Jakarta – The ugly ocker has reared his head again. During a radio talk show on 31 August, Prime Minister John Howard singled out Muslim migrants for refusing to embrace Australian values and urged them to fully integrate by treating women as equals and learning to speak English, thereby offending Australia’s Muslim community.
"There's a whole lot of other ethnic communities whose parents, whose grandparents don't speak the English language, and it's never a problem in the mainstream Australian community for them to go on living their everyday life without speaking the language,” said Islamic leader Iktimal Hage-Ali. "Yet as soon as it's a person of Arab descent or a Muslim person … politicians feel like they need to bring it to mainstream attention as the only group, like marginalising us even more then we already feel marginalised today,"
More importantly, however, Mr. Howard’s comment reconfirmed that racism still remains at large in Australia.
For instance, after the attractive Australian drug-smuggler Schapell Corby got indicted in Bali in July, some Australians showed their anger by sending anthrax-like powder to the Indonesian Embassy and Consulate in Australia and threatening Indonesians living in the country.
In response to this, I wrote a commentary entitled “The ugly ocker rears his head once more” in The Australian saying that, even though many Australians don’t want to admit it, certain racist attitudes still remain in Australia—a nation that has a history of racism.
Later, in September, I reiterated this point when I appeared on the Australian TV SBS Insight Program with a panel of respected Indonesian leaders to discuss Indonesian-Australian relations as next-door neighbors.
Since the publication of my article and participation in the SBS forum, I have been receiving numerous responses, mainly from Australians. While some responses are supportive of my view, many others are against it.
After reading all of these responses, I have realized that those who wrote negative responses to me have one thing in common: They are all in denial of the fact that Australia is still a racist society, despite the fact that this nation has become ethnically diverse, thanks to immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, and other parts of the world.
Irene Fraser from Ryde NSW, Australia, for example, wrote a letter to The Jakarta Post saying: “[Arthur] Calwell [who is famous for the comment ‘Two wongs don’t make a white’] is long dead and that comment was made when he was minister of immigration, which was back in 1945-1949. He was a strong supporter of the White Australia Policy, and it, like Calwell, is also dead. We have come a long way since then and as the world knows we have embraced many cultures and religions.”
But just because Australia has now become a multiracial, or multicultural society, that does not make it a tolerant place where immigrants or Australian citizens of non-white origins are treated with fairness, equality or, for that matter, dignity. In other words, it is how the white, Anglo-saxon majority treats the ethnic minority that defines multiculturalism.
The problem in Australia, a nation that is proud of itself as a multicultural society, however, is that “the more emphasis that is placed on the rights of minorities and the need for affirmative action to enhance those rights, the more is the concept of democracy—and the rights of the majority—in danger of being weakened,” said Professor Geoffrey Blainey, an authoritative voice on racial issues.
And to see how racist a society Australia has been, and still is, we needn't go back to the 1970s, when the White Australia policy officially ended, or even to the 1960s, when the masthead of The Bulletin, Australia's leading magazine, still carried the slogan "Australia for the White Man".
And we needn’t go back to period between the 1980s and the 1990s, when Arthur Tunstall, Australia's former sports official, made racist jokes and comments about aboriginal Australian athletes.
It was the same decade that saw a string of aboriginal deaths in police custody (not many white ones). And the same decade saw the rise of the One-Nation party led by Pauline Hanson, who all but called for those of Asian descent to be ejected from the country, displaying her profound international knowledge by saying the 2.5 billion Asians to the north "have their own language and culture [sic]".
And we certainly needn’t go as far back as the publication of The Magic Pudding, the famous Australian children's book, that includes insults such as "you unmitigated Jew!"
All we have to do is look at concrete instances like the riots that broke out in Sidney in early December last year when about 5,000 white Australians attacked other men of Middle Eastern descent. While attacking Middle Eastern men, mostly youth, and smashing stores, windows, and homes, these white Australian wrapped themselves in Australia’s flag and hurled racist abuse.
If this is not racism, what is?
To be sure, Mr Calwell and the White Policy are dead. But incidents like the Sydney riots confirm that racism is far from dead in Australia.
Ironically, though, Prime Minister Howard is in denial, too. He called the Sydney riots "sickening", but denied it was underpinned with a vein of racism running across Australian society.
"I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country," he said.
It’s no wonder, then, that racism is well and alive in Australia. Like treatment of an alcoholic, the first step for Australia to stop racism is—you guessed it—admit it.
The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. His writing can be read at www.thangthecolumnist.blogspot.com