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White Asians: Australia's future?

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Mark Pearce:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast, I’ll be your host Mark Pearce and I’m here today with Dr Farish Noor from Singapore where he’s part of the contemporary Islam program. He’s here in Melbourne as a visiting scholar funded by the Victorian government and he’s brought out by the La Trobe University Centre for Dialogue. Welcome Dr Farish Noor. So, you're here to talk about your areas of study. I've been struck by some information about you. It said you're an academic activist. Can you explain what an academic activist is in the Malaysian context?

Farish Noor:

I think being an academic, particularly when you happen to work in the area of political science and political history like myself necessarily commits you to some form of academic activism in one way or another. I am an activist in the sense that while I'm a conventional human rights activist, I work with a number of NGOs in Malaysia. But at the same time, I'm also an academic activist in the sense that if and when I write history, I write with the intention of interrogating some of the sedimented presuppositions that I think need to be questioned critically further.

So, writing history in the context of Southeast Asia, particularly when we look at the histories of post-colonial states like Malaysia and Indonesia, often means going against official history because official history in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia tend to be written by those with invested class interests, invested political interests in foregrounding certain interpretation of history, which often overlooks or marginalizes the role of other communities in the history of those respective countries. For instance, if you look at the official histories of practically all of the countries of Southeast Asia, the historical contribution of minority groups or migrant communities is hardly ever mentioned and sometimes even systematically erased.

So, I see it as both an academic and activist responsibility to try to correct this because the job of a historian in a sense is like a painter. You try to paint the object you study in as accurate a way as possible. And if the object happens to be a complex one, then the history you write has to be a complex one. So in that respect, even in my academic work I find myself being guided by certain political convictions that I think need to be translated into academia as well.

Mark Pearce:

Do you find that being an activist and an academic in Malaysia is challenging? And what are the difficulties that you find in this position.

Farish Noor:

Well, challenging is one way of describing it; tough is another. Unpleasant is another as well. I think if you look at the history of academia in Southeast Asia, particularly more so in the context of countries like Indonesia and the Philippines that have been through long periods of military dictatorship, the work of academics is vital, especially those in the social sciences, political theory, economics, history, because they have a role to play reflecting the realities of the society they live in.

But I turn to my Indonesian colleagues who had to work during extremely difficult conditions, particularly during the Suharto era, where history in particular was something that was constantly being surveyed by the state. You ought to be very careful about how you write history, and there were certain things that you couldn't write about. You couldn't write about the role of the Chinese in Indonesia. You couldn't write about the role of minorities. You certainly couldn't write about the role of the communists. And you couldn't write much about political Islam.

Even though things have changed a lot in Southeast Asia as you know over the past 10 years, these institutionalized biases and prejudices remain. The official history of Malaysia is still a history that's written by basically Malay Muslim middle class males, the 4 M's. This effectively excludes the voices of non-Malays, non-Muslims, women and people of other social background, social classes.

Again, I'm just trying to be a good schoolteacher, I'm trying to be a good historian and I'm trying to write a history that goes against the official current, not to demolish this official account of history but mainly to supplement it, to say that, OK, there is this one official history but we have many, many other histories as well, and all of these histories put together make up the complex picture of Malaysia. And I think that's what academics ought to do.

Mark Pearce:

What are some of the more controversial or unpleasant findings that you have discovered that governments are not receptive about?

Farish Noor:

There are some historical black spots, some subjects that have been taboo for a long time. Writing about the history of the left, of the workers' movement, the trade union movement, the socialist and communist parties and movement has always been problematic.

That prejudice remains till today in some circles, certainly in the higher levels of academia where official history gets produced and reproduced. When I look back at the history of the workers' movement in Malaysia, there were many instances particularly in the '40s and '50s where people of all ethnic and religious communities actually work together on the basis of class solidarity. This is something that needs to be studied and highlighted even further because it points to the fact that at one point in Malaysia's past half a century ago, Malaysia was not such a racialized country. Of course, when you raise these facts from the past in the present, you point to the fact that there was another Malaysia. I have a column which has been turned into a research site called "The Other Malaysia" and I'm constantly looking for this other Malaysia.

And this is another Malaysia that is not fictional; this was real. We had multiracial, cross-racial, cross-ethnic union movements, workers' movements that really did not think of race and ethnicity as important. It's important to highlight that because it shows that it can be repeated again now in the present.

Mark Pearce:

What they call the rising tide of religious politics specifically Islam, where does that fit into this mixture in Malaysia at the moment?

Farish Noor:

Well, if you look at the state of Southeast Asia in general, Malaysia and Indonesia in particular, but Southeast Asia in general, you will see that this sort of communal politics has become the norm all across Southeast Asia. But particularly so in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, communal-based politics has become the norm. This is most pronounced in the case of Malaysia.

Now, it doesn't take much to push it one step further and to add on that ethnic compartmentalization another form of secular politics which is religious politics. If you look at Malaysia in particular, Malaysia and Indonesia were both faced with the challenge of how to deal with the currents of global political Islam that emerged worldwide in the '60s and intensified after the Iranian revolution. There have been countries like Tunisia or Turkey that opted to basically declare war on the Islamists and to almost violently defend the secular mode of governance.

Well, in the case of Malaysia and Indonesia, bearing in mind that these are both Muslim majority countries. I think we see the governments of both countries looking for another means in a sense domesticating the potential threat of political Islam. And the way they chose to do it was to embrace political Islam as a tool themselves.

So, Malaysia from the time of former Prime Minister Mahathir onwards began to basically initiate its own Islamization program. And this basically involved using the state and the economic largess of the state to buy off what could be a potential Islamic opposition. So, you create a parallel religious bureaucracy in Malaysia. You give jobs to people who might otherwise have joined the Islamic opposition party. So, this is their way of actually keeping them in the fold of the state. Indonesia attempted the same thing but much later.

Now, there’s a cost to all these. The cost is that in the short term it buys you time, but in the long run it means you are inviting the forces of political religion into the state apparatus. And now, we have in Malaysia and to some extent Indonesia parallel religious bureaucracies that in some instances act as a law unto themselves. And because these bureaucracies are huge, you now don't know what to do with them.

The second consequence of this, of course, is that you normalize religious politics. And if you normalize religious politics among Muslims, sooner or later it's going to have a knock-on effect on other religious communities. And so, I think what you're seeing in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, at the moment is the normalization of religious politics across the board.

That for me is worrying because just recently this year we witnessed what might be the first Hindu party of Malaysia, which is about to be registered or wanting to be registered, called the Makkal Sakti Party. If this comes to pass, it would mean that we really crossed the threshold. We've now moved to another level of sectarian politics where Malaysians are not just racially divided but also religiously divided. And I think that's a worrying side, frankly.

Mark Pearce:

What impact does this have on other minorities? For example, gender based issues, sexuality issues with this rising tide of more right wing religious politics, has that had knock-on effects with different minorities in Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries?

Farish Noor:

Yes, that I suppose is predictable. I mean, when you have ethnic politics it's bad enough because someone from Community A will say, "I'm the authentic representative of my community because I'm more culturally authentic than B or C is." Now, when you move to the religious register, the same dynamics is set to motion and someone will say, "I speak for my religious community because I'm the most religious of the lot." I'm not sure whether it's human nature or an accident of history, but unfortunately, those who claim to be the most religious also tend to be the most conservative. They tend to be the most dogmatic, the most uncompromising, the most exclusive.

And so, what we see in the communal or religious leadership across the board is the coming to the fore of the most conservative Christians, the most conservative Muslims, the most conservative Hindus who claim to speak for their communities. And in the process of doing so because they take this very dogmatic stance, they reduce their respective communities to very simple essentialized homogenous blocks. And of course, in these homogenized blocks, there is no space for gay Christian. There is no space for a lesbian Muslim. There is no space for a cultural Hindu who is not perhaps a practicing Hindu. These people have no space.

So, all these people who do not conform to their homogenous model eventually get pushed to the margins. And that is one of the negative impacts that concerns me a lot as a human rights activist who speaks for the minorities.

Mark Pearce:

How do you think that's going to play out in the next few years?

Farish Noor:

The immediate prognosis is not a very happy one because at the state of politics we see in Malaysia today and to some extent in many other Southeast Asian countries, you see cultural frontiers being put up. And when frontiers are put up, then it occasions dialog, but unfortunately, not the sort of dialogue I want to see because Malaysians have been living with each other for hundreds of years. I mean, we've never had to dialogue with each other. Suddenly, now dialogue becomes a necessity. Dialogue becomes a necessity because you've constructed frontiers and boundaries. And when you have frontiers, you need bridge builders.

And so, communication across communities, between communities, becomes more and more dialectical. It's us against them, me against you. And this gets played out in all sorts of perverse ways. Let's take the example of the way Islam, which is acquainted with Malay identity, gets seen in something rooted in local. Now, if Islam becomes something rooted in local in Malaysia, then what is the status of other religions? They become foreign. They become alien. They become something outside the norm. And that's dangerous because Malaysia is a multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. Christianity is a Malaysian religion. Hindu is a Malaysian religion. Buddhism is a Malaysian religion. They deserve the same right of place as Islam, as one of the many religions of Malaysia.

So, the whole Malaysian nation-state building project is now in jeopardy because we are not emphasizing the commonality of citizenship. This what happens when multiculturalism is pushed along a certain logic that can actually lead us to something very dangerous and counterproductive.

Mark Pearce:

Do you see Australia having a role and what is it?

Farish Noor:

Well, unfortunately, you opened the other can of worms, frankly, and I'll be blunt to you, I'm not a diplomat, Australia at the moment can't play any role in Southeast Asia because Australia is, although geographically close, culturally more distant today than it has ever been. This is, of course, sad. It's sad because historically there has been a lot of good will between the people of Southeast Asia and the people of Australia.

It's also sad because Australia, like America, occupied a very privileged position of being this ideal model for post-colonial development. That's why there are so many Southeast Asian students in Australia sent by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia. They're sent here because Australia was the model. We wanted to be like Australia. We wanted to be like America. That's why Southeast Asian cities look like New York and Melbourne and not London and Paris.

But unfortunately, things went pear-shaped during the Howard establishment, Howard government. And I think a lot of that has been seriously damaged. It has been damaged because Australia, I'm not saying Australians but I'm talking about the government of Australia at that time, repositioned itself diplomatically and consequently culturally as well closer to Washington, closer to Americans and the American consensus during that period.

I think for that reason, the perception in Southeast Asia today, and it's just a popular perception, is purely subjective. But the subjective popular perception is that Australia is a country that is very much in the West. And it is seen as a predominantly white western European American country. And that I think is sad because I for one believe in the idea of a greater Asia. And I see Australia as part of Asia, and I want Australia to be part of Asia.

It also doesn't reflect the reality of Australia today which is, as you know, a country of migration. It is a country where there is a significant Asian presence and with a long history of contact with Asia. But unfortunately, all of this is lost, and I think it's very sad that a country as culturally diverse as Australia has now been reconfigured as this homogenous white western country in the eyes of so many Southeast Asians. But this is partly the result of Australia's diplomatic positioning during the Howard period.

Mark Pearce:

Talking about diplomatic positioning, what about Kevin Rudd's idea for this Pan-Asian organization? How has that been received?

Farish Noor:

At the moment, for the reasons I mentioned earlier, badly. It is received badly. This is interesting because here the historian in me starts coming out. If this idea had been moved to 10 years or 15 years ago, it would have had far more attraction. It would have had far more relevance. But unfortunately, this comes after Howard. At present, and I'm just giving you a snapshot picture, I can imagine the reaction. The reaction to Rudd's reaction would probably be read and probably be cast as yet another instance of a rich white western country imposing its will on Southeast Asia. So, it's the white man with the big stick coming to Southeast Asia saying, "Now, you got it all wrong and I'm going to tell you how to do it." That unfortunately overlooks many other very real political variables such as the need to expand and the need for Asia to come together. Especially with the rise of China and India, there is a need for this. But unfortunately, all of the subjectivities come in between.

So, Australia has got a lot of PR work to do. Unfortunately, you do not have a Barack Obama because all the damage that was done by Bush has somehow been completely forgotten as a result of the election of Obama, who is by sheer accident of birth happens to be the best ambassador America will ever have.

Mark Pearce:

Particularly as he lived quite a bit of his young life in Indonesia?

Farish Noor:

Yes, of course. Indonesians practically claim him as one of them. It's almost as if Indonesians is now president of the United States. Everyone is waiting with bated breath for Obama to come to Indonesia because it is the return of the prodigal son. I go to Indonesia every week to lecture and I'm startled by how the perception of America has so completely altered within such a short space of time simply by Obama coming to power. That's why it's sad to see Obama getting so much bad press in America because a lot of American right wings don't realize that they have now the best ambassador of the United States to Asia and Africa. You can't pay enough for that sort of free publicity.

Mark Pearce:

How is the incident at the moment of the asylum seekers in Indonesia playing out in the Southeast Asian mind?

Farish Noor:

Well, I think this is a learning experience for both sides. I hope what it has shown to Australians is that Indonesia is not this tin pot banana republic dictatorship where the president can do whatever he likes. I mean, this is the result of democratization and decentralization. Indonesia today is a far more democratic country than it has ever been. Provincial leaders do have a lot of say in local governance.

And so, this current dilemma that both countries face has arisen as a result of the provincial governor saying, "No, I don't want these people in my province." He is playing his card. It's one-upmanship vis-a-vis the provincial government and the central government. And then, there's another level of upmanship. It's Yudhoyono having to save face before his local constituencies, his Indonesian voters and Australia.

Yudhoyono is very much an internationalist. He's a very forward-looking, regional-minded politician, in that respect, very different from the other presidential candidates in the recent Indonesian elections. It's really sad that this has happened because now he is being cast as this weak feeble president who will do whatever this white guy Rudd says. This is how he's cast. Here comes your boss. He has given you some rubbish, deal with it.

This is actually very, very damaging. It's damaging for Australia because it looks like Australia is forever dumping its mess on Southeast Asia. It's damaging for Yudhoyono because he looks weak as a result. It's just sad. Anyone who knows internal Indonesian politics will tell you that wherever these boat people would have been left, whoever the provincial governor was, he would have given the same reply, "No, not in my backyard. I don't want this. You're going to deal with the Australians."

In the end, if Australia gets its way one way or another, it will be seen as the rich country getting its way and Indonesia being made to pay the price for being poor and being dependent, therefore, on Australian aid and economic cooperation.

That's where the crux of the moral question lies, I think. It brings us back down to the question of power differentials and the realities of inequality. So, how do you then engineer understanding between a country like Indonesia and Australia when there are also very real power differentials between the two?

Mark Pearce:

So, if you were advising Kevin Rudd about how you should approach Southeast Asia in the next three or four years, what would you say? What would be your guiding three or four principles?

Farish Noor:

Depending on whether he’s going to pay me for saying this, here's the free advice. It is absolutely essential for Australia to remind, not only other neighboring countries but more importantly Australia itself, that it is a multiracial country. This image of Australia being a white country is redundant. Anyone who has spent even 30 minutes walking down Melbourne can see that. But somehow, this image has to be seriously revised and deconstructed.

It's important for Australia to project this image of being a country that is plural and complex abroad, but it's also a message that it has to send back to itself. It has to internalize this idea because the anxiety that you're seeing now, if these were not 78 Sri Lankans but 78 French, would you have the same reaction? Clearly, it seems to me intuitively this visceral reaction to Sri Lankans because they're Sri Lankans, because it's somebody's idea that there is this fixed Australian identity that has to be protected from external elements that confuse it. But Australian identity is confused; it is complex. And that's why it's a rich country, that's why it's an interesting country to live in and to visit.

As long as and until that internal diversity and complexity is not something that's truly internalized by Australians themselves, they're always going to have this problem in projecting the image abroad. So, it's not just the case of showing the Benetton ad image of Australia on billboards in Jakarta. That image has to be here first and Australians need to internalize that. I think a lot of this anxiety, this fear of immigration that you see now in Australia boils down to that.

There's still this idea of they'll be somehow an ideal model prototype of Australia that is in jeopardy as a result of migration. But then, the whole history of Australia is a history of migration. If you accept that as your premise, then perhaps your internal politics, your domestic and international politics might change as well. So, that's my two cents' worth of advice to Rudd.

Mark Pearce:

Any specific points? What would you say about the idea of an expanded Asia? Would you say he should pursue that? How should he pursue it?

Farish Noor:

Yes. Pursue it on the basis of Australia being not only geographically part of Asia but it has to situate itself and see its destiny as part of Asia. The rise and fall of Asia will have an immediate impact on Australia despite the workings of virtual international market on all of that. I mean, if there's a major economic fallout in Southeast Asia, the first neighbor that's going to be hit is Australia next door. Like it or not, sink or swim, we sink or swim together.

And so, Australia has to really culturally position itself in Asia and stake its claim. This is the feeling that Southeast Asians have towards Australia is that you're accidental neighbors. You wanted to live somewhere but this is the lot you got. And you have to be our neighbors, but actually you'd rather be somewhere else.

Until Southeast Asians actually feel that Australians are committed to Asia, then you can talk about partnership because it has to be partnership. It can't be leadership. It cannot be Australian leadership of Asia. That will never happen. It will never be accepted.

And part and parcel of somehow repositioning Australia as part of this wider, broader Asia is to somehow reaffirm to Australians and to non-Australians, to Australia's Asian neighbors that it, too, is part of the current of what's going in Asia at the moment. In the same way that Islam is a reality in Asia, Islam is also a reality in Australia. How many Asians realize that there's so many Muslims in Australia, how many Hindus there are in Australia, how many Buddhists there are in Australia? The very presence of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in Australia that makes Australia Asia. These Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists by virtue of being Australians have put Australia on the map. Australia has become part of Asia because Asia has come to Australia. Now, I think that is something that needs to be articulated better.

One other thing, which I think is equally important, Australia playing a role in Asia is also important for Asians because it will also force Asians to rethink what it means to be an Asian because if Australia is Asian, if it's part of Asia, it sees itself as Asian and if it is accepted as Asian, then it also means that there's this thing called white Asians. And it is very important for Asians to realize that being Asian also includes being white Asians, in the same way that white South Africans post Apartheid have staked their claim on Africa. They are Africans. And I think that would be enriching for everyone. You would really open up our understanding of who we are and what we are and what it means to be Asian.

Mark Pearce:

Dr. Farish Noor, thank you for your time.

Farish Noor:

Thank you very much.

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