It was strange moving from a communitarian culture to a culture based on the primacy of the individual – but with individual rights not counter-balanced by any responsibilities within a cohesive extended family. Moving from a culture involving close linkages between blood relatives to a society in which even one’s brothers and sisters lived far away from one another was isolating, by inference. Did this separation, during the century and a half between foundation and the immediate post-war period when I arrived in Australia, create self-sufficient but self-focused individuals?
I observed too that the ordinary Australian worker was not subservient to anyone; he was everyone’s equal. Did not that reflect the breakdown of traditional power relations? Class distinctions did not seem to be imperative even in power relationships. Nasal accents acquired in private schools had little impact. There were no coolies, no servants; any respect displayed to certain individuals appeared to be influenced by the need to protect one’s income.
I was told, with some pride, that during World War Two, while black American soldiers had to step off the pavement when approached by an officer, and to salute the latter in passing, Australian soldiers would salute only their own officers, but without displaying any subservience.
In relation to the personal dignity which one would want to associate with being human, is not the Australian worker an appropriate exemplar to workers in, say, south-east Asian nations? Other nations exploiting workers as if they are disposable entities, paying homage to the almighty dollar rather than to the Almighty, might also note that successful capitalistic nations are based substantially on the equitable treatment of one and all. Personal dignity should be an entitlement.
However, Australia, while retaining its national ethos of equitable individualism, seems now to have subjugated self-sufficiency to demanding other people’s money, to be received through state-based institutional arrangements. Reciprocity in responsibility, a feature of extended-family support, has gone with that bird, the dodo, in this modern Western nation. (Refer ‘Musings at death’s door: an ancient bi-cultural Asian-Australian ponders about Australian society,’ available as ebook at amazon.com at $US 2.99)