Diversity Down Under is economic dynamo

April 04, 1999|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

SYDNEY -- Poised for the 2000 Summer Olympics, "Sydney is swinging. Sydney is sizzling ... It used to be around the corner from nowhere; but in this new age it is emerging as the capital of the Pacific Rim and home port of the Good Life."

What world citistate wouldn't revel in that description penned by R.W. Apple Jr., writing in Town & Country magazine?

Sydney's bright new image underscores how cities once seen as distant and economically irrelevant -- one famed Australian author wrote of the "tyranny of distance" that marginalized his country's economy -- are now able, via instant communications, to be major players in the new globalized age.

With Sydney in the lead, Australia is experiencing a boom in banking, technology, business services. It rivals the United States as the most Internet-connected nation on the globe. The position of the international date line lets Sydney open world markets each trading day.

And Sydney is raking in large numbers of Southeast Asia headquarters of major corporations, among them American Express, State Street Bank & Trust and Bankers Trust.

The old Australian staples of mutton, wool, beef and coal exports haven't disappeared. But now they're just footnotes.

There's been an equally dramatic change from the bland white homogeneity of early Australia. This, remember, is the continent opened first to Western settlement as a convict colony -- the place to dispatch brigands, thieves and murderers that old England chose to send to the underside of the globe.

But since the 1970s "white Australia" policies have been abandoned. Sydney in particular has become a rich melange of peoples from such far-flung spots as Lebanon, Chile, Greece, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China.

Roughly 15 percent of the people of New South Wales (Sydney's state) now speak a language other than English at home -- most commonly Italian, Greek, Arabic, Lebanese, Chinese or Spanish.

Opening arms

Especially significant, says Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian newspaper: a country that once defined its identity by rejection of Asia has opened its arms to people from Indonesia to Vietnam, Pakistan to Afghanistan.

And not only by immigration but by a variety of people-to-people interactions -- thousands of Asians have come to Australia for education, tourism and for services ranging from medicine to architecture.

New South Wales Treasurer Michael Egan heralds the switch of Sydney from "one of the most inward-looking, insular, monocultural cities on earth" to a "fabulously multicultural place."

The transformation has "done wonderful things for the soul of our city -- it's now far more cosmopolitan, a great city on earth," says Mr. Egan.

It's also proof of Australia's power of redemption, he adds, noting that two of his great-grandparents arrived on Jan. 28, 1788, escaping hanging in Britain by being dispatched to the convict colony for crimes they'd committed.

Sydney leaders now boast that their city-state has 40 percent of Australia's speakers of Malaysian, Japanese and other Asian languages.

With today's instant communications, notes Loftus Harris, director-general of economic development for New South Wales, "We can handle service calls from all over Asia, answering in an appropriate language from wherever the phone rings." Indeed, the call center business is booming.

Richard Humphrey, CEO of the Australian Stock Exchange, speaks of how Sydney has built on the assets of competitive costs and a stable democratic political system to create, outside of Japan, Southeast Asia's largest stock, futures and bond markets. He doesn't fail to include: "a skilled work force that is significantly multilingual."

One can say that great cities, from the dawn of history, have welcomed newcomers, "foreigners," the purveyors of new goods and cultures and ideas. Read the history of ancient city-states, from Athens to Venice to Hamburg, and that lesson rings through.

Opening windows

What Sydney underscores is the capacity of globalization to fast-forward the process, to create ideas and excitement and hope through opening windows -- windows of personal contact, windows of cyber-speed contact.

What Sydney does represent is a 21st-century wake-up call for every complacent city-state around the world: Open your doors and welcome in the world, its people and the future.

Neil R. Peirce writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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