NEW YORK – Asia Society
9 June 2015
Well, thank you very much. I’m really taken by the tweet before which said, “To curse occasionally can be good.” Because by that definition, I’m very good.
We’re here to talk about diversity. It reminds me of when I first became engaged with the Asia Society, probably about 15 years ago. The Asia Society in those days used to run a series called the Williamsburg Summit. And as a result of it, we gathered in Siem Reap in Cambodia, which is where you see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. And it’s a beautiful, beautiful ruin. So I was there with some American friends and a friend of mine, Norm Ornstein, who worked at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. And we decided, having had a glass or two to drink over lunch, that it would be a good thing if we climbed this ruin. So we began climbing it.
If you’ve been to Angkor Wat, it’s quite a steep climb. I don’t know what they were like in the 14th century, but they must have been more agile and able to climb than either I was or Norm was. And as we climbed and climbed and climbed, I noticed that halfway up the temple, there was this pediment extending out to the left side. A narrow pediment of stone protruding from the side of the temple by about 10 to 15 meters. We were quite a way up. And because it was one of those beautiful afternoons where the sun was going down, and I’d had two glasses of Chablis, it looked like a good place to explore further.
At the end of the pediment, I saw seated in saffron robes the silhouette of a Buddhist monk at prayer. This was beautiful. And so I said to Norm, “I’m going to have a talk with him.” And so out I went on this extended pediment, which was quite high from the ground. And Norm, being a very sensible American from central casting said, “No, that’s what we’ll let the Australians do.” And so, out I went.
I sat next to this guy on this extended pediment: saffron robes, young monk. I looked at him. And I turned around. And I extended a Buddhist greeting to him. He turned around to me, and extended a Buddhist greeting to me. I then said, “You’re meditating.” He turned around to me and nodded. And I said, “It’s beautiful here.” He turned to me and nodded again. I said, “Are you from these villages?” And he turned around to me and said, “No, mate, I’m from Sydney. Mum sent me here for two months to train in the monastery.” Which I thought was a kind of interesting introduction to diversity. Because here was this young man, 21 years old, who’d been sent there to do his 1 or 2 months in a Buddhist monastery, and there he was hanging out on this pedestal, and he was from where I came from. It reminded me that the world is in fact a very small place.
In my own life, I’m the product of three strong women. My mother, who raised me after my father died in an accident when I was a kid. My wife. And my daughter. And I could probably add to that my sister, and now, even though she’s three years old, my granddaughter. And she exercises a significant influence over us all, and me, most of all. But these strong women have shaped me so much in life. I was talking with my friends at the lunch table about who is it who mentors you early in life. And many of youhave had the great opportunity to sit down with folks who have been able to shape your worldview, help you through difficult decisions. And as I reflect back on this, I thought it’s simply been my mother, my wife, or my daughter, who helped me make the decisions that I’ve taken in my life. And these are extraordinary women in their own rights.
My wife is a psychologist, but she’s a woman who’s built her own business from nothing. We borrowed ten thousand dollars from the bank and she built a business with three and a half thousand employees around the world. And that’s a process of 25 years of work and enterprise in 12 countries.
And my mother was uneducated. She’d never been past primary school. But she’s the one who, as I was growing up on a small country farm in rural Australia, always was throwing books at me and encouraging me to read to understand the world beyond. Countries like China, countries like India, countries like Indonesia. Unusual for a woman in a rural environment, but she had been a daughter of the war and seen what happened when our part of the world descended into conflict.
And my daughter. Her husband is a Chinese Australian, and our granddaughter is therefore a Chinese Australian. She is a lawyer that works actively in her own business, between Australia and China. My son is married to a beautiful young woman whose heritage is Scottish and Malaysian. My youngest son, Marcus, who is 21 years old going on 12—you never want to tweet that, by the way, even though it’s factual. I remember my wife and I were there when he brought home his first girlfriend. And so we were talking about who this girlfriend would be, given all of our family had met and married people from other parts of the world. And we thought, it’s probably time we had someone from Africa, given we’ve covered China, we’ve covered Malaysia, and someone from Latin America. And in walked this extraordinary beautiful redheaded Scottish Caucasian. And my wife said to me, I think we need now to undertake cultural sensitivity training to deal with one of our own.
I come from a very diverse family, and it’s been a wonderful experience for us all. And to stand up and to be sworn in as Prime Minister of Australia with a Chinese son-in-law and extended members of the family, it’s been a great honor, and contributed, I think, a small thing to change in my country.
What I want to do today is simply encourage you, in the work that you’re doing, because it’s important work. We might think that we are recent innovators in the concept of diversity, and we certainly know that relatively recent history has not been kind to diversity. But I reflect upon the philosophical observations of John Stuart Mill, more than 150 years ago, who wrote, “It is hardly possible to overstate the value for the improvement to human beings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar to themselves.” “It is hardly possible to overstate the value for the improvement to human beings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar to themselves.”
Writing in London in 1848, that was quite a remarkable observation, given the monoculture at the time. But within it, it contains a philosophical truth which transcends generation and transcends cultures. If by diversity we mean accepting and respecting and embracing each individual regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, religious or political belief, or socioeconomic status. That is what we understand to mean at the dawn of the 21st century. And my simple argument to you today is that communities, countries, and international organizations which embrace and live these principles of diversity are the most successful communities, countries, and international organizations anywhere on the planet. And those who do those things poorly, produce the reverse effect.
The mathematics kind of speaks for itself. If you look at the changing diversity of this country, purely on the grounds of ethnicity, it’s an extraordinary positive change for the United States of America. You know the story: that wave after wave of migration continues to challenge the assumptions of the preexisting group of peoples, adds a new entrepreneurial and creative edge to those countries and those communities, and constantly renews and revitalizes the society and cultures which they choose to make their own.
It’s the same in my country, Australia. We are now a country which speaks 200 different languages in Australia. Twenty percent of our households speak a language other than English at home. And this is a very good thing. When I speak to gatherings of Chinese, of Indians, of Indonesians at home in Australia, I usually say this: Thank God you have come. You have liberated us from 200 years of English food. The English may have some attributes in terms of what they have given the rest of the world, but food is not one of them. In fact, it’s definitely not one of them.
But in my own country, we remain young, fresh, and vibrant in our outlook because certainly in terms of our nation’s ethnicity, it’s become diverse and vast and open to change in the world. And these are good things. And certainly as Prime Minister, as head of a government of a country such as this until a year or so ago, I was proud to have made some small contributions to this. I was proud, mindful of the principles of diversity, to deliver the first apology to indigenous Australians who’d been treated as second, third, and fourth class citizens for 200 years. There’s no excuse for it. We just treated people badly. Really badly. And then sought to not just have an emotional exchange about it, to construct a program for closing the gap between indigenous and nonindigenous Australians in literacy, numeracy, primary health and all other health outcomes, housing, employment, longevity. Not just a set of words, but a series of actions through governmental programs designed to make a difference.
I was proud that on the question of gender, that I appointed the first women as Australia’s Governor-General. I had appointed the first woman as our Deputy Prime Minister. I had a record number of women in my cabinet. I was proud of the fact that we were able to appoint Australia’s first Ambassador for Women and Girls to deal with the scourge of violence against women, particularly in parts of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia, but also other parts of Asia. Proud of the fact also at a practical level that when it came to the participation of women in our workforce, one of the significant impediments as you know is childcare. I brought in Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme so women would have some liberty, some opportunity, to maintain their participation in the workforce, to be able to return to the positions which they’d left in order to give birth to children.
These are small things undertaken in a middle-sized country in order to make a difference in our part of the world. But why I encourage you, as corporate leaders, why I encourage you as members of this vibrant economy and country called the United States of America, and beyond its shores in the various countries that you have come from, is that you are the ambassadors for change. You are the embodiment of change. I have done policy. I have sought to implement policy. I have sought to reflect those things in the life of my family. But you are the ambassadors for change in wherever you come from. And this is one of the most vital changes needed to be realized in the 21st century.
Even when you run into the next uber-macho man from central casting, the most insensitive male to questions of gender equality, confront them with this. That the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report of 2014 shows if we simply close the male-female employment gap, we would boost U.S. GDP by 9%, the Eurozone GDP by 13%, and Japan’s GDP by 16%. A core economic reality is that you would have, if we were able to achieve common participation in the workforce, a massive new increment to global economic growth. And we’ve got economists and political leaders running around the world saying, What’s the new driver of economic growth? Will it be the renewable energy sector? Will it be the financial services sector? Will it be a new frontier in new technology? Well, yes, yes, yes, and yes. But there is a huge component missing up the middle which is sitting in front of you. And that is women, who for various reasons are not able to fully participate in the workforce. And for this there are structural reasons.
If we are, through our various national legislatures, through our national political systems, able to simply ensure that women have equality of opportunity and education, equality of access to primary health care across the world, and the legal entitlement to own property and the legal opportunity and entitlement to trade in property, and access to finance, even if microfinance, then the world becomes a different place. This is for me the central, not just social message, but a central economic message of our time.
Let me conclude my remarks on another arm of this diversity agenda—but there are many arms to it—on the question of race and ethnicity. In this globalizing world of ours, in all of its texture and diversity and all the wonder of its opportunities, the most successful firms and the most successful countries are those whose workforces are the most globalized. One follows from the other. It’s not an idle piece of rhetorical statement. It’s an ongoing operational fact. Why? If your sources of supply to your firm or your business or your enterprise or your government come from all over the world, it’s far better having within your own firm, your own enterprise, your own institution, people who have a sensitivity to those parts of the world, or the language skills relevant to those parts of the world. And so to, to those to whom you sell your products and services. There is elementary logic to this.
But there is a further more fundamental logic beyond the mechanical set of skills and of language ability—and I say this advisedly even though I speak Chinese—and an ability to deal interculturally. It is this. If you have a fully globalized workforce, let me tell you: the ability of the firm, the ability of the government, the ability of the institution to understand otherness, the view of another, is enhanced.
Too often, white Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Celtic guys like me do not understand instinctively what it is to be in the other person’s shoes. Where you have a globalized workforce, you are not just acquiring a bunch of language skills and a bunch of cultural sensitivities. You’re also, at a much more fundamental level, acquiring a culture of appreciating the fact that the other person has a point of view. The other person has a reason for that point of view, and the other person should be engaged equitably on the basis of that point of view. The understanding of otherness, the sensitivity to otherness, is frankly the beginning to any effective negotiation anywhere. Whether it’s in high politics and international relations, the high commerce of the largest firms dealing with each other, or whether it’s simple community relations.
So with those few words, I encourage you. You are the people who make changes. Folk like me, we can talk to audiences like this. And in our periods in political office we can bring about policies to assist. But you are the flesh and blood and the life and soul of making this country and the world at large a properly diverse place where diversity is not an abstract principle but a living and celebrated reality.
I thank you.