This fear has been with us since European settlement – a small, relatively wealthy white community living on the rim of the large populations of Asia. This fear stunts our own human growth and is an obstacle to trusting relations with our own region.
Although we have broken the back of ‘white Australia’, fear of Asia and the ‘yellow peril’ is still alive. We see it in so many ways.
- Our uncritical alliance with the US and formerly with the UK stems from the fear of our region and the need for a strong external protector.
- Politicians such as John Howard, Pauline Hanson, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, see fear of Asia and particularly demonising of asylum seekers as a potent political weapon.
- The hostility to a small number of skilled workers on 457 visas.
- The campaign against Chinese investment by Barnaby Joyce and others which is really a re-run of the campaign by Pauline Hanson against Japanese investment 25 years ago.
These campaigns against our Asian neighbours are designed to appeal to our emotions, our feelings our prejudice. They are not directed to our intellects.
We waste a great deal of effort in trying to improve our relations and understanding of Asia with more diplomatic posts in the region, more conferences and more articles. These activities operate at the intellectual and cerebral level, appealing to our logic and rational natures.
Fear however is visceral, it is of the gut. It can really only be countered by experience and hopefully we come to a feeling that foreigners are not such a threat after all.
An important driver in the ending of White Australia was the experience by many of us in studying and living with Asian students in Australia. We weren’t changed so much by intellectual arguments about our relations with the region, but by our experience of feeling comfortable and at ease in dealing with people from our region who were quite different to ourselves. Experience of the unknown, not argument or logic was the influential factor. So Australian students of the 1950s and 1960s campaigned to end ‘white Australia’. We felt comfortable with fellow Asian students. They were not a threat.
For the same reason, I have been a strong supporter of working holiday programs in providing opportunities for young Australians to travel and work in Asia for extensive periods. Unfortunately recent Australian governments have not seen the long-term benefits of these programs. The first working holiday agreement in Asia was with Japan in 1980. We didn’t have another in Asia until the 1996 agreement with the ROK. In the last ten years, there have been another six working holiday agreements with Asian countries, but most of them have caps of 100 persons per annum. We still have no working holiday agreements with China, India or Vietnam.
Many universities now provide opportunities for undergraduates and graduates to take up 12 months or more study at an Asian university or college. Over time, with these programs, if well developed, we will have a core of young Australians who have studied and experienced an Asian culture and society. It will be a visceral experience as much as a cerebral experience
Studying foreign languages is also important if we are to ‘experience’ Asia. It is difficult to fully experience a foreign society, except through the language of that society. Yet unfortunately in Australia today Asian language study is in crisis. It is in decline. This trend must be reversed as soon as possible.
By all means let us have our seminars and intellectual discussions about Asia. But the real focus we need in combatting our fears of Asia is for hundreds of thousands of young Australians to study, work and live in Asia for extended periods. Fear is visceral, not cerebral and experiencing the foreigner is the best way to break down our instinctive fear and reservation about the outsider and the person who is different. Importantly, we have to name the fear and what drives it, in all of us. Unless we do, we will be dissipating our energies on secondary intellectual issues.