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
contagion within Arrow vol 3 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 3, 2004


The Contagion within

Tseen Khoo
Monash University


1. I write this response to Australia’s Ambivalence towards Asia at a time when the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami has highlighted our regional positioning and obligations with a vengeance. An earlier draft of this item opened with 2004 as the year when the Coalition government, led by John Howard, returned for a third term. One of the first trips to Asia undertaken by the newly ‘mandated’ Prime Minister was to attend the inauguration of the new Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. While there, Howard was reported to be discussing further national security and anti-terrorism measures. It seemed that Australia’s frame of reference when it came to engaging with ‘Asia’ reverted firmly to assuaging its traditional anxieties about moral and geographical vulnerability. From its response to date, however, the Australian government has made clear its commitment to helping rehabilitate tsunami-affected communities, particularly in Indonesia. It will be interesting to track how this event and its consequences may affect future Asia/Australia relations in the region.

2. My title for this piece derives from a phrase in the book’s Foreword by Ashis Nandy. While discussing Australia’s perceived need to ally itself with European and American perspectives, Nandy speaks of the country as ‘fight[ing] a contagion, the source of which lies within’ (5). Accompanying contemporary national worrying about incursions from without is the increasing paranoia that a multicultural Australia includes what could be termed ‘communities of interest’ within. The limits of multiculturalism are often embodied in the forms of community cultural acceptance for these ‘other’ groups. This is why one of the main foci for this piece, discussed later, is the politics of representation for Asian-Australian communities. The ways in which these groups exercise social citizenship are important to ongoing formations of Australian identity and critical notions of belonging.

Revisiting East/West and Asian-Australian

3. For the most part, Australia’s Ambivalence towards Asia is a unique, polemic contribution to ongoing debates surrounding Australian identity, sovereignty and its international relations in a post-9/11 political climate. Hsu-Ming Teo comments in her book review that ‘the most disturbing aspect of [the book] is its attack on the Western-educated middle classes of Asia who champion democratic reform in their own countries’ (53). This critique functioned as the springboard for most of my deliberations.

4. For the purposes of this response, what interests me is Australia’s perceived ambivalence towards its internal ‘Asia’ and the ways in which aspects of the book revitalise the ‘Asian values’ issue. In his forthcoming review of D’Cruz and Steele in Overland, John Fitzgerald argues that ‘[r]ather than an ambivalent Australia we are introduced to an unambiguously divided one.’ Indeed, perceptions of Asian-Australian communities as both cosmopolitan good or multicultural success and as weakening the social fabric or agents of peaceful invasion jostle continuously in the Australian public sphere. The invocation of ‘Asians’ is endemic to discriminatory rhetoric, yet the use of deliberately conglomerative terms such as ‘Asian-Australians’ can be politically effective. Because of these constant pressures, D’Cruz and Steele’s deployment of the term ‘Asians’ and their descriptions of how Asians are (politically and socially) sat somewhat uncomfortably with me, especially given the strong juxtaposition throughout the book of West and East. While I understand that the book is in many ways an extended rejoinder and counter-discourse to the persistent and deeply entrenched forms of Orientalism found in the West (Australia), the comments about ‘Asian society’ values could be read as participating in new, positivist forms of self-Orientalisation.

5. The ‘Asian values’ debate has played out voluminously elsewhere (for example, see Barr [2002] and Van Ness [1999]) and there is limited purchase to be had in re-creating, or maintaining, discussions where the conclusion stalls at the point of ‘the East is misunderstood’ and ‘the West misunderstands’. Each of these sites are continuously acknowledged as being diverse but arguments tend towards binaristic or reactive modes. The allocation of Eastern or Western traits is complicit with existing systems of discrimination, even when invoked with ironic playfulness as is often the case in popular cultural expressions. In discussing the mobilisation of the ‘cultural defense’ in domestic violence or other ‘gendered’ legal cases, American academic Leti Volpp argues that the ‘assumption that people of color are governed by cultural dictates is not only dehumanizing, it is also depoliticizing because such thinking often leads us to neglect the power of "noncultural" forces in shaping reality’ (96-97). D’Cruz and Steele’s tendency to refer to ‘more concrete Asian cultures’ (157), then, presents something of a challenge to contemporary trends that strive to de-mobilise culturally-based characterisations.

6. At the same time Australia’s Ambivalence towards Asia gestures to emerging Asian-Australian critical and creative voices (11-14) and it is to this area that I now turn. I have written elsewhere about the ‘chink in the armour’ of Australian multiculturalism with specific reference to the nation’s Asian-Australian groups (Khoo 2000, 13-34) and the suspicion and utilitarian consideration of those of Asian descent in Australia. When reading Teo’s critique and re-reading the relevant sections of the book, I found myself broaching the question of whether this measure of cultural inauthenticity was indeed applied to those of Asian descent in Australia who were understood as having ‘imbibed the value system of the West’ (Teo 2004, 53). Often, those in this group who gain any prominence occupy representative and/or public positions. D’Cruz and Steele’s questioning of the ability of Westernised ‘Asians’ to represent their national populace contradicts, to some degree, their feting of emerging, highly articulate and Western-educated individuals in Australia (such as Jason Li and Tan Le). Pursuing their critique of these ‘unelected (Asian) elites’ (143), the authors ask for demonstrable commitment to ‘the populace’ through lived experiences of poverty and disadvantage.

7. Several questions arise from this. First, are ‘elected elites’ really any more representative and, if not, why make the distinction? Second, given their association with social justice issues and human rights causes, why are Li and Le not similarly admonished to live with ‘the people’ before they are allowed to speak on behalf of their communities? I ask this question even as I look at it reflexively and know that, often, the mantle of speaking for community is not something that is requested or voluntary. D’Cruz and Steele are at pains to clarify their terminology throughout the book but their use of ‘elites’ and the argument that this group’s shortfalls in representation are due to their disconnection with the masses sounds disturbingly similar to some of the deflection of critique that comes from the Howard government about ramped up national security and the treatment of asylum seekers. Teo pointed this out in her review and Mark Davis’ ‘Great White Noise’ aptly captures motivations for this strategic dismissal of elites, particularly the reification of ‘real’ or ‘mainstream’ Australians. Arguing for the necessity for humanitarian elites, Davis says

A healthy democracy needs a class of civic-minded people willing to master detail, willing to preside over broader ethical questions, prepared to offer their specialised knowledge and expertise for the greater good, and willing to put the greater good ahead of self-interest.

I would like to see how D’Cruz and Steele would factor in considerations such as those brought forward by Teo and Davis on these issues.

Chinese Australian community – Who’s Speaking?

8. The issue of Chinese-Australian community representation and voice is a notoriously fraught one that has become the focus of recent critical discussion (see Khoo, Kwok and Ling [2004] and Ling [2004a, 2004b]). D’Cruz and Steele use the term ‘comprador’ to describe Asian/Western interactions that are imbued with sycophantic connotations. In a similar way, Chek Ling mobilises the term in the Australian context to describe certain people within Chinese community groups. An independent scholar and long-time community activist, Ling’s issue is not with Westernised Asian-Australians per se, but with individuals who do not demonstrate accountability and integrity in Chinese-Australian community representation. His impassioned critique of safe, folkloric multiculturalisms and their exploitation of ‘ethnic dummies’ (2004) is informed by years of participation in, and frustration with, various community associations and their activities. He states that:

Token recognition of ethnics was probably borne out of benign tolerance, to pave the way for equality after such a long period of constitutionally guaranteed racism. . . . But the time for that sort of tokenism has long passed. Alas, however, many Chinese ‘community leaders’ in Australia seem unable to jettison the middlemen mentality their forefathers pragmatically embraced over centuries of western colonial domination in South East Asia. (3)

9. Ling’s demarcation between ‘true’ leaders and mere opportunists lies in his (obviously highly personalised) perspective on whether they are functioning for the greater good, or only out of self-interest. There is no doubt that a token inclusionary and pacifying dynamic does exist in government and corporate relations with ‘ethnic groups’. Though D’Cruz and Steele’s and Ling’s critiques diverge in terms of context, at the root of both is the vexed issue of who has more of a right to represent community than others. D’Cruz and Steele attempt to work through the East/West binary and present an ‘East-centric’ perspective on Asia-Australia relations, exposing negative assumptions about Asia or Asians while, it could be argued, re-forming and showcasing positive ones as well. Ling, on the other hand, focuses on the front-line politics of ethnic community associations and the forms of lip-service multiculturalism found in various sectors of Australian society and governance. His ire is reserved for community leaders who practise what he considers regressive forms of postcolonial ‘Asian-ness’.

Conclusion: Asian-Australian Ambivalence

10. To return to the title of this response, and in the spirit of polemic engagement, I would suggest that ‘the contagion within’ for many Asian-Australians is as much internalised racism and the destructiveness of maintaining Model Minority status as it is the associated process of racialisation by surrounding ‘white’ Australian society that is so thoroughly detailed by D’Cruz and Steele. Some of these dynamics have led to Asian-Australian groups themselves echoing calls for intolerant policies towards refugees and Asian immigration.

11. If the key to more engaged and critical Asian-Australian perspectives in Australia is certain levels of facility with the political and social systems, the constraints of self-monitoring and internalised racism are obvious. Ling’s arguments and examples make manifest the forms of complicity and justification inherent in some modes of representing community and furthering ‘ethnic’ interest. In contrast, Gianni Zappala points to the contradiction in the desire for more diverse representation in parliamentary politics and the assumed neutrality of one’s local ‘Anglo-Australian’ MP, who is preferred at the coal-face (156-157). Zappala concludes with optimism, however, and states that even though ‘[m]ore recent times indicate a certain reluctance and ineffectiveness of such groups in facilitating ethnic political mobilisation and representation,’ these groups are the ‘key institutions for increasing the representation of ethnic groups’ (161).

12. As others have observed, the changing sociopolitical climate in Australia towards Asia has significant influence on the positioning of Asian-Australians within the nation. Given this tendency, one could argue that only when Australia engages with ‘Asia’ as a non-threatening and equal counterpart will Asian-Australian groups achieve a measure of true cultural citizenship.


13. In their interim response to reviewers, D’Cruz and Steele focus at length on a common criticism in reviews of their revised edition publication: the issue of ‘elites’ and their complicity with the ‘Western liberal human rights’ agenda. While I appreciate the detail and clarifications in their rejoinder, the dismissal of the ‘liberal human rights agenda’ as a failure in Australia and elsewhere and, indeed, its invocation as a seemingly monolithic entity (in the book) still deserves closer interrogation. D’Cruz and Steele, in their response, state that "[t]he 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" (para.8). It would be, perhaps, more useful to discuss these issues in a highly focused manner that attends to national and political context rather than within broad categories such as ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’ elites.

14. The other point that I would like to address is the subject of community and individuality. This topic is brought up by D’Cruz and Steele with reference to the Howard government’s attitude to indigenous groups and associations. I know the authors did not intend to state that Australian society is somehow distinct in its dependency on bureaucratic processes. Indeed, their delineation of the ways in which this bureaucracy poses "as a Trojan horse" (para. 11) has been applied by others to the sociocultural environments of ‘officially multicultural’ Canada and ‘grass-roots multicultural’ US. Given these modes for managing diverse contemporary societies, it is always important to examine closely the politics of community representation and the ways in which individuals and groups negotiate their positioning. In saying this, I am not only talking about non-Anglo communities and individuals, or forms of reactive politics. In ensuing discussions that I am sure will take place about these topics, I would like to see further interrogation of ‘ethnic communities’ and how membership within (or distancing from) them contribute to associations with ‘Australian-ness.


Dr Tseen Khoo is a Monash University Research Fellow (2004-2009), based in the National Centre for Australian Studies. She has published on Asian-Australian cultural production and politics, multicultural/race issues in Australia, and Asian-Canadian literature. Her book, Banana Bending: Asian-Australian and Asian-Canadian Literatures, was published in 2003 by McGill-Queens and Hong Kong University Presses. Tseen is also co-editor of Diaspora: Negotiating Asian Australia (University of Queensland Press, 2000) and Culture, Identity, Commodity: Diasporic Chinese Literatures in English (Hong Kong UP, forthcoming). She manages the academic e-list, asian-australian, and the discussion list, asian-australian_discuss. Email:


Barr, M. (2002). Cultural Politics and Asian Values: The Tepid War. London and New York: Routledge.

Davis, M. (2002). ‘Great White Noise,’ from Sydney Morning Herald, 12 January. Archived at OzProspect site (accessed 20 October 2004).

Fitzgerald, J. (2005) Review of J.V. D’Cruz and William Steele, Australia’s Ambivalence Towards Asia (Clayton, Vic: Monash Asia Institute, 2003), Overland, forthcoming.

Khoo, T. (2003). Banana Bending: Asian-Australian and Asian-Canadian Literatures, Hong Kong and Montreal: Hong Kong and McGill Queens University Presses.

Khoo, T, J. T Kwok, and C. Ling. (2004). ‘Chinese Voices,’ Meanjin, 63.2. pp.149-159.

Ling, C. (2004a). ‘White Ghosts, Ethnic Dummies,’ online article, Brisbane Institute. (accessed 9 July 2004).

Ling, Chek. (2004b). ‘White Ghosts and Chinese Middlemen Devils,’ Overland, 175. pp.37-41.

Nandy, A. (2003). ‘Foreword: The Need To Have Inferiors and Enemies,’ in Australia’s Ambivalence towards Asia, J.V. D’Cruz and William Steele, Melbourne: Monash Asia Institute. pp.1-6.

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

Van Ness, P. (1999). Debating Human Rights: Critical Essays from the United States and Asia, London and New York: Routledge.

Volpp, L. (2000). ‘Blaming Culture for Bad Behaviour,’ Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, 12. .89-116.

Zappala, G. (2001). ‘The Political Representation of Ethnic Minorities: Moving beyond the Mirror,’ in M. Sawer and G. Zappala eds. Speaking for the People: Representation in Australian Politics. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, pp. 134-161.

© borderlands ejournal 2004


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