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The Narcissistic Country needs to open its heart to Asia

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Can we transform the tyranny of distance into the benefit of proximity?

'We need to open our hearts and minds to our region far more than we have thus far.'

'We need to open our hearts and minds to our region far more than we have thus far.' Photo: Glenn Hunt

HOW often have you heard Australians who have recently returned from overseas announce, as though it were news that should shock us, ''There was nothing in their media about Australia!''

For some reason, inexplicable to me, many Australians are surprised that the rest of the world is not as fascinated with us as we are.

What is equally surprising is that these pronouncements often come from people who are themselves unlikely to want to learn much about the country they have just visited.

Maybe we are a bit narcissistic and insular. We are interested in ourselves but we are not really interested in others. Regrettably, many Australians may just have the complacency that comes with a seriously misplaced sense of white Anglo-Saxon superiority.

This trait is particularly worrying in terms of countries in our region. The rise of Asia means what was once the tyranny of distance (from other Western countries) may well have become the benefits of proximity to the growing engine-room of the Asian economies. To take real advantage of this fortuitous geography for the benefit of our grandchildren we need to open our hearts and minds to our region far more effectively than we have thus far.

Liberal and Labor governments have trimmed expenditures on teaching Asian languages. There are arguments either side of the debate about the merits of this. One side says we have a high number of Asian speakers, Asians have tremendous proficiency in English and English is the international language, so we ought not panic. The other says being monolingual just does not equip you for the modern world and stops you learning all the other things you learn about another culture when you learn their language.

In any event, opening our hearts and minds to our region means so much more than learning an Asian language.

Take as an example Indonesia. Many Australians, on hearing of Indonesia, think of Bali, their boardies and some Bintang. It's heart-warming that Australians think, rightly, of the Balinese as beautiful, gentle people, but it does little to inform us of the country as a whole.

Being one of the three big immigration countries, along with Canada and the United States, has made us very multicultural. But do many Australians recognise that Indonesia has a multiplicity of cultures as well?

Indonesia may be described as the largest Muslim country in the world, but that hides the plurality of daily life there. Look, for example, at public holidays. In addition to a number of important Islamic days, they also celebrate Chinese New Year, especially in Kalimantan, the turn of the Hindu Saka year, which is important for the Balinese Hindus, and the Buddhist commemoration of the Gautama Buddha, which is important around Borobudur. And let's not forget the Christian festivals of the Ascension, Good Friday and, yes, Christmas Day. (Incidentally, Good Friday is a public holiday in Australia and in Indonesia, but it is not in Italy.)

The Indonesian holidays reflect the plurality of their community - in stark contrast to the monoculture imagined by so many Australians.

Indonesia is the biggest of the Association of South-East Asian Nations economies. The ASEAN secretariat is in Indonesia. As divisions have emerged within ASEAN, the Indonesians' role will become even more important. Their economy is growing at around 6 per cent, which is something Wayne Swan doesn't even dare to dream of.

Our prime ministers have trouble dealing with the states of Australia; imagine trying to run an archipelago of thousands of islands. Yes, more reforms are needed and maybe the pace of reform has slipped, but President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has overseen something of a transformation since the Asian financial crisis.

On one of his official visits here, not long before he became president, we met over a dinner with Alexander Downer. Yudhoyono struck me as a very smart guy. He was friendly, personable and as far as these sorts of dinners go, he was good company. If it is true that he is now looking to some sort of global role when his presidential term ends, I wish him well.

Michael Wesley, who until recently was chief executive of the Lowy Institute, says research shows Australians love to travel in Asia, but are not at all taken with learning any more about its history or politics.

Perhaps those who travel think they have spent enough time learning. I hope not. If most of us accept anything other than lifelong learning, then Australia will over time end up as the poor white trash of Asia and will be in big trouble.

If you have kids at school and they are not learning anything about Asian culture or history, you should challenge the school or change it.

To increase our interest in our region, perhaps we should focus on the younger generation. Instead of giving our kids Harry Potter books, we should be giving them books about Prince Rama and the Monkey King.

After all, we need help them understand that there is a great big world out there that is neither white, nor Anglo-Saxon, nor Christian - and to whet their appetite to learn more.

The various Monkey King tales are more important than you might think.

Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government.

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