Racism rears its ugly head

I sure envy the 25 Indian journalists currently in Australia on junkets paid by the Australian government, as part of a public relations move to counter negative impact of violent attacks on Indian students.

While I’m writing this from the Atwood Motor Inn in Warrnambool, a windy coastal town located 263km away from Melbourne, they are staying at the posh Windsor or Sofitel hotels in the city.

Apparently, the Australian government is spending A$250,000 (US$222,538) on the writers or A$10,000 (US$26,945) on each of them for the "familiarisation tours".

The splurging on their flights, lodging, cricket matches and even tickets for Slumdog Millionaire composer AR Rahman’s concerts in Melbourne and Sydney is aimed at convincing the journalists that Australia is not a racist country.

But will the reports filed by these journalists erase the horrors of "curry bashings" and change the perception?

The Herald Sun has opined that wasting A$250,000 of taxpayers’ money to persuade Indian journalists is a futile effort.

"The community would be better served by a greater police presence to combat crime generally," it said in an editorial.

Many here feel the same way, including students from India, many of whom moonlight as taxi drivers and work as waiters or cleaners, opting for the late shifts to earn more money.

The secretary of the Federation of Indian Students of Australia Gautam Gupta feels that the entertainment being lavished on the Indian journalists and their carefully planned itinerary are designed to "gloss over" the attacks on Indian students.

And so, is Australia a racist country?

As a Malaysian who has been here on many working trips and now back Down Under to enrol my daughter at the Deakin University’s Warrnambool campus, I’ve never personally experienced any form of racism.

But I’ve always been reminded that it exists, by migrants and even Australians themselves, including former diplomat Bruce Haigh who wrote recently that the attacks on Indian students had thrust the issue of racism in Australia into the mainstream news again.

"Of course Australia is racist. It is still viewed by mainstream Australia as wrong, so it is practised with some guilt and in polite company circumspection."

"Quiet soundings at social gatherings of what appear to be like-minded people, eventually leading to (once credentials seem to have been established) ‘I have nothing against them but...’."

Most Australians don’t share his views, however.

While they admit there are racists in Australia, they defend that the country has always championed its multi-culturalism and that there are stringent laws against racial discrimination and vilification against anyone.

To be fair, the spate of bashings in Melbourne and Sydney have mainly happened in the northern or western suburbs "where violence is endemic and involves many different ethnic combinations", as described by one journalist.

A close friend who has studied and lived in Australia since he was 15 says the culture among the young and not-so-young in such areas mostly involves "blades and binge drinking".

But if the problem is social decay, it is one that we share with Australia.

In Malaysia, too, there are lots of unsafe neighbourhoods with social problems like the Mat Rempit menace, unemployment, vandalism, juvenile crimes, alcohol and drug abuse, etc, all borne out of poor policies, lack of enforcement and inequalities in the system.

As for racism, Malaysia is in no position to call the kettle black.

Perhaps we should be more shameful because unlike in Australia, our racists and bigots are everywhere - in political parties, among elected representatives, the civil service and much as we pretend not to see, even in the corporate sector.

Regardless of whether the junkets for Indian journalists will result in better perceptions, Australia is taking the matter seriously because the education sector plays a vital role in the country’s economy.

There are currently about 500,000 international students in Australia and they spent an estimated A$15 billion (US$13.3 billion) last year.

The number of Indians applying for student visas to Australia has since plunged by 46 per cent.

Over the past week, a number of stabbing cases made the headlines in Australia, including a 13-year-old boy who knifed his 12-year-old schoolmate and the bizarre story of a man stabbed in a fight but went to bed not realising he had a knife embedded in his neck.

As a Malaysian parent and one of Indian origin, I’m naturally worried about my daughter’s safety in the country.

But after spending three days in Warrnambool and the nice people we have met, there is less anxiety over her safety.

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