Until 15 years ago I have to confess I’d never been too bothered about Australia Day. I’ve always considered patriotism to be the last refuge of not just the scoundrel, as Dr Johnson famously declared, but also of the simple-minded.
But since my wife gave birth to our daughter Sammie in KL on this day back in 1995, 26 January has had a special, fresh significance for me. Not just in terms of paternal pride and affection for Sammie, which pretty well go without saying, but also in a sense that could be seen as suspiciously patriotic.
Because as an expatriate in Malaysia, I had to leave when my working visa expired. And when I did exit the country, my wife and then two-year-old daughter happily accompanied me back to Australia.
But was I, I wondered, doing the right thing by tearing them away from their homeland to live in some far-away, foreign country? Was I unfairly assuming it would be better for them because it was familiar and preferable to me?
And I went through the whole soul-searching process again years later, when I took another job in Malaysia for a while, after which my wife was undoubtedly relieved to return to Australia, but Sammie was somewhat reluctant.
All my thinking about the pros and cons of living down here, and my feelings of guilt at having once more brought her back, this time somewhat against her will, have since spurred me to consistently examine my conscience for signs of creeping patriotism.
So far, however, I’m happy to say, I can give myself a clean bill of health. I haven’t taken to flying Aussie flags on my car this Australia Day, like many of my compatriots have. Nor have I felt the urge to splurge on any of the somewhat in-your-face Aussie-sloganed merchandise on sale for the occasion. Or given a moment’s thought to joining the throng to spend hours waiting to ooh-ah at tonight’s fireworks.
Most telling, however, is how I feel about the national anthem. Not that I have anything against it, though I would have preferred “Waltzing Matilda”. “Advance Australia Fair” is fine as far as it goes. But rather than producing a lump of emotion in my throat, or a sentimental tear in my eye, I find it sets me pondering questions that are worth asking about this or any other country.
“Advance Australia Fair”? In what sense of “fair”, exactly? According to my true-blue Macquarie Dictionary, this innocent little word has at least five meanings, any or all of which provide plenty of food for thought.
The meaning the lyricist presumably intended, given that national anthems are by nature patriotic in the extreme, was “fair” as in “beautiful”. And I’m happy to go with that up to a point. Australia, like any other nation you or I could name, undoubtedly boasts a great deal of breathtaking beauty, both natural and man-made. On the other hand, there are some sights that are less attractive than others, or outright blots on the landscape.
For example, the sea and sand and some of the bodies on Bondi Beach are beautiful, but Bondi’s raw concrete breakwater plus its parking lot and shopping strip are an insult to the eye. The Sydney Opera House is a breathtaking sight, but the adjoining “toaster” apartment blocks and Circular Quay-concealing Cahill Expressway are execrable in the extreme.
But let me not get bogged-down in discussions of architectural and environmental vandalism, as we’ll be here all day.
Besides “beautiful”, of course another meaning of “fair” is “blonde-haired, pale-skinned”. This connotation of “fair” takes us into dangerous territory, evoking as it does the bad old days of the pernicious “white-Australia” policy, when caucasians were the only permitted migrants.
My wife and daughter both claim that caucasians like myself are not white, but beige, with its inevitable implication of boring. But in any event, thank goodness, skin-colour’s a bit academic in Australia these days.
In fact Asians make up not just two-thirds of the members of my household, but 5% of the nation’s population and about 50% of its top academic achievers. And discrimination between people on the grounds of colour, along with other characteristics like gender, age, race and religion, is strictly against the law.
So, having established that “Advance Australia Fair” can no longer be interpreted as favouring the fair-haired or light-skinned among us, what about the weather?
Meteorologically speaking, “fair” signifies “fine; not rainy”. While “not rainy” certainly describes a good deal of the Australian continent, particularly the deserts and the so-called Red Centre, I doubt that the drought-stricken nature of the country is what the anthem intends to evoke.
Or, for that matter, “Advance Australia Mediocre”, to employ a fourth meaning of “fair”. Which brings us to the “fair” I’d like to think Australia’s all about advancing towards. The “fair” that my dictionary describes as “free from bias, dishonesty or injustice”. As in the well-known expressions like “fair play”, “fair go”, “fair share”, “fair dinkum”, “fair crack of the whip” and “fair suck of the saveloy”.
It’s this sense of fairness that keeps me fairly satisfied that I’ve done the right thing by my wife and daughter to bring them to live in Australia.
Malaysia and its people are certainly as fair as in beautiful as Australia and Australians, if not more so, and Malaysian fare as in food is far better, not to mention more fairly priced, than anywhere on earth.
But with its tropical downpours, killing humidity and moisture-hazed atmosphere, Malaysia’s climate is certainly not as fair as in fine as much of Australia’s.
More crucially, however, for anyone with children to educate, Malaysia’s universities are at best only fair as in mediocre to miserable compared with those of Australia and a great many other countries.
And far worse is the fact that virtually all of Malaysia’s government and social institutions, especially its media, police, judiciary, anti-corruption agency and electoral commission are so far from anything like fair as to make Australia’s equivalents, while by no means perfect, look fair-dinkum fabulous.
So the more I think about it on this Australia Day 2010 and Sammie’s 15th birthday, the fairer I feel it was to bring my Austrasian family back here. And the more it occurs to me how fair as in beautiful it would be for Malaysians to be finally rid of a government that wouldn’t know the meaning of the word fair, and clearly hopes to rule forever through corruption, falsehood and fear.