John Menadue. Our lack of business and political skills in Asia.

The Business Council of Australia and business executives keep reminding us of the need to increase our productivity by up-skilling and better use of our labour resources. Unfortunately the business sector is spectacularly lagging in equipping itself for opportunities in Asia.

Last week The Australian Financial Review surveyed the schools and educational backgrounds of the CEOs of our top ASX100 firms. It found that one third of these CEOs went to secondary schools outside Australia. But not one of them had spent their formative schooling years in Asia.

This confirms the dismal record of Australian business in Asia.

  • I have yet to learn of a single chairperson or CEO of any of our major companies who can fluently speak any of the key Asian languages.
  • A recent survey by the Business Alliance for Asian Literacy, which represents 400,000 businesses in Australia, found that ‘More than half of Australian businesses operating in Asia had little board and senior management experience of Asia and/or Asian skills or languages’.
  • Because of the lack of integration of human resources and business strategy in Australian firms, many executives who are posted to Asia leave within a few years of their return.  They find the culture in the Australian head office quite unsympathetic to Asia and the experience that they have gained.
  • Australian firms do recruit Australian-born citizens of Asian descent, but they are more likely to be recruited for their good grades and work ethic than future leadership potential. It is hard to break into the Anglo clubs that dominate so many of our large companies.

Equipping ourselves for Asia has been on and off our agenda for many years. In 1989 the Garnaut Report pointed the way that Australia should respond to the North East Asian Ascendancy.  Through the Hawke/Keating Government periods we responded. We opened up our economy. More skilled people began working in the region. The media became more interested in Asia and exchange programs were established.

And then in the Howard years we went on smoko. We were encouraged to be relaxed and comfortable and not get too excited about equipping ourselves for Asia.

The Rudd and Gillard Governments slowly tried to get us back on track. Ken Henry reported in 2012 on Australia and the Asian Century, and how we should respond. A few targets were suggested, but little was really done before the September 2013 elections. The Rudd/Gillard Governments were distracted by other issues.

The Abbott Government shows signs of pushing us off track again with its clumsy handling of our relations with China and Indonesia. Tony Abbott talks about his belief in the “Anglosphere”. It is not clear what he really means but most observers would conclude that it excludes Asia

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop is now telling us that ‘our single most important economic partner is in fact the United States’. The blinding and obvious fact is that the two-way trade between Australia and China is $130 billion p.a. compared with $60 billion p.a. between Australia and the US. To bolster her amazing assertion, Julie Bishop adds in US investment in Australia. Where is she getting this US-centric nonsense from?  It is trade flows that traditionally determine economic relationships, not investment. To top it off Julie Bishop then added that the US is our ‘best friend in economic terms’ when clearly it isn’t.  For the second time in three weeks we have gone out of our way to offend China.

At least the Gillard/Rudd Governments pointed to the direction we had to head – Asia. Now the Abbott Government seems to be suggesting that Asia could be the wrong direction.

Our business sector seems to be in agreement with the Abbott Government that Asia is not as important to our future as we all thought


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4 Responses to John Menadue. Our lack of business and political skills in Asia.

  1. I am amazed that teaching foreign languages has not taken on in Australia. I am happy to see that at least in shops and businesses there are now a few brave and enterprising souls advertising their wares in a foreign language. My soul leaps with joy seeing that, even though I don’t understand the Korean, Thai or Chinese words that are depicted on the signage.
    I sometimes think that I was lucky to have been taught languages in Holland. Even English taught as a foreign language before arriving here as a fifteen year old stood me in good stead. I sometimes wonder how my English would have been if I had grown up in Australia?
    It is of a huge benefit to have at least another language taught in learning the home language. ( I am preaching to the converted here). I wonder if ABC television could be enticed to have the news broadcast in spoken English with varying languages alternatively subtitled on the screen. It is done in Finland , Belgium and other countries.
    I think that enticing students to live overseas would be a cost effective way of Australia at least fostering young people to learn Chinese, Indonesian or other languages. It would even in the short run bring returns far exceeding the initial expenditure.
    Of course we need leaders in government that have foresight and vision. I don’t see much of that at present but one lives in hope and relishing in mediocrity just can’t go on forever. It is just not on. That’s why blogs like this are important.
    So, how is Hugh White’s idea progressing? I hope it will take off.

  2. Stephen FitzGerald says:

    Two years ago Hugh White came up with an idea for addressing this problem:
    “Throwing more money at school and university language programs isn’t going to fix the problem. We need to do something different. So here is a suggestion. Instead of trying to teach young Australians Asian languages here in Australia, we should give them a chance to learn them in Asia.
    The basic idea is perfectly simple. Instead of spending money on expensive schemes to expand the teaching of Asian languages in Australia, we spend the money on sending young Australians to live in Asia and learn a language there. For example, someone wanting to study Indonesian would spend a year in Indonesia. Those wanting to learn more complex languages such as Chinese or Thai might go for two years.
    The advantages are obvious. Students would learn from native-speaking teachers, and would build real fluency from being immersed in the language being spoken all around them. Simultaneously they would learn more than a language. They would learn about a country, its people, its culture and its outlook, and learn something important about Australia too, seeing it from a distance.
    Of course, quite a few young Australians do this kind of thing already, often as part of a university course. But the total numbers who go and live in an Asian country to study remains far too small to make any kind of a dent in our growing Asian literacy deficit.
    So the radical part of this idea is its scale. I’m suggesting that to educate Australia for the Asian century, the government should fund a year or two in Asia studying an Asian language for really large numbers of young Australians. Let’s start with a target of 10,000 a year. With those kinds of numbers, Australia really would start to gain the depth and breadth of Asian literacy we are going to need. And for many Australians, Asia will become part of their life.
    Sounds expensive? I’d estimate it might cost $25,000 to send a student to live and study in Indonesia or China for a year. That would add up to $250 million a year for 10,000 students, or $375 million if half of them went for two years.” He suggests students should do this some time between the ages of 18 and 27.
    I’ve spent too much time over the last forty years working on endless ideas and plans and strategies for ‘Asia Literacy’ to imagine now that we’re ever going to get this from our education system. We once had a culture of foreign language learning in schools (and the associated learning about the societies – at that time France and Germany), but by the eighties it was gone and no government is going to make the Herculean effort to get it back because it requires such a massive change in culture, teacher education, curriculum (because one or two hours a week is virtually useless), and the thinking of state governments and school communities already besieged by curriculum issues. Queensland tried to change this in the late eighties by mandating the study of foreign languages. That failed. At about the same time the Northern Territory tried an incentive scheme, requiring all NT public servants to learn/speak Indonesian. That lasted a few months. There’s a long trail of failed State and commonwealth initiatives in this field, and few of these have really attempted a hard look at goals and costs. A comprehensive study by the Griffith Asia Institute in 2009 estimated it would cost 11.3 billion over 30 years just to get one quarter of Australians in Year 12 studying an Asian language and the culture it articulates. The Asian Century White Paper ignored both the historical record and the nature and scale of the challenge. Hugh White’s idea has great merit. If his costings are anywhere near accurate, it’s also an extremely attractive alternative financially. We ought to give it a try.

    • John Menadue says:

      Hugh White’s suggestion should be followed up. I think Julie Bishop has suggested something similar but on a smaller scale…a Colombo plan in reverse. However I still think that our own educational system should respond despite its past failures. Our business sector also needs to respond. My observation is that Australian boards and senior executives appoint people similar to themselves. In this instance people who have few skills and little interest in Asia.
      John Menadue

  3. Yes, I am amazed also that so few speak foreign languages in Australia. One would have thought a second language would be a compulsory subject at all schools. I had three other languages, starting at English being taught at the final primary school year followed by English, French and German at high school. Both Bahasa Indonesia and Mandarin Chinese are major languages in our region. Our leaders on both sides should at least be able to have the courtesy and skill to converse in at least the basics of those two languages.
    I am staggered at the ineptness of our present government. Not a day goes by and yet another inane statement is made (or appointment).
    What is it about the Armed forces that Abbott is so keen on employing, both in dealing with the refugees/ boat people and now in appointing our GG. Are we at war?
    Oh, I forgot. Abbott did say we are at war with the boat people. The ‘illegals’, shame on you Morrison!
    We are a well established Anglo club alright with strong hints of a “Fawlty Towers” mentality. Except it is more tragic than funny.

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