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A round of drinks speaks all languages in Asia literacy debate

By Benjamin Herscovitch - posted Thursday, 3 October 2013

In the first two weeks of his prime ministership, Tony Abbott announced bold policy changes designed to leave his imprimatur on government.

With deep staffing and funding cuts expected to follow, AusAID is to be merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, while a slew of smaller federal government bodies, including the Climate Commission and the national preventative health agency, are on the chopping block.

Regrettably, some policy priorities are stubbornly bipartisan.


Following in Labor’s footsteps, the Coalition is committed to improving Australia’s Asia literacy by increasing the number of school students studying Asian languages and enticing more university students to go on exchange in Asia with a $100 million ‘reverse Colombo plan.’

Both sides of politics clearly need an Asia literacy reality check.

Not only is teaching more students Asian languages not needed for Australia to succeed in Asia, but understanding Asian cultures is much easier than our elites admit.

Forget about India’s kaleidoscopic linguistic diversity, the tonal complexities of Thai, or the nuances of Taoist spirituality. The Asian Century has a simple common language: a shared drink.

In China, cultural divides are bridged, personal differences are washed away, and contentious business deals are merrily agreed to over long nights drinking baijiu, the local brew of choice.

Mercifully, a pungent white liquor with an alcoholic content often higher than 50% is not always necessary to find common ground. In South Korea, it might be the softer soju—usually a comparatively weak 20% alcohol—that seals the deal, and in India, conversation might flow for hours propelled by nothing stronger than milky chai.


The particularities might change, but the principle remains the same. It only takes conversation lubricated with a few drinks to bring people together and build mutual understanding.

Lest one assume that this is wishful thinking of the ‘Let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya’ variety, it mirrors the hard-headed message from Australia’s business elite in Asia.

Delivering the Lowy Institute’s China Changing Lecture in Beijing last month, Andrew Michelmore, chief executive of MMG (formerly Minmetals Resources), said that fostering partnerships in Asia is often as straightforward as sharing a drink and discarding preconceptions.

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About the Author

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and previously worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Follow him on Twitter @B_Herscovitch.

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