The word “immigrant” is gradually becoming a dirty word to us here, but in Australia a freer movement of people in and out of the country is seen as an enriching phenomenon.
TWO weeks ago I was hosted by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) for a one-week trip to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. I have been to Sydney before but that was my first time in Melbourne and Canberra.
I find it interesting that Australia has just one Ministry covering foreign affairs and international trade when we in Malaysia have two - Wisma Putra and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). I guess if you think about it carefully, it makes sense to have just one because the overlaps between the two are pretty significant. And Australian taxpayers’ money could be saved this way.
Nevertheless, I do understand that our politicians need to distribute jobs among themselves. If Wisma Putra and MITI were to be merged, there would be less posts and perks to dish out. As long as we treat ministerial jobs as political rewards to buy political loyalty, the desire to reduce overlaps will remain weak. So let’s not talk about a merger of government Ministries just yet.
My trip started in Sydney where I met with representatives from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the Australian Federal Police, and academics at the University of Sydney’s Southeast Asia Centre.
We then departed Sydney for Melbourne, where I toured the Islamic Museum of Australia, met with Professor Stephen Martin who is Chief Executive of the Committee for Economic Development Australia, and met with academics at the University of Melbourne.
In Melbourne, I also gave a talk at the Australian Institute of International Affairs where, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most colourful discussion about Malaysia’s political and economic challenges took place outside of the formal talk.
The third stop was Canberra. Here I had the honour of meeting with DFAT’s team that covers Southeast Asia, officials from the Treasury Department, as well as Australian National University Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young.
I was also given the opportunity to tour the old and new Parliament House, as well as to watch their Question Time where Tony Abbott and members of his Cabinet were questioned by those in the opposition. I will not attempt a serious comparison of the quality of that debate with what I see in our own parliament over here. Suffice to say that they sound cleverer there.
Luckily, in between the very packed formal programme, I managed to squeeze in some time to talk to Malaysians in Melbourne and Canberra. They may be living abroad but they clearly do keep abreast with developments at home.
After Canberra, we drove back to Sydney, where I had the chance to watch a play at the Sydney Opera House and climb up the Sydney Harbour Bridge just before flying back to Kuala Lumpur.
The trip was too short to make me fully understand Australia as a whole. It was, on average, just one and a half days at each of the three cities, plus travel time. But it was good exposure and it certainly helped me gain a bit more understanding about the country.
One thing that struck me was the diversity of the Australian population. In terms of area, Australia is the sixth biggest in the world. But it’s population is only about 23 million. That is less than the population of Malaysia.
Other than the Aborigines, every single Australian traces their origin to migration and they come from all parts of the world. If I remember correctly, during my week there, I met with people who told me that their ancestors were originally from the Philippines, Russia, Malaysia, Japan, South Africa, England, Ireland, Lebanon, Pakistan, Vietnam, China, Scotland, Indonesia, Singapore, United Arab Emirates and Sudan.
They are proud to acknowledge that immigration and a freer movement of people in and out of the country is an enriching phenomenon. In fact, immigration into Australia continues until today and I personally have several friends who have moved there within the last couple of years. And there is even an Immigration Museum in Melbourne to remind people of the fact.
What is it that makes Australian more accepting of immigration? Why is the word “immigrant” gradually becoming a dirty word to us here in Malaysia? If I were to trace my own history, I still have relatives in Songkhla. My ancestors on my late father’s side moved to Perlis from the Southern Thai town.
And my kampung on my mother’s side is in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan, indicating that the other half of my ancestry is from Indonesia’s Sumatra.
Clearly, at some stage, my ancestors were pendatang too. Today, my family and I are considered bumiputra Malays and I enjoy various privileges because of that. I can’t help but ask how we came to a stage where some pendatang like me enjoy various privileges while other pendatang do not.
But let’s be clear. I am not at all suggesting that everything is fine and dandy in Australia.
They, too, have seen cases of inter-ethnic tension. In 2005, in Cronulla, a suburb not too far from Sydney, a sectarian riot broke out resulting in many injuries and more than a hundred people being charged in court. I was told that while Cronulla may be the biggest incident in recent years, there were other smaller cases of ethnic tensions too.
Nevertheless, I still saw in Australia a country made up of immigrants who rarely doubt the loyalty and commitment of their own fellow citizens. I guess there is nothing wrong with being a pendatang and we should be proud of it.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own. The STAR Home News Opinion Thinking Liberally 18 Mar 2015