Selective Multiculturalism in Australian Society

In my maiden speech to the Australian Federal Parliament I addressed two contemporary issues confronting our society – the notions of reconciliation and multiculturalism and the struggle to reach a common resolution within the Australian mindset.  I said that the processes of reconciliation and multiculturalism are two-way streets and that there must be a degree of give-and-take to achieve harmony.  The challenge for us as national leaders is to facilitate a movement to develop a common understanding of our national identity that unites us all as Australians and builds a stronger society.

When I was first elected to Federal Parliament, a number of people approached me and said “You must be the first Singaporean to be elected to Parliament.” They expected me to check the records and stake a claim in the media.  I am of Eurasian heritage – a truly multicultural mix of English, Portuguese, and Chinese parentage.  The Goodenough family originated as one of the oldest families in Britain, with my great-great grandfather settling in the cosmopolitan trading post of Singapore, then a British Colony, in the 1800s.  Subsequent generations intermarried with other pioneering families.  The Second World War and the ensuing Japanese Occupation of Singapore was devastating for my family and exposed my grandparents and parents to tremendous loss and suffering.  However, as a family we were resilient and slowly rebuilt our lives, eventually immigrating to Australia in 1984.

Upon arriving in Perth we adopted a positive outlook and took up the opportunities that Australia had to offer.  At times we had to do menial work – my Father Reg worked at a timber mill for two months, whilst waiting for his trade certificate and qualifications to be recognised in Australia, before he could return to employment in the aviation industry.  My Mother who was a qualified teacher worked as an office cleaner in the early days and I helped her sweep the car park of the complex each morning.  We integrated well into Australian society and have interacted with our neighbours and fellow Australians of all cultural backgrounds.  Throughout my time in Australia I have found recognition and advancement to be largely based on performance and merit.  Nothing culturally has ever held me back in my career.

To begin our journey towards a national compact, we must first understand the cultural reasons behind Australia’s evolution into such a prosperous, peaceful and harmonious society since European settlement in comparison with other countries.  Our success as a nation is due in great part to the Western culture introduced by the early pioneering settlers from Britain – they brought with them a culture characterised by the Protestant work ethic of hard work, thrift, prudence, civility, and the rule of law.  The early settlers introduced to Australia modern methods of agriculture, efficient means of industrial production, scientific principles, and the Westminster system of governance.  These factors combined with our natural resources are largely responsible for the social and economic development of our nation in to the strong society that it is today.  Today, Australians enjoy a far higher standard of living than many countries in the rest of the world, making Australia a highly attractive destination for migrants.

Since my first speech in Parliament, a number of experiences have further shaped my understanding of reconciliation and multiculturalism.  I participated in a visit by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to Mount Isa in Queensland to meet with Indigenous community leaders to investigate ways of increasing Indigenous voter participation in general elections.  At the meeting I observed Indigenous representatives seated around the table from a variety of multi-cultural backgrounds.  At the head of the table sat an elder who was smartly dressed as a stockman and around the table there were Indigenous people of mixed ethnic parentage including Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, Afghan, and European heritage.  I was told that in Northern Australia the Aboriginal people had interacted with ethnic traders and migrants from the South East Asia over a long period, some inter-marrying and forming unique multicultural families.  On a separate visit to Darwin, I was introduced to Aboriginal adaptations of traditional Malay cuisine, which I was told had originated from early contact with Malay traders.  The group of leaders assembled in Mount Isa was obviously multicultural but did not regard itself as such.  I recall being surprised when a well-educated participant, employed in the vocational education sector, and of mixed European and Aboriginal parentage said that she felt uncomfortable about the lack of Aboriginal staff at polling places.  I wondered why she didn’t regard herself as mainstream Australian.  I left the meeting thinking that there was a lack of recognition of their apparent multiculturalism among the group members.

As Australians, we should be proud of our historical cultural heritage and not seek to play down essential parts of it.  At a recent Australia Day ceremony, the guest speaker was a bright young lady who introduced herself as Indigenous, saying in her speech “I am a proud Indigenous woman.”  I subsequently met the young lady’s mother in the audience and learned that she was a first-generation migrant from England.  For some reason the young lady chose not to acknowledge her maternal heritage in her speech.  It would have been nice for her to say that she was an Australian woman of Indigenous and British heritage because culturally she clearly embodied aspects of both cultures.  The Recognise movement should encourage people to fully recognise all aspects of their culture not just selective aspects that suit a particular narrative.  Beneficial aspects of Indigenous culture include a relationship with nature that promotes the value of environmental conservation, and a rich culture that takes many forms: art, dress, ceremonial rituals, folklore, hunting, gathering, food, kinship, and family structure.

The next stage in the reconciliation and multicultural process is for Indigenous and ethnic migrants alike to gradually come to regard themselves first and foremost as Australians, whilst acknowledging their mixed heritage and culture.  Many Indigenous people today are of mixed parentage and culture, particularly those living in urban areas – it will take some time for them to become increasingly comfortable about recognising their multicultural heritage with a sense of pride.  Personal recognition of one’s true cultural makeup is far more powerful than constitutional recognition can achieve.  Our nation has acknowledged the wrongs and injustices perpetrated against Indigenous people in our national history through the Apology.  An apology is the first step in forgiveness.  It will take some time for the forgiveness process to take place before a further step towards reconciliation can occur.  Indigenous people are not the only Australians who have been wronged or been subjected to injustice – many immigrants to Australia have faced these ordeals through war and displacement, taking their own time to cope and move forward with their lives.  Modern Indigenous people in an urban setting have adopted a unique multicultural lifestyle combining western cultures with their indigenous heritage – this hybrid culture ought to be proudly recognised.

Historically, the policy in Australia on the issues of Indigenous affairs and multiculturalism has been assimilation with the prevailing Western culture on which contemporary Australian society was founded.  Generations of Indigenous people and migrants were expected to conform to Western culture.  In subsequent years, there was a change in government policy with a more ‘enlightened’ politically-correct movement which promoted a blanket approach to multiculturalism, without due consideration of the potential for incompatibility of cultures, or what course of action should be taken in the event of cultural conflicts.

Consider the proposition that multiculturalism can take on three forms – synergistic; complementary; and conflicting.  Synergistic multiculturalism occurs where two or more cultures combine to form a hybrid culture that yields spectacular results. For example the fusion of Western capitalism with the Chinese Confucian philosophy has resulted in highly successful emerging Asian economies by combining Western methods of efficient production with Eastern discipline.  The bleak factory landscapes of several emerging Asian societies are not dissimilar to scenes from a Dickens novel which portrayed Britain during the industrial revolution and turned Great Britain into the dominant power in the world.

On the other hand, complementary multiculturalism occurs where two or more cultures interact in a positive way that provides greater diversity and choice.  For instance migrants have brought a rich selection of foods and cuisine into Australia offering diners greater variety and choice.  Even the great Aussie barbecue benefits from having satays, kebabs, and koftas added to steaks, chops and sausages providing an international smorgasbord to be shared with neighbours from all over the world.  Likewise, arts, music, cultural performances are all complementary.

Finally, conflicting multiculturalism is an awkward topic which politically-correct society seeks to avoid.  What happens when cultures collide? Which culture or legal system prevails? Will one be criticised for intervening on the basis of being prejudiced?  There are many cultural conflicts in a multicultural society which are often left unresolved.  For instance different cultures have different views on issues such as the equality of women, attitudes to work, and what is acceptable social conduct.  What happens when new cultures conflict with long held Australian social norms? As a nation we have struggled with this dilemma and have been reluctant to publicly debate and resolve cultural conflicts.  It is a reality that we cannot be all things to all people, yet we can select from the best in the world and adapt.

For instance, an integral part of our Western culture is the notion of defending one’s territory and property in the face of conflict, by force if necessary.  The ANZACs and those before them were legendary in their courage on the battlefield.  Running away and surrendering is not the Australian or Western way.  Standing up to tyrants with military power is an integral part of our culture. The great song Rule Britannia aptly sums it up “The nations not so blest as thee, shall in their turn to tyrants fall.”  Today we see the results of populations desperately fleeing failed states where tyrants have taken hold.  If we are to prevail in the future then Western culture in respect of dealing with conflict with military force must prevail over pacifist cultures, otherwise Australia will not be able to adequately defend itself in the future.  The recent issue of the radicalisation of youths and adults leaving the country to take up arms against Australia has its origins deeper and over a longer period of time than simply over the Internet and social media.  There has been a clash of cultures in existence for some time in certain communities across Australia.  These matters have not been adequately resolved due to a politically-correct regime reluctant to offend.  Years ago, I was surprised when a 15 year old new migrant whom I had attempted to befriend, recently arrived from a war-torn Middle Eastern country, asked if he could borrow my shotgun to use against members of a different ethnic group.  Old hatreds dating back centuries have no place being transplanted in Australia.

Selective multiculturalism is the notion that Australian Society should be selective and only adopt those aspects of multiculturalism which are synergistic or complementary, and that mainstream Australian culture should prevail where foreign cultures are inconsistent with long established social norms.  I subscribe wholeheartedly to embracing the synergistic and complementary aspects of multiculturalism.  However, when there is a clash of cultures, a conflict of ideals, then I advocate adherence to the prevailing Western culture in Australian society in terms of conforming to social norms, maintaining the Protestant work ethic, being diligent, embracing scientific methods, being respectful, and democratic which are the very things that make Australia the country which we hold so dear.  There is no room in Australian society for divided loyalties or separate legal systems.  To be truly Australian is to embody a fusion of cultures.  Our national identity is forged by the principle – From many: One.  E Pluribus Unum[1].  No constitutional amendment, alone, can achieve reconciliation and multiculturalism without winning the hearts and minds of all Australians.

We, the People of Australia seek to establish the future of our nation as a meritocracy, where one’s achievements will determine one’s standing in our society, and among one’s peers.  Where reconciliation and selective multiculturalism are part of our national identity that unites us all as Australians.

[1] E Pluribus Unum – Motto of the United States of America.