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Battle of the Bamboo Ceiling

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

A third-generation Asian Australian’s money is ruled ‘foreign’. An Adelaide-born MP of Asian appearance is asked ‘Where are you from?’. Underrepresented in boardrooms and politics, overlooked despite achievements, Asian Australians are looking for answers – and changes.

“Nerd Appeal, Not Sex Appeal.” Kingsley Liu’s billboard, as a Greens candidate for the western Sydney seat of Lindsay at the recent federal election, is more than a cheeky dig at the then Liberal incumbent Fiona Scott.

Liu’s challenge speaks from cultural despair: why, despite their comprising an estimated 17 per cent of the population – and dominating results in schools and universities, in a country that sits on the edge of Asia – does a ‘bamboo ceiling’ relegate Asian Australians to the status of nerds, not leaders?

Liu knows his challenge was a long shot. (The voters of Lindsay rejected both nerd and sex appeal, voting in the Labor candidate Emma Husar. The voters of Queensland, meanwhile, sent Pauline Hanson to the Senate.) But for Liu, the result is less important than continuing a struggle that began in 1988 when, as a third-generation Australian stockbroker, his application to take over an existing firm was rejected by the Australian Stock Exchange because his voting shares were designated ‘foreign’. He eventually succeeded – “I danced on the bamboo ceiling” – and went on to co-found a law firm, The People’s Solicitors, as well as lobby group the Asian Australian Alliance.

“The mantra of the so-called model minority,” Liu says, “was to work hard and get a pat on the head. But I realised that working hard alone wouldn’t get me far. Rene Rivkin said I was entitled to lie, cheat and steal. I told him I believed more in strategic positioning.”

A lifetime of strategic positioning has led to Liu’s campaign to highlight a widespread deficit: there are just three Asian Australians in the new federal parliament, and fewer than 4 per cent of Senate and House of Representatives candidates have Asian heritage.

A new Human Rights Commission study has elaborated on this picture: Australia’s political, corporate, educational, legal and governmental establishments are as monocultural as ever. The ‘Asian Century’ is not visible in our leadership.

The study found that 5 per cent of ASX200 chief executives have a non-European cultural background, with declining percentages in parliament and the top levels of the public service and tertiary education. Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, the co-author, says: “There isn’t an issue with people getting a start in Australian organisations, but walking into the lobby doesn’t mean you can get the elevator to the top floor.”

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