right had to be exercised within an “overriding commitment” to the basic structures and values of the entire community.

“How well is our nation doing at the dawn of the Asian Century?,” Mr Roach asked. “The answer is ‘very well’. Australia is a vibrant multicultural nation and, thanks to our large non-discriminatory immigration program, will become increasingly more so. Our engagement with Asia is also very strong, not just economically, but also socially, culturally and even spiritually.

“Economically, much of our continuous economic success over the past 20 years can be attributed to the stimulus we have enjoyed from the growth of Asian countries.”

Mr Roach said Asian nations, especially China, had helped Australia emerge largely unscathed from the GFC. In 2011 seven out of 10 of Australia’s top two-way trading partners were Asian, and its four largest export markets were China, Japan, Korea and India.

“It is at the human level, however, that Australia most benefits from the Asian Century,” he said. “Asian countries now contribute a very high and growing percentage of our permanent and temporary migrants, overseas students, business visitors and tourists. In 2011-12, India was our largest source of permanent migrants. China was second, with the UK, amazingly, dropping to third place.

“The human resources we get from Asia now are a gift from Asia, far more valuable even than our fabled mineral and agricultural resources. By all accounts Asians make model citizens, skilled, law abiding, hard working and entrepreneurial. Their knowledge of the languages and cultures of Asia and their continuing ties with their families and friends back home, significantly enhance mutual understanding and interaction between Australia and their countries of birth.”

Mr Roach warned that, despite its ongoing success in the Asian region, Australia should not underestimate Asia’s other “suitors” – “many of whom are much bigger and stronger than we are”. He said that maximising what we get from the Asian Century will be “no easy task”.

One of the challenges we needed to recognise was that there were still some pocket of racism in Australia. He said that when things go wrong, “as they did with the Cronulla riots in 2005 and some of the attacks on Indian students between 2007 and 2010”, Australians could expect Asians to say: “Those Aussies haven’t really changed much, have they?”

“Unfair as this generalisation might be”, he said, “we should not be over-sensitive about it. The worst response would be denial, something some of our leaders unfortunately indulged in relation to Cronulla and the attacks on Indian students. Our reputation would have suffered much less if we had acknowledged that racism did play a part in both cases and strongly condemned it.”

“The best strategy for us is to be honest with ourselves, accept that we carry some historical baggage and that we may never be entirely free of racism. Acknowledging and confronting any racist behaviour by our citizens, will give us far more credibility. We can then talk with legitimate pride about our great achievements, including our non-discriminatory immigration policy, the remarkable success of Australian multiculturalism and our ongoing determination to stamp out residual racism.”

Mr Roach said that Australia’s regional credentials would also be strengthened if Australians tried to look at international issues more from the point of view of our region and our neighbours. This would require a more independent approach, rather than automatically following Australia’s traditional allies on every single issue.

“Independence is highly respected by Asian nations,” he said, “many of whom have only recently achieved independence from colonial rule.

“When dealing with our neighbourhood, we should always pay attention to the views of our neighbours and give them due the consideration and respect they deserve”.

While it may seem only symbolic, the one step that I am certain would dramatically strengthen our image as an independent nation and be highly applauded throughout Asia, and probably around the world, would be to become a Republic.

“This would also have a very positive impact on Australian Multiculturalism as all of us will be able to identify with an Australian Head of State as he or she would be one of our own!”

In his concluding remarks, Mr Roach confessed that while he was proud to be an Australian and had, in all his 50 years living here, striven to be loyal to his adopted country, he had never waivered in his support for the Indian cricket team over Australia. He said it was fortunate that the citizenship oath said nothing about barracking for Australia! He stressed that, although his comments were somewhat in jest, they were not entirely so because the importance of cricket could not be overstated. The reason was the only image that most people in India and the rest of the sub-continent had of Australia, came from watching its cricket team on television.

“And, it’s not a pretty picture!” he said. “Sledging, abuse, snarling at umpires, and generally throwing tantrums, spitting dummies, is not the way to win the minds and hearts of Asian audiences. Unfortunately, the viewers think that all Australians behave like that!

“Something must have got lost in translation when the gentlemen of Lords introduced the game to their subjects down under. While the message that it is a gentlemen’s game seems to have crossed the Tasman to New Zealand, where cricket is still played with little rancour, somehow the prevailing view in Australia seems to be that winning is everything and to win, you must release the mongrel in you!

“So, my plea to the Australian cricket team and all Australian lovers of cricket is shoot the mongrel, or at least put the mongrel back in cage where it belongs for the rest of its natural life. Learn to relax, have fun, enjoy the game. You may not always win, but you could win a billion and a half of new fans!”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]