Australia must up its Asian literacy

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Australia must up its Asian literacy

Tuesday, 20 November 2018 | Ashutosh Misra

For the long-term future of bilateral relations between India and Australia, creating Constituencies of Country Champions is paramount to shape strategic thinking, influence policy-making and facilitate people-to-people interaction

President Ram Nath Kovind’s maiden visit to Australia comes close on the heels of the release of Peter Varghese’s report, ‘An India Economic Strategy to 2035: Navigating from Potential to Delivery’, a comprehensive and incisive India strategy to be commissioned by any Prime Minister till date. While the report bodes well for economic ties, the future of India-Australia relations hinges on reinventing the 3Cs — Curry, Cricket and Commonwealth — with a new 3Cs approach — nurturing Constituencies of Country Champions — that requires investing in people and institutions. Six years ago, Australian economist Ken Henry was delegated by the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard to develop the ‘Australia in the Asian Century White Paper 2012’, which recommended Australia to expand its strategic net in Asia, engage with Indonesia and rising power India and shape the future of the region.

The Varghese report, too, said that engaging with India was no more an option but a necessity. Importantly, both reports recognised that policy-making is not a purely Government-task but a joint exercise involving academics, scholars, analysts and institutions, who possess knowledge and expertise on the region and regional matters. Varghese went a step ahead to posit that the Australian Government neither had the capacity nor the inclination to implement a strategy of its own. Let us be mindful that the report is largely an economic strategy. Business and trade strategies remain susceptible to periodic market volatility, domestic politics and ever altering policy priorities. Therefore, for a long-term future of bilateral relations, creating Constituencies of Country Champions is paramount to shape strategic thinking, influence policy-making and facilitate people-to-people interaction.

This requires a three-pronged approach. In the immediate term, focus must be on people and institutions who possess requisite country expertise, lived experiences and professional linkages. In the intermediate term, lessons must be drawn from the recommendations of research works and Government reports, notably, the Melbourne Declaration on educational Goals for Young Australians, 2008, which noted, “India, China and other Asian nations are growing and their influence on the world is increasing. Australians need to become ‘Asia literate’, engage and build strong relationships with Asia”. In the long-term, schools and universities must be encouraged to introduce courses and programmes on India, not only supporting existing institutions specialising in India-Australia studies but also creating new ones. The US and Singapore are two examples where people and institutions, possessing country expertise, have played a vital role in shaping strategic thinking, lobbied as peace advocates during testing times and bolstered a vibrant and well-informed Constituency of Country Champions. Australia must solve its Asian literacy conundrum, which has fuelled debate among academics and policy-makers.

Asian literacy is not just about language proficiency. It is about understanding values, customs, traditions, socio-political and cultural nuances to decode how a nation thinks and acts. It requires familiarising oneself with Asian history, values and culture early in school, alongside developing language skills and undertaking country visits as a part of immersion programmes or other study visits. Unfortunately, a steady decline across Australian primary and secondary schools in Asian language and history teaching has made Australia knowledge-deficient on Asia, especially, India and Indonesia. During school dropoff/pickup hours, it is common to see Asian kids conversing with their Asian parents in English than in native language. While English learning is vital, developing Asian multi-lingual proficiency and country knowledge will trigger intellectual curiosity in young minds, which can be tapped and satiated by universities.

But most Australian universities don’t offer India studies in their curriculum, an indication of how they perceive Australia’s interests in the Asian century. The Ken Henry report has cut little ice in building Asia-oriented university curriculum, at least from the Indian viewpoint. There appears a disconnect between national and institutional visions which can be melded by introducing core and elective courses on India with integrated field study for gaining in-country experience.

Most importantly such courses would serve the domestic Australian students more on whom leadership may be thrust upon at various institutions for developing or leading India strategy. The Commonwealth Government funds several fellowships, such as the New Colombo Plan, which supports over 10,000 research fellowships in 40 Asian countries, including India, producing around 900 Australian undergraduates undertaking research, study and internships in India during 2015-16. The Australia India Council grants, Australia-Indian Strategic Research Fund and Endeavour Leadership grant also fund research projects on India-Australia issues but they develop subject expertise, not necessarily country expertise.

As per the Australian High Commission data in New Delhi, there is a 20-30 per cent increase in the enrolment of Indian students, totalling 70,000 in 2017 at Australian universities. But this is good news for Australian literacy in India, as many will return as Australia’s brand ambassadors and help nurture the constituency of Australia champions in India. At Indian universities, Australia remains a passing reference in courses on Asia-Pacific. New centres are emerging but Australian literacy in India remains far from satisfactory. In the absence of country champions and specialised institutions, overnight experts assume policy-making responsibilities, which is worrisome. During an interview at a high-profile federal department in Canberra, once a ‘expert’ in the panel asked this writer whether he spoke ‘Hindu’, unaware of the distinction between Hindu and Hindi. Such knowledge gaps can only be filled by investing in people and institutions on both sides, and creating Constituencies of Country Champions.

(The writer is CEO and Founding Executive Director, Institute for Australia India Engagement, Brisbane)

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