Passengers on Train Australia

by Ien Ang

EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD Ritika is a first-generation Indian Australian who lives in Sydney's west. Asked about her views on Australia, she described her response to a school assignment on multiculturalism. ‘I wrote that Australia is like a train picking up passengers from all these different countries, but it doesn't really have a destination, because once you have people from all these different countries they try to separate themselves out. I know I feel more a sense of belonging to the Indian community because I'm originally from India and I participate more in those kinds of things. So I don't know if this train is going somewhere, or if it's just going to keep on going around and around.'

Ritika's sense of uncertainty can be blamed on an old multiculturalism, which encourages the separatism of ethnic communities with little to bind them. It needs to be replaced with a new multiculturalism that copes with our increasingly complex diversity.

In recent times multiculturalism has fallen from favour, rapidly overtaken by strident calls for integration. Former prime minister John Howard said in 2005, ‘Our celebration of diversity must not be at the expense of the common values that bind us together as one people. All sections of the Australian community [need to be] fully integrated into the mainstream of Australian life.' This was Howard's way of providing Train Australia with a destination. His government replaced multicultural affairs with citizenship as the other part of the immigration department and introduced a citizenship test which migrants must pass before calling themselves Australians.

These developments were controversial. Critics denounced them as heralding a return to the ‘White Australia' policy. Such criticisms are often impotent politics of outrage, preventing analysis of more important issues. The emphasis on ‘integration' has re-emerged throughout the West, yet its meaning at a time of pervasive global transnational migration needs to be redefined. It raises a question about the implications of the new focus on the legacy of multiculturalism.

This much is evident: no citizenship test or other integration measure, however Draconian, will successfully force all the passengers on the train to become ‘one people' with a single set of common values. The plurality of our identities is irreducible: we live in an irrevocably diverse world.

This doesn't mean that we should dismiss the desire for integration as bogus – far from it. The present concern articulates some real uncertainties about the condition of contemporary Western societies, and should be taken seriously. But in doing so, it is unhelpful to treat integration and multiculturalism as diametrically opposed. If integration were conflated with assimilation, we would be in trouble, because it wouldn't work. Instead, we need to think about integration – about living together in harmony – by making multiculturalism more cosmopolitan. Living with difference is an unavoidable part of social experience in the twenty-first century, everywhere.

Multiculturalism deserves bad press when it becomes what the Indian-born, Nobel Prize-winning development economist Amartya Sen calls ‘plural monoculturalism' where ‘ethnic ghettos' create a society that is a ‘federation of cultures' and individuals are put into rigid boxes of inherited identities. Such a model makes identity and difference absolute, and denies the significance of a shared humanity. In Identity and Violence (W.W. Norton, 2006), Sen rejects this federated model of multiculturalism. He argues that it promotes isolation rather than interaction. The alternative is not insistence on a common identity, ‘some unreal claim that we are all the same ... The illusion of unique identity is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that characterise the world in which we actually live'. For Sen, that plural and diverse universe should be reflected in a multiculturalism that is defended, not as a legitimisation of cultural separatism, but in the name of cultural liberty – the freedom of individuals to choose their own identities and lifestyles through reasoned choice and self-examination.

Sen's perspective is in line with that of his colleague, the Ghana-born American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2006), insists that we don't have to agree on our values and identities to live in harmony, as long as we agree to make living together work. Appiah prefers the term ‘cosmopolitanism' for the principles that allow us to ‘to live together as the global tribe we have become'. But he admits that cosmopolitanism is also a problematic term, often associated with abstract, rootless notions of ‘citizen of the world', as if cultural traditions and ethnicity do not matter.

Let me settle for the clunky term ‘cosmopolitan multiculturalism' to promote an ethos that starts with the knowledge that people are different, but also recognises that there is much to learn from our differences. Cosmopolitan multiculturalism strengthens interconnections across our differences rather than simply affirming the differences that divide us. It emphasises our multiple identities and the changing and dynamic character of groups and communities. The term is alert to the potential of cultural synergies and opportunities for cultural renewal through interaction. In short, cosmopolitan multiculturalism promotes, to speak with Appiah, the habits of co-existence: ‘conversation' in both its older meaning of living together and its newer meaning of dialogue. By cosmopolitanising multiculturalism, we can arrive at a new, non-assimilationist mode of integration. Conversation plays a central role in this.


THE DESIRE FOR intergration has resurfaced in a massively different world to the 1950s, the high point of national sovereignty and unity. In Australia, this was a period of unprecedented immigration from countries of very different cultural and linguistic makeup, but migrants were expected simply to assimilate into the predominant, white Australian culture. Difference and diversity were made invisible.

Almost fifty years later, things have changed. It is impossible to return to assimilationism – despite ferocious attempts by some to pursue such a reactionary line – precisely because difference and diversity have become an inexorable part of everyday life. Since the end of the ‘White Australia' policy in the early 1970s, Australia's migrants have come from a growing range of countries, and in the era of the Howard government the number of migrants rose to a record high: more than 175,000 in 2007, a number that would be closer to 300,000 if it included those on temporary visas. The number of migrants from Asia and the Middle East has increased steadily as a proportion. To assimilate them into a single category of ‘one people, one culture' is simply unrealistic. Difference and diversity have become part of our way of life.

Much integration rhetoric is a response to the real and perceived security threat posed by Islamist extremism. But the anxieties have a deeper source. They relate more profoundly to the social disorientations and dislocations created by neo-liberal capitalist globalisation. In the past few decades, the world has entered a state of what the eminent Polish-British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity': pervasive uncertainty is generated by the ever-greater emphasis on flexibility, mobility and contingency in contemporary life – the increased precariousness of work and personal lives, the rise of instantaneous communications, and the increased disposability of everything. As Bauman puts it: ‘These days patterns and configurations are no longer "given", let alone "self-evident"; there are just too many of them, clashing with one another and contradicting one another's commandments.'

So, while immigration and multiculturalism are often blamed for crumbling social cohesion, the very logic of neo-liberal globalisation which underpins the world economic system encourages – even demands – increased trans-national flow not only of goods and images but also of people. The rise of global migrations – legal and illegal, permanent and temporary, skilled and unskilled – is an irreducible part of this process. Contemporary Western societies are caught in the contradiction underlined by the yawning gap between the economic and the social. National governments and people want the prosperity that global capitalism brings, but they are ill-prepared for the social consequences, including the intensification of everyday diversity – especially in the large cities. To deny the intimate connection between wealth and diversity would be to indulge in political hypocrisy or sociological naiveté.

This is an important reason why most Western countries have allowed their cities to be transformed into cradles of racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity in recent decades: an unintended by-product of economic expediency. In Australia, immigration policy has always been motivated by the economic benefit it was expected to bring. The recent record high migration intake was a product of business concern about ‘skills shortages' as the economy boomed.


THE ADOPTION OF a policy of multiculturalism in the 1970s can be seen as a way of managing the social effects of the population's proliferating diversity. It had become clear that culturally and linguistically diverse migrants were not assimilating as was expected. Then cultural diversity became an official cause for celebration. ‘Ethnic communities' became a visible part of the social and political landscape, SBS was established to provide radio and television services that reflected ‘multicultural Australia', and multiculturalism was even used to market Australia overseas.

When the backlash came – in Australia especially associated with the rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party after the 1996 federal election – it was no longer possible to turn back the clock. Cultural diversity was here to stay, and the dynamics of everyday multiculturalism, where ordinary people of different backgrounds and unequal power routinely rub shoulders in urban contact zones such as schools, workplaces and leisure sites, overwhelmed the imposed rigidities of a homogenised national identity.

The outcry of anti-immigration Hansonites turned out to be rearguard activism – the Australian economy depends on migrants: business has always been more pro-immigration than the general public. In this sense, one can cynically argue that former prime minister John Howard's tough stand against asylum seekers who came knocking on Australia's door uninvited (‘we decide who comes into this country under which circumstances') was a strategy of appeasement to counterbalance his policy to accept ever-greater numbers of wanted, useful immigrants.

At an international level, too, there is persistent tension between the economic advantage flowing from transnational migration on the one hand, and social anxiety about the dilution of national identities on the other. Across Western Europe, long-standing guest-worker programs (which brought migrants from Turkey and Morocco into countries such as Germany and the Netherlands to do work that locals would not) have created large second– and third-generation migrant populations which have refused to be absorbed into the dominant culture. As Eastern European countries have joined the European Union since 2004, there has been a massive migratory movement from east to west. More than 600,000 people have moved to work in Britain in this time. The Polish plumber is now a popular stereotype in London, where demand for the skills and efficiency of Polish workers seems limitless. South Asian corner shop owners – themselves migrants a few decades earlier – now stock Polish products on their shelves and teach themselves some Polish words. This exemplifies the layered, even chaotic, nature of cultural diversity today – which Steven Vertovec has termed ‘superdiversity' or ‘hyperdiversity'.

People movements are not restricted to legally sanctioned migration. The number of illegal immigrants in Europe and America is estimated to be in the tens of millions, most from poverty-stricken countries. While the political rhetoric to stamp this out has been fierce, there is huge economic benefit from the subterranean illegal immigrants who provide cheap labour in many areas from agriculture to domestic services for middle-class households.

As Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, pointedly says, ‘Illegal immigration is part of the vital lubricant of our societies. It wouldn't be happening if so many people's interests were not served by the status quo.' The prospect of stopping waves of people from the developing world from entering the developed world is slim. Sociologist Saskia Sassen observes that, despite fifteen years of militarisation of the United States-Mexico border, the number of undocumented immigrants is at an all-time high.

Global people movement will be a significant force shifting the composition of populations in the West, not just because people from poorer countries will always seek better opportunities, but crucially because Western countries need them. As a consequence, these countries will become more rather than less racially and ethnically diverse, more rather than less mobile, more rather than less mixed. Whether they like it or not, nations today are complex and fluid multicultural configurations beyond the complete control of governments. All nation-states are faced with a multicultural problematic: how to manage coexistence in diversity. While multiculturalism was a limited policy in the 1980s and 1990s, the issues it now raises have intensified, and become intrinsic to national governance. The heightened salience of the discourse of integration must be understood in this light.


THE QUESTION OF integration evokes the problem of the ‘glue' that binds a society together. There's nothing illegitimate in the social desire for ‘integration': most people want to live in a society that is stable, harmonious and enduring. Ritika's uncertainty about where Train Australia is going is an expression of this desire. However, in conditions of liquid modernity, where nation-states are irrevocably caught up in the ongoing turmoil of global flux, realising such enduring stability and harmony is increasingly precarious. When he first launched the citizenship test proposal in 2006, then-parliamentary secretary Andrew Robb echoed these sentiments: ‘It's an initiative to give the broader Australian community comfort in a very globalised world where we've got so many people moving around.' Reiterating the economic imperative, he explained that because Australia faces an estimated shortfall of 195,000 workers over the next five years, the country will need to attract labour from diverse backgrounds.

‘The challenge we will face as a nation,' he observed, ‘will be to ensure the effective integration of new migrants into the Australian community and to foster a strong commitment to and identification with Australia regardless of their background.' Train Australia needs to pick up more passengers, but the travellers need to know the destination. In this sense, the citizenship test is a new symbolic form of border control: get off the train if you don't have a ticket.

Integration is often proposed as the remedy to the divisions blamed on too much multiculturalism. But opposing integration and multiculturalism is misleading and obscures the contradictory nature of the ideal. The need for integration is amplified as discomfort with the liquidity of contemporary life and society increases, and immigration has become a key symbol of this liquidity. That very liquidity – itself an inexorable effect of globalisation – makes integration unachievable. Despite the conventional nationalist fantasy, the multicultural problematic cannot be solved by integration.

This notion of integration rests on the increasingly quaint and outdated assumption of the nation-state as an independent, organic whole, with its own distinctive culture and values. Integration, from this perspective, has a clear destination: the gradual absorption of migrants into the host society – a kinder, gentler form of assimilation. Through adjustment and adaptation, migrants will eventually absorb the shared values of the national community.

A revealing example of this slip between integration and assimilation was found in comments by Flemming Rose, editor of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that caused such furore in some Muslim circles in 2005. Defending the decision he said, ‘By treating a Muslim figure the same way I would a Christian or Jewish icon, I was sending an important message: You are not strangers, you are here to stay, and we accept you as an integrated part of our life. And we will satirise you, too. It was an act of inclusion, not exclusion; an act of respect and recognition.'

This is a very rigid, assimilationist definition of integration: the superimposition of sameness. It says: ‘It's all right for you to be a Muslim, but if you want to integrate you have to accept that I treat you on my terms.'

No nation can afford to take such an absolutist, unilateral stance on the meaning and content of the national culture. In a globalised world, there are within nations many perspectives that are not so easily absorbed. While Rose claims that his was an act of ‘inclusion, not exclusion', from the perspective of those Danish Muslims who protested, it was a form of forced inclusion, unilaterally imposed. To call it an act of respect and recognition smacks of condescension and insincerity, a refusal to enter into dialogue – to recognise the perspective of the other as an equal voice in the national conversation. Rose does not seem to realise that, for many migrants, inclusion and exclusion are relative terms – after all, they have multiple, transnational belongings and connections.

When I was in Copenhagen a year after the uproar, a taxi driver told me he was born in Pakistan but had lived in Denmark most of his life. He went back to Pakistan every year to visit family and friends. His English was excellent (as, I assume, was his Danish). I asked him about the cartoons.

‘The Danes are stupid,' he said. ‘They think they are a large country and that they can do what they like, but they don't realise that they are very vulnerable because they are such a small country, only 4.5 million people. So when countries such as Iran and Egypt threatened to boycott Danish products [such as Carlsberg non-alcoholic beer] in retaliation for the publication of the offensive cartoons, the government had to beg them on its knees to please not do that – it would ruin the Danish economy. I mean, Denmark is not the United States.'

‘So was it a difficult time for you when the debate was raging here?'

‘Oh yes, it was very bad,' he said. ‘Fifty per cent of the Danes agreed with me and the other fifty per cent didn't.'

‘So how do you feel about living in this country?' I quizzed him.

‘Oh, I like it here. It's good, overall. I like it here and I like it in Pakistan.'

‘And what do you think of the "war on terror"?' I asked.

‘Ah, everybody should just calm down and live in peace,' he responded. ‘Just make peace with Israel and give the Palestinians their own country and it will all be over.'

I was impressed by this man's astute sociological insights, born of his migrant perspective, about geopolitics and the politics of national identity. His story articulates the intertwining of the national and transnational, not just in his own life but in the life of Denmark. The time when nations can imagine themselves fully self-determining are over. Throughout the world, the impact of difference and diversity is uncontainable and transgressive of national borders.

The problem with an assimilationist understanding of integration, then, is that it is imagined as a one-way street. Migrants must adapt to the host society's cultural mores while the host culture is let off the hook. As the late political philosopher Iris Marion Young put it in her book Inclusion and Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2000), ‘Attempts to bring about integration tend to leave the dominant group relatively undisturbed while requiring significant changes from members of the excluded groups'.

The Danish cartoon incident is complicated because it was fought over one of the most revered values of liberal democracy: freedom of speech. Without wanting to relativise the value of this freedom, I agree with the taxi driver. The act of publishing the cartoons was not so much wrong, but stupid. It was based on a deeply parochial sense of national sovereignty and an insular lack of awareness of the entangled nature of a diverse world, a profoundly uncosmopolitan act.


WE NEED A cosmopolitan perspective if we are to think about integration differently. To avoid the assimilationist bias, integration must not be set up against multicultural reality but rather work with it.

We have to face up to the genuine plurality of the passengers in the train and recognise that, in liquid modernity, passengers come and go and sometimes change trains. As with many other migrants, the Copenhagen taxi driver is happy to switch between the Danish and Pakistani trains.

When I returned to Sydney, I was warmly welcomed back by a cab driver from India who has been in Australia for seventeen years. ‘It's always nice to be back here, isn't it?' he said, recognising that I was also a migrant. ‘And it's also always nice to go back there.' We have multiple identities that don't have to be reduced to a singular loyalty for us to have integrated lives. Such is the transnational circulation of people these days that any single-minded insistence on an exclusive identification with one nation would be impossible to sustain. We still expect the million Australians overseas to retain their Australian identity, so it's a double standard to deny immigrants the same attachment.

Australia's ever-increasing internal diversity should stop us assuming that the passengers in the train have much in common apart from being on the train. So integration needs to be envisaged as something other than a ‘common culture' or ‘shared values'.

The Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz has pointed out that complex contemporary societies operate through in-built non-sharing – divisions of labour, spatial dispersal, social segmentation, specialisation of knowledge and expertise, and the unequal distribution of social and cultural capital. Communication patterns in such societies are uneven and fragmented; relationships are often superficial, fleeting and partial. In such a context, people cluster around particular perspectives, ways of managing meanings and making sense of the world. Those informed by ethnicity are only one instance. It is important to remember that perspectives can change, and that people often hold several perspectives at the same time.

In this light, our national social life can be described as a continuously flowing, sprawling and dynamic network of shifting perspectives, where there is nothing automatic about cultural sharing. Its accomplishment must rather be seen as problematic. It has to be established, says Hannerz, not through the ‘replication of uniformity' – that is, through the assimilation of all differences into one over-arching perspective – but through the ‘organisation of diversity'. This requires interaction, what Hannerz calls a ‘moving interconnectedness'.

Integration, then, is not one-way, but potentially inclusive of all the perspectives that circulate among the passengers in the train, enhancing interconnectedness. To enhance integration, in policy and practice, there is a need to stimulate the density of interactions between the different perspectives that rarely come into contact, a cosmopolitan multiculturalism whose modus vivendi, as Appiah has pointed out, is conversation.

It is important to understand this conversation is not meant to work towards shared values, but simply to get to know and learn from and about one another. As Appiah puts it: ‘Cosmopolitans suppose that all cultures have enough overlap in their vocabulary of values to begin a conversation. But they don't suppose, like some universalists, that we could all come to agreement if only we had the same vocabulary.' To be able to live in harmony, shared values are not the most important requirement: ‘Even people who share a moral vocabulary have plenty to fight about.' Instead, the importance of conversation is primarily practical; in circumstances of multicultural coexistence, conversation across lines of difference helps us to gradually change the way we understand, to see the world from other points of view, and to become more comfortable with the presence of others who are different. ‘Conversation doesn't have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values, it's enough that it helps people get used to one another', Appiah notes.


THIS CONVERSATIONAL COSMOPOLITAN multiculturalism already informs the practical experience of many younger Australians of diverse backgrounds. In a recent study commissioned by SBS, people aged between eighteen and forty were asked for their views about living in multicultural Australia. Again and again, they reported that what they valued was not the maintenance of pre-existing cultural identities, but the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds, to learn from each other.

‘I guess we are all multicultural,' one woman said. ‘My grandparents came from Germany and England and places like that, so I never really think I'm only Australian ... and it's great to get ... all the different things we're learning from having a wide region of different people around us.' A man said he has learnt to be more patient and understanding: ‘I'm a Protestant, white guy, true-blue Aussie ... but I married an Asian Catholic girl, so I have to relax my rules a lot.' A Taiwanese woman from Western Australia was just as positive: ‘I think it makes me feel more open-minded and to accept more different races ... because in our country everyone is Chinese ... you come here and you learn to respect other people.'

Even Ritika, wondering where Train Australia is going, thinks that her generation ‘know much better about multiculturalism'. A young man of Indian-Fijian background hit the nail on the head: ‘People think that the culture's fading by mixing around but I think we're just learning more cultures. We're all mixing around now so I think people are just getting used to it ... I think we're going the right way.'

Diversity is good, these people say, because it broadens horizons and makes them more tolerant, better able to live with others. They regard this open-ended and transformative, interactive cultural diversity as essential to their sense of belonging to contemporary Australia. It produces bonds between people with varying perspectives without erasing their significant differences.

Of course, this cosmopolitan multiculturalism will never match the fantasy of a completely integrated, perfectly united society. In liquid modernity, where borders are porous and everything is in flux, the work of integration – a conversational diversity, establishing interconnections – is never done. Conversations between perspectives are not always benign or well-meaning; clashes between multiple perspectives under conditions of unequal power relationships are intrinsic. For new migrants, forming separate communities is often a necessary practice; it provides support networks. But the integrative work of cosmopolitan multiculturalism prevents the disconnection of such communities by ensuring that lines of communication are nurtured.

A major priority of a cosmopolitan multicultural approach to integration, then, would be to connect the disconnected (or those in danger of disconnection) by promoting mutual engagement, joint enterprise and cooperative reciprocity – enhancing serious intercultural conversation, not to arrive at a uniform agreement but to learn to live together despite potential disagreements. Indeed, as the Danish cartoons incident demonstrated, separatist tendencies are often magnified by refusing to listen. Many Muslims in the West today feel this way. As Iris Young remarks, ‘groups or factions [often] refuse co-operation because, at least from their point of view, their experience, needs, and interests have been excluded or marginalised from the political agenda, or are suppressed in discussions and decision-making.'

By contrast, integration in complex and diverse societies will be greater not when differences in perspective are suppressed, but when, as Hannerz puts it, ‘more people's perspectives make sense of other people's perspectives'. What is crucial to ‘integration', then, is the cross-cultural empathy that emerges from our practical exchanges with cultural strangers. As Appiah rightly observes, 'Conversations across boundaries can be delightful, or just vexing: what they mainly are, though, is inevitable.'


LET ME FINISH with an example that illuminates the current debate: the English-language requirement for Australian immigrants. I have no objection to the requirement as such; passengers who step into the train must know that the ability to speak English is essential to a viable life in Australia. English has become the lingua franca of the nation – an outcome of the continent's history of colonisation and its modern development – and it is now a fact of life. But hectoring immigrants to ‘speak English or else' reveals a spiteful lack of empathy with the enormous hardships of trying to learn a new language, often with scarce resources and limited time. The perspective of those who do not communicate in English is born of the frustration of not being able to. Defensiveness and ethno-linguistic enclaves are often the result – not out of wilful separatism, but a sense of insecurity, shame and failure.

It is important for monolingual Anglo-Australians to recognise this, and to be disabused of their linguistic intolerance. The presence of migrants speaking languages other than English may sometimes be a ‘problem' or a ‘nuisance', but it may also help people get used to a world where linguistic diversity rules, despite convenient illusions that ‘everyone speaks English'. At the same time – and this is important for conversation – the work of integration should engage with such groups by making the most of the possibilities of translation.

Ashfield Council in Sydney, for example, has experimented with a program of working together with Chinese restaurant owners to translate their shopfront signage and menus – which long-time locals often find offensive – and present them in both Chinese and English. Such bilingual representation encourages the understanding that these restaurants are accessible, and expands the possibility of intercultural familiarisation. Elderly Anglo-Celtic residents were invited to the restaurants to taste the food, in an effort to overcome their anxiety and fear. Such experiments are a practical, even mundane, way of promoting a cosmopolitan multiculturalism. Such strategies writ large could help bind the nation together in a non-assimilationist way.

There is no definitive or perfect way of resolving the multicultural problematic – only ways of juggling multiple, often competing truths and realities, and imperfectly reconciling divergent interests and perspectives. While extremists and assimilationists propound a singular world-view, cosmopolitan-multicultural integrationists resist the violence of easy simplifications, acutely aware that cultural diversity will not go away. The train does not, indeed, have a destination – it only goes around and around, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. The task for the passengers is to reach out and talk to each other.

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