CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 19, September 2009


Australia's Asia: An Illiterate Future? | China Heritage Quarterly

Australia's Asia: An Illiterate Future?

Michael Dutton and Deborah Kessler

One of the recommendations of the Australia 2020 Summit sponsored by the newly installed Labor government led by the Chinese-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in April 2008 was that the country should develop Asia literacy. The final Summit Report to the Australian government said, among other things, that:

'Asia literacy'…[needs] to be mainstreamed into Australian society; knowledge of Asian and regional languages and society [is required] to enhance Australia's global engagement and national global intelligence…a national strategic plan for mainstreaming Asian studies [is] needed.

While the formal government response released in April 2009 failed to engage with this issue in a focused way (see ), a policy proposal was developed by a number of specialists and interested parties under the guidance of Professor Michael Wesley, then of Griffith University, Brisbane, who had participated in the April 2008 Summit. A document entitled 'Australian Strategy for Asian Language Proficiency' was duly produced on 10 June 2009. The authors of the present article, as well as the editor of this journal, were involved in that process to various degrees. From June, that document has generated a debate about language studies, culture, Asia literacy and other topics in the Australian media, in particular in the pages of the Higher Education Supplement to The Australian newspaper. The present essay further explicates the views of those in favour of a broad-based national Asian language and literacy policy. In future issues we will publish other essays that discuss Australia's 'Asia Literacy', and how this contentious topic relates to our own interest in New Sinology.—The Editor

In the 1989 Ingleson Report into Asian Languages and Studies, it was suggested that Asian Studies was the obverse side of Australian Studies. To become 'Asia literate', it argued, Australia would need to change, and that change could best be engineered through education.[1]

Debate and discussion regarding Australia's relationship to its geo-political region, its identity, the value of Asian languages programs from primary school up, and related questions, has continued unabated over the past two decades.

In discussing an 'Asia Literacy Program' in the context of Australia today, we would argue that such an undertaking is about more than language and cultural education; it's a program in a new civics. As such, it should be implemented throughout the primary, secondary and tertiary educational sectors. In teaching Australians to be 'Asia literate', educators are also teaching them how to be Australian in a global era.

Globalization might mean the world has become smaller, but one side effect of this process is that particular regions have also become much more tightly enmeshed. For Australia, this has meant that the much-discussed 'tyranny of distance' has been transformed into an era dominated by the proximity to markets and, here Australia has a distinct advantage. Whether in regard to education or the trade in primary resources, the nation's wealth is increasingly derived from the north. Yet as a nation, Australians generally remain woefully ignorant of their near and important northern neighbours' societies, cultures and languages.

We are therefore of the view that there are a number of compelling, and pragmatic, reasons for developing a new 'Asia Literate' language and culture course. After all, the nation's economic future lies in Asia (broadly defined). Beyond pragmatics, there is a simple matter of geography and principle. It is self-evident that we are part of this region, and therefore it behoves us to be familiar and engaged with it in a more profound and thoroughgoing fashion. Moreover, for intellectual and cultural reasons, a knowledge and thoughtful appreciation of radically 'Other' cultures and languages different from those of the present majority of white Australians is of national value for it is something that allows for a further departure from this nation's 'White Australia' past. With the post-Whitlam multicultural consensus of the 1980s and 90s, we seemed for a time to have freed ourselves from that past, yet with the rise of John Howard's Liberal Coalition government (1996-2007), this assumed consensus was overturned and it became part of the cultural and history wars that loomed during the dolorous decade of conservative rule.

Howard's social views appeared to hark back with pride to (the imaginary) 'traditional' white Australia of the 1950s, and his political behaviour reflected this mindset. His own brand of flag-waving nationalism reified an account of Australia's history that was 'seriously white'. He challenged the so-called 'black armband' approach to Australia's past and would not countenance alternative views of the nation's past and its unsettled relationship with its indigenous population. Meanwhile, remarks he made before coming to power (in opposition to the view of his predecessor, Paul Keating) that Australia was not part of Asia disguised an unexpressed fear that unless immigration (and subsequently refugee) numbers were controlled, the country might well become so. His remarks also reflected a certain naivety regarding Australia's geography and its earlier historical connections with Asia.[2]

Nevertheless, in the 1990s, Howard's views struck a chord with significant sections of the Australian population, and he repeatedly, and deftly, played the populist race card without really ever fully showing his hand. From his government's 'emergency' intervention in the Northern Territory in mid 2007 through to the extra-territoriality demanded for Australian police being sent to New Guinea, one detects an old colonial odour, one that suffuses not only the nation's social policies, but also aspects of its political and foreign policy. All this unfolded, while the wealth of the country that came off the sheep's back was increasingly finding a home in the markets of Asia. Australia has lived versions of this contradiction between markets and cultural influences in a much milder form before.

When a former conservative Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, waxed lyrical about the Queen in 1963 ('I did but see her passing by…'), he did so at a time when Australia's economic future had already moved decisively away from Britain to the United States. This was a process that began during the Second World War with a militarily realignment, but became a longer-term and more comprehensive transformation as the economy as a whole looked to a future enmeshed with the United States rather than solely in the thrall of the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. [3] These political and economic moves were taking place at a time when Menzies was still telling Australia that the sun would never set on our relationship with Britain.

Menzies' pro-British posturing concealed a move away from the United Kingdom to the United States that would culturally, politically, economically and socially redefine this nation. Even when the economy later came to depend on Japan, US cultural dominance remained because, politically, Japan was a close post-war ally of the US. The economy moved again during John Howard's decade-long ascendance. This time, however, there is a much more difficult path to tread and a much clearer need for what we could, controversially, call 'engineered cultural change'.

Australia's economic wellbeing is now dependent upon a very different type of nation-state, a very different culture and a very different history. As China looms large economically so, too, does its prominence in the landscape of this nation's future. Given its different social and political makeup and our own past troubled relationship with the Asian region in general and with race in particular, it should go without saying that Australia has to manage the Sino-Australian relationship carefully. The election of a Labor government led by Kevin Rudd in late 2007 offered an opportunity to do just this.

While no less pragmatic than Howard, Rudd sloughed off the conservatism of Howard and offered an image of a leader and government more attuned to the needs of the times. In many ways, the new Prime Minister epitomized this 'new look'. Workman like, just as Howard had been, but younger and less dogmatic, Rudd would readily say sorry to a stolen generation of aboriginals, sign up to the Kyoto agreement on climate change and add a touch of panache with his competence in Standard Chinese. As the first elected Mandarin-speaking leader outside the Chinese-speaking world, Rudd's linguistic ability and lived knowledge of China suggested a new, more grounded style of engagement with Asia. In China, the fact that Rudd was the first elected leader of a democratic country to have studied and become fluent in the main language of the country made him something of a celebrity. This, at a time when China was emerging as Australia's most important long-term trading partner, seemed to hold out the promise of a new and closer engagement with that country.

Rudd's language skills, however, also generated expectations in Beijing. The possibility of a leader who was something of a 'Zhongguotong' 中国通 (China hand) excited interest that increasingly turned into concerns. Tibet in 2008, the 2009 defense white paper hinting at a 'China threat', the failed Chinalco bid, the concerns over the arrest of the Rio Tinto employees Stern Hu and others, and the August 2009 visit of Rebiya Kadeer to the country, rightly or wrongly, have helped generate negative views of Australia as a whole within the Chinese media and the relatively unruly blogosphere. As this country is so vitally involved with China, not only as a trading partner, but in terms of the nation's future, mere pragmatism dictates that the relationship has to be handled deftly and intelligently, both in government and in the broader public sphere.

If Rudd has missed (or even studiously avoided) the opportunity to forge a 'special relationship' with the People's Republic of China in the political arena, the year of the 'stimulus package' to stave off the Great Recession has offered another, and potentially more important, opportunity not only to highlight Australia's Asia credentials but also to put in place a visionary program for future generations of Australians.

Previous national Asian culture and language policies have been, in some ways, fraught with difficulty.[4] The latest Asia literacy program proposal, the 'Australian Strategy for Asian Language Proficiency'[5] produced in June 2009 in response to one of the key recommendations of the government-initiated 2008 'Australia 2020' Summit, has not yet been taken up. Part of the reason for the lack of success of previous programs is that they have had to confront a traditional Australian style of thought that is still unconsciously mired in some of the values of white Australia.

It is a style of thought that is cynical about calls for the creation of an 'Asia-literate Australia' and complacent about the degree to which this country is monolingual (Australia is the third most monolingual developed nation in the world, with 78.4% of Australians claiming to speak English only). Such lassitude stems in part from the global dominance of English, but it is also born of a mind-set that has long been fostered by a self-important and self-referential Anglo-Americanness. Enabling a 'cultural mind-shift' will not be easy. However, it does require a serious engagement with how we plan to 'teach Asia'. And must move beyond a definition of 'Asia Literate' as being about the teaching of languages and culture.

Like the reformulation of literacy brought on by new technologies (what might be called screen-based literacy), Asia literacy should be approached as a challenge to the existing style of thought. It should unearth and critique the assumptions buried within what might be called, in this context, 'Western literacy' and, in this regard, the disturbances caused by Asia literacy share a kinship with the types of disruptions Edward Said caused when he critiqued 'Orientalism'. Said's Orientalism turned on the question of (cultural) difference. 'Europe and its Other', in his formulation, became a geo-philosophical device to reveal what he called a 'Western style of thought' for dominating and having power over the Orient.[6] More like a Freudian slip[7] than a conscious and fully articulated discourse, Orientalism, Said insisted, nevertheless came to undergird all Western understandings of the non-West. Its power to define was particularly apparent in white-settler colonies such as Australia where it not only legitimized a national discourse, but also established a way of life. It was a way of life that would cling to its 'Europeanness', and would prove itself to be profoundly insecure about its place in the world.

Thus, while the consciously racist aspects of this former white settler colony may have gone the unconscious concerns about its place in the world continue to fuel its refusal to comprehensively engage with the challenges posed by alteric knowledge formations and radically different cosmologies. That refusal undergirds a particular and peculiarly Australian style of thought that governments must now address as part of any Asia literacy programme. To disrupt the buried and unconscious remnants of this style of thought rather than merely increase the Asia language skills base of Australians needs to be at the heart of any new Asia literacy programme. To put this at the heart of the project, however, requires a much more thorough-going, perhaps even revolutionary, change in the educational program than will be achieved by merely adding languages and culture to the classroom.

In a country dominated by pragmatic politics, however, the first step in this direction must always be to argue the case in terms of its utilitarian benefit to the nation's economy. And it is here, in relation to the economy, that the need of Asia literacy is stark and apparent. As Australia recovers from the Global Financial Crisis, it should be rebuilding its knowledge economy in a way that is mindful of the realigned tectonic plates of the world economic order. The stimulus-induced recovery package should not simply be about returning the economy to where it was, but should instead be focused on a program aimed at allowing the country to think intelligently about where it is heading. The Australian Treasurer, Wayne Swan, has already articulated the need to re-orientate our understanding of how the current recession has found its remedy in the emerging economies of Asia, and not in the consumer needs of the USA. For him, this change in the world economic order requires a recalibration of international bodies, such as those represented by the G20 Group, so that they better reflect realities posed by the newly emerging powers of Asia.[8] While Swan recognizes the urgency of this case internationally, there is little indication that he or his colleagues in government have examined the ramifications of the argument for Australia's domestic policy. It's time they did.

It is noteworthy that the current government has allocated AUD$14.7 billion over three years towards a program loftily called 'Building the Education Revolution'. Included in this sum is $1 billion for Science and Language Centers for 21st Century Secondary Schools.[9] One can only imagine what a twenty-first-century school might be, in particular since the government's program makes no specific mention of how educators are to address the need to develop curricula that includes educating Australian citizens for future opportunities and challenges. That is a future that will at least incorporate, or indeed be dominated by, the emerged economic centres of Asia. To build this intellectual agenda would not simply be of benefit to Australia's economic future, but would have a much broader cultural and intellectual effect.


[1] J. Ingleson, 'Asia in Australian Higher Education, Report of the Inquiry into the Teaching of Asian Studies and Languages in Higher Education', Canberra: Asian Studies Council, 1989, two vols (also known as The Ingleson Report), vol.1, p.13.

[2] See here 'historical vapour trails', such as those found through trade, linguistic and cultural links between Aboriginal groups from Australia's north and Makassar (now part of modern day Indonesia), through to the origins of the Australian dingo, brought to Australian shores by Asian seafarers some 5000 years ago. See: Further interesting readings on this subject can be found in the work of C.C. Macknight, or in the footnotes of the following article: 'Aboriginal–Makassan interactions, Denise Russell', Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2004/1, downloadable at:

[3] D. Meredith and B. Dyster, Australia in the global economy: continuity and change, Cambridge University Press: New York, 1999, pp.163-66.

[4] For a relatively comprehensive document on some of the issues, although without much comment on the actual 'nature of languages', see T.J. Curnow, et al, An Investigation of the State and Nature of Languages in Australian Schools, Research Centre for Languages and Cultures Education, University of South Australia, 2007.

[5] Michael Wesley, 'Australian Strategy for Asian Language Proficiency', 28 May 2008, at:

[6] Edward Said, Orientalism, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978, pp.1-12.

[7] On Freud's lapsus liguae, see Sigmund Freud, 'Psychopathology of Everyday Life', in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, A.A. Brill [trans], The Modern Library, Random House, New York, 1966, p.84.

[8] Wayne Swan discussing the Global Financial Crisis on ABC, Radio National Breakfast, 15 September 2009.