Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:54 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:54 | SYDNEY

Asian century also an intellectual shift


Nick Bryant


4 May 2012 09:20

I should respond to Dr Daniel Woker's recent post, 'The Limits of the Asian Model', if only to clarify my original comments.

Rather than calling for Australia to adopt Asian models, my intention was merely to make two fairly anodyne observations. First, that in a country which traditionally has borrowed ideas from Britain and America, an increasing number of leading politicians, business people and policy thinkers are turning their gaze to neighbouring Asian countries. This is by no means new, but is becoming more pronounced, and thus represents a significant shift.

This casts Asia not merely as a market for Australian goods and resources, or a source of immigrants, but also as a place in which ideas, influences and policies can be exchanged. Whether there are concrete outcomes of this cross-flow or not, it speaks of a closer intellectual and cultural engagement and a parity of discussion: something of an intellectual pivot. 

A corollary is that, in a country that historically has judged itself against the UK and US, other Asian countries are now becoming the benchmark. There is an Asian frame to the Australian educational debate at the primary and secondary level, if not yet so much the tertiary and higher. Similarly, the debate about Australia's creaky transport infrastructure inevitably references Japan's high-speed trains and China's sparkling airports.

The second main point of my original post was that Australia is becoming emulative as much as imitative. However, Australians themselves are not particularly good at recognising their own success.

In 'The Sweet Spot: How Australia Made its Own Luck and Could Now Throw it All Away', Peter Hartcher jokingly suggests that it might take a medal ceremony for the idea to take hold. As George Megalogenis notes in The Australian Moment, the story of Australia's rise 'does not fit with the humble story we have been telling ourselves since federation.'

Self-awareness is one problem. Another, as I argued in The Global Mail recently, is self-expression. Australia still has an outdated national vernacular that is not fit for purpose at the beginning of the Asian century.

Thankfully, the language of remoteness, typified by Geoffrey Blainey's 'tyranny of distance', is becoming increasingly obsolete. 'The Antipodes' seems faintly ridiculous now, as does the phrase 'Down Under' because the geographic reference point, obviously, is Britain. The language of diplomatic peripheralism is also dying out. 'Right place, right time' thinking has replaced the 'arse end of the world' national mindset.

There is still, however, an over-reliance on anthropomorphic language, which is the linguistic corollary of being colonised by the 'Mother Country'. Terms like 'colonial upstart', 'rebellious teenager', 'aggressive adolescence' and 'coming of age' are so belittling, antiquated and crippling. They also imply that Australia is struggling still to overcome a childlike fear of abandonment in a part of the world in which it continues to feel uncomfortable. The language is situated in the nineteenth century and the northern hemisphere. Not a helpful rhetorical frame.

A central point of my post was that Australia is experiencing something of an intellectual reorientation, where Asian ideas and influences are vying with the American and the British. It needs also to be accompanied by a linguistic relocation.

Photo by Flickr user Patrick Hoesly.