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Kevin Rudd: Building An Asia-Literate Australia

Queensland Labor backbencher Kevin Rudd says Australia is failing to do enough to become China-literate and Asia-literate in the 21st century.

Kevin RuddLaunching a paper, “Finding a Place on the Asia Stage”, by Carillo Gantner and Allison Carol, at the University of Melbourne’s ASIALINK centre, Rudd said there has been a decline in the teaching of the four principal languages of Asia: Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian and Korean.

As “an outpost of the Occidental world”, Rudd said Australia needs to “do more work in understanding the minds..of Asia”. Despite a belief that English is now the universal language, Rudd said the truth is “the bulk of the intellectual discourse, political and policy debate as well as economic exchange within Asia occurs in languages other than English.”

Rudd posed the question: “How much is literally being ‘lost in translation’ in straightforward transactions between individuals, corporations and governments, not to mention the media, everyday around China, Asia and the world.”

Australia seems “to be taking a very long time to reach the conclusion that sometime in the next decade, for the first time in 200 years, a non western, non English speaking, non democracy will become the largest economy in the world.”

The speech is Rudd’s first major excursion into political debate since his defeat in the leadership challenge to Julia Gillard on February 27.

Transcript of Kevin Rudd’s speech to ASIALINK at the University of Melbourne.

Building An Asia-Literate Australia

I was delighted to accept the invitation to launch this platform paper entitled “Finding a place on the Asian Stage”.

I have spent most of my professional life, in one capacity or another, engaged on the core question of Australia’s engagement with Asia.

I began studying Chinese 35 years ago at the Australian National University reinforced by further study in Taipei, Hong Kong and Beijing.

I worked as a diplomat in Beijing where it was my delight to have encountered one of the co-author’s of this paper, Carrillo Gantner, who was then our cultural councillor during the earliest days of our engagement with the People’s Republic.

In my years in the Queensland State Government, I worked on our sister relationship with Shanghai – remarkably in those days, deemed the ‘ugly duckling’ of China’s economic reform program Because it was then believed that Shanghai was not keeping up with the reforms of the rest of the country.

I also worked extensively on Queensland Government policies underpinning the teaching of Asian languages in QLD schools and based on that experience, was asked to deliver for the Council of Australian Governments a report on a National Asian Languages Studies Strategy for Australian Schools (NALSAS), which underpinned Federal and State Government investment in these programs between 1995 and 2002.

After my election to the Federal Parliament, I broadened my Asian odyssey beyond China and as a member of Parliament and later as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Opposition, made it my business to spend more time in the other countries of the region, most particularly Japan and Indonesia.

Both as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Australia’s future in Asia remained one of my core policy preoccupations – hence my advocacy of an Asia-Pacific community which finally achieved fruition in 2011 with the expansion of the East Asian Summit to include both the United States and Russia.

This created, for the first time, a regional institution with all the principal players around the table and with a mandate to address the future political, economic and security challenges of this, the most dynamic region in the world.

Over the years I have lived and travelled more in Asia than in any other region in the world, as for me it has always represented a core part of Australia’s long term future.

Asia has also been for us a family affair.

My daughter Jessica’s husband Albert is a Chinese Australian whose parents came to Australia in the 1980s via Hong Kong and Guangdong, where they grew up during the Cultural Revolution. And next month we’re expecting our first grandchild and I’m looking forward very much to the family discussions over the little one’s English and Chinese names.

Over the last weekend, our oldest son Nicholas married the love of his life Zara who he met at law school having come to Australia from Brunei.

And to complete the trifecta, our youngest son Marcus is undertaking his gap year at Peking University studying Chinese full time (and hopefully acquiring a Confucian work ethic on the way through).

The reason I say these things is that I have thought long and hard, written much, and perhaps spoken too much, on this central challenge for Australia’s future: how do we as a country of barely 23 million, many of us relatively recently arrived Europeans, carve out our future in this vast region which Europeans have called “Asia”- a region that is home to some of the most ancient continuing civilisations on earth, some of the oldest continuing religions and philosophical systems in the world, and now the global geo-strategic and geo-economic centre of gravity for the 21st Century.

Australia has been episodically engaged in this critical national project since the days of Chifley and Evatt in the 1940s.

Chifley and Evatt, despite still being “sons of empire”, actually “got it” in terms of Australia’s alternative destiny in the Asian hemisphere.

Against the assumptions of the time, it is remarkable that Evatt championed Indonesian independence against the Dutch (like the British, a fellow colonial power in Asia) and did everything he could to help the foundation of the Indonesian nation state.

After Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic in October 1949, the cabinet papers tell us that Chifley and Evatt were both well advanced in their preparations to recognise the new Chinese Government – except Menzies won in December, the “red peril” overtook all regional strategic logic and we lost 23 years in our engagement with the country destined to become the new superpower of the 21st Century.

In the decades since then, we’ve seen great progress under Whitlam, Hawke and Keating.

That policy of engagement continued into the Government I was privileged to lead as Prime Minister and until recently served in as Foreign Minister.

But the truth is there is much more to be done if we are to secure our future in this century of the Asia-Pacific.

Strategically, we have made considerable advances. Our engagement with regional institutions such as ASEAN, the ASEAN regional forum, APEC and now the expanded East Asian Summit have begun to construct a regional architecture in Asia which is better placed to help us avoid the calamities that we saw in Europe seen in centuries past.

In these many initiatives, Australia has prosecuted an activist diplomacy.

Australia was ASEAN’s first external dialogue partner. Australian diplomacy was at the forefront in the establishment of the ARF.

This was the same with APEC. We were also a foundation member of the EAS and Australian diplomacy has driven the expansion of the EAS to effectively form an Asia Pacific community by another name.

Still, many strategic tensions remain. We are all familiar with the unresolved territorial disputes that stretch from Japan’s northern territories through the East China Sea, the Taiwan Straits, the South China Sea, the Thai-Cambodian border, the Sino-Indian border as well as the decades long disputes over Kashmir.

And on top of these, there are the new generation security challenges involving human trafficking, people smuggling, other forms of international organised crime, terrorism as well as cyber security.

The challenges are vast, although we should not be mean-spirited in recognising the progress that has occurred, reflecting the fact that it is now 30 years since the region has seen any significant interstate conflict.

Economically, the regional story, and Australia’s participation in that story, is even better known.

Over the decades ahead, Asia will host five of the largest economies in the world in China, India, Japan, Indonesia and possibly Korea.

Australia is currently Asia’s fourth largest economy, after China, Japan and India.

Eight of our 10 top trading partners lie in Asia.

Asia is now challenging Europe and the United States as a growing source of international inbound investment.

Australia’s overall national economic wellbeing is now overwhelmingly tied to the nations and economies to our north.

A further positive dimension in Australia’s engagement with our region has come about through our immigration policy and a long tradition, largely bipartisan, (although sometimes only honoured in the breach) which is literally changing the face of modern day Australia.

We are rightly proud of the fact that our country’s political institutions and intellectual culture are derived from Western civilisation.

Our traditions of the rule of law administered by an independent judiciary, of liberal democracy and of a market economy all derived from this civilizational tradition.

In fact, it has been the existence of these institutions, combined with our relative economic success, and our openness as a society, which has caused many to come to these shores over the decades to make Australia their home.

Australia has been greatly enriched by this multiculturalism – our economy, our people to people links and the continued creativity which comes from settler societies which comfortably accommodate new waves of immigration into our increasingly dynamic cultural melting pot.

One of the areas where more work needs to be done lies in our national understanding of the languages, cultures and the arts of the high civilisations of our wider region which we blissfully describe as “Asia”.

The beginning of wisdom lies in understanding the minds of others. How reality is viewed. How ideas are formed from deep philosophical systems that bare little relationship to our own. Our beliefs are derived from ancient religious traditions, the vast majority of which pre date western Christianity. And how all of the above influenced, different literatures, historiographies, art forms – not to mention the media.

It is in this area that we, as an outpost of the Occidental world, need to do more work in understanding the minds (plural, not just the mind, singular) of Asia.

Some will ask why is this important. Surely English is now the universal language. Surely the elites of Asia are all studying English. Surely the bulk of these elites are being educated in western academic institutions.

At best this reflects only part of the picture and, I would submit, a declining part of the picture. The truth is, the bulk of the intellectual discourse, political and policy debate as well as economic exchange within Asia occurs in languages other than English.

The truism remains true; Chinese has for a long time been the largest internet language in the world. There are some 300 million users of the Chinese equivalent of Twitter today- through the Chinese Weibo.

This is also now the cultural and linguistic medium of much of the Chinese Diaspora.

Furthermore, there are the cultural assumptions that lie behind English as spoken by non-native speakers in Asia as opposed to English is spoken in the Anglo-Saxon world of the US, the UK or Australia. It is just plain wrong to assume that this will necessarily be the case. The truth is, a lot is simply lost in translation.

But to return to the question that I’ve already proposed- does this really matter?

It matters in the sense that there is a grave danger that individuals, corporations and nations simply talk past each other; thinking that they are talking about the same concept, when in fact that may only be partly the case.

Witness for example the extraordinary national and international debate that has occurred around the Chinese expression “Taoguang Yanghui”. This has been long translated in the West “hide your strength, bide your time” as the best explanation for Deng Xiaoping’s maxim for how China should implement its modernisation program without causing the rest of the world to take fright.

The Chinese interpretation of these four characters is much more benign than that which is rendered by the English translation- a translation which infers that the Chinese are craftily building up their own strength, but will not fully deploy it until they are well and truly ready, and in the meantime either underplay or simply obscure the national wealth and power they have already obtained.

If ever there has literally been a debate that has been “lost in translation” it’s this one.

So much so that China’s leading policy official Dai Bingguo dedicated the better part of an entire article in Foreign Affairs magazine on what Deng really meant and what China really means by this vexed expression “Taoguang Yanghui”.

If this is where we’ve got to on such a critical strategic concept involving intense inter-state dialogue between international elites with squadrons of simultaneous interpreters and translators at the ready, then pity the rest of us.

How much is literally being “lost in translation” in straightforward transactions between individuals, corporations and governments, not to mention the media, everyday around China, Asia and the world.

The capacity for misunderstandings and missed opportunities are profound.

There is a further factor as well. It is simply a mark of respect to take seriously the languages, cultures and deep civilisational traditions of your principal interlocutors.

It is part and parcel of decent human behaviour.

It should also be part and parcel for decent international behaviour.

We seem to be taking a very long time to reach the conclusion that sometime in the next decade, for the first time in 200 years, a non western, non English speaking, non democracy will become the largest economy in the world.

In fact it will be the first time in 500 years that a non Western country has achieved that status.

Finally there is the personal dimension to it all. It is infinitely easier to build a personal relationship with someone from another culture if you are able to speak their language.

This builds on the question of respect that I have just referred to. Common language enables a greater intimacy in relationships- relationships that may well help in building broader economic and political relationships into the future.

This does not mean that by speaking the same languages as the rest of the region that Australians would instantaneously achieve agreement with their Asian neighbours on all aspects of their relationship.

In fact in certain cases, common language may assist in understanding where real differences (as opposed to artificial differences) may lie, and how to most effectively deal with those differences.

There are, therefore, a number of linguistic, cultural and civilisational assumptions about how we in Australia and we in the broader west do business in the future that are going to come under increasing challenge.

As Prime Minister and as Foreign Minister, I often argued that the best vision for Australia was for us to become the most China-literate and Asia-literate country in the 21st century – the China Century, the Asian Century.

But are we producing enough Australians with the linguistic and cultural skills (including in terms of this paper, the performing arts) to substantiate this claim? The truth is that we are not.

The most recently available statistics suggest that in fact over the last decade we have headed in the reverse direction. If we look at the number of primary and secondary schools teaching the 4 principal languages of Asia, the figures are concerning.

Research by the Asia Education Foundation shows that between the year 2000 and 2008 there was:

  • A reduction from 569 schools teaching Chinese to 380 or so;
  • From 2276 schools teaching Japanese in 2000, down to 1921 in 2008;
  • In the case of Indonesian language 1795 schools to 1077 schools; and
  • In the teaching of Korean, we have actually gone up (but don’t hold your breath) from 42 schools in 2000 to 46 schools in 2008.

If we then go to the number of students learning the four principal languages, the picture is also concerning.

  • In Japanese, the number of students has gone down from 419,488 to 351,579;
  • In Indonesian, the number of students has gone down from 265,366 to 191,316;
  • In Korean, the number of students has actually gone down from 3672 to 3190; and
  • In Chinese, while the number of schools teaching Chinese has gone down, there has nonetheless been a modest increase in the number of students studying Chinese from 78,765 to 92,931.

As data becomes available, we will have to look at what changes have occurred between 2008 and today. I suspect there will be continuing problems, but the figures should help to focus our minds.

Then there is the question of whether our state education systems have appropriately linked feeder primary schools with high schools specialising in the same languages that kids have done earlier on.

There is the further question of the inter-linkages between year 12 level attainments by students in these principal Asian languages, and what then is on offer at university level.

Another question arises in terms of the quality of our language graduates in our schools and post-secondary school systems.

This in turn raises parallel questions about the level of fluency of Asian language teachers in Australia and whether we are making the best use of native speakers who may not be fully qualified as general teachers.

Then there is the real question of the adequacy of curriculum and the fairness of assessment systems both at the high school and university levels when it comes to comparing native and non-native speakers, including the proper classification of non-native speakers who may only have partial fluency. Many Australian students, their teachers and their parents are often discouraged by the ability of their children to get a decent grading in an Asian language taken to year 12 level, particularly when these gradings may count to university entry.

Another question arising in the university sector is whether the specialist study of Asia (including the relevance of Asia to other university disciplines on offer) is being appropriately supported. This goes to the question of specialist skills in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian language, literature and history. But equally critical, the role of these countries in mainstream university disciplines in economics, law, political science, and business.

My friends in the University sector tell me are now confronting something of a crisis across the nation’s universities in the study of Asia – running in precisely the reverse direction to what Australian will actually require for our future.

There is also a much deeper crisis in the lack of Australian student interest in studying in the principal academic institutions of Asia.

We may have hundreds of thousands of Asian students studying in Australia. But the truth is we barely have even hundreds of students studying in the elite tertiary intuitions of our region.

This is limiting significantly Australia’s future, not least because the political, business and social networks created out of the major universities of Asia will have a very limited Australian alumni.

Of course all these are questions which are raised on the supply side. The refrain is often heard; “what about the demand side?” and whether businesses and governments are appropriately emphasising the employment of graduates with Asia-specific cultural and linguistic expertise?

Once again the answer is apparently no. Yet peak industry bodies are apparently regularly telling universities that they (the universities) are not producing enough such graduates for the future needs of industry.

This in turns creates confusion for both students and parents who fear that even if their children slog away at school and university on one of the more difficult languages of Asia, that this will not necessarily equip them for a decent career.

The fact is something is not quite working out there between the supply and the demand side of Asian language and Asian studies graduates. And we need to get to the bottom of why that is the case.

It is for these reasons that I propose to speak on these questions at some greater length throughout the course of this year.

In doing so, I hope to be able to promote an intelligent national discussion on what we should then do to lift our national game.

And in that sense, I’m not remotely interested in the traditional “blame game” of blaming one level of Government or the other; state education bureaucracies or teachers; academic institutions or the business community, we all need a clearer handle on what is to be done.

And all this of course is directly relevant to the future of the arts and the performing arts as well – as we seek to encourage more Australian creative artists to study, to work and to tour in Asia rather than simply the capitals of Europe and North America.

The paper of course goes to specific institutional and funding models as to how this might all be achieved for the performing arts. I do not propose to enter that debate here this evening. Rather, what I have sought to do is to locate this debate within the broader national discussion that is necessary on how well prepared Australia really is for the Asian Century that lies before us.

All this is relevant in turn to what the Government is currently examining though its white paper process. For Australia, these are important challenges.

And in the case of the languages and cultures of our wider region, it is critical to understanding difference, understanding the minds of our interlocutors, and therefore in helping forge common futures for us all – common futures which are both prosperous and peaceful, and, in the spirit of this occasion, inspiring, innovative and creative.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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