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The Australian mindset in Asia

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This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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30 October 2012 13:35


This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

The recently released Australia in the Asian Century White Paper is excellent, as far as it goes. But one missing component is a discussion about the Australian mindset. After all, the very premise of the paper is that we Australians are different and need to work to be more welcome in the regional club, where Westerners have traditionally been seen as colonial interlopers.

To engage with Asia we need to know who we are and where we have come from. Too often Australians venture into Asia with a brash, informal and culturally unaware approach that does much to undermine prospective relations. Australians try to fit in, but it often falls flat. Our informality and directness (which we consider one of our strengths) blinds us to the significance in Asia of form, appearances, and 'face'.

We pride ourselves in dealing directly with the function or the substance, paying lip service (if that) to form. But many of our regional counterparts see the form as much more significant than the function.

Gift exchanges and reception formalities, where relations are established and rituals followed, absorb a disproportionate amount of time and effort, as far as we are concerned. To many in Asia, however, our directness is seen as culturally insensitive and arrogant, and many are uncomfortable with our disdain for formalities, seeing it as betraying a lack of understanding or respect. Not surprisingly, some see us as philistines. So, what to do about it?

Engaging with Asia means understanding a range of cultural factors. But if we want to understand them, we need first to understand ourselves. So who are we? Where do we come from?

We are primarily a European transplanted community with growing minorities of ethnic and religious groups not directly associated with that heritage. Essentially, Australia is part of the English speaking world sometimes described as the 'Anglosphere', with stronger ties to countries like Britain, New Zealand, the US and Canada than most of our immediate neighbours. Our laws, customs, political system, language and colonial history are intimately tied to our European (principally British and Irish) ancestry.

Australia aspires to be a 'fair, multicultural and cohesive society', but it does so building on the foundations of a transplanted society influenced by a Judaeo-Christian world view, washed through the reformation, the Enlightenment, European revolutions, modernism and post-modernism. Life might not necessarily be nasty, brutish and short any more, but it is only a once-off. You either go to heaven or hell or just cease to be, depending on your worldview. Few of us seriously think we will come back again reincarnated.

To cap it off, we Australians have venerated the idea of mateship, an egalitarian notion that many outsiders see as the down-under form of cronyism linked to corruption and exclusion of foreigners.

Armed with this self awareness, we need to learn more about the worldviews of our neighbours. In mainland Southeast Asia, for instance, Buddhism is a profoundly influential factor in shaping people's thinking about their place in the world and ours. But few Australians understand the significance that karma and reincarnation play in shaping day-to-day thinking. Some Australians dismiss this religiosity as a veneer, but in fact it runs deep and catches most secular Aussies by surprise.

Similarly, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and southern Philippines, Islam infuses much of the cultural life. The world of Dar al-Harb (the abode of war, often associated with the West) and Dar al-Islam (the abode of peace, or the Islamic world) resonate strongly for Muslims but sounds like a caricature to post-modern Western-thinking Australians. That cultural understanding (or lack of it) has a spillover effect on business and education. It is important for us to understand the differences and, informed by that understanding, tailor our engagement with cultural awareness and sensitivity.

As we look to emphasise Asian languages and cultures in our education as part of the White Paper's direction, we should be mindful of who we are and where we came from and how the differences in our cultures create rub points. Our neighbors are under no illusions. As we seek to engage and become more integrated into the region, neither should we be.

Photo by Flickr user Mark Fischer.

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