Monday, May 4, 2009

Fear And Incomprehension Still Dominate Australians' Perception Of Asia

This comment questions whether Kevin Rudd’s plan to make Australia
the West’s most ‘Asia-literate’ country has anything going for
it except geography.

An old friend of mine, a self-made corporate tyro embedded at
the Big End of Sydney, asked me recently why I bother writing
from miserable, crisis-racked places like Afghanistan, Sri
Lanka, Nepal and Thailand.
Moreover, he asked, why do I return to Jakarta, a city ranked by
any measure you like as a corrupt urban hellhole of ocean-going
proportions. ‘Mate,’ he emailed after scanning perfunctorily
through a Speccie despatch I’d penned from Afghanistan before he
rushed to his bucolic hobby farm in the Hunter Valley, ‘no one
here gives a flying f**k about these places.’ Then, almost on
cue, Operation Slipper — as Australia’s military contribution to
Afghanistan’s ‘just war’ is formally known — claimed two diggers
in two days after my mate’s message. He looked like a twit; no
comfort, of course, to the grieving families of those who’d made
the ultimate sacrifice for their country’s security, the
official reason why Australian troops are there.
My friend is wrong. Many Australians do give an, er, airborne
copulation about what is going on in Asia. That’s because their
Phuket package holiday got delayed for weeks at Suvarnabhumi
airport last November when Thai royalists marauded yellowly
through it to topple an elected government. They know someone
who lost someone in Bali, or Mumbai, or got shot at in Lahore.
They switch on the evening news and see Orientals in uproar
again and something burning — Asia, unless it’s rich China or
Japan or Korea where you can sell lots of iron ore while staying
home in cool places where the front gates are secure. Or
Singapore’s Asia-lite, a kind of Noosa-sur-Death-Row.
Australians know just enough about the broader region to know
they don’t really want that much to do with it. And now there’s
another blazing charnel house floating off the Kimberley coast
full of desperate Asians. Whether they are refugees,
asylum-seekers or queue-jumpers, that just helps Australians
connect the dots.
This reporter’s Sri Lankan notebook contains a few details too
far for many Australians, but here’s what that particular
hellhole boils down to. There are 150,000 impoverished Tamils
hemmed into 15 sq km of the most wretched ground imaginable.
It’s a tsunami-ravaged palm grove pummelled again by a Sinhalese
military commanded by faraway bloodlust politicians in Colombo
who many Tamils believe want to abolish their ethnicity. And
these poor folk are imprisoned there as human shields by a
murderous gang of Tamil thugs calling themselves freedom
fighters. Faced with annihilation on both sides, a crowded boat
across 5,000km of Indian Ocean via Javanese middlemen to
Australia, where so many of their kin prosperously populate
places like Sydney’s Strathfield and Melbourne’s Mount Waverley,
looks the safer option.
Likewise, Australians en groupe probably don’t really know the
ins and outs of the Afghan imbroglio, beyond the tabloid
takeaway that the Taleban are cavemen who cloak women in burqas,
deny their daughters education and want to Islamise the world,
including Australia, and kill and terrorise as they do so. Of
course, it’s rather more complex than that but, eight years
after 9/11, the extremists are again emboldened across the
sub-continent. Sensible Afghans — most of them — are appalled by
the Islamists but just as disgusted by the corrupt spinelessness
of the Western-sponsored government that replaced them. The
peaceful, democratic future we promised Afghans after 9/11
hasn’t arrived, the power’s still disconnected, that was an
American plane that bombed Cousin Ahmed’s wedding party and so
that sleazy guy in the village who reckons he can get them a
visa to some paradise called Australia — for a generous fee, of
course — again starts to sound good.
Paradise? That’s what Australia sure looks like on the ABC’s
regional TV service beamed free into the region. The
DFAT-sponsored Australia Network’s signature promo — ‘From Our
World To Yours’ — portrays Australia as a land of healthy white
people in fashionable locales dining, swimming, sporting and
sipping latte affluently with their well-shod families and
gleaming teeth. That’s great for attracting tourists from Japan
— another war-torn hellhole, not so long ago — but it also looks
pretty good on the communal tellies in Oruzgan and north-east
Sri Lanka.
It reminds me of what I once witnessed in Tangier, across the
Strait of Gibraltar from Europe, reporting on the local mafia
smuggling desperate Africans who’d handed over their life
savings to make the watery 20km dash across the Med to Spain.
Getting ready to go, these poor buggers were captivated by the
Spanish TV stations transmitting to Morocco, with their flashy
boobs and consumerism and suggestion that Europe’s streets are
paved with gold. For many, it was the last TV they saw. The
Tangerine gangsters sailed them a few kilometres off Andalucia
after midnight, pointed at the costa’s distant lights and
marched their human cargo at gunpoint into the cold black sea.
It’s not like they learned to swim in Sierra Leone or Burkina
Faso. Or Oruzgan.
And if you think Afghanistan’s a problem, then Pakistan is fast
becoming Afghanistan writ eight times larger. And though
Indonesia, the exit point in this nasty map of dots, may have
just evolved into the world’s third biggest democracy after
India and the US, there is something fundamentally cancerous
about the archipelago that universal suffrage isn’t fixing — the
chronic corruption that allows people traffickers, Kevin Rudd’s
‘scum of the earth’, sanctuary there. It’s all a bit of a worry,
all those teeming masses.
Rudd says he wants Australia to become the West’s most
‘Asia-literate’ nation, lest we miss out on the economic bounty
the region’s masses promise. He has also proposed an Asian
‘community’, a regional version of the European Union, and sent
respected Australian foreign affairs mandarin Richard Woolcott
on a tour of Asia’s power centres to sell it.
As I see it, understanding something of Asia’s possibilities,
both ideas are commendable in their vision. But it is going to
take more than generations to make Australians like Georgie
think that he might have to consider learning Mandarin or Bahasa
for his future, much less be able to find the countries that
speak these languages in an atlas or, pace my wealthy
businessman mate, meaningfully care about them.
Who’s Georgie? He’s the bloke I encountered reporting the Corby
circus a few years back, one of the ‘Schappellites’ who’d taken
time away from their beach-and-Bintang Bali holiday to give ‘Our
Schappelle’ moral support in the Denpasar courtroom where she
faced drug-trafficking charges. Georgie complained to me that he
hadn’t realised he would need a passport to visit Bali, perhaps
imagining it as Australia’s seventh state (maybe Rudd’s vision
of Asia is closer than he thinks) before he set off from Oz. And
sometimes it was a bit hard for him to hear proceedings, because
at a neighbouring temple some Hindu priests were chanting a
Sanskrit kidung, as Balinese do. Or, as Georgie interpreted it,
‘I can’t hear a bloody thing because of the Muslims goin’ off.’
Actually, he didn’t say Muslims. He said ‘Mewwwslims’, and then
launched into a tirade about Indonesian justice and somehow
connected Schappelle’s plight to the World Trade Center, the
2002 Sari Club bombings and Australia’s tsunami aid.
Georgie maybe doesn’t need to be a Bahasa speaker to make a
living in the future, but he should know that Bali is Hindu and
that it is not part of Australia. In the last week, I’ve been
wryly amused that Australian talkback jocks speak knowledgably
about India’s Deccan Chargers, because good blokes like Andrew
Symonds and Adam Gilchrist play in the Hyderabad-based IPL team,
while casually talking about Chennai as if it’s Collingwood. But
the same shock jocks showed little interest last November as to
why the Pakistani terrorists who laid siege to Bombay called
themselves the Deccan Mujahideen, evoking the sub-continent’s
once-great Muslim empire based in, well, Hyderabad and
stretching toward Chennai, and what the implications of that
might be.
Events like the Corby circus — let’s not forget the Channel Nine
‘worm’ that showed 92 per cent of Australians regarded her as
innocent — Hanson, the Tampa and now another asylum-seeker
tragedy periodically surface, sometimes as moments of national
madness, to remind us that Australia is a long way from becoming
a part of the regional community that’s more meaningful than
just trade.
If Rudd’s ‘AU’, per the EU, grows legs, the people who will
ultimately sign off on any nation-changing initiative as he
imagines it will have to be somehow persuaded that Asia isn’t an
amorphous mass where Dodgy Things Happen, of religious zealots
and corruptors desperate to come to Australia and steal our
jobs, especially in this recession. Many of Asia’s prominent
thinkers dismiss Rudd’s Grand Asian Plan as dead in the water
among Asian leaders before it gets any traction, and they are
probably right. But that won’t be because Asians don’t accept
this vision from Canberra, but more because it won’t get to
first base among Australians themselves. Ah, you say, we’ve
embraced pad thai as the new meat-and-three-veg, and we know our
nasi goreng from our nasi lemak, our paratha from our naan. And
the suburbs are full of Lao and Khmers and Hmong, and our
colleges of Malaysians and Taiwanese. True, but I wonder how
many Australians understand Asia’s myriad differences, or care
to. If Rudd wants to pull this off, he needs, gently but
convincingly, to titillate more than our tastebuds. He needs to
bring round sceptics to the inevitability of our geography,
convince them that not all of Asia is in turmoil and
threatening, even though the media’s superficial reporting of
the region often makes it seem that way. And, of course, places
like Thailand need to quickly sort themselves out too.
Maybe my Bali interlocutor Georgie’s granddaughters will one day
become wealthy polyglot Asiaphiles, and the heirs of Alan Jones
will culturally reference Lombok and Nagoya — the one in
Indonesia as much as Japan — as instinctively as they now do
London and New York. And when they do, we might know a little
more about why desperate people are dying to come here. And
discuss it — and maybe even solve it — without the unhinged
clamour, fear and racism of recent weeks.
By Eric Ellis

The Spectator (Australia)

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