By P. Francis
3-Alan-with-Tony-Abbott (500x333)

RHODES scholar, swimmer, runner, cyclist, ex-seminarian, journalist and politician are just some of the threads weaved into the many-coloured coat of Tony Abbott, leader of the quietly-confident Liberal opposition Down Under as D-Day 7 September approaches.

No, he is not exactly like Joseph – the favourite son of Jacob – who was given the unique coat by his father as a sign of future leadership over his brothers, as related in Genesis.

Abbott is married to Marg and has three lovely daughters. He had to work very hard in opposition against two different PMs and now, some critics claim, it is his election to lose as the weekly polls have swung Abbott’s way. (Some polls have even dared to say – and newspapers have published the prediction – that PM Kevin Rudd could lose his Brisbane seat of Griffith.)

This Rhodes scholar, who studied at The Queen’s College in 1981, is one of the high achievers in the Australian political arena. Other Australian products of the premier scholarship, which has strict criteria, sharing a special ‘thread’ are Labor PM Bob Hawke (1983-1991), Kim Beazley (deputy Labor PM) and former Liberal opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.

Even Singapore has its share of Rhodes scholars. Former Singapore Sports Council chairman and senior minister Dr Tan Eng Liang won the scholarship through Malaysia in 1981. The rumour mill had it in the late 1970s that “this man was being groomed to be the next Singapore PM”. History shows his career went a different way. Today Singapore has two serving MPs of that calibre – Raymond Lim (PAP) and Chen Show-Mao (WP), while Malaysia has MP Sivarasa Rasiah of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party).

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Among Abbott’s plans for the future is integrating further into Asia by building from the ground up.

The Australian newspaper reported on 25 Feb this year: “The business community has swung behind Tony Abbott’s pitch for a new Colombo Plan, which would see thousands of Australian undergraduates undertake a semester of university work in the Asia-Pacific. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop has been the driving force behind the new policy for scholarships paying travel, tuition and living expenses for Australians to study in Asia.”

Ms Bishop, a former education minister in the Howard government, had said that the scholarships would require recipients to work one day a week as interns for Australian businesses and non-government organisations in Asia. She said it was crucial to link the scholarships to career prospects for the students selected. Business Council of Australia president Tony Shepherd gave a big tick to the opposition’s plan and called it “a great idea”. “The original Colombo Plan (which brought Asian students to Australia) was very beneficial to Australia,” he said. “It formed fantastic alumni links to Australia.”

Brighton Secondary Year 10 express student Evelyn Lieng, of Melbourne, gave the plan an emphatic nod and said: “It would be a good opportunity to work in Third World countries and developing nations in Asia because many of us take what we have here for granted.” Lieng, who has a grasp of conversational Japanese and French – learnt in Years 7 and 8 at school – also had the impression that “Locals think the immigrants work too hard at school and employment, but just can’t be bothered to match the pace.” Perhaps that is why Australia lags behind some Asian countries in the academic stakes.

Meanwhile, Isabelle Weston, a Year 10 Student at Fairhills High in Knox, has hosted three different Japanese students in her home and will go on a study trip to Japan in mid-September. She said: “Guess it is a good plan to experience the culture, lifestyle and learn new ways of working. The Federal Government should select suitable students and teach them to pay their way.”

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A Malaysian teacher, enjoying his retirement in Melbourne but wanting to remain anonymous, commended the plan: “Good idea.  What is needed now is to identify the Australian businesses and NGOs willing to host the interns and to participate in the programme. While the Aussies might be willing, I doubt if the Asian businesses or NGOs would give their full support. They might have reservations. Asian businesses, in particular, rely very strongly on personal commitment and loyalty, as you know. Their business culture especially, is very different from that of the West.”

Abbott has another plan – announced in a White Paper on 21 June this year: “With Asia’s real GDP expected to grow from US$27 trillion to US$67 trillion by 2030 and Northern Australia’s proximity to the tropical region, Northern Australia is well placed to capitalise on the significant economic, strategic and environmental macro-trends that will shape both the Asian and tropical regions.  We are determined to break the ongoing development deadlock that has held Northern Australia back for so long.  For too long, families have been reluctant to move to Northern Australia because of the absence of adequate infrastructure; and governments and the private sector have been reluctant to invest in major projects because of insufficient population.’’

Abbott’s vision is to use the north of the continent as a springboard for trade into Asia, where many countries are rapidly developing under the shadows of the economic giants, such as China, Japan and Korea. Highly-populated India could be called the sleeping giant, closest neighbor Indonesia has a huge market, Thailand is popular with Aussie tourists and Myanmar is slowly opening its doors.

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In the past, Australian military forces have served in Singapore, Malaya, Borneo, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Korea and Vietnam to help maintain peace and freedom.  It is a well known fact that Asian countries, including Singapore, Indonesia and the US have ventured Down Under and used the vast and rugged terrain of Australia for military training exercises.

Today, many people accept Australia as part of Asia. Even in sport, the Socceroos, Australia’s national football team, has paved the way into Asia by playing in the Asian Group for the past two World Cup qualifying rounds. They have been great ambassadors for the country. Melbourne, regarded as the sports capital of the world, will be in the limelight once again when the Aussies host their inaugural Asian Cup tournament in 2015.

The links are already there laid in stone and Abbott’s plan to further strengthen the bonds with Asia is another step in the right direction. The changing face of Australia is mirrored in the number of MPs with Asian heritage, who are involved in government at federal and state level. It is only a matter of time, maybe decades, when – just like President Obama in the US – a Prime Minister with Asian heritage is sworn in by the Governor-General of the day!

P. Francis is an English tutor in Melbourne, who has more than 20 years’ journalism experience with newspapers, books and magazines in Singapore and Australia.