The Art of the Possible

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The elections in Australia are another occasion for Indians to get excluded and marginalised. However, there are people who are working earnestly to move beyond this state of affairs

If you’re clued into the South Asian community scene you’ve most probably heard of Councillor Tim Singh Laurence. Tim’s very much a part of the South Asian community, yet his background and work extends far beyond just any one community. Tim has been in politics all his adult life, mostly in the Australian union movement. He was elected mayor in 2001, and prior to that he served as councillor for two consecutive terms. Tim Singh’s a grassroots man, which to him means being close to the community, understanding their changing needs and delivering real outcomes for them — please note: these issues as they are defined by Tim (grassroots, community, changing needs, outcomes etc) are not mere clichés or rhetoric; they come from a politician who lives in and with the average Melbourne community, and shares the concerns of everyday people grappling with the loose ends of diversity, immigration, urbanisation, globalisation etc etc. More recently, Tim has started actively fighting for the rights of international students and others from South Asia, both as an Australian politician and as a concerned member of Australia’s South Asian community.

There are reasons, both personal and political, for all of this. Tim’s father was one of the first Indian students to come to Australia under the Colombo Plan — a bilateral aid scheme now mostly known for opening Australia’s doors to many students from Asia. Although Tim was born in Tasmania, he has spent nearly his entire life in Melbourne. During his schooldays Tim’s circle was mostly made up of youngsters from Italian, Greek and other immigrant communities. Speaking of his boyhood in Melbourne, Tim says that it was important in those days “not to get noticed”, because the “minority” was often the one who was the easiest to pick on, for teachers, and for the majority of the students in the schools or on the streets or wherever. One was always on the defensive, always the one the finger of suspicion pointed to… That’s perhaps not something people who never went to school in Australia in the 1970s and ’80s can easily understand; although anyone living in Australia today can vouch for the fact that the generation that grew up in those circumstances have learnt their lessons well, and adhere faithfully to those values — the Australian spirit you know… This is not some random mudslinging — and I hope this story will show you why.

Coming back to Tim’s story: multiculturalism is Tim’s creed, he knows nothing else. His Irish and Sikh background, his early friendships and his academic interests in Indian history, post-coloniality, aboriginal art all go back to the cultural crossroads that made up his formative years. As a teenager Tim studied Hindi, then Sanskrit, he read about and studied Sikhism: today he quotes with ease Kabir and Guru Nanak, and explains how they have always shaped his world outlook. Egalitarianism and a need to reject crass materialism, these are the values Tim believes he’s imbibed from his love and interest in his Indian background. On a few occasions in the past, Tim has journeyed in India too, visiting family, soaking up the culture and experiencing the land and its ways.

Now before you make up your mind, based on these scanty biographical details, about Tim, before you hastily conclude that this is just a profile of another local councillor, let me ask you to read the whole story. Simply because Tim’s important: for what he has to say, for what his political agenda is, and what that agenda means for the future of South Asians in Australia.

If politics is the art of the possible then Tim Singh believes in the urgent necessity of certain possibilities that are screaming out to us to be realised. Listen, carefully think about this: recently the prime minister of Australia talked at a public place about Indians, and their place in Australian society. This was on TV. And it was typical of a very common sentiment in Australia, a sentiment that refuses to come to terms with our current social reality, a sentiment that clings on to absurd exotic fantasies, a sentiment that cannot look beyond stereotypes, a sentiment that in this day and age still goes on and on like a broken record: Indians, curry, Bollywood…

The prime minister said that he loved Indian food, his children liked Bollywood, and he appreciated the presence of all of this in Australian society. This statement, of course, was meant to be a reflection of Australia’s tolerant and inclusive social fabric. And few of us are strangers to statements like this. According to Tim, statements like this betray the fact that Australia’s political elite are a class of anachronisms hopelessly out of touch with contemporary reality.

But stop for a moment and consider what this statement is trying not to acknowledge: Indians/South Asians today make a huge chunk of Australia’s economically productive population. Apart from the enormous economic contribution they make in merely relocating to this country in huge numbers, they oil the wheels of this glittering economy through their day-to-day economic lives: as entrepreneurs, office workers, cab drivers, factory employees, shop assistants, lawyers, doctors, consumers, and the most exploited overseas students. If a survey or study on the economic contribution of Indians as a separate socio-economic group to the Australian economy is undertaken now, I mean to say if we were to do a study that would come up with real hard data on the actual income generated by Indians, the boost to national productivity resulting from this… Do you think the Australian establishment, its research institutions, its corporate sector, its business captains, its media, its intellectuals and all the others who are proudly Australian would have the courage to do this? Do you think the answers and results to a reasonably unbiased study on the economic contribution of the several migrant communities residing in Australia would sit well with this charade of a sun-loving beach-going sport-crazy white Western nation? If the business in overseas students is one of Australia’s largest export earners, how much larger do you think the income generated by the much larger immigrant communities is? And yet what is the place accorded to the average immigrant in the higher echelons of power or politics? Friends, nothing. And that is the reality most of us have been resigned to all along.

What stretching of the imagination is called for to maintain one’s faith in this myth that we all silently, subconsciously assent to? A growing community fully participating in the economic life of a nation, and yet systematically denied, by well-entrenched racially motivated interest groups, a meaningful place in the political arena. Of course, this is a fate that most communities face in Australia today. The political establishment downunder throws scraps of leftovers and tidbits to all these communities who legitimately require a space in the institutions of democracy. Yes, you can still expect to be one of the first from such-and-such a community to gain entry into the hallowed institutions reserved for the racial oligarchy. The more the communities fragment and divide and wallow in their petty differences the more they serve the interests of our white elites who cannot afford anything more than tokenism.

Tim Laurence Singh is not someone who believes that this is all one can expect in Australia. Tim is not one of those comfortable well-settled Indians who is content with his suburban home and fancy car and credit card. And Tim is not the type that never loses an opportunity to counsel you on the wisdom of being resigned to this fate of social exclusion in Australia. If so far it was commonly believed that there was little scope for political action for real racial and cultural justice in Australia, which is the only hope for genuine economic justice too, let us be aware of the fact that times have changed, and our contemporary demographic scenario means that the old game cannot go on for too long. Wake up.

Tim Singh has won elections by forging real alliances and coalitions. A real alliance, according to Tim, is about building real relationships with individuals and communities, through sharing their lives with them, living close to them and understanding the varied needs of a diverse community. Tim has worked with Italians, Greeks, the Arabic community, religious groups (Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim).

We are not trying to sell Tim so much as show our readers what a unique combination of political skills and experience this man represents. He has many years of experience as a unionist, he says, promoting the interests of Australia’s “working class”. And if you are confused about the real working class of Australia, Tim says that the unionists are not unaware of the changing face of labour in Australia; a changing face that constantly reminds Australia’s unions of their racial moorings.

Now for the last but important bit: Tim wants South Asians/Indians to start thinking about the lack of meaningful representation in the political establishment for the community. Tim wants South Asians to realise that whether they are cab drivers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, grocers, whatever, they have many common concerns. Enough for them as a sizeable and growing community to start taking electoral politics very seriously. Tim also believes that so long as aspiring candidates gravitate towards Australia’s major parties they’ll have to be content with token gestures, and end up as sidekicks of the big names in the political establishment.

This is not just cynicism. The well-entrenched factions and other interest groups in the electoral arena, going right down to the grass roots level, mean that South Asians will find it hard to get a foot in the door. Making matters harder for them will be the fact that the community is scattered too far and too wide — that is to say that they don’t yet have enough numbers in any one particular electoral unit. The rules of the game as they exist now mean that communities and social groups that have common concerns and share much in their social life are restricted to the choices designed by a system framed to suit vested and narrow traditional interests. The electoral game itself as it exists and functions in Australia today is designed to subvert any genuine representation or empowerment.

Tim is not for any sectarianism or ethnic-identity-based politics. On the contrary, he is for exploring possibilities that help communities build bridges and forge electoral alliances that can result in meaningful outcomes for them at the hustings. This is not the same as Australian politicians turning up at temples or community functions so they can be seen with potential voters. True, Indians have their own cultural interests to protect and promote, but the old Australian way of doing this (i.e. a politician turning up at a community event) is just theatre. True empowerment is about the community having its own representatives and leaders in government, and that would mean, for the community, reaching out to the wider community in Australia. Being an Indian in Australia, as most Indians would acknowledge, is not about clinging on to a narrow ethnic identity; it is about reaching out to others and being open to the Australian experience that appealed to them when they decided to migrate. Being an Indian in Australia, if you’ll excuse this little lecture, means being open to the wider community and cultural possibilities that exist in Australia. This is the art of the possible. This is the road Tim Singh wants to take, and he claims that he has the strategy to get quite a few Indians elected into local government.

Sounds interesting? Interested? Well then, what are you waiting for?

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