My initial foray into civil society

It seems to be my destiny to be inveigled into community involvement. I do become involved quite a lot, and I do it with my eyes open. But I sometimes wonder why I become involved. What I become involved in appears to be a matter of chance. I do not enter into an arena because I really want to or need to. When I enter into an arena, I have no agenda or plan. I help as best I can. I expect no outcomes, unless I subsequently choose a specific task which seems achievable. Then I pull out all the stops, and off I go. I do it as a source of fun, or just simple satisfaction. I can withdraw just as easily and without heartbreak or sense of loss. I am not sure if this is a good thing or not.

My casual and chance-driven engagements in community affairs did achieve two important effects. I integrated into the community to a greater extent than most migrants I have observed, whether Asian or not. More importantly, I believe that my involvement sensitised a vast number of ‘old’ Aussies to the Asian presence – and to our capacity to contribute to the community, and to our ordinariness. There was yet another aspect to this involvement. It demonstrated that each of us should put something back into the community that sustains us.

I found a very high level of community involvement in Australia. Some of those involved also have an involvement with their church; most are simply humanistic.

… … When I found myself tossed into the deep end of the pool by being tricked into being a union shop steward, I had no idea how meetings were conducted, or anything else. At my first Council meeting, I was overawed by the dark-grey suited, solid (i.e. well fed), impressive-looking fellow councillors. They were more senior (… I was the only base grade clerk there), older, and wiser in the ways of the bureaucracy and the industrial scene. There were no women present and no other ethnic accent audible, although my accent was allegedly British.

I was to learn soon that these men were (and are) representative of that mass of middle range administrators who were the mainstay of the service. These were the experts upon whose knowledge and competence the managers relied; yet most had no great future career prospects. They were, in the main, genuinely committed to their chosen task.

The meetings were interminable with detailed debate on all manner of (to me) esoteric issues, and arguments about procedures; it was all deadly serious. I had great difficulty in maintaining an interest, especially as I understood little. There were clearly divisions in the group, but they did not seem sectoral (there were, I was told, Masons, Catholics, and every other faith and sect represented). However, I gathered soon that they all voted for the workers’ party, the Labor Party.

All of a sudden, I found myself elected to represent the union on the city’s road safety council. The president, who had indicated his friendship for me, wanted the position; those who opposed his faction cleverly nominated the unaligned foreigner, who won. At my first meeting of the road safety council, I was again surrounded by even heavier weights; a local government heavy, the town planning agency’s engineer, and sundry agency heavies (no women) all pondered seriously all manner of issues. These were, fortunately, easier to follow, although the procedures were beyond my competence. I tried to have something done once, but nothing happened because I did not know how to go about it.

… … Presumably to enlighten me, the town planning agency’s engineer invited me to his office and showed me the agency’s transport plans for the next thirty years. I was suitably impressed. However, in the more than thirty years I lived in that city, none of these plans came to be implemented. … … in the national capital, where the population is spread so thinly, one is lucky to see people in the suburbs. The planners have forgotten the sound advice from their Greek cultural ancestors: “It is the people who make a city.” There is no bus service on Christmas Day, because of the cost of wages. The needs of the young and the very old do not count.

At the end of the year, I withdrew as union councillor.

(‘Destiny Will Out’ has been described, together with another 4 of my 6 books, as representing a sliver of Australia’s post-war history. The extracts above also show how a communitarian Asian was way out of his depth in his unintended foray into civil society.

It was, of course, a learning experience, during which I remembered to keep out of politics of any kind. I then joined Australian Rostrum (akin to Toastmasters of the USA) and learned public speaking and chairmanship. Years later, my destiny led to me being asked to nominate for the position of president of the union in the national capital (which I declined), but eventually became national president of Rostrum.

One never knows where the tide of time can take one, especially if one is prepared to move with the current. Or, does that reflect a personal destiny enmeshed with an unavoidable complex of the destinies of others?)