Growing up between Southeast Asia and Australia

Recently announced Westpac Future Leaders Scholar and AASYP Founding Team member Matthew Page reflects on the realities of growing up between Southeast Asia and Australia, the value of ASEAN-Australian engagement and the biggest challenges facing the region.

Tell us about your experiences in Southeast Asia?

My experience in Southeast Asia began in 2006 when my family and I moved to Indonesia where I lived until returning to Australia in 2014. The experience of completing high school at an international school in Bali not only gave me invaluable insight into a range of new peoples and cultures but also gave me a new perspective on what it means to be Australian and how I can best represent my national identity.

I had the opportunity to learn Bahasa Indonesia which gave me the tools to further engage with the local community, as a young teenager I would often walk around the houses and talk with Indonesian families who I now realise were much poorer than I was, a member of an Australian expat family. Despite our stark contrast in backgrounds, the hospitality and kindness of the Balinese people I met was astonishing, and taught me that personal connections are the gateway to discovering the vast array of knowledge and experience that the world has to offer.

Another valuable lesson learned from this moment was that all people are equal no matter their race, gender or socio-economic standing, and that everyone deserves your respect. These lessons created the foundation of my passion for Southeast Asia and my desire to connect personally and professionally with the region I hold close to my heart.

A defining factor of my undergraduate degree was the opportunity to return to Southeast Asia with the support of the Australian federal government’s 2016-17 New Colombo Plan (NCP) scholarship. I spent 15 months in Malaysia, studying public relations and marketing at Taylor’s University, studying Malay in a one month intensive course, and interning with the Malaysia Australia Business Council.

It was during my NCP experience that my perspectives on Indonesia, Malaysia and the region matured, and I was able to combine my personal experiences with new knowledge of the unparalleled economic opportunities that exist for Australia in this region. In addition, extensive exposure to diplomats and policy officers at the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur elucidated how I could combine my personal and professional interests into a career in foreign affairs and in international relations.

Why is the ASEAN-Australia relationship important?

It’s hard to describe ASEAN’s importance to Australia in terms that the wonderful team at the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership haven’t already covered, but I’m willing to try. Unlike China, Japan or the United States, which have all been historically important economic partners for Australia, ASEAN’s emergence as one of Australia’s top three trading partners has been a truly bilateral affair.

The two-way trade between Australia and ASEAN exceeds that of the US or Japan and two-way investment exceeds that of China, Australia is also ASEAN’s 10th largest source of goods imports. Australia also played a key role in the formation of ASEAN, becoming the association’s very first dialogue partner in 1974, and has regularly communicated with the 10 ASEAN member nations to develop pathways for trade, investment, education, migration and aid programs, all supporting our mutual economic development and prosperity.

What is the biggest challenge for the region?

I believe the largest challenge for the region in the coming decades, will be to develop key infrastructure to support ASEAN’s considerable growth. More and more people in ASEAN are moving to urbanised areas and transition their economies to focus more on the development of professional services, technology, and education industries, just to name a few.

However, these challenges present great opportunities for Australian businesses to invest a range of infrastructure projects in telecommunications, construction, city planning, public transport, healthcare, and aged care services. The future is bright for Australia and ASEAN as we both reap the rewards of globalisation, but our future will be undeniable brighter if we continue to develop our strong relationship with this regional economic powerhouse. 

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