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?

Societal integration

Accepted immigrants or refugees (the first-generation Australians) tend to retain as much of their cultural traditions as possible. This is understandable and to be respected. To avail themselves of the equal opportunity available in Australia, and thereby joining the mainstream population, they will modify their behaviour, and thus their attitudes and values as necessary. The next generation, the second-generation Australians, through the influence of their schools (particularly public or state schools), and subsequently through habituation (eg, through sport, or just mixing socially), will be less traditional and more cosmopolitan.

In my official role as Chief Ethnic Affairs officer in the city of Melbourne in the early 1980s, I observed 3 young Australia-born teenagers whose facial structures suggested 3 diverse geographical areas of ethno-cultural origin in Europe. Yet, they dressed alike and spoke alike. The new Australia was self-evident! This kind of integration may cause some concern to the more conservative parents. The third-generation Australian will be beyond the scope of Grandpa’s injunctions about retaining traditional practices.

What the traditionalists often ignore is that cultural practices ‘back home’ are also evolving; even the language changes. Most importantly, in Australia, one is free to pray as one wishes, to dress and to celebrate one’s cultural festivals as one wishes, and to cook and eat the food that one wishes. What else could one ask of a host nation which provides one with good prospects of a secure material life? How many other immigrant-attracting nations offer anything comparable?

This is why Australia has evolved, within 2 generations, from a racist, religiously-divided nation to a tolerant, cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic but integrated nation. The unavoidable, ignorant, and self-asserting ‘yobbo’ will continue to be the exception. One needs to avoid over-reacting to any oral slurs.

As my father advised me, ‘When someone spits at you, do not retaliate; but do not turn the other cheek.’ His motto in life was reflected in one of his favourite sayings (in English, his second language) ‘The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.’ I have been guided by this wise saying, especially in my later years when I became subject to tribal attacks at work. See ‘Musings at Death’s Door’ and part 2 of ‘The Dance of Destiny.’