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The Australian diaspora and its untapped wisdom

By Warren Reed - posted Wednesday, 29 February 2012

On Line Opinion's publication over the last month of the thoughts of Australians who have lived – or are living – overseas highlights the diverse range of activities that we as a people are engaged in. Australians have long been adventurous, and like our cousins, the Canadians, can be found at the remotest points on the globe, whether working or travelling. In both countries, 60 per cent of the population has passports, compared to a surprisingly low 30 per cent for the United States.

Decades ago, this writer hired a 4WD and driver in Ambon – once a key centre in the spice trade – to negotiate a washed out track over that Indonesian island's central mountain range. The reason, to see the remains of an old Portuguese-Dutch trading post on the north coast. A church at the site, which had been maintained over hundreds of years and was kept locked, was opened up by a nearby village elder who explained that no foreigners had been seen there for a long while. Inside, he picked up an aged and tattered visitors book and blew the dust off. Sure enough, an Australian couple were the last visitors nearly ten years before.

With 5 per cent of Australia's population overseas at any time, expatriation certainly is a mainstream experience. But how much of the wisdom gained by those Australians – a significant number of whom are fluent in the local language – is put to good use back home? This was a topic of discussion recently when taking a first-time Japanese business visitor by train to Sydney Airport for his flight back to Tokyo. That line, which is relatively new and efficient, is underground for much of the trip, conveniently stopping under both the domestic and international terminals. Architecturally, the stations are trim and neat, not unlike Japan, but there's one huge difference.


Almost everywhere in Japan, whether above ground or underground, all platform name signs are based on a T-shaped grid and are written in both Japanese script and its anglicised form. Both arms of the T are pointed like arrows. Above the T is the name of the station you're at, while under the arm pointing ahead is the name of the one coming up. Under the arm pointing back is the one you've just left. This logical triangulation gives passengers a firm fix on where they are and hence, when they need to get ready to get off. It is accepted as natural by the Japanese, and is a godsend to foreign residents and travellers.

Meanwhile, back on the Sydney train, at a station along the way we gazed out of the window. Our eyes set upon a feature on the wall, typical on that line. The name of the station was there in bold letters – three times, one above the other. The Japanese businessman was puzzled. What he was thinking was written across his face: Why would you waste space and money putting the same name up in the same place three times over? Good question. Is it because Australians are slow at digesting information or is it just a difference between the way people think in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres? Probably not.

Actually, in one form or another, all Australian train stations are like that. But it's hardly a fixed tradition we need to revere. With the numerous parliamentary and bureaucratic fact-finding missions we send overseas every year it's a wonder that things like this aren't picked up quickly.

But if you think about how many times Australians overseas feed back eminently adoptable and useful ideas like this you'll get some sense of the wisdom that our diaspora embodies. Overall, very little of it ever resonates here – and even less is ever applied. Think of Bletchley Park in Britain in WWII, where an odd assortment of cryptic crossword specialists, mathematicians and code-breakers combined to form probably the biggest human super computer in recorded history. Their contribution to the Allied win in the war was massive.

In Australia today, it's a pity that so much knowledge and experience built up overseas goes untapped here. Almost any Australian who has been, or is part of the diaspora can tell you how frustrating that can be.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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