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We should avoid an unwarranted Asian Century cultural cringe

Benjamin Herscovitch | 22 February 2013

benjamin-herscovitchThe underlying fixation on cultural politics is a peculiar feature of the debate about Australia’s economic prospects in a global economy centred on Asia.

Academics, business leaders, and politicians all agree that prosperity in the Asian Century requires a serious cultural re-education.

Australians apparently lack the sensitivity and understanding to effectively compete in Asian markets and forge ever-closer ties with our northern neighbours.

These calls for deeper Asia awareness are reminiscent of the cultural cringe of a bygone era and undersell Australia’s natural strengths.

The idea that we are dangerously ignorant of the languages, cultures and mores of Asia is a step back towards a time when it was fashionable to deride Australia for being crude compared to European standards of sophistication.

It suggests Australians are embarrassingly Asia-illiterate and not quite ready to move beyond their parochial shores.

This view could be the result of the sneaking suspicion that the society that brought us the White Australia policy could not possibly be successful in the Asian Century.

Or maybe it is related to a generational lag of sorts. Many of the academics, business leaders and politicians calling for re-education grew up when Australia was probably not ready to effectively engage with Asia on many levels.

Although the origin of the Asian Century cultural cringe is unclear, it is obvious that it is out of touch with the reality of modern multicultural Australia.

As my latest research report shows, there are growing numbers of Australians with the Asia-relevant capabilities it is claimed we are yet to develop.

As well as making up seven of the top 10 source countries in the overall migration program, Asian nations dominate the skilled stream.

In 2010–11, six of the top eight source countries for skilled visa grants were from Asia, accounting for the arrival of more than 50,000 Asian migrants with business acumen, technical expertise and workplace experience.

This steady stream of new Asia expertise adds to Australia’s already large pool of readymade Asia literacy. Approximately 2.2 million people speak Asian languages at home, which equates to one in 10 Australians.

As a naturally Asia-savvy nation, Australia’s supposed unpreparedness to engage with Asia is just a phantom menace.

Benjamin Herscovitch is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies, and author of Australia and the Asian Ascendancy: Why Upskilling is Not Necessary to Reap the Rewards, released on 19 February 2013.