Asian Studies Association of Australia Asian Currents
The Asian Studies Association of Australia's e-bulletin
February 2005 | ISSN 1449-4418 | <>


Asian Currents aims to connect Australia's academic experts on Asia with journalists, policy makers, business people, artists and other educators. Please feel free to forward this email to others you think would be interested in receiving Asian Currents. Registration is free and open to all by simply registering your email address at . The e-bulletin is normally brought out in the third week of each month.


Each edition of Asian Currents brings you a short insight into topical issues.

ASAA's 2004 language survey

By Robin Jeffrey, La Trobe University and Past-President, ASAA

A recent editorial in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) concluded that Australia needs to reinforce its capacity to work smartly in the Asian region, through public investment in the tools of being Asia-savvy as well as trade and good neighbourliness. Among the tools listed was language education.

The AFR is right. The shortage of Asian language skills became obvious to all when agencies working to help in the tsunami relief effort cried out for those who could speak the languages of the Indian Ocean rim. It has been evident to the ASAA for some time, particularly since it began tracking enrolments in Asian languages in Australian universities in 2001.

The findings of the recently completed 2004 survey, supervised by Anne McLaren, a specialist in Chinese at the University of Melbourne, are not encouraging.

About 1,800 students at Australian universities were studying Indonesian in 2004-a miniscule proportion of the 800,000 people studying at tertiary level. That's a fall of 15 per cent since 2001. Only at the Australian Defence Forces Academy (ADFA) are Indonesian enrolments doing well. With about 140 students when the program began in 2001, enrolments reached over 200 in 2004. (ADFA figures are excluded from the university numbers quoted above).

Overall, Japanese, with around 8,000 students, remains the largest enrolled Asian language, although it too has experienced a decline, of 5 per cent, since 2001.

Chinese is the growth story. Enrolments have risen 22 per cent in three years to about 5,700 students. While this is in part explained by perceptions that Chinese language skills will be useful given China's booming economy, enrolments in Chinese and Japanese are bolstered by students from Asia who pick up another language during their studies in Australia.

This demonstrates the high regard overseas students have both for language acquisition and for the quality of Australian programs. While it may keep class sizes viable, it does not add to the pool of educated, language-sensitive Australians.

The availability of courses in Asian languages other than Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese is scant and enrolments are slim. Seven universities reported teaching Korean in 2004 to about 470 students. (Arabic was the next largest with four institutions and about 350 students.) Vietnamese and Thai were taught at three institutions with each having an Australia-wide total of about 65 students. Hindi/Urdu, the second largest spoken language in the world and mother tongue of nearly 500 million people, was available at three institutions with about 50 students in total. Tagalog, Bengali and Tamil are not taught at all.

Language programs are often on shaky ground because they are relatively costly. They need intense tuition and more contact hours than other subjects. Universities are addressing the issue of cost with innovative teaching methods and the pooling of resources. But this is not enough. Greater endorsement from government and the business community of the importance of language to Australia's future in Asia is needed now more than ever. The study of Asian languages not only adds to the skills of individual Australians but to our capacity as a nation to deal productively and sensitively with our Asian neighbours.

The ASAA's 2005-06 budget submission sets out the findings of the 2004 language survey and puts forward proposals for boosting language learning in Australian universities. See

See for an example of a national online undergraduate seminar in Indonesian studies held last October.

See also Meg Gurry's article, 'An Asia-illiterate society: Asian studies in crisis' ( in New Matilda).

LAOS: The politics of resource exploitation

By Martin Stuart-Fox, Professor of History, University of Queensland

The Australian company Oxiana Limited's gold and copper mine near Xepon in central Laos has been in production for less than two years. Over this time, gold production has averaged around 150,000 ounces a year. Oxiana is now moving into the much more substantial and long-term copper phase of the venture. Based on currently known ore bodies, the mine is expected to operate for the next 30 years, a figure which may be extended through further exploration.

Production is also due to begin in March at another Australian gold mine situated north of Vientiane in the region of Phu Bia, the country's tallest mountain. Operated by Pan Australia Resources, this mine too will begin by extracting more easily accessible gold before exploiting much more extensive deposits of copper.

Both Oxiana (which trades in Laos as Lan Xang Minerals) and Pan Australian are small, aggressive mining companies prepared to operate in parts of Laos that pose particular difficulties. The Xepon mine straddles the heavily bombed Ho Chi Minh trail-it cost Oxiana A$2 million just to get rid of the unexploded ordnance around the mine site. The Phu Bia mine is in what was the redoubt of the CIA's 'secret army' of Hmong mercenaries during the Vietnam War, remnants of which have continued to hold out against the Lao government. Nevertheless the mines have gone ahead, and their success has provoked a flurry of exploration by other mining companies.

More remarkable, however, is the fact that they got off the ground at all in this nominally Marxist-Leninist country. Relations between Australia and Laos are warm and Australia has been generous in its aid to Laos. But these are not the reasons for the Lao government's support for resource exploitation. They are financial and political.

First, the government has very limited revenue. More of the Lao population are subsistence farmers than in any other country in Southeast Asia, which limits the tax base in an already under-populated and impoverished country. Wide-scale smuggling and rising corruption further reduces government revenue. So does the 'granting of exceptions' by the Ministry of Finance that allows the wealthy and politically well connected to pay little or no personal tax. Moreover, little of the revenue collected by the provinces finds its way to central government coffers.

The government is under intense pressure from multilateral lending institutions to improve revenue collection (currently only 11% of GDP and unlikely to reach the target of 13.4% by 2005-06) and reduce unproductive expenditures (for example, to loss-making state-owned enterprises); in other words, to do something about corruption. But the regime is resisting-for political reasons.

Any moves to limit corruption strike at the way politics work in the Lao People's Democratic Republic. The collapse of ideology saw politics revert to patronage, with much energy devoted to balancing the interests of powerful political families and clans around the country. Any attempt to introduce more transparent procedures into procurement, tax assessment, loan criteria or employment reduces opportunities for political patronage, and so limits the influence of senior members of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party.

Revenue from Oxiana is projected to rise to US$33.36 million by 2007, amounting to just under 15% of the country's 2002 revenue. The following year, revenue from the sale of electricity from the huge Nam Theun II hydro dam will come on-stream, and will build steadily thereafter to equal Oxiana's contribution by 2013. Little wonder then that the Lao authorities are right behind resource exploitation. For this will protect the party from any pressures for democratic reform.



This month we profile Anthony Low, Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University (ANU) and an Emeritus Smuts Professor of the University of Cambridge. Professor Low was formerly Vice-Chancellor of the ANU and a president of the ASAA. Here he reflects on the beginning of Indian studies at the ANU and current issues of interdisciplinary work.

I came to South Asian studies by way of Africa. Late nineteenth-century East African history was my first interest-and it is to that I have returned after retirement. My first appointment was to what is now Makerere University in Uganda. While there I was also the Uganda correspondent of The Times (of London), and as such reported on a constitutional mission conducted by Sir Keith Hancock.

A few years later Sir Keith invited me to join his embryonic history department at the ANU, partly to talk about Africa but also to start postgraduate work in modern Indian history. He knew I had been born in India, and continued to have interests there. It happened that my first group of graduate students all wanted to work on India not Africa. So reading a page or two ahead of them, but little more, I plunged in. Two substantial periods in India helped. There I fastened upon the extensive records in the National and State Archives and at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi. These opened up all sorts of immensely important stories.

When I started out to work in Africa there was next to no scholarly work to which to turn for stimulus (other than on South Africa) - except by the anthropologists. So I read theirs avidly. Some of this had nothing to offer me, but much did. There is less debate nowadays about the value of interdisciplinary work partly because its value is thankfully taken for granted but also because now a great deal of scholarly work has straddled creatively and successfully the old disciplinary boundaries. There is clearly much mileage left to be travelled here.

It is, however, worth remembering that - as in my case - area studies has often taken the lead because the depth of scholarship in any one field has not been overlarge and we have turned to others for the insights they offer. Asian studies, which remains on this path, has a great deal to offer other fields and needs to continue to exploit its opportunities in every way it can. Less common, though in my own work of crucial importance, are comparative studies across different areas and different times.

Given that we work in environments in which specialists on a range of subjects are not all that difficult to find, far more use could be made of the opportunities their availability presents. As one example: in my own work on decolonization, especially in India, it has been of central importance to learn something of the several stories of this process in South East Asia and indeed Africa. Only when that was done could some sense be made of its particularities. It is the same, I find, with numbers of other things at which I have tried my hand. Going beyond the familiar can be a great help to so much that we do.

Anthony Low's Congress and the Raj had just been reprinted by OUP Delhi after 27 years: See

Researcher of the month

Michael Barr grew up in Maitland (NSW) with a keen interest in politics but no academic ambitions. There was a 13-year gap between getting his BA at the University of Newcastle (NSW) in 1980 and starting Honours in History at the University of Queensland in 1993. In between he worked for the late B.A. Santamaria.

Exhausted after his stint at the National Civic Council and at a dead end, he resumed his studies. There followed an almost seamless path into research, which fulfilled Michael's craving for a challenge. His PhD dissertation on Lee Kuan Yew won the ASAA Presidents' Prize for 1999 and was published as Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs Behind the Man (Curzon and Georgetown UP, 2000). He won a Queensland University of Technology Postdoctoral Fellowship, and used it to research and write Cultural Politics and Asian Values: The Tepid War (RoutledgeCurzon, 2002, 2004).

His current work at the University of Queensland is on nation building and elite formation in Singapore. He is also a co-ordinator (along with Prof. Carl Trocki of Queensland University of Technology and Prof. Chua Beng Huat of the National University of Singapore) of an international collaborative project called 'Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Postwar Singapore'. Next July, the Asia Research Institute will host an international symposium in Singapore for this project. See

Michael's most recent publication is the Singapore chapter in Comparative Health Policy in the Asia-Pacific (ed. Robin Gauld, Open University Press, 2005). This is outside his main field of research but he is particularly proud of his essays on health policy because it shows the versatility of the historical method and the usefulness of 'contemporary history'. By that he means combining the skills of the historian to interrogate the past and tell a story that contains questions, answers and analysis, with the use of current sources, interviews and one's own experience- such as being in Singapore during the SARS epidemic.

Website of the month

The Access Indonesia website is the result of joint project between the University of Southern California and Bandung Institute of Technology. It seeks to foster a fuller interdisciplinary understanding of Indonesia through a 'one-stop website' (available both in English and in Indonesian). The website is designed for scholars, students, international development practitioners, policymakers, and the business community. There is special tsunami section focussing on the disaster recovery and rebuilding processes in Aceh and North Sumatra. Soon there will also be a business manual section for those who would like to conduct business activities in or with Indonesia.

Recent article of interest

India, China and Australia: lessons from different paths in economic reform

Last year Professor Ross Garnaut delivered the 2004 Sir John Crawford lecture in New Delhi. In an updated version of his speech, Professor Garnaut looks at the comparative experience of internationally-oriented reform in India, China and Australia, and draws some general lessons. His paper can be downloaded from the Lowy Institute for International Policy website:

Did you know?

With the support of the Tokyo-based Japan Foundation, the Australia-Japan Research Centre at the ANU has compiled a directory of Japanese Studies in Australia and New Zealand. The directory which gives up-to-date information on 45 institutions conducting Japan-related teaching and research, as well as details of over 280 specialists involved in Japanese studies across Australia and New Zealand. It also contains essays, data and analysis on the current climate of Japanese studies in Australia and New Zealand.


Diary dates

THE ACEH TSUNAMI, THE RELIEF EFFORT AND PROSPECTS FOR PEACE, 25 February at 5.30pm, University of Technology Sydney. Edward Aspinall, Lecturer in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney will present his impressions of the impact of the disaster on Acehnese society, and provide a picture of the local, national and international relief efforts. He will also discuss the implications of the disaster for ongoing efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Aceh conflict, and point to the implications of the conflict for the relief effort itself. Venue: UTS CB02.06.41 (Building 2, level 6, room 41) See Contact: Peter Worsley

TERRORISM IN THE PHILIPPINES, 1 March, Brisbane. An evening seminar with Dr Paul Wilson, Professor and Chair of Criminology at Bond University. Time: 6pm at Customs House, 399 Queen Street. Free to members. General admission $22. RSVP: 28 February 2005, 07 3220 2198 or

BOLLYWOOD MUSIC AND DANCE SHOW FOR TSUNAMI SURVIVORS WITH KHALIL GUDAZ, Concert in Melbourne, 5 March. Be entertained by a Bollywood-style group of singers, musicians and dancers from Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. The concert will be preceded by a Bollywood Dance Workshop with members of the Om Music Group. All the proceeds will go to Oxfam Community Aid Abroad. Saturday 5 March at 4.30pm (Workshop) 6pm - 10pm (Concert) at the Basement Theatre, Sidney Myer Asia Centre, The University of Melbourne, corner Swanston Street and Monash Road, Parkville. Entry $15. To reserve a seat, send an email to: with "Bollywood" in the subject line. Contact: Nadeem Malik (03) 9849 3376,

AUSTRALIAN MISSION TO THE ASIAN DEVELOPMENT BANK (ADB), 15-18 March. Austrade invites interested parties to join the 2005 Australian Mission to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). This mission is designed to bring you closer to the business opportunities the Bank offers, provide access to the key decision makers in the Bank, and give you a first-hand look at the strategic directions the Bank will take in the short and medium term. The focus of this mission is on consulting opportunities. For more information contact Liza Bautista, Austrade Manila, tel: +63 2 7578 287 or email

WORLD EXPO: March to September in Aichi, Japan 127 countries and 6 international organisations, along with leading Japanese corporations such as Toyota, Toshiba and Mitsubishi, will take part in the Expo. The Australian Government has committed $35 million to Australia's participation in the event, and has been joined by the Victorian, Queensland and Western Australian state governments and the private sector in preparing Australia's participation. For each month of the six months of the Expo, the business program will feature one of the following sectors: agribusiness; natural resources and energy; biotechnology; information and communications technology; automotive sector; and environmental technology. See for more information about the Australian pavilion.

IICEF 05 INDIA INTERNATIONAL CAREER AND EDUCATIONAL FAIR, 27 May - 6 June. This fair is for institutions wishing to recruit Indian (especially in South India) students for under and post-graduate programs.,5678.

JAPAN - NEGOTIATING THE 21ST CENTURY, Japan Studies Association of Australia 2005 conference, 3-6 July, University of Adelaide. The conference will bring together scholars from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and around the world to share the latest research in the fields of Japanese Studies and Japanese Language Education. The deadline for proposals of panels is 28 February 2005. See for further detail.

IMPROVING POLICING FOR WOMEN IN THE ASIA PACIFIC REGION CONFERENCE, 20-23 August, Darwin. Delegates from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Asia will explore how policing can better protect women's human rights and strategies to improve the number of women in key decision making positions within policing. For more information go to the Australasian Council of Women and Policing website at

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About the ASAA

The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) promotes the study of Asian languages, societies, cultures, and politics in Australia; supports teaching and research in Asian studies; and works towards an understanding of Asia in the community at large. It publishes the Asia Studies Review journal and holds a biennial conference.

The ASAA believes there is an urgent need to develop a strategy to preserve, renew and extend Australian expertise about Asia. It has called on the government to show national leadership in the promotion of Australia's Asia knowledge and skills. See Maximizing Australia's Asia Knowledge Repositioning and Renewal of a National Asset

Asian Currents is published by the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA), thanks to a grant from the Myer Foundation made to assist the ASAA promote the study of Asia in Australia. It is edited by the ASAA's promotions agents, Francesca Beddie and Peter Rodgers.

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