Dialogue: Multiculturalism vital for society's evolution

By PHILIP BURDON*

In co-founding the Asia 2000 Foundation, my ambition was to strengthen the ties and awareness of Asia in its most general sense.

I was deeply conscious that New Zealand remained an inherently Eurocentric society trading, in effect, by default with Asia but with little comprehension, understanding or empathy with Asia.

It was my ambition to engage New Zealand actively in the Asian sphere of influence, economically and culturally.

Self-evidently we were on the one hand seeing an increasing shift of our trading base from its traditional dependency on Britain to the emerging markets of Asia. On the other, there was a profound ignorance of the complex and diverse societies that make up Asia.

My ambition was a deep desire to see the inclusion of minority communities into mainstream society.

I am aware that I had been born and raised in probably the most Eurocentric experience that New Zealand has to offer. So what motivated me to champion the inclusion of these communities into mainstream society? Three defining events made me deeply aware of minority exclusion.

My first exposure to an alternative view of cultural entitlement was when I was granted an American Field Service scholarship. In the year before going to United States as a 16-year-old I decided I would try to learn what I could of the Maori language and the culture.

At that time the only place I could learn Maori was at a WEA class at Trades Hall in Christchurch. It was, of course, probably the low point in biculturalism, with society at large supremely confident of its own Eurocentric superiority and entitlement.

I was taught by two Maori women in the class consisting of only a dozen or so students. I recall at the time being struck by the profound sense of sadness (as opposed to resentment) felt by one of the tutors who had resignedly accepted the decline and (in her opinion) the ultimate eclipse of Maori tradition and culture.

The Maori I learned was totally inadequate - my fault, not the tutors' - but the experience did raise profound questions in my mind at the convenient assumption of Anglo-Celtic superiority.

The second and complementary experience was participating in the AFS exchange programme which at that time was predominantly focused on German students as an exercise in postwar reconciliation.

I found travelling around the US at the end of my year with a bus full of young German students a brutally sobering experience. I listened to many utterly unreconstructed young Nazis telling me with absolute certainty that the Allies had made a ghastly mistake by not joining the Germans to clean up the Russians and snuff out the evils of communism.

Of course it was the height of the Cold War, the Hungarian uprising having just been crushed. But there was neither apology nor concern for the appalling atrocities and evils of Nazi Germany, underpinned as it was by the assumptions of cultural and racial superiority. All of which was a very sobering and revealing experience for a 17-year-old.

The culminating experience was the invasion of Cyprus by the Turks. A community in which my business was based was the subject of particularly brutal treatment. This very innocent community's only mistake was to be of Greek derivation, as oppose to the invading and conquering Turkish.

Of course, the Turkish communities in the Greek sector were similar victims. It was a vivid illustration of the unforgiving intolerance by all concerned, so tragically typical of that part of the world.

Inevitably, the legacy of these experiences has been to make me deeply aware of the pejorative effect of any form of cultural and racial intolerance and arrogance, and the dangerous consequences that can flow when such attitudes get out of control.

It is very much as a result of my interest in these issues that I have become aware of the treatment of our own minority communities. In particular, I have been profoundly moved and offended by the institutional discrimination and prejudice historically shown towards Chinese migrants.

The institutional discrimination they have suffered is one of the darkest chapters of our otherwise reasonably respectable history, measured, of course, by the low standards of the times.

The sense of deep offence that provoked me into championing the cause of minority communities in the first place remains as relevant today as it was then and I would continue to do all I can do to promote their rights and entitlements.

Multicultural migration is a vital and dynamic part of our social evolution. It adds diversity, broadens our horizons and it is all part of becoming an extroverted society that teaches a tolerant and humane acceptance of alternative views and attitudes.

* This is an extract from Philip Burdon's farewell speech as chairman of the Asia 2000 Foundation.

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