My Asian Century

In 1962 I looked at a map and made a choice. The lesson of the map was bleeding obvious even then.


In its own way World War II, during which I was born, spoke the same message: YOU ARE HERE! Get used to it!

So I chose to study Asian History at Sydney University in 1962 with two quite brilliant lecturers, Dr Ian Nish and Marjorie Jacobs. We galloped through China and Japan in two terms (Dr Nish) and India in one (Marjorie Jacobs) and never quite got to South East Asia though I had bought the textbook – D G E Hall in those days. I read it anyway. I wrote essays on Ram Mohun Roy and on the Sian Incident 西安事变. Turned out to be the one and only time I topped a subject at Sydney U!

Then at Cronulla High teaching History, among other things, from 1965 (student teacher) through 1966 to 1969, I always Asianised the curriculum – that is I took time out to make time lines showing, or devote a lesson to, what was happening in India, China, Japan, S-E Asia at the same time as, say, Elizabeth I. Indeed my first history job in 1965 was teaching Indonesian history to a Year 10 class – or 4th Year as we called it then.  And of course in the 1960s Cronulla High was a pioneer Indonesian teaching school – the place where I first heard an anklung orchestra – the school had one – or tasted nasi goreng.

Yes, the 1960s, folks.

And then at TIGS from 1971 to 1974 I taught mainly English, but also for a while I was History coordinator and in addition (under the Social Sciences Department) taught Asian Studies. Yes, Asian Studies, and there were even actual published text books and a syllabus and everything. Even before Gough Whitlam, if only just! in 1970 there was even a NSW  HSC subject called Asian Social Studies with 919 candidates. I remember having my class cooking (allegedly) Japanese food from recipes in an Asian Studies text book. We ate it and also fed it to the staff. First time I had ever used soy sauce or cooked bamboo shoots.

Wollongong High had a thriving Indonesian language group in the 1970s.

And so it goes.

Then of course we had the Keating era where the “Asian century” idea was first floated, though I am not sure the expression was used. We were reminded that we are part of Asia, and the map makes that quite incontrovertible, I would think. We sure as hell are not part of Europe. On the other hand, culturally and institutionally we draw on Britain plus, which also distinguishes us and is in my view something extraordinarily valuable we have to offer the region and something also to be cherished as part of what Australian has come to be. This has never struck me as a terribly difficult balancing act, though we did sadly get plunged into Pauline Hanson going totally batshit about being “swamped by Asians” for a while there and John Howard made sometimes worrying gestures in that direction, knowing where his votes were coming from but also by nature uncomfortable with the Keating era vision and with anything that happened before 1959. On the other hand in the Howard era we (and he) were busily engaged with Asian countries just as much as ever, simply because that is where we are and what is bound to happen. And of course we intervened in East Timor, something I for one supported.

And Sydney High, where I worked most of the time from 1985 to 2005, offered Mandarin as well as Ancient Greek. I even wrote a cross-cultural text, based on some class work at SBHS, called From Yellow Earth to Eucalypt (Longman 1995).


Now here we are again. I haven’t read the White Paper yet, just skimmed. It is fascinating. It is also, as I said yesterday, pretty much what anyone leading Australia now would envisage, but as others have pointed out it is also less substantial than it could be. I guess it gives a bit of a vision which may even lead to outcomes.  I wouldn’t hold my breath about some of it though.

See also Ben Eltham, No Cash For The Asian Century, Richard Tsukamasa Green, Asian languages are essential because they are essential, Bill Mitchell, The Asian Century White Paper – spin over substance. Now that is a pretty diverse bunch with rather similar messages.

And there is the sad story of the decline of past promise, when it comes to Asian languages. I don’t think either Cronulla High or Wollongong High has Indonesian any more, and that is typical. See a report last year in the Herald.

Just 9 per cent of 72,391 [NSW] HSC students studied a language this year. Of the 34 offered, French was the most popular with 1471, followed by Japanese with 1376.

For all the rhetoric on the need to move closer to Asia, Indonesian was studied by only 232, Chinese by 1091 and Hindi, the language of a future powerhouse, by just 42…

Just checked: Cronulla High offers Japanese in the HSC; Wollongong High School of the Performing Arts (as it now is)  offers introductory Korean in Years 7 and 8; Heathcote High in The Shire (where my grandnephews and grandniece went in recent years) has Indonesian in Years 7 and 8 and a 15 year long linkage to schools in the Hitachi-Omiya district in Japan.

How different will things be in ten years time? Honestly, I wouldn’t hold my breath. See also Tim Lindsay Australia’s Asia literacy wipe-out.

Do also visit Dennis Wright and Maximos Russell Darnley – both extraordinary people who know much more than I do.

Meantime, enjoy the sight of an Illawarra Flame Tree in Figtree, just south of West Wollongong. They were taken yesterday.

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The best TV you haven’t seen yet, and our Asian Century

I have downloaded the Australian Government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. It strikes me as playing catch-up with reality. Further, whoever the government happened to be right now, I suspect they would have produced something so nearly identical that you’d have a hard time spotting the difference. That is why Tony Abbott, for all his trademark hairy chest pose on this, was actually quite kind to it.


Australia’s trade links

Two-way trade with Australia

And an interesting one from the US conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. Click to go to the full interactive version.


Jim Belshaw has started his much more informed ruminations on the Asian Century White Paper.

The best TV you haven’t seen in Australia

Though this ought not to stop you seeing it. I have downloaded it from YouTube and have now seen it. Awesome and depressing. As someone notes on YouTube:

That’s really depressing. Fred Singer and Lord Monckton still being taken seriously.

America is sick, very very sick.


If you still can’t see that a determined political and economic propaganda campaign has been deliberately and largely successfully undermining the impact of climate science in recent years then you really need to see this. Few things are more pathetic in this shallow world than those whose fetishes about one particular view of economics combine with self-interest, ego and often culpable blindness to hold us back from doing what needs to be done. When the infants of today are middle-aged in a world where climate change is no longer doubted because its effects will by then have been obvious and in many cases disastrous, they will curse these think tanks and batty British aristocrats and loudmouthed pundits and shonky PR hacks and the whole seedy pack of them. They’ll wonder why the rest of us could have been so stupid. As if something like climate gives a shit about our views on the free market!

See – after that little rant — "Climate of Doubt" — Money Buys Skepticism and Must See: Climate of Doubt.

Related: Why Is North America Behind The Curve On Climate Change and Energy?

Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)–wonderful

Caught up with this at last, thanks to Wollongong Library.



Review by David Stratton

As readers of Li Cunxin’s very popular book will know, MAO’S LAST DANCER is the inspirational story of a boy born in poverty in a village in China’s Shandong province who grows up to become an internationally famous ballet star before defecting to the West.
Flashbacks show Li at the age of 11 in 1972 living with his family and parents (Joan Chen and Wang Shuangbao). Talent scouts select him to be trained to dance in the Beijing Dance Academy, where he experiences the impact of the Cultural Revolution.
Later he takes part in an exchange programme to dance with the Houston Ballet company, where he falls for Elizabeth, AMANDA SCHULL – when he’s ordered back to China and refuses to go, there’s an international incident.
Li is played at different stages of his life by three actors, eventually by CHI CAO, and his story, as scripted by Jan Sardi and directed by Bruce Beresford, is unquestionably an enthralling one. It’s a pity that the clichés inherent in the material haven’t been completely eliminated. Basically, it’s a typical rags to riches story, with some captivating dance sequences, and some rather obvious suspense, thrown in.
Performances are generally good, but Bruce Greenwood, as Houston’s artistic director, rather overplays his part. Poor Elizabeth is given short shrift given that she’s the reason for Li’s defection.
These quibbles aside, there’s a lot to enjoy in the film; it’s very efficiently made, and though never totally inspiring, it’s eminently watchable.

Margaret “cried buckets” – and so did I.  My experience over 20+ years with M and those I knew through him, as well as many of my own adult and school-age students from 1990 onwards, convince me of the authenticity of this movie. The ballet scenes, by the way, were choreographed by Graeme Murphy.

The latest on Li Cunxin:

August 1st 2012

Li has been appointed the new Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet (QB). Li is the 5th Artistic Director in Queensland Ballet’s 52-year history. QB is one of only three ballet companies in Australia.

Queensland Ballet Chair, Adjunct Professor Joan Sheldon AM, said, “We are absolutely delighted to welcome Li on behalf of the Company, its friends and supporters. This is an exciting new direction for our Company, our audiences, and Queensland.

“Li’s passion for dance and devotion to artistic excellence and quality complements our vision as a leading classical ballet company with a distinctive spirit and vitality that is proudly reflective of Queensland and Australia. Li’s extraordinary career, international reputation, networks and commercial experience will provide the Company with invaluable opportunities to build upon the achievements of our 52 year history. The Company can only benefit with Li leading us into the next chapter of our journey of renewal, growth and pursuit of creative excellence.”…

Is my dongle spying on me?

I do know that it is a temperamental little beast and suffers from some kind of cyber-constipation rather too often…


It is made in China – what isn’t these days? – and furthermore made by Huawei.

Huawei a security risk by any gauge

Huawei Australia board member Alexander Downer says the government’s decision to deny the Chinese telco supplier Huawei a major role in the construction of the national broadband network is absurd, but it looks logical to me.

There is obviously no official register of China’s telecommunications surveillance activities, but they are generally considered to be extensive and sophisticated inside and outside the country.

China believes it also gets hacked by the US, and it’s odds-on to be right. China’s surveillance culture is so pervasive, however, that friction with Western governments is inevitable as its economic reach expands.

There is no doubt that corporate and government interests intermingle in China, and Huawei’s private ownership does not materially alter that fact.

The group is becoming more transparent as it grows, but its ownership and management structures are still opaque by Western standards, making matters such as chairwoman Sun Yafang’s past role as an executive in China’s top security agency, the Ministry of State Security, difficult to assess. It also operates within a tightly regulated industry that is nominated as strategic by the Chinese government…

I haven’t really been following the story, but apparently our government has baulked at letting Huawei into our National Broadband Network – now alive and working just south of here, by the way.

See also

See also this report from India (May 2010).

NEW DELHI: It’s not without reason that the security agencies continue to eye Huawei with suspicion. For, the Chinese firm’s R&D facility inBangalore operates with a secrecy so intense that a larger part of its premises are completely out of bounds for Indians.

At Huawei Technologies’ R&D facility in Bangalore, only the ground and first floors are reportedly accessible to Indian staff. The floors beyond can be accessed only by the Chinese executives and managers, a top intelligence official told ET.

Though Chinese form only a minuscule percentage of Huawei India’s staff at the Bangalore facility, it is they who enjoy exclusive and unrestricted access to R&D office’s top floors. There is not much information on what equipment is tested and what goes on in the ‘Chinese-only’ parts of the building. But intelligence agencies have noticed how Chinese employees of Huawei often have an extended stay in Bangalore for months together.

Though attempts were made by security agencies a few months ago to probe the purpose behind these long-drawn business trips by the Chinese staff of Huawei to Bangalore, they were told curtly that the Chinese were staying on to learn and master English!

So the Gonski Report on education funding has now been published

I haven’t read it and neither have you, more than likely. But I did download it just now, and the not unrelated report from the Grattan Institute, Catching up: learning from the best school systems in East Asia. In today’s Sydney Morning Herald Gonski seems to have the Grattan Institute’s report in mind as much as his own.

As the global economy continues on its trajectory of change, the pressure is on Australia to maintain a knowledge and skills base that can change and adapt to keep up with the world around us.

The race is being run, won and lost every day. It is a continuing race and educational results tell us that Australia is losing ground from its strong position a decade ago.

It is no surprise to see Shanghai at the head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s achievement table. There is an obvious link between its outstanding educational outcomes and its great leap forward as one of the world’s most dynamic cities and a centre for financial services and manufacturing.

But perhaps more of a surprise is the pack now ahead of us in mathematics – Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and China: Macau. Canada also does better than us among 15-year-olds in the Program for International Student Assessment tests for reading, mathematics and science, and so does New Zealand…

I have been interested in the coverage given to the Grattan report – not an entirely objective outfit either, I would have thought, even if it claims to be. I have in the back of my mind some of the things very perceptive Singapore writer Alex Au has had to say over the years in his Yawning Bread blog, most recently Education system a high stakes board game.

The other day, as I was waiting in line at an automated bank teller, I overheard several schoolgirls talk among themselves about their choice of subjects to major in. They were about 14 years old  and were probably at the point of being streamed into Science, Arts . . . and then I said myself: Gee, I really don’t know what streams there are or how our educational system is structured anymore.  It’s been decades since I left school.

So, I asked around a few people more knowledgeable than I, and I thought I might share with readers what I learnt (apologies if you already know all this).

It’s obviously an important topic for many parents. A few months ago, I noticed several among my acquaintances figuratively biting their nails as their kids sat for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). This national exam for the 11-plus is often seen as a make-or-break point in their lives. The Education Ministry says it shouldn’t be (and rightly), and that our school system has several cross-pathways to allow slower developers to catch up. But I have the feeling that few parents know it or believe it. We more readily believe that the Singapore system is quick at judging and condemning, with no opportunities at remedy…

So much for the scheme, what about content?

Singapore’s overall educational scheme may be nice, but what about the quality of content? If at all to be considered, it has to be a separate discussion altogether, which I didn’t set out to engage my discussants on. However, there were tantalising side comments . . .

Generally, Singapore students do well in international comparisons in math and science, though whether it’s related to cramming is perhaps a pertinent question.

With language and communication skills, there may be room for doubt. One person I asked said something to this effect: “If you want to know about the quality of the teaching of English, all you need to do is just hold a conversation with any English teacher in a neighbourhood school.” This may well be an unfair statement reflecting the jaundiced view of that particular speaker, but seeing the language skills the vast majority of school leavers have, I have a feeling that she isn’t all that far off the mark.

Another teacher — she teaches chemistry — said something that made me even more worried: “Some of my colleagues hold shockingly unexamined views about race and religion — and they’re teaching the social sciences and humanities.”

A third contact reported increasing disciplinary issues in our schools, but with so much flux in thinking about how much control teachers should exercise, and how much spontaneity to encourage, there’s been a very uneven response to this issue.

See also Moral education likely to end up as immoral indoctrination, Old-style history lessons now history, Mother-tongue policy undermines education and our future, Confucius not allowed to teach here, Poor quality English in Singapore, Towards an open and inclusive society.

For an interesting perspective that I find well worth adding to our thoughts on this see David Zyngier on The Conversation. For example: Gonski review: another wasted opportunity.

The Gonski Review sought to create a new funding system for Australian schooling, because what we currently have is a mess. It was to be transparent, fair, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all students.

Gonski’s recommendations for a resource based funding model starts with a false premise. Since the Karmel Report 39 years ago we have witnessed a slow but ever increasing movement of taxpayer’s dollars from public schools to the private sector, all apparently on the basis of Commonwealth provision for school education on the principle of “need”.

The Gonski Review has accepted as holy writ that if parents decide not to send their child to the local public school, then the rest of the country is required to subsidise that choice.

The cost of choice

Why should a struggling worker on an average wage of $50,000 be asked to contribute to the education of the children of doctors and lawyers who have the financial capacity to choose to attend schools charging $25,000 after tax per student per annum. That worker doesn’t have the luxury of choice that the middle class have…

I well remember the Karmel Report. I was in the private sector at that time too and there was much angst, though everyone did survive – well, almost everyone. There is no doubt that Zyngier is quite right about the mess we have been stewing in for the past decade and more, a mess skewed heavily towards private rather than public education – hence the proliferation of religious schools of varying degrees of battiness over the past several decades.

Interesting too that we are having held up as models now by the Grattan Institute report countries or authorities – Shanghai is not a country – that are not necessarily famous for encouraging democratic values. Authorities indeed whose power to coerce policies and outcomes is rather greater than we (or presumably the Grattan Institute) would find palatable. Not that I am knocking the achievements reported there entirely, and what is said about matters like teacher mentoring is very impressive. And we are already following suit.

So over the next few days I will actually look at both reports. Maybe I’ll have something to say, maybe not. After all I am no longer in the game.

Locally see Illawarra gives education funding model tentative tick.

Spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Wollongong Peter McPherson said the Gonski findings were in line with Catholic education expectations, but said there would be a lot of discussion before the effects of the report would be seen.

He was concerned the new funding model could work against some Catholic schools.

The Illawarra Grammar School headmaster Stephen Kinsella said the report would spark interesting discussions, but was waiting to see how the Government would implement its recommendations before making a final judgment.

‘‘It is certainly recommending more funding for education overall and is maintaining the notion that there will be no winners and losers, which is a good thing,’’ Mr Kinsella said.

‘‘What has to be worked out is the process by which the schooling resource standard is calculated and that’s where some serious discussion will have to happen so the process is fair and transparent.’’

NSW Teachers Federation Illawarra regional organiser Nicole Calnan said the report had delivered good results for public schools and teachers but now it was up to the Government to act.

‘‘The problem is that this could end up becoming a political football, but we need all political parties to embrace the recommendations.’’