Is Australia a subservient nation?

I am intrigued by the discrepancy between the indepen­dent stance of the Anglo-Australian worker (originally the bulk of the people) and the obsequiousness/arro­gance of Australian governments. Having been a tram con­ductor, worked in factories and offices, and socialised with all levels of Australian society, I say categorically that this Aussie worker is someone I respect. He is the one who will stop to help you were your car to break down on the street. He stands tall at all times, and encourages immigrants to emulate him.

Contradictorily, Australian governments are subservient, but selectively; originally it was to Mother Britain, later to stepfather USA. Yet, they will throw their weight about in the Pacific (their US-allocated bailiwick), or look askance at the newly independent nations of Asia with foreign faiths. These nations will never bend their necks again … …

What do I mean by subservience? How is it manifest?

Most of us are born into a collective. We are then shaped by that collective, the family. When released into society, we usually live within another collective or two. When we die, we join yet another collective, either below ground or prob­ably in another dimension.

Collectives normally imply a hierarchy, a pecking order of sorts. But … … does that require subservience? In reality, a form of subservience, a degree of subservience, seems ordered; that is, necessitated by the way segments of society are structured or organised. A leaderless society would be an anachronism. … …

The nation I adopted more than five decades ago is a well-fed, but somewhat anxious, polity. It is effectively a satrapy of the USA. Why should that be so? Because of a fear which percolated the national psyche right from the invasion of terra australis by Britain. The nature of this fear? Being sur­rounded by coloured people holding foreign faiths who were clearly ‘not us.’ … …

The Australian nation-to-be once hung on to the apron strings of Mother Britain until the threat by the Japanese led to the Government placing itself voluntarily under the umbrella of step-father USA.

I would therefore prefer Australia to become the next state of the USA. Why so? It is better to be a fourth or fifth cousin than to be a menial, that’s why. Were this to happen, there would arise the following benefits: the republic/mon­archy divide would be resolved to reflect the majority view of the Australian public; since about 85% of us wish to vote directly to elect our president, rather than have the govern­ment choose one for us, the US presidential election process would suit us immensely; since we are happy to fight in any war in which the US is involved, we will not have to pay for the weaponry from the US as we do now; and we will also become less welfare and less foreign capital-dependent, and more enterprising in terms of economic viability.

(The above paragraphs are extracts from Ch. 2 (On Subservience) of “Musings at Death’s Door: an ancient bicultural Asian-Australian ponders about Australian society.”) 


‘The Karma of Culture’ – immigrant integration

Australia, throughout its brief history, has experienced 2 ethno-religious cultural challenges in its efforts to achieve and maintain a secular society. The first, the early divisive influence of Roman Catholicism, has seemingly been tamed. The keen observer will, however, note that the social policies of the nation are dominated by the Vatican’s values; for example, compassion is constrained by so-called pro-life edicts.

The other challenge to the institutions and social mores of the nation has recently arisen from a tiny segment of the immigrant Muslim intake. Since Islam makes no distinction between the secular and the religious, some Muslims seem to experience difficulty in adapting to the nation they chose to enter.

Australia’s achievement in the past half-century has been its success in integrating a very broad spectrum of culturally diverse ethnic communities into the Australian ethos. We will not regress. My book deals with the principal issues, in the context of Australia’s surrounds of Asian spiritualism.

Endorsements pre-publication

“Writing from the perspective of an Asian Australian, Arasa addresses some of the fundamental questions confronting human kind at the present time. The clash of collectivism and individualism is seen as an East/West issue. Here is available, perhaps for the first time, an insightful ‘take’ on Australian society written by an ‘insider’ who, paradoxically, is an ‘outsider’ as well. …enormously interesting and not uncontroversial …” — John Western, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Queensland, Australia

“Ratnam’s book is a wake-up call for a more independent national policy on immigration and multicultural policy. Coming from a well-informed former migrant, who has embraced this country as his own, his message has particular value. … Impressed with the depth of (his) analysis” — Professor Bob Birrell, Director, Centre for Population & Urban Research, Monash University, Australia.

This is a book that every Australian should read. It provides a unique insight into the society and culture of contemporary Australia from someone who has been both an insider and an outsider in Australia. It has a refreshing honesty in an age in which ‘spin’ and euphemism too often combine to hide the true nature of things. You may not always agree with what the book says but you will be compelled to sit up and think more deeply about our contemporary world. I think that the book has that element of honesty and insight that much of what is currently published does not. I hope that it will be read widely.” — Associate Professor Gregory Melleuish, Head, School of History and Politics, Wollongong University, Australia.


The US Review of Books

Karma of Culture by Raja Arasa Ratnam

reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott

“It is now Anglo-Celt Australia which therefore has to change. It needs to rebuild its communities to enable the close inter-relation- ships between individuals, which used to prevail before individualism took over their souls.”

This is an enjoyably erudite text that will mean most to thoughtful Australians of all cultures. Ratnam served for nine years as Director of Policy on Australian migrant settlement related issues. Surprisingly, to an American reader, his descriptions of some of the worst ills of current Australian society sound almost exactly like the ills of American society: a large and seemingly expanding lower class of people dependent on government subsidies, subsidies in the main funded by an increasingly burdened middle class, while a small number of very wealthy people look on and offer no assistance to either.

To inhabitants of eastern Asia, Australia beckons, its welcome including housing, health care, and other aid to newly arrived immigrants and even more to those who stay longer. But sadly, despite this open door, old biases remain intact: “The most ridiculous manifestation of such prejudice relates to attitudes to study displayed by Asian children. They are accused of studying inordinately hard, and not developing a rounded personality through participation in sport.”

Ratnam makes a plea for a true multiculturalism that does not force one group to tamp down its cultural practices or religious beliefs (many Asians claim to be Christian upon immigrating, change their diet or manner of dress, in order to make themselves more acceptable to the dominant group) and does not take the color of one’s skin to be one’s only calling card.

Ratnam’s Hinduism is reflected in the book’s title; he says the book came to him as a suggestion “by the spirit world.” It would be hard to find a more cogent and simultaneously engaging treatise on this subject, so neatly organized and neatly phrased that even a neophyte can readily grasp its essence.

The Karma of Culture will, one hopes, be read by serious students of Australian politics, culture, and sociological issues, and by some ordinary people who want to be better informed and can see the correlation between the problems in Ratnam’s Australia and those of rest of the so-called civilized world.


Appraisal – pre-publication

“This book provides a thoughtful and fearless approach to some important and highly topical questions. What constitutes Australia’s nationhood? What is her role in Asia and in the world? How can, and should, the burgeoning economies of Asia contribute to the development of Australia, not just as foreign investors and trading partners, but in terms of cultural and spiritual values? What is the nature of democracy, and how can democratic ideals be realized in Australia and in its Asian neighbours? What is the meaning of multiculturalism in the Australian context? These questions are raised in an intelligent and thought-provoking way.”

“You give us valuable insights into your own experiences as an ‘outsider’ in a predominantly white ‘Western’ environment, who has been able to become part of that environment without losing your deepest links with your own culture. And you demonstrate that the influence of Eastern philosophers – to which Australia is uniquely exposed among Western countries – has the potential to counteract the West’s slide into materialism and the spiritual impoverishment that provides fertile soil for cultism and fundamentalism in all their forms.”

“This is a hard-hitting, insightful book that will appeal to academics, public servants, students, and many members of the general public………..”




Some interesting ‘spin-offs’ from colonialism

Australians were British subjects until 1948, when Australian citizenship was introduced. Quaintly, following its invasion/killing/settlement phase, Australia set out to be a nation of only white people, where no man would disdain any kind of work. A strange ambition, considering its location; set in ‘coloured’ seas, and surrounded by worrisome foreign faiths. This objective is not true today, not while welfare and cheap Asian labour is available.

A commendable national ethos of a ‘fair-go’ then evolved. Seemingly fading now. Trade unions became strong, but have now reached ‘bully-boy’ status, as my newspapers tell me. Yet, as I was told by an elderly Australian, it was the communist immigrant-English trade union leaders who had achieved much of the benefits enjoyed by industrial workers when I arrived in the country in 1948.

During WW2, having been Britain’s back yard till then, Australia (with its British-subject residents) placed itself under the control of the USA – for protection from the Japanese. The post-war hegemonic American Empire which evolved enabled the new Australian satrapy to become an industrialised nation without going through the normal process of industrialisation, step by step.

Major US corporations established a range of industries in Australia. While some competed with one another, they also limited their markets to Australia (avoiding competition with themselves overseas). Becoming progressively inefficient relative to their overseas competitors, both technically and economically, the new industries needed ongoing high tariff protection. Such protection reinforces high-cost production.

In 1963, as an employee of the Australian Tariff Board, I was pejoratively labelled a ‘free trader,’ because I recommended the progressive reduction of all tariffs. Why? Because we were increasingly uncompetitive internationally. For example, Japan’s per unit labour costs of certain major products were lower than in Australia; yet, labour costs were higher than in Australia!

Then, to show how poorly we had been governed (possibly through a subconscious subject-mentality), an ALP (Australian Labor Party) Government began to lower the tariff wall. The ALP normally represents workers. As a political orphan (a communitarian small-l liberal – ‘neither fish nor fowl’), I was entranced. The values of a former colonial subject were implemented by a political party representing workers who had benefited substantially from employment in tariff-protected industries.

Australia seemed to be on the way to becoming a truly independent nation.

The benefits and dis-benefits of colonialism

A few years ago, published the following article of mine – ‘The pros and cons of British colonialism’. It has attracted attention continuously ever since. At about 800 words in length, it is easy to read.

It is, of course, strange to have an anti-colonial, a former British subject, acknowledge any benefits to subject peoples from colonialism. I instanced the English language as a significant benefit. It is now an international language. My relatives, by blood and marriage, are now well-entrenched citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore – as part of the Ceylon Tamil diaspora.

Regrettably, some of us have lost our heritage – except in our minds. Some of us speak only English, have no knowledge of our distant origins as Dravidians, and have little appreciation of the literary wealth of our distant forbears, the Tamils of India. These are the ‘cons’ of modernisation, offsetting the ‘pros’ derived from mastery of the English language.

Looking at the level of education experienced by my Australian children and grandchildren, I came to realise how well educated I was by the colonial British. I received a broader and deeper education than did my descendants! That the British people at home are significantly more tolerant than many (most?) of our colonial rulers in British Malaya was proven by 2 of my sisters who acquired valuable qualifications in Britain after WW2. As a schoolboy, I remember my elders referring to the ‘upstarts’ who ruled us.

Other benefits were British law and Western democracy. Codified law, drawing upon precedents, does offer a clearer path from the past to the present. However, I believe that the adversarial system in courts, and which allows lawyers to obfuscate issues and ‘play games’ (I write from experience)  diminishes prospects for justice. Pros and cons in balance!

Then, there is that so-called democracy. Every adult has a vote. Our political representatives (federal, state, and local government) are, however, not accountable to voters, and certainly never consult us. I write from experience as a resident in Australia over 65 years as an adult. At federal and state levels, political parties rule openly, their main objective being to hold office.

Today, we seem to be governed by Vaticanites. How so? Compassion is suppressed by Papal Bull, for example. Western democracy is indubitably a con!

The pros and cons offered by the hegemonic empire of the USA, based on indirect controls, await judgement.

Citizenship vs. Ethnic identity

Are these 2 concepts contradictory? Not necessarily. Were a national government to emphasise:

  • pride in a shared citizenship
  • citizens integrating culturally, as in a goulash, curry, or stir-fried edibles of a wide variety (not as in an English salad)
  • equal opportunity available under the law, in employment, in services, etc. (unlike the cheap labour provided to parts of Europe by former colonial subjects)
  • the avoidance of ethnic enclaves, especially ones with a deficiency of necessary public services;

all of the above being the reality of Australia;

rather than the retention of those visible cultural practices which separate the population – often by intent, supported by the excuse of retaining ‘traditional culture’,

then ethnic or cultural identity would be a desirably subsidiary matter, but not competitive.

In the availability of policies offering equality and integration, why would a youngster born in Australia of ethnic ancestry, whether educated in a secular State school, or a religious school, choose to wear in public places a turban, or a skull cap, or a full-body-cover niqab, or even a hijab or a scarf covering the head, especially if he/she were a third-generation Australian? Surrounded by a wide variety of ethnic origins and mother-tongues, as well as by ‘mainstream’ Australians, what are some immigrant parents or their priests saying to their offspring and their multi-ethnic fellow-residents?

‘We are different’? Is that meant to imply ‘We are superior’, even to the host nation? The government of this nation allows immigrants into the country in the expectation of a united, coherent people arising in time from the admixture of ethnicities. It also ensures a secure life, with long-term welfare support. The nation does not need ‘campers’ refusing to become integrated.

Yet, a few of our Muslim immigrants have reportedly stated publicly their displeasure at Australia’s social mores. Why then stay? Other Muslim immigrants seek to have Australia’s long-established institution of law modified to offer sharia law. How so?  Immigrants adapt to the nation they chose to enter; not vice versa! These Muslims are the first and only immigrant individuals who want their ethnic identity to predominate over all other identities.

What are they really saying to the rest of us, when almost all Muslim people are no different from other law-abiding Australians? They are already free to practice those aspects of their culture which are not incompatible with Australia’s institutions and social mores.

What else are they entitled to, and why?


The folly of ethnic empowerment

About 30 years (roughly equivalent to the span of one generation) after the Australian government had sought (and brought) able-bodied European workers to contribute to the development of the nation; and the arrival of a number of war-displaced Europeans (the refugees); there was a surprising move by some Australians of immigrant descent. They claimed that English is not our national language.

As a former director of policy on ethnic affairs and multiculturalism, I (perhaps with tongue in cheek) asked my boss if Latin would meet the linguistic needs of all the Europeans in the country. Logically, in terms of a projected future, only Mandarin and Spanish might have qualified as Australia’s other national languages. But, what led to the ambition to downgrade English, already a universal language? The flexing of imported ethnic muscles!

The next step in this direction was the suggestion that immigration entry should be based on the proportions of the ethnic communities already in Australia. A similar claim had once been made in the USA. I was reminded of the White Australia policy, which was becoming progressively tinted; the hoped-for cosmopolitan Australia was to remain predominantly white, but not British.

The third proposal fell onto fertile policy ground. All of a sudden, in the 1970s, all that wonderful settlement assistance initially provided to the immigrants from Europe by the Anglo-Australian members of the Good Neighbour movement in the 1950s; and subsequently followed by employees of all agencies – both public (in the main) and private – endeavouring to guide non-English speakers to any services they might require; all this was suddenly claimed to be inadequate.

Instead of NESB immigrants (those of a non-English speaking background) being shown the way to available services for approximately 20 years, they were now to be taken there by social workers speaking the requisite languages. These workers would be employed by the various ethnic communities using government grants. It was a parallel settlement service that was sought, and achieved, at great expense.

Having had extensive contact (by chance and by choice) with immigrants and refugees since their arrival from the late 1940s, in the 1980s I questioned the need for this policy. In my capacity as Chief Ethnic Affairs Officer I heard strong criticism of this policy from established European immigrants from a wide range of countries. Since they had been able to settle in Australia successfully, where was the need for the new settlement policy, they asked.

Significantly, 2 notable senior ethnic community members, while careful not to publically challenge their younger compatriots, proposed to me a limit of 10 years for this policy. The ‘young Turks’, including junior academics, disagreed. Ethnic separation and empowerment were on the rise. Ethnic advisory councils, at both federal and state levels, proliferated, at great taxpayer expense. (Yes, I am a former Treasury official too.)

When the federal government came up with a policy of multiculturalism, to manage multiculturalism (whatever that thought-bubble was), I realised that this was no more than an exercise in competitive ethnic vote-catching. Significantly, when one government reduced the qualifying residence period for citizenship from 5 years (out of 8) to 3 years, the other then reduced it to 2 years. As we insiders said to ourselves, all that any of our imports with criminal intent had to do was to lie low for 2 years. They couldn’t then be deported.

What did multiculturalism policy achieve in terms of enhancing the successful integration of our new settlers? We were already relating to one another smoothly. We do not need the government or ambitious ethnic persons to tell us how to relate to one another.


Please remain identifiably foreign

When a government of a nation suggests to its peoples that they should retain their diverse cultures, what exactly could its objectives be?

Malaysia, whose development was enhanced by immigrants from (mainly) India, China, and Ceylon during British rule, became a Malay Muslim nation after independence. A minuscule Ceylon Tamil community, over 3 generations, had made a substantial contribution in such government services as medicine, education, and railways, amongst others. Achievers included, I was told, an admiral, diplomats, professors. Following the Malay makeover, the Ceylonese are successful in the private sector, and in the professions.

They are integrated into the nation, as are the descendants of the other so-called ‘nationalities’ or ethnicities. While each resident follows his destiny path, according to his relative abilities, in the urban areas where the majority of non-Malays reside, citizens of diverse ethno-cultural origins live and behave in much the same way, occupational and class differences aside. This applies in Singapore too (this island was part of British Malaya). What can they do that is different?

Since prayer and other religious observances are private matters, and exercised freely, what are those aspects of ethnic cultures which are to be retained? Annual presentations in public of traditional dances offer a colourful display of origins; but why would anyone (except politicians seeking ‘tribal’ support) wish to remember, after (say) 3 generations in a new nation, cultural practices from the ancestral land which they do not know?

Apart from that, as some of Australia’s immigrants discovered, cultural practices ‘back home’ had evolved during their absence. Worse still, the culture they remember may have been a regional or island culture, not a national one.

Significantly, while I was watching, and enjoying, a presentation in Australia of a traditional dance from one of the nations of Europe, 2 senior representatives of that national culture agreed that, in Australia, middle class dancers were indeed displaying the costumes of their peasant class! This was only show time, not a cultural celebration.

Since immigrant people tend to relate to those of other cultures freely (with some rare recent exceptions) in their adopted home, who stands to benefit from attempts to retain ancient cultural symbols, while cultural values are continually, gradually, perhaps osmotically, merging and evolving, and cultural behaviour becomes more nationalistic than tribal?

No black ‘tall poppies’ allowed

Traditionally, (at least, in the 1950s and thereabouts) Australians (about 85% were deemed to be of the working class) tended to cut down ‘tall poppies.’ So I was told. Why should this have been so? Here are possible explanations.

Australia was initially populated by the ‘lower orders’ of Britain. When North America was no longer available for taking the output of Britain’s program of cultural cleansing, Australia was the next best alternative depository. Then there evolved a policy that Australia would be ‘a white man’s paradise,’ in which no man would ‘reject any kind of work’ (so I read). The White Australia policy necessarily followed. The associated ethos of a ‘fair-go’ approach – equal opportunity, at least for white men – was in evidence when I entered the country in the late 1940s. Employees claimed equal status with their bosses.

I noted, with approbation, the stand-tall stance of the Australian worker. This was confirmed when I was a tram conductor, and worked in factories, for short periods. He would make an excellent role model in those rich Asian nations exploiting the lower orders. Strangely, as I was told by a veteran of the trenches of World War 1, it was the immigrant British communist union leaders who had achieved the rights of the Australian workers.

In the resulting relatively classless society which offers social mobility, any tall poppies may tend to keep a low profile. If anyone is attacked publicly, it would most likely be by the fog-horn using media which would be responsible. Its notables are paid richly to (apparently) stir up the lower ranks of the hoi polloi. I am not sure whether anyone else cares.

But, let a coloured (sorry, ‘black’) person become a notable, he will be torn down by many. A socially-integrated and exceptionally-gifted Aboriginal football player, and a multi-skilled Australian Muslim (broadcaster, academic, writer and musician) have drawn the ire of obviously supremacist whites.

What I hear is this. ‘Why should a ‘black,’ especially a Muslim, dare to be prominent in our society?’ ‘Be like us, but not above us!’ There may be other learned explanations (eg. the lack of ethnic diversity in the media; or an increasing tendency for some ‘commoners’ to be ‘outraged’ all the time); but these are not convincing.

Colour or religious prejudice, laid upon ignorance, provide a persuasive explanation for cutting down black ‘tall poppies.’  An additional explanation may be this: a shallow morality!

Tribal or ethnic identity

About 20 years ago, I wrote a letter to ‘The Bulletin’ (now defunct), then a weekly journal popular with those of us who thought we were intelligent and socially conscious. I asked whether I am an ethnic; and, if so, by what criteria .

Why that question? Since the 1970s, ethnic empowerment (my phrase) had been in fashion in Australia. ‘Managing multiculturalism’ was constructed in the shipyard of policy development, the vessel being multicultural policy. Under this policy, to be administered by appointed and promoted individuals of ethnic descent, ethnic communities were to be encouraged to retain those features of their inherited cultural traditions which were not inconsistent with the institutions and societal mores of the nation into which they or their antecedents had sought to enter.

But, isn’t this what we immigrant settlers were already doing? We did not, do not, need the government, acting through community leaders, to hold each tribe together in a welcoming foreign land. Equal opportunity has prevailed since European immigrants were sought immediately after WW2. Successful settlement has been enhanced by multi-million dollar programs administered by public officials like me.

The reality of immigrant settlement in Australia is that, by the third generation, grandpa’s edicts about appropriate conduct were likely to have given way – through a shared education, socialisation, sport, and habituation involving other ethnic communities – to an evolving culturally-integrated Australian people; unless religious leaders and religious schools delayed the process. Like the tributaries of a great river, successive generations of ethnic communities will merge, to flow smoothly as a coherent people.

We have all contributed to this merging, and been subsumed by the newly-evolved population. We have progressed from a salad to a casserole, or a goulash, or a curry, or a stir-fry; that is, to a tasty blend of culinary ingredients. Indeed, fusion cuisine is the prevailing mode of meal-preparation in the nation.

I received no response to my letter from the ‘young turks’ of multiculturalism. The policy of ethnic empowerment would ebb away, in favour of emphasising a shared citizenship. As well as keeping away from our beds and wallets, governments in a secular democracy (even a nominal one) should keep out of our minds. Australia’s ethnic diversity poses no problem; those who do not like the ethos of this tolerant nation have been invited to look elsewhere.

I am no ethnic. Born in Malaya, of Ceylonese ancestry, of an Indian culture (Hinduism), and a proud Australian citizen, I am comfortable within my layers of identity.

A tribal identity has its place out there in an under-developed world riven by competitive cultures. So does ethnic identity where equal opportunity is constrained. In any event, there seems to be some confusion between these two identities, where unequal power relationships prevail. Some of this confusion may have been triggered by minority communities seeking to be identifiably different and separate. To what end? To whose benefit?

Tje Family of Man beckons from the horizon.

The threat to cultural cohesion

Traditionally, families have tended to keep themselves ‘pure’; no foreigners to join the family through marriage. In Australia in the post-war years, ‘foreign muck’ was deplored (food, that is). Religion-based tribes sought to keep their people attached to the umbilical cord of ‘tradition’ (based often on a Good Book, which also suggests destroying unbelievers). Cultural isolation remains the driver in a number of ethno-religious communities, even today.

Yet, ’fusion cuisine,’ shared clothing styles, shared lifestyle values and practices, and inter-ethnic marriage are breaking tribal barriers. A shared education enabled by humanistic teachers, habituation in social and sporting contacts, and a rising awareness that we are more similar than different, helps to limit the constraints of tribalism in a multi-ethnic, multicultural nation.

My memoirs, ‘Destiny Will Out,’ and ‘The Dance of Destiny,’ supported by ‘The Karma of Culture’ and ‘The Hidden Footprints of Unity’ which deal with the integration of immigrants into the nation in which they chose to live (available as ebooks with Amazon Kindle at $US 2.99 each) highlight my hope of a universal Family of Man – in recognition of our co-creation from that Ocean of Consciousness, and to which we will return.

Australians, as a nation, were well on the way to this worthwhile state. However, the establishment of ethnic residential enclaves has enabled, not only political representation, but also commercial corruption. Worse still, a minority of immigrants now seek to avoid integration into the national ethos in Australia, through the establishment of a parallel system of law (sharia), and the separation of their peoples from the evolving mainstream of a unified Australian people. Transferring a desert culture into a Western welfare state – what an ambition!

How foolish is it to bite the hand which feeds you?