Unsettling Century


This is, we are told, the Asian century and Australia’s place in it is by no means ‘settled’. Over the past decade there has been endless commentary about the rise of China with India following a distant second. Prior to that economists talked with great fervour about the ‘tiger economies’ of Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and occasionally Vietnam. But the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 somewhat cooled their enthusiasm.

There is, of course, a pre-history to these recent conversations and we could go back to Keating’s pivot pre-ceded by Whitlam in China pre-ceded by any number of other examples. We could too begin to think through the Macassar and Indigenous relations in the top-end and slowly we might begin to understand that ‘Asia’ has always been irrevocably tied to ‘Australia’ and not simply geographically. The black-white myth that undergirds Australian national history simply forgets too much of the spectrum to be factually correct.

Australia is not an island. The resilience of these myths attests to a vested interest many have in them. What then are ‘Asians’, including those of us in Australia and their fellow travellers, to do with ‘Australia’? What hay can we make while the sun of this century shines? These are political questions as much as they are questions of identity and culture.

In the 1990s ‘Asian values’ became a term for the elements of society, culture and history that were common to Southeast and East Asia. Codified in the Bangkok Declaration of 1993, ‘Asian values’ was a transnational ‘ideological state apparatus’ promoted most keenly by Mahathir Mohamad (then PM of Malaysia) and Lee Kuan Yew (then PM of Singapore). It sought to create a pan-Asian identity centred around:

  • loyalty and respect for authority (family, state, corporation)
  • forgoing of freedom for society’s stability (collectivism)
  • pursuit of excellence and strong work ethic

‘Asian values’ was situated as a response to Western ‘human rights’ even as there is considerable cross-over and, if we are to learn from Edward Said, a ‘dialogic interrelationship’ between the two as if between empire and colony. There were criticisms of Asian values at the time, including from Amartya Sen and Lung Ying-tai. Although the term has declined in the discourse, it is worth reflecting on what values means for politics and political activism now.

What is striking about the ‘Asian values’ mantra was that respect for authority translated into the support for a one-party state. This makes it markedly different from the mechanisms by which Hugo Chavez aimed to (re)introduce an idea of a unified South America inspired by Simon Bolivar. Yet, it is to Latin America that we may begin to look for a new politics of ‘the South’. The recent rise of subaltern classes there strikes one as a positive development on the whole. In many countries in South America people have instituted a responsive populism through the mechanisms of democracy – social movements and voting in elections being key among them. This has resulted in the equalisation of material disparity, improved gender balance in governance and the workforce, and an improvement in the material and spiritual life of a great many people. Society’s stability and growth has not relied on the foregoing of freedom. This though is not a lesson from a privileged Australian on what ‘Asia’ should or should not do. It is simply a comment on where there is political energy at the moment and a criticism of one of Asian values’ more insidious claims. Democracy needs to work everywhere.

In the 2012 documentary Never Sorry, which follows artist and activist Ai Wei Wei, there is a recurrent desire by Ai to create the conditions for individual freedom (his and others) in China. The task for Ai is to rail against the Communist state as it forgets everyday people, as it imprisons political protestors, as it curtails the rights of the subject. He seems an inheritor of liberalism and someone who in ‘rebelling’ opposes the Confucianism of Asian values.

By contrast, in her latest book Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Arundhati Roy writes of the collective need for political action within and against the Indian state. Although she remains critical of party politics, her quoting of Pablo Neruda (a member of the Communist Party) suggests there may be a remnant of Communism in her political leanings.

What I think is important is not only that both individuals are outside the logic of party politics, but also that they refuse to identify with something beyond an activism that is against the State. What it also suggests is that our allies are contextual – in one country to be a liberal is anti-authoritarian; in another country to be liberal is complicit with State abuses. We are a very long way from the binary world of Capitalism-Communism that preceded Tiannamen. But, at least in the Asian context, one can still orient oneself around Communism rather than simply Capitalism.

For people who identify as Asian in Australia, one must be aware of one’s context if one is to make an opening of the political field. Communism in this country is ideology non grata and that is not altogether a good thing. But values are embodied by people, which means the possibilities are open and endless. One could, if one wanted to, end up being insecure in one’s heritage and values, blaming the context for being different and unable to understand what it is like to be part of any number of minorities. And that is only thinking along heritage rather than ideological lines.

One could though take pleasure and pride in being Asian, no matter if the material form of that is simply eating noodles, wearing kurtas, singing K-pop. And there is no reason why this necessarily needs to be in tension with ‘Australia’. We are responsible for how we manage these social relations and that is remarkably liberating. This is, of course, not to suggest it is a one way dialogue, that there is not a role to be played by our Others. Afterall, we are speaking English not Urdu, Mandarin, Thai in official national discourse. Kevin Rudd’s bilingualism seems all the more remarkable because of this. The tension though between Capitalism and Communism has faded, and in breaking down hegemonic binaries we might learn to think less about what divides Asia from Australia than the political tasks that bind us with other people here and there.

The task before us is to live better lives, to live good lives, and that means facing the reality that Australia has very little appreciation of the history and politics of Asia. That means we need to hear from people with first-hand knowledge, to listen to experts in the field and to think through actions that are necessary. That might mean a more complex understanding of refugees as they travel through Indonesia; the abuses of people in West Papua; the Maoist insurgency in India; the rights of Muslims in Western China; the electoral process of Thailand; the methods of censorship in Singapore and a whole host of other issues. Asia is infinite, but in bringing it to the forefront of our minds we can alter the conditions in which many people live and, at the same time, begin to change Australia’s identity as a material and political force.

RD Wood

Author: RD Wood

R D Wood, Politics Editor, is a Malayalee Australian writer, editor and printer. He has worked for a trade union, Aboriginal corporation and several NGOs and published in several journals including Overland, Southerly, Cordite, Counterpunch and Jacket2. Wood’s next book of poems is due for release from Electio Editions later this year. At present he is on the Faculty of The School of Life, letterpresses for work & tumble and writes a regular poetry column for Cultural Weekly. Visit him at: www.rdwood.org

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