Published on Webdiary - Founded and Inspired by Margo Kingston (/cms)

A needed unity from a recent diversity

By Raja Ratnam
Created 04/06/2009 - 17:52

A needed unity from a recent diversity
by Raja Ratnam [0]

In a country where the day temperature in the first few months after my arrival was half of what I was used to, and the night temperature during the ensuing winter required up to seven army blankets; and with no contacts or support mechanisms for foreign students available, I was first befriended by a girl who had relatively recently resided in a Nazi concentration camp. There she had been raped, she said. The first man to engage me in extended conversations, sometimes deep into the night, was also a Jewish European displaced person. He had, he said, been a nomadic freedom fighter. Both spoke good English, and were clever enough to adapt immediately to Australian society, and thence to qualify for a good living in their chosen professions.

A few years later, I went out with a lovely lass who wore a number on her arm. Although she would not accompany me in daylight (because “they”, the Jewish Australians, “would not like it”), she introduced me to her adult family (all numbered), and the most gorgeous little redhead ever. The little one was four; she is probably on the way to being a grandma by now. We never talked about the family’s experience during the war, which must have been terrible. Yet, none of those with numbers displayed anger or bitterness, however much they might have remembered and suffered in private. They were totally focused on making a new and secure life in Australia. How, I wondered, did they manage to be so normal, so ordinary? What resilience!

Since I had hated the Japanese for years, after nearly four years of hardship under a military occupation, I could not believe that my friends could readily bury the memory of their experiences under the Nazis and with other anti-Semitic fellow- Europeans.

Over the years, I worked or socialised with and, in later years, entertained in my home, a few of the other Europeans displaced by World War Two. In the ensuing decades, I also got to know a few of the refugees from the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian uprisings against the Soviet, as well as migrants from just about all of Europe. How so? Because I tended to collect interesting people. And they seemed to be attracted to me. Admittedly, I do stand out, by colour and accent, from the palefaces around me. It is, of course, a truism that new arrivals then tended to be attracted to other new arrivals in a country which was then not so welcoming.

Who are you? Where did you come from? What experiences have you brought to this country? What are you doing? How are you being treated by the Aussies? This was before we ‘wogs’ and ‘blackfellows’ became Aussies ourselves. That is what we talked about. I have also exchanged many a recipe with fellow foreigners. I now know at least two tasty and aromatic ways of cooking aubergines, which the locals called eggplant. Why eggplant? But then they could not get their tongue around papaya, calling it paw-paw!

To further enrich my exposure to humanity in Australia in all its many cultural and ethnic variations, I met, through my policy work in the 1980s, a number of those to whom Australia had provided succour - from East Asia, Eastern Europe, South America, and East Timor. None of these people saw themselves as guest workers. Australia was now both refuge and home. A few did go back, either disgruntled or opportunistically.

Immigrants have traditionally been seen as adventurers. They are the ones who cross the seas and join people with different histories, cultures and languages. They do this to improve their life chances. My father and maternal grandfather were such adventurers. They migrated from the north of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), an arid terrain which produces tough, durable people (sometimes compared to the Scots), for work in British Malaya. By virtue of a (limited) education in English, a cultural tradition of seeking knowledge and skills, and a tolerance of other faiths through the practice of Hinduism, my forebears and their tribal compatriots soon came to dominate the medical, teaching, and government services in a multicultural nation-in-the-making.

The Malays, who had been over-run by large numbers of new settlers from China, India and Ceylon (apart from the British colonial and trading poobahs), are a peace-loving and tolerant people. There was social harmony and religious tolerance in the country, whilst we all learnt to talk to one another in our daily transactions. Any antipathy expressed was towards the colonial ‘upstarts’ (as my elders referred to them). The diversity of the languages of China and India meant that almost everyone had to find a language they could share; or, like the early European immigrants, refugees and displaced persons in Australia, they spoke to one another in a smorgasbord (or mix) of any words that made sense.

In time, after the British had stopped strutting the stage, the Malays recovered their country. Malaysia is now a Muslim nation, ruled through a multi-ethnic democratic process reflecting, in part, tribal agglomerations, but dominated, through affirmative action policies, by the Malays. Yet, ethnic tolerance is so widespread that my close relatives are not only happy to remain there, but also do well financially and professionally. Some are more prosperous there than they would have been in Australia. Singapore, the remainder of old Malaya, is also a multi-ethnic nation, offering equal opportunity, and providing a good life to others of my extended and multi-ethnic family.

In contrast, I note that the Australian Aborigines, who were over-run by white invaders, have yet no clear place in their centuries-old homeland. They remain, in the main, societally marginal and economically unviable, unlike the modern day immigrants. Official multicultural policies had not included the indigene, in much the same way (as reported to me by a number of Jewish Australians) that the Muslim Palestinian is effectively a non-person in land-hungry Jewish Israel and its Occupied Territories. Perhaps an affirmative action plan might give the Australian indigene a kick-start (so to speak). I cannot see this happen, as there is still incredible prejudice against the heavily white-gene infused Aborigine. Yet, the Maoris of New Zealand have legal rights as an ethno-tribal people, presumably because they were able to fight and to offer an effective resistance to the British with their Indian mercenaries.

Encouragingly, the centuries-old antipathy in Australia between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants is dying, thanks to the younger generations, especially the women, shrugging off priestly control. This antipathy, often bitterly expressed, was a shock to me after my early life in Malaya, where one’s path to God was, and is, a personal matter. When one shares the same culture with fellow whites, and goes off to war with them to defend the interests of its overseas protectors, it is a tragedy to allow doctrinal sectarian (i.e. religious) differences to divide the people.

Australia is now a religiously tolerant nation, with Baha’i, Buddhist, Sikh and Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, and places of worship for other religions proliferating. The adherents of all faiths reach out to God or to their teacher without interference to others. This is what one would expect from those who accept a universal Creator whose creations we all are; or whose priests teach respect for all humans, indeed, for all sentient beings. However, some recent Muslim arrivals sought to have shariah law in Australia; these were then invited by some in government to move to those countries which already operate under this law. The many Muslim leaders I dealt with officially were, however, guiding their peoples to a desirable adaptation to Australian institutions and mores.

The attempt to achieve shariah law raises a crucial issue: whether immigrants might be offered the enhanced life chances they seek in Australia only in exchange for what they can, and will, contribute to the nation they seek to join. Why else would Australia accept someone knocking at its door? And does this not require that the new arrivals adapt to Australia, rather than the reverse; and that the immigrants accept that this means relating peaceably, and with respect, to all others in the country, irrespective of origins, faith, colour or class? And to accept too that all cultures and faiths are equal in what they do, with no faith or religious sect controlling the path, or the key to the door, leading to the Celestial Abode of the Heavenly Father?

A further issue: do the skull cap, the cross, the burqa/hijab, turban, and other religion-defined clothing and accoutrements signify an assertion of ethno-religious superiority? Would their display delay an eventual socio-cultural integration into the nation? Raising this issue does not imply that the answers must be in the affirmative.

The examination of this issue must commence with the recognition that the first generation Australians, the immigrants, bring with them the signs and symbols of their cultures. Their offspring, the second generation Australians (there being no such person as a second generation Immigrant), may be influenced by their multi- ethnic environment to become more cosmopolitan. Could we then not expect the third generation Australians, significantly separated in time from their grandparents and their imported cultural values and practices, to voluntarily divest themselves of the surface features of their cultural heritage (which generally imply difference), whilst retaining their core values (assuming that these are sufficiently divergent from those of their cohort generation)? Indeed, why would third generation (or fourth or fifth) generation Australians choose to dress differently from their peer group?

In the event, in the absence of symbols signifying difference (and therefore separation), would the socio-cultural integration of these third generation Australians be enhanced? And, realistically, would this not enable them to enjoy greater equal opportunity?

Surely this issue is worth discussing dispassionately.

Source URL: