Benign Neglect: New Zealand, ASEAN and South-East Asia: Andrew Butcher Comments on the Findings of a Recent Survey of New Zealanders' Awareness of ASEAN Nations

By Butcher, Andrew | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2012 | Go to article overview

Benign Neglect: New Zealand, ASEAN and South-East Asia: Andrew Butcher Comments on the Findings of a Recent Survey of New Zealanders' Awareness of ASEAN Nations


Butcher, Andrew, New Zealand International Review


South-east Asia is a region that holds historical importance and sentiment for New Zealand. But history and sentiment only get New Zealand so far in its engagement with the region and relying rather too much on this sentiment has resulted in New Zealand treating South-east Asia with a kind of benign neglect. New Zealanders' low knowledge and perception of South-east Asian countries is one reflection of this. But for important strategic reasons New Zealand needs to engage with ASEAN and South-east Asia as it navigates the tricky terrain of the changing geo-politics of Asia.

For good reason a number of people are very interested in China. China should interest us not only because of its current economic growth and what that means for New Zealand but also because of its history and its culture. In New Zealand, relatively fewer people are interested in India, though that will change. Japan no longer holds the interest it once did. There are year-on-year decreases of students learning Japanese in New Zealand secondary schools and universities. And even fewer people, I would suggest, are interested in South-east Asia.

Last year the Asia New Zealand Foundation surveyed New Zealanders' awareness of the ten countries that together make up ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations. (1) The results are revealing.

When New Zealanders thought about 'Asia', they identified China (86 per cent) and Japan (68 per cent). Fewer New Zealanders identified ASEAN countries. The most frequently mentioned ASEAN countries in the 2011 survey were Thailand (27 per cent), Malaysia (24 per cent), Singapore (21 per cent) and Vietnam (20 per cent). Others were mentioned by less than a fifth of New Zealanders, including Indonesia (17 per cent), Philippines (14 per cent), Cambodia (9 per cent), Laos (6 per cent), Burma (3 per cent of New Zealanders mentioned Burma and 2 per cent mentioned Myanmar) and Brunei (mentioned by less than 0.5 per cent). When asked what they knew about specific South-east Asian countries, New Zealanders replied with comments that were not always accurate and reflected what they had seen in the movies or just thought was the case. Here are a few examples.

On Indonesia, New Zealanders said:

* it invaded and seized East Timor, killing many people including Australian journalists;

* many people want their independence from Indonesia;

* it is a corrupt and poor country;

* a devastating tsunami struck the country a few years ago.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

On Singapore, New Zealanders said:

* it is a clean, well organised, well developed country with a propensity for materialism and consumerism;

* it is a cosmopolitan place with a mix of Asian and Western people

* it is a business hub and high-tech products are affordable

* littering the streets is a crime;

On Vietnam, New Zealanders said:

* it is a country colonised by France and ravaged by a devastating war that involved other countries (for example, the United States);

* chemical warfare (for example, Agent Orange) was a tool in the killing of populations and crops;

* today, the country seems to be coming out of its bleak past and is developing.

Outdated views

There is much that is missing from New Zealanders' perceptions of these South-east Asian countries. For a start, many of these views are clearly outdated. These outdated views are one reason why Asia New Zealand has commissioned a series of papers with a focus on South-east Asia. But, despite the New Zealand public's perceptions, the importance of South-east Asia to New Zealand is not something that others have just tumbled to. When he was foreign minister, Russell Marshall noted in 1988 that 'New Zealand has a direct stake in the stability, security and prosperity of the ASEAN countries' because the countries of ASEAN occupy a strategically important position along one rim of the Pacific. …

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