A national identity?

In my book ‘Musings at death’s door: an ancient bicultural Asian-Australian ponders about Australian society,’ Chapter 8 titled ‘On national identity,’ I ask whether it is as difficult to define national identity as it is to define a personal identity.

“To seek the core identity of my adopted nation in a com­parable manner, I begin with how other people might see us. In Malaysia/Singapore, the media waste no space or time on Australia, but the people there like what they see of the Australian people. On the other hand, the governments of Asia must surely be aware of official Australia’s undue sen­sitivity to Islam; its indifference (mainly of the past) to the darker peoples of the Indian subcontinent; and its obsequi­ousness towards Asian buyers of its major exports.

Australia’s official presentation of itself is fascinating. Totally subservient to our hoped-for protector (against whom?); a ‘middle power’ throwing its weight about in the Pacific (as any Deputy Sheriff might); and patronisingly friendly towards the relatively under-developed nations to the north; and seeking to make friends with other nations in order to obtain a seat in the UN Security Council. Overall there is a certain smugness projected, but which does not seem to be persuasive.

In its image of itself, Australia produces a quaint collage. Initially, it was proud of its white, British and Christian ori­gins. Typically, its explorers kept finding things which the indigene must have already known about. (Burton and Spake seeking the origin of the River Nile come to mind.) From the mid-1960s it became progressively proud of its convict heri­tage. In the mid-1970s it saw itself as progressively cosmo­politan, drawing upon its increasing ethno-cultural diversity (the Aborigines just need to be more patient).

It has always seen itself, correctly, as egalitarian, welfare-minded, with gender equality, and with increasing intellectual and social freedoms (in spite of opposition from the religious fundamentalists who are still riding their high horses).

Beneath this surface mixture of identities, a few chasms run this way and that. The tolerance by the Australian public of its often pathetic rulers (as in the second decade of the twenty-first century) is itself an essential ingredient of the core image by Australia of itself; tolerant and laid-back, while a little rough on the fringe.

Other essential components of national identity are the national icons, each of which should reflect some significant aspect of the nation’s history. A nation with a very brief his­tory has, however, little of the past to choose from. However, there is the publicly celebrated ANZAAC tradition. It is a reflection of the courage, tenacity and loyalty of Australia’s soldiers during defeat in WW1. I wonder: apart from the successful battles against the Japanese in the Pacific, can Australia claim any successes in wars, usually other coun­tries’ wars?

A misted-over part-icon is a highway man, a strange choice. There is then the cringe-arousing fondness for a cross-dressing humorist gladiolus. Icon or not? Those seeking a little too assiduously to create national icons have offered the Eureka Stockade as a harbinger of a thrust to democracy. Icon? Doubtful. …

Perhaps it is time for modern Australia, with its 30% non-Anglo-Celt multi-ethnic composition, achieved over more than half a century, to establish new icons. What could these be? How will we identify them?”

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