Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 29, 2019

Australian Foreign Affairs #5 (2019) : Are We Asian Yet? edited by Jonathan Pearlman

For people who are concerned about Australia’s place in our region, the current issue of the Australian Foreign Affairs journal could be an interesting one, but I confess to a little weariness about the topic, Are We Asian Yet? History vs Geography.  Individually and collectively, the writers of the four essays have thoughtful ideas to contribute but I have heard most of it before.  (Not because I’m any kind of expert, but because this issue of Australia’s place in Asia is a perennial).

There are four essays:

  • Significant Other: Anxieties about Australia’s Asian future, by David Walker
  • Red detachment, Is Chinese culture beyond reach? by Linda Jaivin
  • Can Australia be one of us? The view from Asia by Sarah Teo
  • The Rookie PMs: How Canberra’s leadership circus is damaging ties with Asia, by George Megalogenis

Yes, there is Australian anxiety about the future.  But competitors for and resisters to US domination in the region were always going to arise.  And it seems to me that one reason That Man keeps tearing up US agreements about everything is that the writing is already on the wall and he’d rather opt out than face the humiliation of losing its superpower influence in our region.  #ChangeHappens…

Yes, Chinese culture is complicated, filtered to us through government propaganda on the one hand and dissidents on the other.  Yes, there has been racism and othering of Chinese people and their culture. But there’s no significance IMO to the fact that Australians don’t know the names of Chinese Nobel Prize for Literature winners Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan.  Most Australians don’t know the names of any Nobel winners, perhaps not even our own Patrick White.  And when it comes to not knowing much about Chinese arts in general, well, of course, it would be better if Australians knew more about any aspect of their neighbours’ culture, but consider the burden: even with the best will in the world, Australians cannot be familiar with all the cultures of its own multicultural population.  And even if we prioritised Asian cultures, it’s still an impossible task, given the number of countries and the diversity of cultures within them. #DiversityIsComplicated.

The chapter which bothered me most was the one by George Megalogenis.  His assumption seems to be that ‘being Asian’ is somehow related to the percentage of Asian-born migrants who make Australia their home.

Are we Asian yet? The answer is yes in the booming inner city and outer suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and even parts of Brisbane.  Already the Asian-born outnumber the Australian-born in Melbourne’s inner city, and in Auburn, in Sydney’s west.  They match the Australian-born in Melbourne’s Dandenong, Sydney’s Parramatta and Brisbane’s Sunnybank. But the rest of the country is either still in transition or caught in a time warp, with an ageing Anglo-European population that is not being replenished with new immigrants.  (p. 75)

So we are ‘Asian’ if our population morphs into an Asian-dominated demography?  Let me clear, I don’t object to any such change.  What I’m querying is the assumption that such Asians remain ‘Asian’ in identity.  As far as I’m concerned they have the potential to be, like all our other migrants, (including me) Australians of one sort or another, comfortable with a malleable identity and a dual heritage.  And what if, as in Britain, the face of Australians becomes increasingly brown, with more migration from Africa and the Indian sub-continent?  Would that make us more, or less, ‘Asian’? IMO whatever ‘being Asian’ means, it doesn’t mean defining ourselves by colour or ethnicity, and especially not if that’s used as some sort of code for making ourselves acceptable to our neighbours.

I think many Asians, like other migrants, want to live here because Australia isn’t ‘Asian’ in some key aspects of national life.  Which brings me to the critical issue, best expressed in the essay by Sarah Teo.   Whatever about the past (White Australia policy &c) and whatever about strategic alliances with Big Powerful (Anglo) friends, Australia is different in its region because it is a stable liberal democracy that values individual rights.

While the debate over ‘Asian values’ may have faded following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the difference in the cultural underpinnings of Australia and Asian countries persist.  Australia prides itself on its liberal values and democratic system of government.  English is the dominant language, with more than 70% of the population speaking it at home. (p.81)

Yes, Australians are literate in English, which has replaced French as the international language. That doesn’t mean English is better. It just means it’s very useful, and it’s shown itself to be adaptable in many contexts around the world. (This website says there are seven recognised ‘Englishes’: UK, US, Irish, Scottish, Australian, New Zealand and Singlish. I suspect that there might be an Indian English as well.)

IMO it’s still Australian values which make us different. While there are differences amongst our Asian neighbours, (e.g. democracy in Indonesia, summary executions in the Philippines), and yes there are failures in implementation and expression of these values in our country, there are fundamentals that Australians are never going to abandon: freedom of speech and association; the right to a democratic vote and the freedom to dissent; freedom of religion; equal rights for men, women and the LGBTIQ community; and the rejection of censorship, capital punishment and of barbaric Sharia laws (as in Brunei).  And while we have our own inglorious history, not least the massacre of Indigenous people and the long-delayed granting of their civil rights as Australian citizens, the silence about these events has been because of ignorance and indifference and an obsession with other events in history, not because an official silence is mandated.  Australia does not, in the 21st century, suppress information about its embarrassments, unlike Asian countries which censor information about the massacre of citizens when they protested, and the purge of thousands of citizens in mass killings because they might have belonged to an unwelcome political movement, and we do not whitewash our own history in our students’ textbooks.

I feel confident about asserting that Australians (whatever their ethnic origins) will not ever want to be ‘Asian’ if it means shrugging off these values.

Update: but see also this article about the deteriorating relationship with China at Inside Story.

Authors: David Walker, Linda Jaivin, Sarah Teo and George Megalogenis
Series editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title: Are We Asian Yet? History vs Geography
Series: Australian Foreign Affairs Issue #5
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, February 2019, 144 pages
ISBN: 9781760641009

Source: Personal subscription

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library


  1. Are we asian yet? is not a question I thought was even worth asking given our determinedly Anglo culture. Will we ever be asian? Maybe. Though I don’t think it’s anything to do with ‘asian values’ but with us finally recognising who our neighbours are and engaging with them as equals and not from the default position of taking up our white man’s burden.


  2. […] Australian Foreign Affairs #5: Are We Asian Yet? edited by Jonathan Pearlman […]


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