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Sunday, November 11, 2012
OP-ED

Australia's Asian Century: Can it benefit us?

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently unveiled a long-overdue white paper titled "Australia in the Asian Century" detailing how Australia can play an active role in the region in the next century. The world's centre of gravity is in Asia-Pacific region and Australia is no exception.

Australian High Commissioner (HC) in Bangladesh, Mr. Greg Wilcock, wrote an article in this daily foreseeing what the future holds for Bangladesh in particular under this plan, which is nothing but good news for our compatriots.

Australian involvement in the region is not new. Since the federation in early last century, successive Australian governments had ties with Asia in one form or the other. The Australian involvement to stop the Japanese advance during the World War II, and to stem the spreading tide of communism; its armed participation in the Vietnam War, Malaysia and Korean War are well-known. Relatively recently, Australia played a pivotal role in forming the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum and also tried to be part of Asean, albeit as an observer.

In spite of historic connections with Asia, some prominent politicians came up with statements such as "no Asian immigration" or "where is Asia -- isn't that the place we fly over while going to Europe?" Australia still claims to be a western nation, probably because of its root being from West, even though its location on the globe could not be any further to the East.

Bangladeshi settlement in Australia is fairly recent. My migration to Australia was approved in October, 1970. I deferred for a year and arrived on this shore for settlement in the midst of our war of independence. In those days we did not know much about Australia other than kangaroos and the names of five capital cities that were cricket test venues because of our sheer "love of cricket" as the HC wrote. I found only 2/3 families living here as migrants and about half a dozen families and singles who were here for higher studies on Colombo Plan scholarships. We showed the way for the massive settlement now.

The HC's estimate of 30,000 Bangladeshi-born citizens living here is a very conservative figure. We believe that many are living in Sydney alone and there are large communities in Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane. When I arrived, White Australia policy was on the wane, but was not totally abolished till the Whitlam government came to power in 1972. By the way, Mr Whitlam still remains the first (may be the only) PM to have visited Bangladesh.

Over the past 30 years, as a result of universal migration policy and generous humanitarian intake, the Australian demography has dramatically changed. An estimated 150 different nationalities live here peacefully in a multicultural society. Among them, the Bangladeshi community, in our opinion, is an elite community and is regarded as an emerging one. In almost every university many are full professors, associate professors and lecturers. One of them has reached the position of deputy vice-chancellor of a university. Equal numbers are teaching in colleges. Many are working in both private and public sectors in responsible positions. Bangladeshis in Australia are generally honest, sincere and hard-working, and making their contribution to the prosperity of Australia. Bangladesh, with its vast human capital, can easily be a good source for filling the labour shortage of Australia.

During our independence war Australia played a great sympathetic role in our cause. It was one of the first nations to recognise the newly-liberated Bangladesh, in defiance of some of its closest allies.

At the initial stage of our independence Australia had been fortunate to have had two of the best Bangladeshi diplomats as high commissioners in Mr. Hossain Ali and Mr. S.A.M.S. Kibria, who had helped establish a close, friendly relationship with Australia. Subsequent high commissioners built on their good work. Bangladesh and Australia should exploit this relationship to each other's advantage.

Australia is a wealthy resourceful nation. Many countries of the world depend on its meat, grains, dairy products, powdered milk and processed foods. Australia should expand its trading link with Bangladesh from the meagre $100 million. For the expansion of trade with Bangladesh, we should apprise the world of our vast consumer market of about 150 million people, that there is no language barrier in people to people communication, and the friendly nature of our people.

Bangladesh must also reform its mode of clearing incoming goods by removing excessive red tape. To back this, I wish to relate an anecdote. A few years ago, on a vacation trip to Bangladesh, my family and I decided to take some unused old garments for distribution among the poor. We took them as unaccompanied baggage. After spending one full day with the assistance of a clearing agent, payment of duties and other backdoor payments, signatures in 56 different places and the loss of a cell-phone, the two boxes were finally cleared. By the end of the day my poor new passport was like 10 years old from excessive handling over dirty and dusty places. There must be a better way.

We share High Commissioner Mr. Wilcock's optimistic view that we all get a chance to reap the benefits of Australia's Asian Century and help create a better world.

The writer is retired director of an Australian pharmaceutical company.

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