With more than 50 years spent studying, writing about and living in Asia for extended periods, I am at the forefront of those convinced of the need for greater engagement with Asia. So I welcome the release of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper as a wish list of some of the things our country ought to be doing to achieve greater integration with Asia.
Various commentators have already rightly drawn attention to the problems associated with finding enough teachers in Australia, at all levels of the educational spectrum, to meet the accepted need for greater teaching of Asian languages, history, politics and culture, with the latter broadly but rather uncertainly defined. My concern is to raise a different question: what will be the content of courses, particularly those dealing with politics and history?
Let me illustrate this using the area most familiar to me: Southeast Asia. If schools are going to teach about 20th century Indonesian or Cambodian history, at what stage will it be appropriate to refer, in detail, to the massacres that took place following the overthrow of Sukarno in the mid-1960s and the terrible cost in lives of the Pol Pot years in Cambodia in the 1970s? Is this material suitable for primary schools, or will a future curriculum defer the 'nasties' to secondary level and focus on warm and fuzzy aspects of Asian history and culture such as wyang kulit puppets for Indonesia and the wonders of Angkor in the junior years?
The answer surely will be along the lines of 'gearing' the degree of detail offered to the age of the students studying particular courses. But I can't see how unpleasant subjects can be avoided. And here's rub. If we are going to teach about Asia widely we will have to do so honestly. That means revealing there are plenty of unpleasant issues.
The unpleasant past is one thing. There is also the unpleasant present. No serious discussion of China can neglect the nature of its authoritarian government, lack of an established rule of law and the heavy-handed discrimination against minorities such as the Tibetans and Uighurs.
If we are to embrace widespread teaching of contemporary Indonesia, the extent to which Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government is prepared to disregard the intimidation of non-Muslims by the Islamic Defenders Front must be noted, as must human rights violations in Papua. And to focus on a very recent issue that has received scant attention in the Australian media, the readiness of Myanmar's Buddhists to show a very non-Buddhist attitude to the Muslims of Arakan has to be discussed too. The number of Muslims killed by Buddhist Burmese is deeply disturbing.
In short, a serious effort to come to terms with Asia will reveal that it is a region with many aspects that are unattractive by Australian standards. But this is not an argument in favour of abandoning the need to study the region. The hope must be that Australians will be mature enough to cope with difference. It will be a challenging business, as the more we know and understand, the more complicated the region becomes. The often cited fact that an increasing number of Australians holiday in such places as Bali and Phuket does not mean much in terms of their gaining an appreciation of the history, politics or culture of these locations. (This last comment does not ignore the attraction of those locales; as a regular visitor to Luang Prabang in Laos, I don't go there to engage in Buddhist meditation or, for the most part, reflect on the details of Lao history, even though I have written about the grim 're-education' efforts of the Lao communist government in the post-1975 years.)
The White Paper is right to emphasise the importance of Asia in the future. The issue for debate is our capacity to deal with that future even when it takes us well out of our comfort zone, as we confront the history and contemporary reality of countries and people that will not always be attractive by our own standards.
Photo by Flickr user Jens Lagemyr.