Are we serious about Asia? Guest blogger: Steve FitzGerald

In my blog ‘On smoko’ of  2 April 2013 I again raised the issue of Australia’s continuing failure to equip itself for our future in Asia. I asked whether we would go on smoko again, as we had following the Garnaut Report of 1989. Professor Steve FitzGerald responded to this blog with some comments. I thought it would be useful to highlight again what he has said about the recently announced Asian Century Strategic Advisory Board. Incidentally, I was in touch with the Implementation Secretariat of the Asian Century Strategic Advisory Board on 5 April 2013. I asked how many of the Advisory Board can fluently speak an Asian language and their names. I am still waiting for a reply. Steve FitzGerald who was previously Australian Ambassador to China, wrote as follows:

Smoko’s right! When you look at the recently announced Asian Century Strategic Advisory Board ( http://asiancentury.dpmc.gov.au/about/board), you have to wonder if they even understand what they are talking about.

Why is there no one from Asia on the Board? Peter Varghese’s ancestry is Asian, and we should be pleased he’s there because he’s very bright and also independent-minded, but he’s there because he’s ex officio as the Australian head of DFAT. There are dozens of people in Asia who know Australia and would like to see it truly engage with the region, who are prepared to cast a critical eye over our endeavours and to be very frank in close quarters discussion. Kishore Mahbubani or George Yeo in Singapore for example. Or Dewi Fortuna Anwar in indonesia. The composition of the Board reflects a sadly insular thinking. Its discussion and advice can only be like listening to your own voice. I don’t see how you can be dinkum about engaging with Asia if you don’t include people from Asia in the strategic body that’s supposed to guide the way you do the engagement. Did it simply not occur to them? And if that was beyond their ken, surely there ought to have been some Australian Asians, to reflect the contemporary Australian demographic and show genuineness in their intent.

What about the Board Members who are there? Apart from Peter Drysdale, where are the other seasoned Asianists who have studied and have deep knowledge and experience of the region? Where are the intellectuals (if that’s not too dirty a word) who’ve spent years thinking about these issues? Where are the people who’ve been working on the frontline of education and understand why so many attempts to put Asian languages and studies into the mainstream of schools and universities have failed? Why not some of the people from Asialink who did studies on the state of Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese studies a few years ago? Or someone like Colin Mackerras, who’s been round this track so many times he could save them fifty meetings on the subject and as many information papers? I know it’s not all about languages and studies, but just as an engineer can’t design a bridge without basic training and all the knowledge that’s gone into that training, so also you can’t design a total strategy for Asia without the equivalent in training, skills and knowledge on the part of the designers. Or what about Hugh White, strategic and defence expert yet one who in 2011 came up with the most innovative proposal for Australia’s Asian language learning challenge we’ve seen in a generation? Why not a couple of our high-ranking recently retired diplomats, who know so much more about Asia and what the engagement demands of us than just how to count the money? And what about young people? For example from among young Asian specialists in academia, or one of those who has studied an Asian language and done all the right things and can’t get a job that uses their skills, or one of the young Asian Australians who see this all from a different perspective? These are the ones who will live through the Asian century and have to live with whatever we make of it now, or don’t.

Smoko anyone? Let’s just roll our own.

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