Borderlands e-journal logo All issues all issues Guidelines rollover Guidelines for contributors
Debates rollover About rollover About borderlands e-journal
Reviews Reviews rollover Editorial team rollover Editorial team
doing cultural pluralism Arrow vol 3 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 3, 2004


Doing Cultural Pluralism in Australia, Against the Tide
An Interim Response to our Reviewers

JV D’Cruz and William Steele
Monash University


The authors respond to reviews of the first and second editions of their book, excluding the discussions in this volume. In particular, the appearance of the 2003 edition has given rise to lively discussion both in Australia and in Asia, generating a great diversity of reviews.

1. In the following comment we respond to those reviews that we know of relating to our book, Australia’s Ambivalence Towards Asia (1st edition, 2000; 2nd edition, 2003), hereafter Ambivalence 1 or Ambivalence 2 respectively. We do not refer to discussions in this issue of Borderlands, as we were not privy to its contents prior to publication. All reviews referred to in the body of our comment are reviews of the second edition, unless specified otherwise. We have attempted to represent the reviews fairly, even if selectively, elaborating on the implications of some particularly contentious issues.

2. An early notice of Ambivalence 2 appeared in the monthly update of scholarly books from Australian publishers compiled in the Higher Education section of The Australian, which saw the book as an ‘important polemic’ with the ‘spirited message’—in gloss—that ‘Asian nations generally are tired of being preached at and plundered by their hypocritical and opportunistic Australian neighbours. Now exasperated beyond measure, they demand of us behaviour modification’ (Carlyle, Walker and Dunstan 2003). The authors predicted that Ambivalence ‘was sure to provoke discussion.’ And so it has. The appearance of the second edition in August 2003 has aroused steadily unfolding (if not particularly immediate) critical interest both in Australia and in Asia, generating reviews ranging from the glowing to the very critical.

3. Almost without exception, reviewers have recognised the current importance of the book’s topic. Eilish Kidd (2003), a contributor to the Jakarta Post, in the earliest review of Ambivalence 2 that we are aware of, accuses it of a ‘relentless tone of moral superiority’ yet recognises that it ‘weighs into the discussion at a timely moment’. Soon thereafter an even more hostile Mary Quilty, writing in the Singapore-based Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (and reviewing Ambivalence 1), sees ‘a minefield of jargon … convoluted post-modern syntax … out of date’ (2003, 561-2), yet recognises that the current Australian approach to asylum-seekers has in fact brought much of the text up to date ‘unwittingly’—she plainly would not wish to ascribe any foresight to us!

4. Subsequent reviewers have tended to find a little more of value. Regina Ganter (2004), writing in the Queensland Review, notes that we ‘relentlessly pursue the signifiers of arrogance and swagger’ in taking ‘a hefty swing at Australia’s arrogance in its dealings with "people of colour"’. She notes approvingly both the book’s ‘impressive review of recent literature to give a convincing view of how underwhelmed the Asian intelligentsia is with Australia’ and its use of textual analysis, particularly of Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach, to ‘punctiliously demonstrate how people of colour are sexualised, infantilised, animalised, de-masculinised, and portrayed through the reduced language of "Foreigner Talk" as people incapable of abstraction, inclusiveness and subjectivity’ (109-10). Nevertheless, it is interesting that Ganter finds Ambivalence no less than relentless than Kidd, and concludes by stating that ‘this is an angry book – or, as David Walker’s Afterword calls it, "spirited and thought-provoking"’. It is unclear what, exactly, is taken to constitute anger in this (or any other) book, unless the taking of any position which the reader might not share is an inherently ferocious act. What is clear is that one reader’s anger can be another’s spiritedness, a point Ganter implicitly accepts.

5. More substantively, Ganter complains that ‘The book raises all the right questions, but gets trapped in a monolithic idea of Australia that reifies the very view it condemns … the authors continually reinforce the idea that the Australian self is Anglo … [despite] the impressive array of non-Anglo Australian authors featured here.’ Furthermore, ‘the intellectual rigour of critique is reserved for the West only. Pronouncements on the inner emptiness of the West compared with "Islam, for example", and a call to not only de-Westernise, but to "Islamicize contemporary knowledge" are allowed to stand without comment’. These statements illustrate two criticisms which have continued to permeate even the most positive readings of Ambivalence. Firstly, our analysis has been deemed to lack scope and balance. We allegedly do not consider negative aspects of Asian behaviour and institutions that might be just as offensive as their Australian counterparts. Sometimes we are seen to focus on insufficient and unrepresentative Australian examples in history and literature and, even where the diversity of our illustrations is acknowledged, as in Ganter’s case, we stand accused of somehow not recognising alternative Australias adequately. Secondly, Ganter’s expectation that comparisons of the West with Islam to the former’s disadvantage should attract our remedial comments reflects a recurring deep concern, albeit articulated in diverse and sometimes confusing ways, with our unwillingness to accept the Western liberal human rights agenda as a universally applicable and enforceable undiluted good.

Simultaneously essentialist and relativist?

6. So, for instance, in the Australian Financial Review, Geoffrey Barker wrote a review at once sensitive to and supportive of the book’s general thrust, the exposure of an unconscious racism shackling Australian relations with Asia and with many of its own citizens, yet also exemplifying both the recurrent criticisms. While recognising that ‘Australia’s treatment of indigenous and other "coloured" people has been (and still is) appalling’ (2003, 46), he notes that Asian treatment of its own racial minorities is hardly any different. But, as Balthasar Kehi (2004) observes in a response to Barker’s piece, this misses the point. It is the mismatch between Australia’s rhetoric on human rights (particularly abroad) and its own practices at home that is at issue, not the relative merits of Australian and Asian domestic behaviour. Barker also accuses us of ‘a dangerous relativism’ in arguing that Australia is fundamentalist in failing to allow for the negotiation of basic rights and liberties. However, what is basic in this regard is neither self-evident nor unvarying; it is legitimate to ask, basic for whom? But merely raising the question was deemed to be dangerous. As Kehi (2004) notes ‘it is worrying to have such a closed and sacred area in an open society’.

7. The sacred nature of the liberal human rights agenda also suffuses Hsu-Ming Teo’s review (2004a, 252-53) in the Australian Book Review, a review giving rise to a number of responses including our own (Hideki Kizaki 2004, 5; Boey Kok-Choy 2004a, 5; D’Cruz & Steele 2004, 4-5), responses to which Teo ultimately replied in a letter of her own (Teo, 2004b) modifying her original position somewhat. In her review, Teo underscores the importance of the book, describing it as an ‘excoriating critique of Australian hypocrisy … enlightening, thought-provoking and desperately needed’. However, she accuses it of a ‘sneering attitude’ to Asians who promote a liberal human rights agenda in their own countries: ‘In denying the liberal compradors a say in their society because they have imbibed the value system of the West, the authors are guilty of ethnic or cultural essentialism’. In the process, we are said to have excluded, among others, ‘non-Anglo-Australians … who might want to … move between different cultural lifestyles, thus creating new identities that are not based solely on traditional ethnicity’. In fact, Ambivalence does discuss and honour hybridity (while not elevating it to panacea status), as all respondents to Teo’s review noted, and as she ultimately acknowledged herself in her own letter of response. As for her charge of ‘cultural essentialism’, aside from noting with Boey Kok-Choy that it sits oddly alongside Barker’s concerns about ‘dangerous relativism’ (2004a, 5), we can only reiterate that ‘we do not deny anyone a say in their society, nor do we deny agency and authenticity to those individuals and groups who might prefer (certain) Western values. Such denials are not for us to make because, as we point out, ‘the ultimate acceptance or non-acceptance of social reality, its pace and its terminologies, should remain in the control of indigenous people and be exercised through whatever social and psycho-cultural mechanisms they prefer to live by’ (D’Cruz and Steele 2003,127).

Elites and Bureaucracies

8. We do claim that ‘Asian groups apparently promoting Western cultural and political agendas often have yet to "sell" their acceptability and relevance in their own countries’ (D’Cruz and Steele 2004, 5). Elites the world over are not of a kind; note Ashis Nandy’s reference in the Foreword to the leadership of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Mao Zedong, whose priorities ‘left scope for a sizeable section of sophisticated intellectuals to identify with them in a celebration of the lowly and the humble’ (D’Cruz and Steele 2003, 2). It is also difficult not to see class as an embedded issue here in the competing paradigmatic agendas. Whereas the agendas of elites in Anglophone countries tend to lay bare the difference between rhetoric and behaviour in their own societies, demanding consistency, say in regards to the values that are subscribed to in common and supposedly upheld by legislation, but which have become problematic for one or other group (discrimination against Aborigines, women, and so on), those elite groups we are concerned about in Asia are primarily of a kind which promote values which, while not dissimilar to those of their Western counterparts, are rather sometimes different in priorities from those pleaded for by the most wretched in their societies (eg, at its starkest, those seeking relief from the immediacy of chronic thirst, starvation or brutality). And while there can be multiple rights (religious, political, economic, social) at issue in any one situation, there may well be existential reasons why one may take temporal precedence over others. Nor is prioritising the economic so very 'native'/non-Western, for, conceptually, rights issues (say) in England rose markedly over opposition to the privileges enjoyed by the landed gentry. The conditions and priorities in different situations in different societies are not of a kind, which is why the agendas of elite groups the world over cannot be uniform.

9. One of the intriguing discoveries in recent years has been that of Sankar Muthu who, through an alternative reading of Diderot, Kant and Herder in Enlightenment Against Empire (2003), quarried out of eighteenth century European thinking another Enlightenment that, unlike its nasty twin that has massively appropriated the term ‘The Enlightenment’, is culturally pluralist, positively Other-regarding and anti-imperialist to boot, showing possibilities of intercultural communication that the nasty twin did not. However, Europe buried this other, truer, Enlightenment and continued its project of self-proclaimed pre-eminence and superiority, of justifying its code as universally true and binding, in support of those Western powers that set out to implement the project. Some modern urban elites too comfortably raise certain political rights to pre-eminent and universal status, but trying to generalise their discrete, individualist concerns as equally applicable and important to all others at all times could be fanciful and problematic, requiring of more organic social groupings to join, participate in and profit from the global community which presupposes that they first be detribalised.

10. The discrete rights of individuals are accepted, but not also those of groups qua groups. The principle of self-determination of peoples, for example, has to be junked as a precondition to detribalisation. So, in Australia, PM John Howard wants Indigenous Australians to detribalise, declaring that Aboriginal affairs should not be brought within the context of ‘self-management and self-determination’ by Aboriginal communities for fear of separatism, but rather be corralled ‘in common with’ mainstream Australian society (Howard 1988), as hostages to the detribalising public service and public culture which simultaneously is a process of retribalising non-Anglo groups into a public culture whose predominant values are derived from its Anglo progenitors (see D’Cruz and Steele 203, 50-57). Howard’s later insistence on ‘practical reconciliation’ is exposed as ‘sinister’ by Aboriginal elder Patrick Dodson (2000). The fuller implications of the Prime Minister’s ‘practical’ policies towards Indigenous peoples began to emerge in 2004, when a program of reassimilation was initiated: the Howard Government disbanded the elected body of Indigenous leaders (ATSIC), created a group of government appointees as advisors on Indigenous affairs, and enmeshed the administration of Aboriginal peoples’ affairs with the general public service, thus denying all vestige of self-determination and forcing Indigenous people to see themselves as bureaucratically defined and linked individuals rather than as linked groups.

11. Anticipating the logical consequence of the Howard Government’s attitude towards Indigenous people, Patrick Dodson explained: ‘It is about removing the centrality of community as the life centre; it models on the individual as the essential unit of society. This is not our way’ (2000). But it is the way of an Australia, described by the Chinese authority on Australian literature and a regular visitor to Australia, Professor Huang Yuanshen, as a ‘dominating civilization’, which ‘divested of its concrete implications has retained only a general and abstract meaning’ (1995, 246). As with Indigenous people in Australia, in Asia, Africa and other such areas of the world, the majority of communities are still more organic than global elites would rather they were. Over time, Australia has developed the bureaucracy as an instrument for the distribution of essential goods and services that mechanically holds in a grid people as individuals while allowing them a notion of being involved in a network. The late Professor A F Davies wrote famously in the first sentence of the first chapter of his book Australian Democracy (1958, 3): 'The characteristic talent of Australians is not for improvisation, nor even for republican manners, it is for bureaucracy.' More than that, the (Anglo) Australian genius for bureaucracy also functions as a Trojan horse, posing as inclusive and fair in its dealings, yet through its very abstract inclusiveness of bureaucratically denying the discrete identities of those within and preventing the entry of the unwanted (‘queue jumpers’) from outside the perimeter—essentially homogenizing and assimilationist in the case of dealings with more group-minded communities in Australia, and excluding in its rejection of non-Anglo asylum seekers on the pretext of their failure to work by or meet the bureaucratic entry rules of the society. The seeming uses of bureaucracy, in effect even if not in intent, to bring about cultural/racial engineering are processes and transformations is at least a cause for concern.

12. To make a further point, wherever we find ourselves on the socio-economic ladder, some personal involvement beyond the abstract articulation of theories and values, however important this may be, in support of those groups whose causes we take up seems desirable (eg, as activist, or ‘negotiator’, as Aboriginal cross-cultural facilitator Shelley Reys sees herself (Heinrich 2005, A3/3). Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, son of a prime minister to a raja, and a lawyer by profession, would identify with and articulate the needs of the poor and other marginalised groups while living with and amongst them, and at times it seemed as if he was even more concerned about the quality of one’s underlying purpose and motivation in the service of others. The involvement and rootedness of such elites in the affairs of their communities is a critical element of their credibility to speak on behalf of their communities. (For a comment on possible relationships of intellectual elites and intellectual culture to existential culture, see D’Cruz and White 1981,142-3, 148.) Closer to home, we specifically drew attention to the contribution of historian Henry Reynolds on behalf of Australian Aborigines which stemmed—in his own words—not only from ‘spending years of research in libraries and archives all around Australia and overseas’ but also from ‘many of the things I was witness to, or things I heard about from others’ (D’Cruz and Steele 2003, 345 n2). Similarly, we referred to the African national liberationist Amilcar Cabral who pointed to the need for Western influenced intellectually trained not to lose touch with the needs of the poor peasant/proletarian (for an especially perceptive discussion of the features of the ‘intellectually trained’, see Sharp and White 1968:30-33).

13. One looks around among the ranks of the new generation of reforming and revolutionary elites in Asia and Africa in search of exemplars of such Gandhian or Cabralian practices, for truly (we reiterate) such people should be honoured. And we again make the point that elites with other agendas have every right to pursue them, but is it seemly to do so at the cost of supporting the basic human physical survival rights of the most disadvantaged in their society? People have a right to follow their own priorities regardless of outside approval, and a priority has often been, and may well be, an immediate alleviation of poverty (ie, the right to food, clean water, and the like). Nor is prioritising the economic so very 'native'/non-Western, for, conceptually, rights issues (say) in England rose markedly over opposition to the privileges enjoyed by the landed gentry.

14. In response to our concerns about unnaturally grafted elites in Asia, Teo complains on the one hand that, by reducing the Asian intelligentsia to comprador status, our book deprives them of the chance to be taken seriously, and on the other hand that it does not identify very many compradors specifically and, indeed, specifically excludes a number of Asians somewhat ‘liberal’ in training and conviction from comprador status (Teo 2004b, 6-7). She also notes, and appears to accept to some extent, the argument that the Western liberal human rights agenda has yet to establish its relevance in Asia, but finds alternatives to that agenda insufficiently developed (both in Ambivalence and in Asia). Civil and related agendas of historic standing in Asia, Wm. Theodore de Bary who identifies alternative sets, explains and reminds us, ‘are poorly understood even in their original settings or homelands, because of the long disruption of native traditions and the radical reorientation of the educated leadership to other immediate goals or European ideologies’ (2004, xi). What de Bary calls ‘the long disruption’, referring of course to successive waves of colonial subjugation and conditioning, are still working their residual ways through Asian and African psyches and normative and structural aspects of living. ‘In the meantime’, Teo asks, ‘why shouldn’t the "compradors" try to achieve similar goals … if they believe liberal human rights can be an effective strategy?’ and then later, ‘If other intellectuals in Asia use the human rights agenda to fight for freedom of speech and expression, shouldn’t we support them in that endeavour?’ Given the failures of this agenda in the West and in particular in Australia, failures that our book highlights and that Teo in general adequately recognises, there is something rather elegiac about the persistence of these questions. The liberal agenda is at best fairly impotent in Australia; the failure to be open and accepting of the Other at Australia’s geographical borders, and the ready agreement of the major political parties that gay and lesbian marriage should be statutorily banned, are rather striking illustrations of this. It is an agenda hobbled both by the pervasive conservatism and by its own inability to allow for difference, and at worst it is perverted into an alibi for browbeating others. Why, then, expect it to achieve useful goals in an environment where it is less indigenised? And, even disregarding the hypocrisy, what is our ‘support’ in such a matter but the unwelcome interference of a foreign ‘powerful friend’? Surely other societies have the right to identify their own human rights agendas; sustainable poverty alleviation, for example, is a perfectly valid human rights priority for such agendas.

Identifying the Disease

15. In contrast to the inviolable status of liberal human rights in Australia, our Filipino reviewer in the Hong Kong registered Asia Times Online, Marco Garrido (2004), echoed by our Indian reviewer, Anandhi Subramanian (2004) in The Hindu (Chennai), finds our chapters taking aim at Western liberalism ‘tedious in the familiarity of their argument.’ Familiar, maybe, in some circles in Asia, but clearly less so in Australia where such views are not commonly expressed. Importantly, Garrido also readily recognises the point that the Australian failings catalogued in Ambivalence arise from a fear of the self: ‘a nation stricken by survival anxieties … and thus, alternately toadying and truculent toward its neighbours. A nation bragging strength to mask weakness and dependence’. Hazidi Abdul Hamid, in a laudatory review of Ambivalence 1 in the Malay Mail, recognises ‘an Australia only at ease in Asia if flanked by the reassuring "Western presence" of its traditional US and British allies … The realisation of this instinctive Australian mistrust of its Asian neighbours is startling’ (2001, 52).

16. Australian foreign policy may startle its neighbours though they may be even more concerned if they followed carefully as Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer spells (2004) out the priorities in Australian foreign policy in The Asian Wall Street Journal. In essence, he described Australia’s alliance with the US as ‘fundamentally important’ and as ‘a manifestation of our shared values’; he added—‘in parallel, we will continue to enmesh with our region [the Asia Pacific]’ through ‘free trade agreements’ with ASEAN and NZ as well as with China. Note the juxtaposition of shared values with the US and the trade interests with Asia Pacific neighbours. Downer was in fact spelling out the partisan nature of Australian foreign policy along essentially tribal lines, there being a scale of relationships: relationships with our allies on the inside with whom we Australians (having first been detribalised and homogenised) have shared values as distinct from them on the outside with whom we have no more than shared ‘interests’; these are the insiders and the outsiders of the ‘detribalised tribe’. Relations outside the tribe call for caution, even when those outside call for friendship. It was not surprising then that in December 2004, as the ASEAN leaders met in Laos, Australia declined to endorse ASEAN’s call for the signing of a Treaty of Amity and Co-operation (TAC), there being ‘a view in the Howard government that the treaty could impinge on our actions as US allies’ (Sheridan 2004:32). Hence to Hazidi Abdul Hamid’s amazement, Australians arrive in Asia shadowed by or in the shadow of its Western (normally Anglo) friends, especially the US. While there might appear to be a contradiction between Australian domestic and foreign policies, the retribalised Australian polity with an Anglo orientation is as tribal in differentiating ourselves from the value orientations in the Asia Pacific region, thus the synchronisation of Australian domestic and foreign policies.

17. As the ravaging tsunami struck in late December 2004, taking its enormous human and material toll in countries like India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, Australia rushed into Asia with sudden injections of money and promises of even more as it attempts to enmesh itself in the region with ad hoc largesse, while the record of its ongoing contribution in foreign aid, which signals its long term structural priorities towards its needy neighbours, is dismal, one of the lowest among wealthy countries of the world. Oxfam Community Aid Abroad reports that, while the UN recommends that countries donate 0.7% of GNP as overseas development aid, Australia’s actual contribution to overseas aid has steadily (and shamefully) declined even while over the last 30 years its wealth has doubled (Oxfam 1996, 2004; see also O’Connor 2003; Age 2004a, 12). In 1975 Australia donated 0.5% of its GDP to overseas aid; in 1995 it donated 0.33% of its GDP; this became 0.29% in 1996-7 and 0.25% in 2004. Australia’s is projected to be at the third lowest level of aid in the OECD by 2006. Millions of people over the years are dying slowly, unspectacularly, and underreported by such running down of annual overseas contributions by countries like Australia. Nevertheless, Australians like to see themselves as typically altruistic and generous, and are presently wallowing in this idea as they promise and hand out considerable sums of money following the December 26 tsunami tragedy.

18. While the Australian government and public contributions are without doubt striking, the carnivalesque atmosphere of media hype with individuals and institutions seemingly outbidding each other in contributions is troubling, while the government seems intent on giving its massive assistance in the expectation of controlling whatever contagion (including human beings as refugees) might threaten Australian shores. Equally striking is the little heralded contribution of $US50,000 given by one of the poorest countries in the Asia Pacific region, East Timor, to the grieving Indonesians against whom they had recently fought a war of independence (Australian 2004). Amidst all the hype and ‘politicisation of Australian compassion’ (Aly 2005, 13) of the giving we experienced in Australia in the wake of the tsunami, it is sobering to be reminded that after the Ban earthquake in Iran in 2003 only $US17m of hard cash donations had actually been received although the pledges ran to $US1bn, although much of that was in the form of soft loans. (McDowall 2004; see also Oxfam 2005). Meanwhile, altruism has its own built-in boomerang effects; thus the Australian Financial Review reports that ‘all contracts associated with the [Australian government] five-year program to help rebuild Aceh province will be awarded exclusively to Australian and New Zealand companies’ (Tingle and Burrell 2005,1, 4). So much for the giving without counting the cost! It is against a sad picture of studied neglect embodied in the decline of Australia’s long term contribution in overseas aid, its heartless policy towards refugees and its massive increase in recent defence and other security expenditure that Australia’s current injections of funds into the tsunami hit Asia Pacific region need to be weighed … even as the whiff of free trade agreements and prospects of closer strategic association with regional partners stir and sweeten the air (for three reflective and balanced Australian assessments of the Australian response to the tsunami tragedy, see Colebatch 2005,13; Lane 2005,16; Henderson 2005,11).

19. Prime Minister Howard, now comfortably ensconced with a renewed mandate by the Australian voting public and with majorities in both houses of parliament, could if he wished, do something even Australian Labor Party leaders could not bring itself to do: approach Asia with trusting and open arms. PM Howard is sending signals that he can re-invent himself, that he not only has ticker but also a heart. For example, some see Aboriginal (Australian rules) football star Michael Long’s march to Canberra and his low-key but positive reception by Howard as hopeful signs of such a change in the PM (Long 2004). The argument is that if the Australian PM can relate warmly and effectively with people of colour in Australia, then he stands a good chance of relating equally and well with people of colour in Southeast Asia. We must trust that such a change is possible. An unambiguous signal that such a change of heart is possible towards Asia would be the signing of an ongoing Treaty of Amity and Cooperation required of all members of ASEAN. That is, in signing such a treaty, Australia would be signalling to the region that its frequently announced doctrine of preemptive strikes is at an end, and that such macho chest thumping will no longer be heard from Australia.

20. What if Australia persists in building into the ASEAN relationship a spike of ambivalence? For example, by insisting that it be allowed to stand apart from its neighbours on important issues yet wanting full membership in regional groupings? A strong possibility is that ASEAN will persist with trying to include Australia in some regional activities as best it can and hope that, as in the case of Myanmar, in time Australia may learn to live in amity within ASEAN, for once ASEAN invites a country to join it, ASEAN tends to persist, hoping that by associating with the group over a long period of time even the most recalcitrant of neighbours might undergo some positive behaviour modification (D’Cruz in Boey 2004, 8). This is why Myanmar is still accepted within ASEAN, despite opposition by some Western countries and disquiet among some ASEAN members themselves. If Australia is accepted in some form within ASEAN, its Southeast Asian neighbours will persist with Australia and not dump it too quickly. If Australia sets aside its ambivalence towards Asia and takes a more trusting and positive attitude it has much to gain.

21. All that, however, is consigned to an uncertain future. As things stand, it is a shocking mixture of high rhetoric, low bullying, and ad hoc aid and military interventions which characterises Australian relations with the Other at home and abroad. Much as our Australian reviewers Barker and Teo might recognise the highlighting of such matters in Ambivalence, the psychological internality of the problem has generally been better recognised in Asia. Hazidi (2001) puts this forcefully, if metaphysically: ‘By the time readers reach the middle of the book, they are locked in arguments with themselves, all but wrestling with their souls.’ As Dewi Anggraeni pointed out in a review in the Indonesian journal Tempo (2003), the reader of Ambivalence needs to be ‘brave enough to look at a mirror which also acts as a magnifying glass’, noting the problem of an Australian inferiority complex perversely driving its gestures of superiority. And, in the Melbourne-based Disarming Times, one perceptive Australian reviewer, Larry Marshall (2004, 11), notes that the book examines the historical anxiety about invasion besieging the psyche of Australia, itself founded on an act of invasion. ‘This insecurity is more than about an adequate defence of coastal borders, it is also a cultural and psychological insecurity’, he adds. The restatement of the ‘preemptive strike’ doctrine in John Howard’s 2004 election campaign sadly illustrates afresh the depth of the Australian fear and mistrust of people Othered by race, culture and colour, portrayed in Ambivalence and as highlighted by these reviewers.

22. Reviewing the book in The Hindu, Anandhi Subramanian (2004) views the old White Australia Policy (1880s—1960s) as ‘a quasi-eugenic experiment’ which was ‘meant to isolate the continent from its immediate geographical region’, and the forcible separation of Aboriginal children from their parents in an attempt to assimilate them into white society as ‘a grotesque project’ of the government which still refuses to apologise ‘for the stolen generation’. What seems obvious to others within Australia and overseas is news to the likes of a revisionist historian like Keith Windschuttle (2004,10) who now claims it is all a misunderstanding: ‘Australia is not, and never has been a racist country’, he declares; what has come to be known as the White Australia Policy is really a form of ‘civic patriotism’ in defence of an independent egalitarian democracy (2004, 5). As we noted (D’Cruz and Steele 2000, 200, 43), by excluding groups not homologous with Anglo-Australian aspirations from the formation of Australia’s first federal government in 1901, people of colour were excluded from political representation or from entry into Australia, thus creating not quite democracy but majoritarianism. Rebutting Windschuttle’s claims that the national policy of exclusion was not racist and that Alfred Deakin ‘never personally subscribed to any racist theories’ (Windschuttle 2004, 271), Australian historian Marilyn Lake points out that among the earliest Acts to be passed in Australia in 1901 was one that deported Pacific Islanders from Australia and another that prevented non-whites from settling in Australia in future (2004, 4). Lake quotes Deakin, then attorney general and architect of White Australia (and later to become Prime Minister), who made his intentions very clear, saying, ‘The two things go hand in hand’ and ‘They were the necessary complement of a single policy—the policy of securing a White Australia.’ Again Lake reminds us that ‘Deakin … observed that the empire comprised ruling and ruled races and that as white men, Australians belonged to the former group. … Deakin was an "independent Australian Briton", but he was also, in his own terms, a "white man"’ (2004, 4).

23. ‘The key to establishing better relations with Asia [the Other],’ concludes Subramanian (2004) in her review of Ambivalence, ‘is not a clearer understanding of "them"; rather, what Australia needs is a thoughtful unpacking of the values and fears that constitute "us".’ ‘White Australia had to learn to despise the browns and yellows of Asia and Australia because it itself was despised [by Britain] and the contempt had been internalised’, writes Ashis Nandy in his Foreword, adding ‘Official Australia has to try to share white society’s civilising mission because that is very nearly its only means of gatecrashing the Anglo-Saxon world as an equal partner. It has its own past and its self-hatred to live down’ (D’Cruz and Steele 2003, 5) Seen in this light, the false assertions about asylum-seekers throwing their own children into the water look very much like a projection of internal horror outward rather than, merely, a convenient lie.

24. At the end of her review in Tempo (2003), Dewi Anggraeni comments that ‘the weakness of this book is that its critique against whites in Australia is excessively sharp, considering that they are the ones who have to read this book’. There is probably a lot to this, as reviewers in Australia have criticised its negative focus on ostensibly unrepresentative and/or dated political and literary examples, such as Hansonism and Keating’s Asian delusions of grandeur on the one hand, and its close analysis of Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach (1981) on the other – without, however, making it clear how our overall analysis could have been any more positive had we selected different foci. Teo might ‘wish there was more discussion of things we have got right in order to encourage reform’ (2004b), but she is not forthcoming about what these ‘right’ things might be. We admit some sympathy for the sentiments with which Mikhail Lermontov concluded his foreword to his novel A Hero of Our Time, that is, ‘It's enough that the disease has been diagnosed—how to cure it only the Lord knows!’ (1947 [1841, second edition]). That said, we do in fact point to signs of hope throughout the book (eg, D’Cruz and Steele 2003, 11-12, 20, 35, 46, 346 note 9), of both courageous individuals in various walks of life and, importantly, groups of Australians showing resistance to racist messages, such as the electors of Clare at the November 2001 Australian federal election no less than academics, newspaper columnists, church leaders, and a Governor General.

25. We do own up to focussing on Turtle Beach to the exclusion of other Australian literature representing Asia; but we deny that this focus is tendentious, as Quilty alleges, or even particularly narrow. Firstly, there has been a lack of apparently faithful representations of Asia and Asians in twentieth century Australian texts, hence the popularity of dubious products such as Embassy (as Stephen Frost noted), and Turtle Beach. There are plenty of Australian imaginative representations of Asia that are quite overtly racist (Walker 1999; 2003, 335ff), but those which would redeem the picture in Turtle Beach are less obvious. Some work does come to mind; for instance, the oeuvre of David Martin deserves to be better known, as it is humane and constructive yet not hectoring, and it illustrates and respects difference while recognising and addressing the Australian difficulty of accommodating it. But the voice of a Middle European intellectual Jew and one-time Communist transplanted to Victoria hardly comes from the centre of the Australian psyche. We argue in Ambivalence, as Garrido recognised, that Turtle Beach is close to that centre, having a particular representative importance because it so plainly waves the flag for sweet reason and liberal enlightenment. It is then rather a shock to realise it is chock-full of metaphors ascribing unpleasant, usually animalistic, characteristics to Asians, metaphors Quilty implicitly castigates us for counting. She triumphantly fishes out one metaphor of her own, one comparing (Anglo) Australians to overflowing garbage bins in a florist shop. This is not unakin to brandishing the odd Asian or Aboriginal follower of Pauline Hanson to ‘prove’ that she isn’t racist. Quilty seeks to reduce the whole problem to bad writing in that ‘d’Alpuget could not write simply, and she could not resist a metaphor’. That, paradoxically, is a strikingly metaphorical observation on Quilty’s part; by positioning d’Alpuget as the helplessly and hopelessly ravaged victim of rampant metaphors, she makes it clear that any racism is all the metaphors’ fault and not the white liberal’s. Language is inherently metaphorical, whether d’Alpuget’s, Quilty’s or our own. Anyway, some of the most tellingly racist ascriptions in Turtle Beach are not floridly metaphorical, but represent only too clearly the everyday parlance of the Australian streets; for instance, the use of the term ‘an Australian’ to mean ‘a white Australian’ (a point Garrido notices). And it is not possible to isolate and analyse this embedding of racism within language without close textual analysis, entailing a highly focussed approach. We remain convinced that the focus on Turtle Beach is salutary and appropriate.

The Malady Lingers; Yet there is a Necessary though Limited Role for the Having

26. Quilty continues, ‘This novel, and the film based on it, do not occupy the central, permanent place in the Australian psyche which Australia’s Ambivalence Towards Asia claims they do’ (2003). In a certain, highly simplistic, sense, Quilty may be correct: both these specific texts are fading fast from prominence. However, the point is that the ideas and images, the practices and strategies, underlying Turtle Beach are fundamental; they do recur, and they will continue to do so. So, Ambivalence 2 (13-14) suggested that Alison Broinowski’s About Face (2003) was a fair candidate to be viewed as a non-fictional rebirth of Turtle Beach a couple of decades on: there is the same oh-so-reasonable concession of a little Australian tactlessness (the overflowing garbage bin in a florist shop effect), the same exclusion of Asian-Australians from the narrative voice of Australia, the same re-invention of Australian blunders in Asia as Asian devices to marginalise us, and so forth. More generally, Quilty (2003) asserts that Ambivalence is out of date because of its attack on a Keating made to look positively benign by the incumbent Australian Prime Minister, as well as by its focus on Pauline Hanson and responses to her. Just as the ideas in Turtle Beach live on powerfully regardless of whether the particular text is read, so Hansonism lives on with or without Hanson and Asian visions splendid survive Keating’s disappearance from the scene. In fact, what has happened is that the mainstream has largely appropriated Hansonism; a Hanson figure is less necessary right now as official policy and practice, especially in regard to asylum seekers and islamists, more adequately represent Australian anxieties. Besides, rather than jettisoning her ideas on principle, the mainstream seems rather to accept that Hanson was merely bad for business while remaining apprehensive about global influences that threaten the particularities of Anglo preponderance in Australia—this is Hansonism through and through. Quilty finds it noteworthy that the rejected ‘Other’ is now Middle Eastern rather than Southeast Asian, but this is utterly irrelevant as the psychology of the rejection is unchanged.

27. We daresay Quilty, and Teo too, would prefer it if the concerns of Ambivalence, including Turtle Beach, were unrepresentative and dated. Unfortunately, though, they cannot be wished away. We are not saying that there is one voice and one story only in Australia, but there is a particular tenor that tends to come through to the exclusion of different keys. The critical response hitherto—and we emphasise ‘hitherto’, because as we have said the response continues to unfold, here among other places—indicates that our challenge to that dominant strain is uncomfortable. As discomfort is almost a prerequisite to shifts of position, we tend to hope for ongoing squirms, for the problem is not to be denied. As Anggraeni succinctly puts it at the close of a second review she wrote, in the Melbourne based magazine Eureka Street, ‘Only when Australians begin to regard Asians as equal and accept Asian-Australian voices as part of Australia’s orchestra of opinions will Australia be better accepted in the region, because only then will the discomfort and awkwardness ease all round’ (2004, 37).

28. While Ambivalence tells a story predominantly of what is lacking in Australia’s relations towards the Other—that is, towards peoples-of-colour within and beyond Australia’s shores—and hence a story largely of ‘failure’, its final sentence concludes with the longing for ‘less ice at the heart’ (D’Cruz and Steele 2003, 334). Until such times then when non-Anglo Australians become equally valid players in ‘Australia’s orchestra of opinions’, there is an important, though more limited, historical role for some of us in keeping alive an alternative and more positive voice, one that speaks of failure, yet of other possibilities too. In This Whispering In Our Hearts (1998) Henry Reynolds reminds us that throughout the history of white occupation of Australia there always have been other Australias present—for example, the Australia of novelist David Martin, as we noted earlier—Australias that were inclusively Other-regarding and which consequently found themselves in opposition to a more pronounced Self-regarding mainstream Australia. The resistance may have come from no more than a handful of people at any given period, but is all the more remarkable for its persistent presence in our history. It is the culturally plural and inclusive outlook of these other ever-marginalised Australias of yesterdays and today that Ambivalence honours and identifies with.


JV D’Cruz is an Adjunct Professor in Australia-Asia relations at Monash Asia Institute, Monash University. Email: William Steele is a Research Associate at Monash Asia Institute, Monash University. Email:


Age. (2004a). ‘Going Beyond the Limits of Foreign Aid’ (editorial). 31 December.

Aly, W. (2005). ‘The politicisation of Australian compassion’. Age, 17 January.

Australian, The (2004). ‘Timor donates $64,000. 31 December. Cited 10012005 -,5744,11814405%255E1702,00.html

Anggraeni, D. (2003). ‘Australia through Eyes of its Critics’, Tempo (Jakarta) 14 December. Translated from Indonesian.

____. (2004) ‘Asian Relations’, Eureka Street (Melbourne), Jan-Feb 2004, p 37.

Barker, G. (2003). ‘Australia’s Racist Baggage’, Australian Financial Review, 29 December.

Boey K.C. (2004a) ‘It’s a Puzzle’, Australian Book Review (Letter), May, p 5.

____. (2004b) ‘Howard may Reinvent Himself’ New Straits Times Focus (Malaysia), 12 December, p 8.

Broinowski, A. (2003). About Face: Asian accounts of Australia Carlton, Vic: Scribe.

Carlyle, D, N. Walker and D. Dunstan (2003). Review, The Australian, Higher Education Section, 3 December.

Colebatch, T. (2005). ‘Good Aid (and Trade) Can Work Wonders’. Age, 11 January.

D’Alpuget, B. (1981). Turtle Beach. Ringwood: Penguin.

Davies, A.F. (1958). Australian Democracy. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

D’Cruz, J.V. (2004). Interview with K.C Boey, ‘Howard may Reinvent Himself’ New Straits Times Focus (Malaysia), 12 December, p 8.

D’Cruz, J V and White, D C. (1981). ‘Moral education in Singapore: A study in the making of a society’ in Joseph Zajda (ed) Education and Society in the 1980s: A Comparative Analysis. Melbourne: James & Nicholas, pp 138-151.

D’Cruz, J.V. and W. Steele. (2004). ‘Hybrid Voices’, Australian Book Review (Letter) May, p 4-5.

____. (2003). Australia’s Ambivalence Towards Asia: Politics, neo/post-colonialism, and fact/fiction 2nd Edition. Clayton: Monash University Press/Monash Asia Institute.

____. (2000). Australia’s Ambivalence Towards Asia: Politics, Neo/post-colonialism, and Fact/Fiction 1st Edition. Bangi: National University of Malaysia Press.

de Bary, W. T. (2004). Nobility and Civility: Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Dodson, P. (2000). ‘Beyond the Mourning Gate—Dealing with Unfinished Business’, Wentworth Lecture 2000.

Downer, A. (2004). ‘Australia Stays the Course’ The Asian Wall Street Journal, 13 October. 10012005

Frost, S. (1994). ‘Embassy and the New Orthodoxy in the Australian-Southeast Asian Relations’, Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 22: 189-208.

Ganter, R. (2004). Review of Australia’s Ambivalence towards Asia. Queensland Review 11:1: 109-110.

Garrido, M. (2004). ‘Asia’s Noisome Neighbour’, Asia Times Online, 21 February Reprinted in Pravda (Russia) 22022004

Hazidi, A.H. (2001). ‘A View So Clear it Hurts’, Sunday Mail (Malaysia), 13 March.

Heinrich, K. (2005). ‘Pushing the door open’. Age, 25 January.

Henderson, G. (2005). ‘Just what is So Wrong with All This Compassion?’ Age, 4 January.

Howard, J. (1988). ‘Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders’.

Huang Y. (1995). A Unique Literature—A Critical View of Australian Literary Works. Chongqing, China: Chongqing Publishing House.

Kizaki, H. (2004). ‘Fluid Hybridity’ (Letter), Australian Book Review, April, p 5.

Kehi, B. (2004) ‘Dangers for an Open Society in "Closed" Area’, Australian Financial Review (Letter), 7 January, p 41.

Kidd, E. (2003). ‘Australia and Asia: Ties that are Neither Here nor There’ Jakarta Post, 14 September.

Lake, M. (2004). ‘Whitewashing our Past’. Age Book Review 18 December, p 4.

Lane, T. (2005). ‘Counting the Costs and our Blessings’ Sunday Age, 9 January.

Lermontov, M. A Hero of our Time. This complete HTML e-text is based on the translation from the Russian into English by Martin Parker, published by Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1947, 1951, in the public domain in the United States of America.

[Long, M] (2004).‘The Journey is Just Beginning’. Posted 03122004. Cited 10012005-

Marshall, L. (2004). Review of Australia’s Ambivalence towards Asia, Disarming Times 29.1 Feb/March/April, p 11.

McDowall, A. (2004). ‘Iran: No Replacement for Prefab Housing. Belfast Telegraph 7 January. Cited 12012005-

Muthu, S. (2003). Enlightenment against Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Nandy, A. (2003). ‘Foreword: The Need to have Inferiors and Enemies’, in D’Cruz and Steele 2003, pp 1-6.

O’Connor, T. (2003). ‘Report: Australian Air Budget Fails Commitment to Developing Countries’. 16 May.

Oxfam. (2005). ‘The Asian Tsunami: The Challenge after the Jakarta Summit’. Oxfam Briefing Note. 7 January. Cited 13012005-

Oxfam Community Aid Abroad. (1996, 2004). ‘1996 Submission to the Review of Australia’s Overseas Aid Program, September 1996’ 2.6.

____. ’The 2004/5 Aid Budget - The Global Challenge’, Polliewatch 51, March 2004.

Quilty, M. (2003). ‘Review of Australia’s Ambivalence towards Asia’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October, pp 561-2.

Reynolds, H. (1998). This Whispering in our Hearts. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Sharp, G. and D. White. (1968). ‘Features of the Intellectually Trained’ Arena 15: 30-33.

Sheridan, G. (2004) ‘Let us in Unconditionally’ Weekend Australian 27-28 November.

Subramanian, A. (2004). ‘Australia-Asia Relations in Historical Perspective’. The Hindu (Chennai) 21 December.

Teo, H. (2004a) ‘A Needed Jeremiad’ Australian Book Review, February, pp 52-53.

____. (2004b). ‘Hsu-Ming Teo Responds to her Critics’, Australian Book Review, (Letter) June-July, pp 6-7.

Tingle, L. and A. Burrell. (2005). ‘PM Retains Grip on $1bn Tsunami Aid’. Australian Financial Review, 17 January.

Walker, D. (1999). Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850-1939 St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

____. (2003). ‘Afterword-Australia: Stepping Out, or Out of Step, in Asia’, in D’Cruz and Steele 2003, pp 335-342.

Windschuttle, K. (2004). The White Australia Policy. Paddington, NSW: Macleay Press.

© borderlands ejournal 2004




To top of page to top of page spacer
ISSN 1447-0810