Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Getting real about change in the Asian century

The Issues Paper that kick-started debate about Australia in the Asian Century is a provocative document.

It recognises the urgency of implementing national policies that will enable Australia to interact positively with Asia. Yet it fails to address two interlinked characteristics of Australian society: the ongoing anxiety about racial and religious difference and unease about socio-economic change. These characteristics have impeded serious and deep-rooted engagement with Asia, and they will continue to do so unless energetically countered.

There is still much to respond to in the Issues Paper. There is no doubt that many will focus on statements about ‘the depth of skills and expertise of the Australian people’ and Australia’s ‘general capacity to absorb change and adapt successfully’. But it is the final sentence that poses the crucial question: ‘How well positioned is Australia to connect productively with Asian countries in relation to innovation, research and development, including transfers and collaboration of knowledge and skills?’

‘A change in mindset’ will be key to responding to such challenges and developing the attitudinal and social changes that Australians and Asians need in order to establish a realistic mode of interaction. Direct person-to-person experiences will also be the quickest and most effective way to change attitudes, thus helping to address anxieties that exist in Australian society.

Australian universities and public institutions such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) have long nurtured efforts to ‘understand’ Asia.

Australia’s universities have initiated and sustained cutting-edge teaching and research programs on Asia, while also attracting international graduate students who specialise in Asian topics and who are supervised by Australia-based staff.

But knowledge of Asian languages is a precondition for all serious research on and engagement with Asia, and over the past decade there has been a worrying decline in the number of Australians studying Asian languages. Of immediate concern is the maintenance of quality language teaching in Australian schools, which depend on the tertiary sector for teacher training and innovation. Australian academics have developed new teaching methodologies and materials specifically for Asian languages but these are rarely used by teachers, suggesting that greater interaction between the tertiary and school sectors is urgently needed.

On a more positive note, universities and some schools have developed long-term relationships with counterpart organisations in Asia. This includes exchange programs, and the overwhelming majority of participants report the positive impact on their lives and the practical benefits accrued from the ‘in-country’ experience. In many cases the contacts made during this time are also maintained and used for mutual benefit over the years. The high cost of living in Australia and in some Asian countries can impede direct exchanges though, a factor which has given rise to alternative arrangements.

In 2008 a four-way partnership between the Australian government, tertiary sector and philanthropic organisations implemented a program that uses the internet to link Australian teachers and children with selected schools in Indonesia. This widely successful program is known as BRIDGE (Building Relationships through Intercultural Dialogue and Growing Engagement). Following the initial linkages with Indonesian schools, BRIDGE now also operates in China and South Korea, involving more than 189 schools and 323 teachers. It is designed to improve the language competency of both staff and students, break down stereotypes and improve two-way understanding of real-life issues. It provides a model for what can be achieved by people-to-people contact through technology.

Meanwhile, DFAT has earned bi-partisan support for the work of its missions in Asia.

The success of ‘second-track’ diplomatic initiatives is rarely reported in the media, but they remain one of the most effective ways of achieving attitudinal change through people-to-people programs. Tours by musicians and sporting events, for example, have proved a particularly successful way of displaying the best of Asian and Australian popular culture to a wide audience.

Examples such as these confirm that bringing Asians and Australians into direct contact and allowing them to experience life in a different society is key to changing the mindsets of both. The Asian Century review is an opportunity to capitalise on existing networks by using them as the basis for a new initiative; this could take the form of various partnerships between Asian and Australian individuals who are already in contact with one another and who are aware of specific local needs. This type of collaboration between people and their communities could be known as ‘practical partnership projects’, and would prioritise two-way interaction and practical activities. Small amounts of start-up funding (possibly along the lines of micro-credit schemes) could be awarded competitively, with ongoing sustainability being one of the selection criteria.

The parameters of such a program would have to be sufficiently broad to encompass the diverse array of existing people-to-people contacts, including links between police, health workers, journalists, artists, academics, small businesses, engineers, teachers, librarians, conservationists, miners, NGOs and so on. Wherever possible, these practical partnerships would include opportunities for interns to work with the project, as this would allow teachers and students to improve their language skills, while apprentices could count their work as on-the-job training. In this way, two-way transfers of knowledge would be facilitated — and prejudice, fear and misunderstanding would be confronted and dealt with honestly and frankly. Through these practical experiences of partnership, it would be hoped that both Asians and Australians might experience serious attitudinal changes.

The Issues Paper, like most areas of public policy, is ahead of mainstream public opinion. But there is a real danger that the opportunities presented by the enquiry will be lost if the taskforce cannot also suggest strategies to convince the broader public that an inclusive, positive attitude is beneficial and that exclusivity and apathy will cut Australia off from the long-term growth potential already evident in most Asian societies. Practical partnership programs could be one such strategy to improve regional relations — and the benefits of direct interaction between individuals have proven, positive long-term effects.

Virginia Hooker is Emeritus Professor at the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University. Between 2002 and 2009 she coordinated a range of people-to-people programs for the Australia Indonesia Institute.
This post is part of the series on the Asian Century which feeds into the Australian government White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century.

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