Liberalism and Australia’s Engagement with Asia

With its unparalleled dependence on Asian trade and deep security entanglement in the Asian region, Australia is on the front line of the transformations  preoccupying the global community in the coming decades.

Australia and Liberalism
Sydney harbour (Image by Theo N. G.)

Recent reflection on liberalism in Quadrant and elsewhere comes at a useful time— especially because of the developing crisis in our foreign relations. When David Kemp insists in The Land of Dreams that liberalism has been “the source of the dominant ideals in Australian politics for most of the country’s history” he is helping to prepare the Australian community for difficult challenges in the Asian region. He is right to complain that “the liberal project and liberalism” need a higher profile in our school curriculum. Right now, Australians have reason to think more deeply about who we are.

My awareness of the power of our liberal heritage came in the 1990s, when leading an Academy of Social Sciences project on Australia–Asia relations. Bringing together specialists from Asian societies as well as Australia, our focus was not on Australia’s economic or political engagement with the region, but on the differences in values and perspectives which shape that engagement. Particularly in the book Comparing Cultures (edited with Mary Quilty), the project examined a range of practical areas—including human rights, national security, education and business ethics—and compared dominant Australian perspectives with those perspectives influential in specific Asian communities. Moving from one topic to another, the significance of Australia’s liberal heritage grew increasingly obvious.

Stress on the individual rather than communitarian values was immediately apparent in Australian approaches to human rights, the role of government and citizenship. The rights rather than the duties of the citizen tended to be highlighted, and there was wariness regarding the expansion of governmental power. Egalitarianism—the insistence at least on theoretical equality—and the value of free debate between individuals were other aspects of the liberal tradition that appeared time and again. Debate, or adversarialism, was observed to be highly valued in our legal system, labour relations and media (particularly in the presentation of public affairs)—and viewed as healthy in liberal terms. The harmony of the group—the search for consensus that is encountered so often in Asian contexts—seemed to be present in Australian society, but less important.

The fact that Australians reacted as they did, in apparent knee-jerk manner, to Indonesian violence in East Timor or West Papua, or to authoritarian rule in China, or to government-led ethnic discrimination in Malaysia or Fiji so we argued, was a consequence of inheriting a liberal tradition. Also, in our project seminars it was apparent that the Asia-based participants viewed Australia in these liberal terms. They tended to see the liberal tradition more than anything else as making Australia distinctive in the Asian context.

This highlighting of liberalism surprised me. As a student at Monash in earlier years, surrounded by talk of Marxism, I had seen liberalism as a loser’s ideology—weak, flaccid. I reflected little on its just claim to be (in Francis Fukuyama’s words) the “first major secular ideology to have a lasting worldwide effect”. Before engaging in the Academy project, I had not read Tim Rowse’s examination of liberalism as “the dominant social theory in Australia”. Liberalism had spread like wildfire in Australia, as he explained, because here—unlike in England — it did not have to compete with a conservatism grounded in “feudal inheritance”. Australia was “an almost uniquely successful ‘fragment’ of European liberalism”.

In a sense it is a consequence of liberal influence that Australians seldom acknowledge that their views are shaped by any ideology at all. The assumption that we take a pragmatic, objective view of the world—that we just see the world “as it is”—is of course a delusion, but is encouraged by the strand of liberalism that stresses universal values and aspirations. Assuming that human beings everywhere will follow the same path of progress, this liberalism pays little attention to comparing cultures—and, as a result, plays down the importance of one’s own ideological heritage. In recent times, it has been Isaiah Berlin’s liberalism—his plural liberalism— which acknowledges that humans may flourish in divergent ways, and that sees the true liberal task as promoting coexistence, not uniformity.

The Academy project predicted that the more Australians engaged with Asian societies—in tourism and educational exchange as well as in economic and security terms—the more sharply aware we would become of our liberal heritage. Our current national government’s frequent defence and advocacy of the “liberal rules-based order” (in White Papers and foreign policy speeches) would seem to imply such a development and is, in particular, a response to China’s rejection of the International Court of Arbitration ruling against its South China Sea claims.

Beyond Australia, a more comprehensive reaction to today’s great geopolitical shift towards China is Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2015). Seeing China’s “governing ideology” as a “crass form of utilitarianism, enshrining majority interests at the expense of justice or human liberty”, Siedentop insists we face a “competition of beliefs, whether we like it or not”. In these circumstances, he says, we must “understand the moral depth of our own tradition” in order to be able to “shape the conversation of mankind”.

Siedentop’s own narrative of liberalism reaches back to early Christianity, especially the idea of God being within each of us—not a remote being—and also the egalitarianism implicit in the “brotherhood of man”. For inherently hierarchical societies, which tended also to be associations of families and not of individuals, the idea of God offering his grace to all, as equal souls—and the stress on Christ as an individual—amounted to a “moral earthquake”.

Inventing the Individual reminds us of the power of liberalism—and its potential to provoke resistance. With respect to today’s “competition of beliefs”, the book was on my mind during some recent seminar discussions in Beijing. We were deliberating on the idea of a rules-based international order, and the Chinese specialists focused on the differences between ideological traditions and wished to understand the early foundations of modern Western aspirations and value preferences. It is true (as prominent Australian academic Wang Gungwu pointed out long ago) that some members of Asian societies are attracted by Australia’s liberal institutions—our respect for law and human rights, and our parliamentary system—but in these recent discussions, our Chinese associates were keen for debate.

What we did not foresee at the time of the Academy project in the 1990s was the extent to which liberalism would be put on the defensive. We were sure that reflecting on Australia’s liberal heritage would help us deal with the confusion and misunderstanding which can occur in business interaction or human rights deliberation with one regional society or another—but we were researching in what now in retrospect looks to have been the highpoint of liberal triumph, following US victory in the Cold War. Today we are confronted not only by a historic shift in economic and military power away from the US, but also a deep questioning of the structure of concepts and values that has for some time defined and sustained the international order.

Even in the 1990s, however, proponents of so-called “Asian values”— especially government leaders and public intellectuals in Singapore and Malaysia—had insisted that their new thriving economies were based on local rather than liberal values, and that their approaches to social and political issues should not be judged solely in Western liberal terms. In recent years this type of resistance to liberalism has gathered pace. For instance, two years ago the Malaysian Institute of Moderation, created to promote former Prime Minister Najib’s “moderation” (or wasatiyyah) agenda, held a seminar on the threat of liberalism. Here, a member of an Islamic unit housed in the Prime Minister’s Department argued that from the perspective of liberalism, both religious institutions and royal institutions are “no longer relevant” and ought to be “erased” or “crushed”. Religious authority, including the authority of Allah and His Prophet, said this speaker, are rejected by liberalism, and Islamic law (sharia) is sidelined. The liberalism movement, he warned, is well-organised, has access to foreign funding, and is specifically seeking to influence naive young people.

Turning to Indonesia, Tim Lindsey’s recent essay in Australian Foreign Affairs warns that the “rise of conservative Islamist hardliners”, which is dramatically evident today, threatens Indonesia’s “hard-won advances towards liberalism and tolerance”. These religious developments seem likely to influence governmental policy—so that optimism in some quarters in Australia following the fall of the Suharto regime must now be tempered by anxiety about what a more sharply Islamic regime might mean for Indonesia–Australia relations. Beyond Muslim South-East Asia, Philippines President Duterte has been described recently as a pioneer of “the rebellion against liberal democratic discourse”, and a recent book by sociologist Chua Beng Huat, Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore, analyses the sustained campaign against liberalism that has been a feature of Lee Kuan Yew’s state.

These developments, including my conversations in China, suggest ways in which liberalism has been portrayed in non-Western contexts as a “moral earthquake”. Only if we are conscious of the traditions which shape our own approaches to international relationships is it possible to discern— and give appropriate respect to, and then probably argue against—alternative moral and analytic perspectives. Seeking an international, or at least a regional, consensus on a rules-based order is one obvious task where Australians will require a greater depth of understanding of our own liberal heritage as well as alternative non-Western ways of thought. To continue to insist that we simply view matters objectively or pragmatically is not helpful: it prevents serious value deliberation and earns us no respect. Having read Kemp and Siedentop, it might be argued, we are better prepared to appreciate— and debate—non-liberal viewpoints from Asian or other societies.

There are two other reasons, however, why the history of liberalism matters at this time. First, if we examine developments in the Asian region it is clear that liberal doctrines are by no means new to these societies, but in some cases have been propagated over two centuries. Furthermore, they have not just been imposed from outside. As historian Christopher Bayly has explained, the progress of liberal modernity was “a series of transformations in which most of the people of the world” contributed “not simply as the objects or victims … but actively, independently and creatively”. In India, for instance, a communitarian, welfare-state slant was introduced to temper radical claims for individual rights (including economic rights) argued by some proponents of liberalism. The foreign ideology, that is to say, was “modified and even neutralised by older ideologies and local discourses”.

In South-East Asia, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there are other examples of this type of Asia–West collaboration. Malay writers identified a new sense of time—of dynamic time, necessarily entailing linear change or progress — and of the role and rights of the individual person. They appropriated also the concept of racial unity as a potential substitute for membership in a monarchy-centred polity—of which there were numerous examples in the Malay world. Liberal ideology—with this egalitarian emphasis—was perceived in other ways as well to undermine the elaborate hierarchical structure encountered in the Malay kingdoms. Nevertheless, Malay writers resisted the individualistic extremes which Western ideologues tended to embed in liberalism and highlighted the potential emotive power of the race-based community — a power capable of replacing the communitarian reassurance long offered by monarchy. Here in South-East Asia is an example of Bayly’s neutralisation “by older ideologies”. Local writers were moderating liberal doctrine, accommodating it to Malay anxieties.

In giving attention to the early history of liberalism in Asian contexts—in the way Bayly suggests— the “moral earthquake” dimension of the ideology continues to be apparent. In addition, however, we also learn about the ideological work that has already been undertaken, and about how that work blunted in one way or another some of liberalism’s most dangerous potential. Such knowledge of the history of ideas may in fact have the capacity to soften current Asia–West debate. Knowing that liberalism has for two centuries been subject to an element of inter-cultural, ideological collaboration at least counters the suggestion that we are dealing today with a crude clash of civilisations. Asian as well as Australian liberal thinkers are likely to continue to advocate liberal principles, but they will do so in a region that has had long experience of seeking reconciliation with this powerful ideology.

The second reason why a renewed investigation of Australian liberalism is valuable relates to the possibility that Australian approaches to the world may themselves have to undergo far-reaching revision over the next decades. As is well known, the societies of Asia were confronted by ideological as well as military and economic challenges in the nineteenth century: the modern West, they found, was strikingly and disturbingly different from their own societies. Some Asian thought-leaders merely retreated into inherited traditions—calling for a stricter implementation, for instance, of Confucian or Islamic principles. Other ideologues, in their determination to survive the rising powers from the West, sought to engineer wholesale social transformation. We see such attempts at self-reform in Japan, China, the Middle East and numerous parts of South-East Asia. These attempts tended to involve investigation (and sometimes adoption or adaptation) of aspects of liberal thinking—progressive time, heightened individualism, the principle of human equality, as well as the foundational concept of the secular state operating in a society of sovereign states.

Today, however, the tables are turned. A century and a half ago, therefore, these Asian societies were confronted by the need to cope with a global transformation affecting life at virtually every level. Today liberal Australia may be facing a comparable challenge. With our unparalleled dependence on Asian trade, and our deep security entanglement in the Asian region, Australia is on the front line with respect to the power and related transformations that seem likely to preoccupy the global community over the next decades. We may have to make radical adjustments in the way we think about ourselves, the international community around us, and the way we are positioned vis-à-vis that community. I have already heard such a demand being made to us—for instance, by Japanese commentators. It is also implied in some seminar encounters with Chinese.

If it happens that Australia does have to adapt to a new era, as Asian communities did in the nineteenth century, the first step must be to review the ideological heritage which has shaped our own domestic and international behaviour. In the 1870s, Japanese asked what culture they needed to develop in order to strengthen Japan against Western com competition. They sought ways to protect core Japanese institutions and traditions—but also elements in the Japanese heritage that might be appropriated on behalf of Japan’s “modernisation”. The emperor seemed to be such an institution. Having abolished feudalism, the Japanese reformers harnessed the concept (and institution) of the emperor to the task of building an effectively centralised, modern Japanese nation. One advantage in probing Australia’s liberal heritage could be to identify core values or institutions with the potential to be fused into a future Australian program of reform.

What is certain is that the examination of Australia’s liberal heritage is of no mere antiquarian interest. Now, perhaps more than ever before, Australians need to know who we are. The “conversation of mankind” is becoming more urgent and dangerous in this time of geostrategic transition, and we ought to be as well-prepared as possible to negotiate a satisfactory future for this country.



Anthony Milner is International Director at Asialink and Visiting Professor at the University of Malaya. This essay draws upon his chapter in Gareth Knapman, Anthony Milner and Mary Quilty (eds) Liberalism and the British Empire in Southeast Asia (Routledge, 2018).

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Tony Milner, International Director