Asia, Imperative! Reflections on ASAA’s Report on the Study of Asia

Asia, Imperative! Reflections on ASAA’s Report on the Study of Asia

Robin Jeffrey reflects on the new ASAA report, Australia’s Asia Education Imperative, co-authored by Melissa Crouch and Edward Aspinall. Professor Jeffrey was an editor-author of Maximizing Australia’s Asia Knowledge (with John Fitzgerald, Kama Maclean and Tessa Morris-Suzuki), the ASAA’s 2002 report on the condition of Asian studies.

Australia’s Asia Education Imperative reflects the scholarly passion and commitment of its authors and their associates. To have completed this project during the difficulties of Covid is a tribute to the authors and their conviction that the messages in the report are important for Australia’s long-term future.

It would be pleasing to say that the report has turned up evidence that the study of the languages, cultures and histories of Australia’s neighbours and new diasporas is flourishing. The authors do indeed assure readers that “nothing … should be taken to suggest that the field [of Asian studies] in Australia is weak in global terms, and the trends we have outlined do not suggest it is in terminal or even steep decline” (66). In the face of the evidence, however, this statement represents an announcement that the lifeboats aren’t leaking.

In Australia today, there are 270,000 people born in Vietnam and thousands of Australia-born people of Vietnam-origin families. There are more than a hundred thousand people from each of Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea and Sri Lanka. In the 2021 census, close to 1.4 million people recorded their ancestry as Chinese. The India-origin population has grown from 150,000 twenty years ago to close to 800,000 today.

The report concludes that “the study of South Asia [Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka] is strikingly weak” (63). Australia and India have flirted enthusiastically a few times in the past fifty years, but these encounters have previously faded away. Today, however, Australian authorities are optimistic about trading opportunities to replace a few Chinese markets, and “the QUAD” – the four-power mateship of the US, Japan, India and Australia – excites some analysts. And, most important of all, the size of new diaspora today assures a new continuity as people-to-people contacts are here to stay.

These demographic changes mean that Australians in a wide variety of roles – transport, retail, law, medicine, government ‒ need a greater knowledge of their neighbours, clients, business partners and co-workers. This applies in varying degrees for migrants from all countries, but it will be particularly noticeable in the case of migrants from South Asia, because of both their numbers and diversity.

The consequences of flimsy knowledge were obvious in 2007 in the case of Dr Mohammed Haneef, an Indian doctor, wrongly detained in Australia in connection with a terrorist bombing in Glasgow. In the sixth hour of interrogation, an interviewing police officer admitted that “geography was not one of my better subjects at school”, asking “Bangalore, where’s that in relation to Pakistan?”. In another instance, when asked whether a word was Indian or Arabic, the transcript records Dr Haneef as saying that “it’s from Udo [sic]”. The police officer asks “So it’s an Udo?”, displaying no apparent knowledge of the Urdu language.

In those days, ANU offered Urdu in Perso-Arabic script as a subject, and ANU, La Trobe, Sydney and RMIT offered Hindi, Urdu’s near relative, written in Devanagari script.

Fifteen years later, Australia’s Asia Education Imperative has found that Urdu has disappeared altogether and the number of universities teaching Hindi had fallen from four to two (ANU and La Trobe) (39). Australia now has about a million residents with origins in South Asia, of which a substantial proportion speak Hindi or Urdu.

The consequences of scant knowledge crop up more widely today, as Professor Manjula Datta O’Connor, a Melbourne psychiatrist, suggests in Daughters of Durga: Dowries, Gender Violence and Family in Australia. Datta O’Connor recounts her experiences working with women from South Asia who often come from close family environments to an isolated Australian suburb. She suggests that a better understanding of South Asian history and culture could help both the immigrants and Australian agencies cope with the problems of living in a new country.

Australia’s Asia Education Imperative underlines the unwillingness of Australian governments and universities to maintain initiatives beyond three or four years. It’s a frailty of fifty years’ standing, harking back to the days when the Asian Studies Co-ordinating Committee, set up by the Whitlam government, was ended by its successor. Repetitions since then are easy to find.

Contrast this with the “area studies” programs in the United States, funded as National Resource Centres (NRC). In 2022, NRC grants funded 98 such programs around the US university system, each worth $500,000 a year, divided about equally between disciplinary studies and fellowships for language study.

Of those 98 programs, 45 were devoted to study of Asia – 19 for East Asia, 11 for the Middle East, eight for South Asia and seven for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Out of the total outlay of USD $56 million (AUD $85 million) for 2022, the Asia-related programs got about 40 per cent.

The population of the US is thirteen times larger than Australia’s. If Australian governments invested one-thirteenth as much as in the US, the resulting seven million dollars a year could support at least seven centres comparable to those of the National Resource program.

National Resource Centre grants are competitive. Universities bid for them, and performance is reviewed – with the expectation of renewal, not closure – every four or five years. Programs, such as the one for South Asia at the University of California, Berkeley, have been funded for sixty years. Their longevity has enabled them to build endowments and expand activities.

Australia’s Asia Education Imperative makes a dozen recommendations to governments and universities. A number touch on tasks that National Resource Centres are required to perform. Language fellowships are one. Others include inter-university collaborations; in-country study; regular interaction with colleagues and institutions in Asia; appointments of well-qualified, motivated scholars to tenure-track (or at least, long-term contract) positions. The advantage of dedicated centres pursuing such tasks lies in the knowledge and motivation of a team of scholars in stable jobs.

The report makes one recommendation that didn’t seemed necessary in earlier reviews: universities should “reaffirm a commitment to academic freedom.” That may be tricky to achieve at the same time as maintaining steady interaction with universities in Asia. Increasingly illiberal governments – Modi’s India is one example – expect researchers to toe a government line.

As Australia profits from students and workers from Asia, and more and more Australian citizens have roots in Asia, widening and deepening knowledge is common sense. And for diplomacy, defence, business, trade and tourism, the case for Asia knowledge has been made for fifty years but has never seemed as urgent as today.

Australia’s Asia Education Imperative deserves a wide readership. The long version ‒ 50,000 words in a dense format ‒ needs a concise, arresting presence for social media and a print-on-paper tract for missionary exercises. The report’s findings need to be made prominent whenever ASAA members are attending conferences, lobbying in their own institutions or persuading the unconverted.

Photo source: Arwin Hidayat, Wasingun, 2021, exhibited at the 2022 ASAA Biennial Conference and captured by Simon Milder Photographer

Robin Jeffrey is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Professor Jeffrey was an editor-author of the ASAA’s 2002 report on the conditions of Asian Studies.

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