Dancing with Tigers


A seasoned senator tells a story that illustrates the problem of celebrating John Howard as ‘Mr Asia’. (Rowan Callick, ‘How Mr Howard Became Mr Asia,’ Australian Financial Review, 5 February 2005).

Once upon a time in a small town in South Australia, a company purchased a wonderful Mitsubishi engine. Tested and acclaimed throughout the world, the engine came complete with plans. The engineers set it up – until they came to the last few pieces, which would not fit. They puzzled for days and then flew in an engineer from Japan.

The engineer looked at the almost-assembled engine and said: ‘Ah! You Australians draw your plans from a front view. In Japan, we draw them from a rear view.’

The small town in South Australia needed someone who could see the world from other people’s shoes and sandals. Australia is going to need a lot more such people as its irresistible enmeshing with its region accelerates. But there’s little indication such leadership will come from John Howard and his government. The Prime Minister’s ‘Mr Asia’ tag results, not from a curiosity about the region, but from the Prime Minister’s having embraced – as he often has – the irresistible.

Blind Freddie can see that Australia and its Asian neighbours are going to fill each other’s dance cards in a globalizing world. To lead gracefully round the floor and keep off the partners’ toes, Australians need to know more than waltzes and fox-trots. The key partners, it’s worth remembering, often have bigger feet than ours.

The fact that engagement with Asia can be plausibly claimed as a triumph for John Howard’s successive governments owes much to a small cadre of diplomats, defence personnel and public servants who have spent substantial portions of their lives learning about the neighbours. It’s they who have negotiated contracts with China, improved relations with Indonesia and reminded politicians that there is more than one way to look at a set of drawings.

But Australia in 2005 is equipping as small a proportion of its population with knowledge of Asia as it did twenty years ago. It’s a tiny proportion. In universities, fewer than 5 per cent of students do any sustained study of an Asian country during their degree. Fewer than 3 per cent study a language of Asia. Among those who do, close to half are students from Asia, who go home armed with an extra language. They won’t be enriching Australia’s capacity to work effectively from Tehran to Tokyo.

The Australian Defence Force, the Australian Federal Police and the Flood inquiry into intelligence all emphasize the value of languages. After the tsunami, aid agencies have desperately sought people with language and cultural skills. Yet enrolments in Indonesian language fell 15 per cent in universities between 2001 and 2004. Fewer than 2,000 students study Indonesian at any level.

Around the country, it is rare to find subjects dealing with, say, Japanese politics or Indian history.

In the past ten years, shrinking finances have led universities to shed staff in languages, history, politics and society. In addition, the dozen outstanding Asia specialists headhunted by overseas institutions between 1997 and 2001 represent an energy-sapping depletion of a small cadre of specialists. The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) has been broadcasting this message for four years, as its report, Maximizing Australia’s Asia Knowledge , and most recent budget submission demonstrate.

After some notable expansion in the late 1980s and 1990s, today Australia’s young elite – its university students – has as limited a formal exposure to knowledge of Asia as their parents and grandparents did. In most universities, such exposure is contracting rather than growing.

Howard governments haven’t seen a problem. They aborted the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools program (NALSAS) in 2002. When they have responded at all to reports and representations, it’s been with gestures, not long-term policies.

It would not cost a lot to start equipping a significant proportion of university students with working knowledge of the neighbours. Partly what’s needed is symbolic: strong statements by key ministers and other leaders, especially in business, that languages and understanding of Asia are crucial for Australia’s future.

Then, as a start, there needs to be coherent investment to renew the cadre of Asia specialists by enabling universities to make appointments in politics, history, law, economics and culture; get the study of Indonesian onto unshakable foundations and ensure national delivery of strategic languages of limited student demand (like Hindi, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and Arabic).

The price tag is tiny – perhaps $5 million a year. But unless it happens, engines from Asia will still be getting assembled back to front in 2025.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.