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Multiculturalism in Australia: An Asian Perspective

By Charles Koo and Gary Yia Lee

Asian-Australian Resource Centre, Sydney, Australia. Paper submitted to State of the Nation Report

(Sydney: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1994)




  1. Historical Perspectives

  2. Perspectives on Employment

  3. Perspectives of Racism

  4. Perspectives on Access and Equity

  5. Perspectives on Ethno-Specific Services and Self-help

  6. Perspectives on Immigration and Refugee Intakes

  7. Perspectives on the Future

  8. References

Historical Perspectives


Since the nineteenth century, Asians have been immigrants to Australia. In 1861, they comprised nearly 3.5% of the Australian population (Price, 1983). However, with the White Australia Policy, the Asian component of the Australian population had dropped to 0.4%. This percentage was to remain at a low level until the mid sixties when the barriers against the entry of skilled non-Europeans and part-Europeans (those of mixed descent) was relaxed. The aim then was to only allow low numbers of middle-class non-Europeans into Australia. Their numbers were kept small to make them socially invisible and subject to the availability of preferred White immigrant groups (Castles, 1993:56).

The decision of the Whitlam Government in 1973 to remove ethnicity as a condition of entry enabled greater number of migrants of Asian decent to call Australia home. In a way, it was also a recognition of the economic and political significance of the Asian Pacific region to Australia's future economic and political interests. In the 1976-77 period, immigrants from Asia grew from 15% of the total intake to 34% of the intake in 1986-87. While the migratory patterns are related to decolonisation and modernisation, the backgrounds and motivations are not homogenous (Castles, 1993:58). It ranges from unqualified asylum-seekers from Indochina to highly educated professionals from Singapore, Malaysia, India and Hong Kong.


Today, Asian Australians who migrated to Australia comprise about 4.1% of the Australian population. 2.2% of the population (377,751) come from Southeast Asia, which comprises of, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. 1.2% of the population (199,288) come from Northeast Asia, which comprises of, China, Hong Kong, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Macau, Mongolia and Taiwan. 0.7% of the population (110,811) come from Southern Asia, which comprises of, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.


Perspectives on Employment


As a developed country, Australia pulls in highly qualified people from around the world and also low-skilled migrants to service the 'haves'. This is reflective of the emerging polarisation of the labour markets in the developed world. As the demand for specialists and those with capital increases, there also exists growing numbers of low-skilled jobs in unregulated and non-unionised sectors of the market in such areas as light manufacturing, retail and catering (Castles,1993:52). These sectors have limited security of employment and are generally non-unionised and tend to be filled by refugees, NESB migrants and women. The revival of the garment industry in Western Europe, the USA and Australia is borne on the backs of migrant women whose wages approximate that in Asia and South America (Castles, 1993:53).

The employment pattern of Asian Australians is complex and often contradictory. For example, the 1986 census shows that women born in Vietnam, Turkey, Yugoslavia and Greece were three to four times more likely to be employed in manufacturing than the average for women in the labour force.

Likewise, in the clothing industry, women born in Vietnam, Turkey, Cyprus and Greece were over-represented by eight to twelve times (Collins, 1988:82-85). In the early 1980's unemployment went above 10% for the first time in fifty years, the overseas born was about two percentage points above the locally born population (Collins, 1988:163). In 1987, 36.8% of males and 36.9% of females born in Vietnam were unemployed, compared to 8.1% of males and 8.2% of females born in Australia. Part of the reason for this laid in the fundamental structural changes going on in the Australian economy with declining numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs available in the manufacturing sector. As part of this process, there has been an increase in the number of part-time work among women and an increase in the number of 'outworkers' in such industries as textiles, footwear, electronics, packing, food and groceries (Centre for Working Women Co-operative, 1986).

At the other end of the spectrum, there are highly skilled migrants from Asia who are highly represented in managerial, administrative and professional occupations. Jayasuriya (1990: 12) notes that the percentages of Asian migrants in middle-class white collar jobs is similar to that of Australian and UK born migrants. The figures from the 1981 and the 1986 data has not altered the occupational structures of the Asian groups as a whole, namely, Asian migrants fall into two main categories, those highly educated and in middle-class occupations and those less highly educated in working-class occupations (Jayasuriya, ibid.).

For the former group, the issues of concern centre around promotion opportunities and the recognition of overseas qualifications and experience. The effects of EEO legislation has been patchy for many immigrant groups. Niland and Champion (1990: 28) had expected to find model programs in the NSW public sector given that equal opportunity plans for staff of non-English speaking background have been mandatory for the last 8 to 9 years. However, they note that there were hardly any examples. In the private sector, they note that even fewer firms have formal EEO policies and programs for immigrant workers. In the 1990 EEO survey of the NSW public sector conducted by the Office of the Director of Public Employment, 12% of female NESB staff and 18.2% of NESB male staff experienced racially based harassment at work (ODEOPE, 1992:137). Accents continue to be cited as a major barrier to promotion for NESB staff (Niland & Champion, op. cit.: 108 and PSC, 1990:15).


Perspectives of Racism


The original intent of post-war immigration policy had been to strengthen the 'British character' of Australia (Castles, 1993:68). When they arrived, Eastern and Southern Europeans had to overcome considerable hostility and had to prove their economic and cultural worth to the nation. With the abolition of the White Australia policy in 1973, and with a greater presence of Asian Australians, a variant of the process is being repeated.

While in historical terms it was the yellow and red perils that was external to Australia, in the recent past, the Asian Australia presence had been portrayed by some quarters as a socio-economic takeover and is being blamed for such items as being a threat to social cohesion, unemployment, violence, rising real estate prices in some suburbs and declining prices in other suburbs, environmental degradation, urban decay and exploitation of the welfare system, crime and urban decline. The presence of Asians in Australia has frequently aroused debate within certain quarters, the more recent ones being the Blainey debate in 1984, the 1986 comments by Mr. John Howard about threats to social cohesion with an increasing multicultural population.

Research by Jayasuriya notes that the aggregate data with regard to almost all the major social indicators such as crime rates, fertility levels, divorce rates, health status and educational performance suggests that there are no significant differences between Asian Australians and other migrant groups (Jayasuriya, 1990:11). Fertility rates among Asian Australians range from 1.9 to 2.1 per women, rates similar to Australian-born population (Evans, 1985).

In the educational area, evidence suggests that Asian Australian students are performing well in educational institutions (Bullivant, 1986 and Birrell, 1986). While one frequently see numerous Asian Australian names in top 100 HSC results, one needs to be cautious in generalising this to all Asian Australian groups or to exclude other possible variables.

For example, Chinese Australian and Vietnamese Australian students seem more likely to achieve their educational aspirations than Lao or Cambodian students. Reasons for this include the disrupted education as a result of years of war and a lack of support services for parents and students. Educational success has also generated competitive fears over access over limited educational resources (Jayasuriya, 1990:11).

In the area of criminality, Francis in a study of prison statistics between 1947-66 showed that Asian and African-born migrants had much lower criminal rates than migrants from the U.K., Canada and New Zealand (Francis, 1981). Figures from the 1986 national prison statistics show that the Asian-born had a low rate of conviction and incarceration at approximately 1.6 per 100 prisoners (Jayasuriya, 1990:11). In recounting criminal activity by Asian Australians, the emphasis given by the mass media is to locate it within the culture and ethnicity of the individual and not discuss such factors as the local environment, the current economic recession, occupational blockages and structural prejudices.

Criminal elements exist among Asians in Australia as they exist in other communities. The difference is that Asian offenders are almost always described by local police and the media in the most colourful and racial terms and usually in monolithic terms, for example, headlines like "Terror as Asian Gangs Rule the Streets", "Bandits Hit Rich Asians", "Crime and Culture in Cabramatta". When these newspapers report on crimes committed by Anglo-Australians, the ethnicity of the offenders are rarely mentioned in the headlines.

On the issue of racist violence against Asian Australians, the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia noted that the intensity of prejudice was influenced by the types of contemporary political debate, the national economic situation and the current media focus (HEROC, 1991:140). Second or third generation Australians of Asian descent were equally likely to face racism. There was a reluctance of publicising of anti-Asian sentiment as it leads to greater levels of resentment.


Perspectives on Access and Equity


The 1992 Access and Equity Evaluation Report noted that the impact of the Access and Equity Strategy was variable and on both clients and departments. The Strategy had bought about a 'consciousness among managers and a climate conducive for them to occur' (OMA,1992:119). There had been improvements in language, information services and cross-cultural interaction
but barriers still remained. This included the unavailability of interpreters, the inappropriate use of interpreters, the inappropriate use of the media for information dissemination (OMA, 1993:10).

For Asian Australians with a limited command of English, the most readily available languages are those with a large number of speakers and users such as Chinese and Vietnamese. For smaller communities like Korean, Urdu, Cambodian, Lao or Thai, it is difficult to access interpreting services, especially in an emergency, because there are no full-time interpreters in these languages. This applies to both Federal and State language services. For minorities like the Hmong or the Ngung people, the situation is drastic.

Although government agencies are supposed to arrange interpreters and pay for them, this is not always possible and many clients still rely on children, relatives and friends.

Another problem relates to finding a mechanism to distribute translated materials so that it reaches its targeted audience. This is especially the case with many elderly Asian Australians who may not be literate in their own languages. As such, written translated materials need to be supplemented with verbal information.

Another concern in language services is the lack of coordination between service providers such as the Telephone Interpreter Service, the State Ethnic Affairs Commissions or Bureau of Ethnic Affairs and the Health Translation Service. Each of these agencies operate in their own defined areas of jurisdiction. This leaves many clients having to sort out which service to call upon and they are often shuffled from one agency to another in search of the right interpreters. Amid this confusion, many Asian Australians who are not fluent in English give up their quest for services.


Perspectives on Ethno-Specific Services and Self-Help


Many of the new arrivals have established self-help organisations for mutual support and as a means of channelling their contributions to the host community. The 1992 Directory of Ethnic Community Organisations in Australia listed no less than 102 Asian community organisations in New South Wales alone, compared to 84 in 1989. Many other groups are not listed but are known to exist. Some of the organisations receive government funding while the majority depend on the goodwill of volunteers.

On a nation-wide basis, 18 Asian community organisations were beneficiaries of settlement grants from the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in 1992-93, ranging in monetary value from $16,000 to $46,000 out of a total grant budget of $3.4 million (DILGEA, Media Release, 14/1/93). Annual welfare grants from the NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission to Asian organisations totalled 7 in 1989 (worth $57,000) and 6 in 1993 with a monetary value of $66,000 or 6.6% of the total allocation of $1 million (NSW Minister of Ethnic Affairs, Media Release, 27/1/93). Four Asian Australian groups received 2-3 year Federal grants in 1991 compared to 2 in 1993. While on the surface, this represents an increase in funding, it is worth remembering that between 1986 and 1992 the number of Asian-born residents in Australia has increased by 40% from 413,187 to 687,850 (Census Applications, Small Area System Comparison 1986-1991, Table 7). More than 40% of the new arrivals are estimated to have settled in New South Wales, the magnet for new migrants.

In the educational area, 66 of the 166 community managed ethnic schools in New South Wales provide Asian language classes. Chinese ethnic schools account for 50 per cent of this number with an enrolment of more than 9,800 students. These ethnic schools have been able to carry on mainly through dedication of its members, supported by small Federal and State government grants.

Much of the current government grants have community development on a high priority while individual assistance (casework) and family support have lower priority, in particular those involving youth problems and family conflicts. In the area of emergency or crisis accommodation, Asian Australian organisations have also assisted in establishing ethno-specific services. An example would be the establishment of an Indochinese women's refuge and a young Asian women's refuge in 1992 in Sydney. The Vietnamese Women's Association in Liverpool, Sydney, deals with at least 3 referrals a week involving women in situations of domestic violence. The 1991-92 figures from the NSW Department of Housing shows that 29% of applicants for crisis accommodation are of non-English speaking background. 75% of NESB applicants culled out at the first stage of the selection process compared to 61% of English-speaking background applicants.

Asian communities have also obtained grants to set up childcare centres and aged people's homes and matching grants to build temples and community centres. A number of Asian and mainstream welfare agencies have implemented projects targeting Asian clients in relation to women's health, AIDS education, drug and alcohol education, and employment-related activities. In the area of accommodation, for example, the NSW Department of Housing under the Local Government and Community Housing Program provided the following matching grants in 1990-92: $360,000 for an Indochinese women's refuge; $593,000 and land worth $400,000 to build home units for Vietnamese residents; and $667,000 for 8 semi-detached cottages for Lao aged in Sydney (NSW Department of Housing, 1992, Appendix 1).


Perspectives on Immigration and Refugee Intakes


Australia, as a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees (1968), accepts people to come and live on its soil if they satisfy the UN Convention's definition of a refugee, namely: someone who is outside his or her country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return to it, owing to well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Those who do not meet the UN Convention definition but who nevertheless had suffered "gross violations of their human rights may be accepted under the Special Humanitarian component. A third component, called Special Assistance, is aimed at people overseas who have experienced "hardship and suffering" such as being in serious danger in war-like situations and who have close links with Australia.

The number of intakes under this Refugee, Humanitarian and Special Assistance Program is based on quota set each year by DILGEA. Quota for the program in 1991-92 was 10,000 (actual intake 7,157), 12,000 for 1992-93, and 13,000 for 1993-94 to accommodate the number of displaced persons in former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe (Media Release, Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 26 May 1993).

Of particular relevance to Asian Australians under this program are the Indochinese refugees from Vietnam and Laos and the smaller numbers of "eligible people" from recognised countries in the region such as Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, and Myanmar. The number of Asian arrivals under the Refugee, Humanitarian and Special Assistance Program totalled 6,807 for 1989-90 and 3,136 for 1991-92 (BIR, :31-32).

Before 1989, most refugees were off-shore applicants, with an average of only 300 on-shore applications a year. After the Australian Government granted 4 year temporary residence in Australia to Chinese nationals after the Tiananmen Square incident in June 1989, close to 10,000 applicants were received for 1991-92. This includes more than 300 from "boat people" from Cambodia and China. Since the system could process only 295 applications to the primary stage (& in what time frame?), 23,066 people were still left waiting for decisions on their refugee applications at the end of 1991.

Most applicants have to wait 2 or more years before their applications are processed. Despite an injection of additional funds from $8.7 million in 1991/92 to $25.1 million in 1992/93 and the streamlining of the refugee determination process to reduce the waiting period to 2 months at the primary stage, many thousands of people are still awaiting government decisions on their status. This is in addition to those who have been granted temporary residence.

The Commonwealth Government has also introduced legislation which cancels "denial of natural justice" as grounds for appeals against official decisions. It also enacted laws to restrict payment of compensation for detention of boat people or border claimants.

What is most anomalous about the Australian Refugees, Humanitarian and Special Assistance Program is that on-shore refugees with temporary residence status are eligible to work, to use Medicare and to sponsor immediate family members. (however, if the relationship between a couple breaks down, the sponsored partner is subject to deportation). They can obtain financial assistance from charity organisations with special funds given by the government, but are not eligible to apply for government housing or Social Security benefits.

In comparison, those in detention centres like the Cambodian "boat people" have to languish in Villawood, Melbourne or Port Hedland because of complex legal process and slow bureaucratic procedures. If the system is convoluted and takes years to complete the determination process, then border-claimants should not be put in detention centres but released to be in the community like the rest of the on-shore claimants.


Perspectives on the Future


Although much remains to be done under Australia's multicultural policy, many Asians have made much inroads into Australian business, political and professional life. In the educational area, Asian Australian students are performing well, often gaining a reputation for being high achievers or over-achievers (Bullivant, 1986). While Asian Australian names are found each year in the top 10 of the Higher School Certificate results, caution is needed when looking at Asian students in general. There is, for example, a high rate of school drop-out among the Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian refugee students, largely due to lack of support and the refugee background of the parents.

There are now politicians of Asian background in local governments and in Federal and State Parliaments. The number of Asian personalities in the entertainment industry, the arts and the media is also increasing. Despite the exaggerated depiction of Asian criminal activities by the print media, local and national English language newspapers now also carry stories of success on Asian shop-keepers or entrepreneurs (Thomas, 1993: 31-37). Buddhist pagodas, Hindu temples and Asian churches have been set up in many Australian capital cities, often against much opposition from local residents.

Refugees from Vietnam have "experienced a significant degree of upward mobility between first job and current job in Australia" with the ethnic Chinese more concentrated in manual work and small business than the Vietnamese (Tran and Holton, 1991: 174). It is expected that this trend will continue for many Asian Australians if opportunities are shared and participation can be made under principles of social justice and equality. In a sense we have on our doorsteps a very successful model of cultural diversity, given the massive changes in our population profiles in such a short time. Beyond making economic and cultural contributions, improvement in access and equity will further enable Asian Australians to gain a real sense of Australian identity and to help nurture Australia's cultural diversity for the mutual benefits of all residents and future generations. As the contributions of Asian Australians increase and evolve over time, the reality of what it is to be an Australian will change, at a point in Australian history when we are all negotiating multiple realities for the future and visions that are inclusive of minority and majority aspirations.




  • Birrell, R. (1986), The Ethnic Problem in Education, Research Conference, AIMA, AGPS, Canberra.

  • Bullivant, B. (1986), Getting a Fair Go : Studies of Socialisation and Perspectives of Discrimination (Canberra: HREOC).

  • Castles, S. (1992), The 'New' Migration and Australian Immigration Policy.

  • In Asians in Australia edited by Inglis C., Gunasekaran S., Sullivan G. and Wu, C., Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

  • Centre for Working Women Co-operative Limited, Women Outworkers: A Report Documenting Sweated Labour in the 1980s, Footscray.

  • Collins, J. (1988), Migrant Hands in a Distant Land, Pluto Press, Sydney.

  • Evans, M. D. R. (1985), New Blood : A Social Portrait of Australia's Recent Immigrants, RSSS, ANU, Canberra.

  • Francis, R. D. (1981), Migrant Crime in Australia, QUP, St. Lucia.

  • Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1991), Racist Violence, Report of the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia, AGPS, Canberra.

  • Jayasuriya L. and Sang D. (April 1990), Asian Immigration Past and Current Trends, Current Affairs Bulletin.

  • Niland C. and Champion R. (1990), EEO Programs for Immigrants: The Experience of Thirteen of Thirteen Organisations, Bureau of Immigration Research, AGPS, Canberra.

  • Office of the Director of Equal Opportunity in Public Employment (1992), 1990 EEO Survey Report for the New South Wales Public Sector, ODEOPE, Sydney.

  • Office of Multicultural Affairs (1993), Access and Equity Evaluation Summary, AGPS, Canberra.

  • Public Service Commission (1990), Maximising Diversity : A Report on the Employment of People of Non-English Speaking Background in the Australian Public Service, AGPS, Canberra.

  • Price C. (1974), The Great White Walls Are Built, ANU Press, Canberra.

  • Thomas, T. "Small Buiness, the Vietnamese Way", Business Review Weekly, 15 January 1993: 30-37

  • Tran, M. V. and Holton, R. Sadness is Losing our Country, Happiness is Knowing Peace: Vietnamese Social Mobility in Australia, 1975-1990 (Canberra: Office of Multicultural Affairs, 1991).

  • Women's Directorate in NSW, Self-employed or Employee? A Survey of Women in New South Wales doing Paid Work at Home (Sydney: NSW DIRE and EAC, 1987).

Perspectives on Immigration
Perspectives on Ethno-Specific
Perspectives on Access
Historical Perspectives
Perspectives on the Future
Perspectives Employment
Perspectives of Racism
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