The University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute recently hosted a forum on “Promoting Asian-Australian Participation in Public Life”. Reynah Tang, President of the AALA, was invited to speak at the forum along with a panel of distinguished speakers.
An edited version of Reynah Tang’s speech is published below.
For more information about forum, please visit the Asia Institute’s website here.
Reynah Tang, President, Asian Australian Lawyers Association
5 November 2014
My experiences as an Asian Australian lawyer
In terms of my own legal career, I have not encountered any noticeable barriers as an Asian Australian lawyer. Indeed, I was accepted for Articles at a large law firm – Corrs Chambers Westgarth – with two other Asians. Following my sojourn in Singapore, I progressed and was promoted to partnership at a relatively young age.
Similarly, when I started to get more seriously involved with the Law Institute of Victoria, I found an easy progression – from chairing a tax committee, to chairing the Commercial Law section, joining the Council and, in 2013, becoming President.
However, what has become apparent to me in the course of that journey is that often I have been the first and sometimes only Asian.
Where is everyone else?
Do I have some advantage because I was born in Australia and look Eurasian?
What motivated the creation of the Asian Australian Lawyers Association and what does it do?
In the lead up to becoming President of the Law Institute, I began to notice that not only was I fairly alone in my journey, but that it was apparent – at least anecdotally – that this was an issue throughout the profession.
Why are there so few Asian partners in our large law firms?
Where are all the Asian barristers?
See if you can spot the Asian judge!
In 2012, I had the opportunity to attend an American Bar Association conference in Chicago. Among the many interesting topics being discussed, there were a number of sessions involving serious discussion about ethnic and cultural diversity in the legal profession. And yet in Australia, when diversity is mentioned, the main focus seems to be gender diversity. Now I am not suggesting that gender diversity is not an issue, but it is not the only aspect of diversity that should be of concern.
Remarkably, when I became President of the Law Institute, I discovered there were two other law society Presidents of Asian background – Noor Blumer of the ACT Law Society and Peggy Cheong of the Northern Territory Law Society. To mark this, we managed to get a picture and a story into the legal affairs section of the Australian Financial Review. However, when we sought to raise the lack of cultural diversity in the legal profession with other law societies, we were met with some mild bemusement. Reactions ranged from:
- denial – ‘I don’t see race’, to
- patronising – ‘Be patient, wait your turn, all in good time’, to
- downright hostile – ‘But why do you need information on the cultural background of lawyers, and what are you going to do with it?’.
It was in the light of that background that, together with a few other lawyers, I helped establish the Asian Australian Lawyers Association towards the end of 2013.
I have been pleasantly surprised that the Association has struck a chord with many Asian Australian lawyers, and also other non-Asian lawyers who have a genuine interest in Asia. Since its establishment, we have been growing steadily, with membership now exceeding 100. While we are based in Victoria, there has been interest from interstate and, in time, we hope to expand.
Our aims as an Association are manifold, but of most importance, we are seeking to:
- bring together members of the legal profession of Asian heritage and cultural background and others with an interest in Asia;
- provide a cohesive professional network to advocate for, and provide support to, our members and to benefit from shared learning and experience;
- develop links with Asian legal associations and facilitate and promote access for members to Asian legal markets; and
- promote and facilitate Asian cultural diversity in the senior ranks of the legal profession.
In order to advance these objectives, so far:
- we have hosted a number of functions to celebrate significant Asian cultural events, such as a Chinese New Year dinner with former Supreme Court Justice Paul Coghlan – whose maternal grandfather migrated from China to Australia during the gold rush era – and more recently, a Diwali celebration with lawyer turned Bollywood star, Pallavi Sharda;
- we have held a panel forum on the issue of unconscious bias and the bamboo ceiling, including the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, and other speakers;
- we launched a mentoring program for our members, which has been supported by the judiciary, senior barristers and law firm partners; and
- we have engaged with those who have the power to make a difference, including the Attorney-General and Shadow Attorney-General, the Victorian Multicultural Commissioner and members of the judiciary.
If there are any Asian Australian lawyers in the audience who have yet to join and get involved, I urge you to do so. Together, I think we can really make a difference.
How can we foster greater Asian Australian leadership and participation?
Which brings me to one of the key questions of this forum, namely how can we foster greater Asian Australian leadership and participation.
I think this has two dimensions.
First, I think we need to raise the attention of the Australian community and, particularly, the business sector, to the apparent disparity between:
- the number of Asian Australians in our society;
- the number of Asian Australians performing exceptionally at secondary and tertiary levels; and
- the number of Asian Australians that go on to be visible and successful in business, politics and the professions.
In this regard, I note the work of the Diversity Council of Australia which earlier this year released its report entitled “Cracking the Cultural Ceiling – Future proofing your business in the Asian century” which noted that “while 9.3% of the Australian labour force is Asian born, only 4.9% make it to senior executive level” and that “[i]n ASX 200 companies, only 1.9% of executives have Asian cultural origins, compared to 9.6% of the Australian community”. Through a survey of emerging Asian Australian leaders, the DCA identified some key barriers locking out Asian talent:-
- Cultural bias and stereotyping
- Westernised leadership models
- Lack of relationship capital; and
- The case for culture not being understood.
It’s a great start, but I think we need more research and analysis. One of the things that has confounded me in my role as President of the Asian Australian Lawyers Association is that people ask for the evidence that there may be a problem, but are then reluctant to provide the information that would help to do so. It sometimes makes me feel like Yossarian from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Nevertheless, at the AALA, we are starting a project to try and get a handle on the levels of Asian Australian participation in law firms, the bar and the judiciary.
Second, we need to help each other by:
- providing role models who have been successful;
- providing training to overcome cultural factors that may act as barriers, such as the Confucian beliefs in respect for authority, and humility as a desirable value; and
- providing mentoring and sponsorship to help those with talent to succeed.
This is where an association like the AALA can work to maximum benefit. I have already mentioned that we have established a mentoring program. As other wiser people have pointed out to me, mentorship is good, but without sponsorship it will only go so far. I think having some very senior mentors may help in this regard, but we also need to continue to advocate for Asian Australian lawyers, making sure that those who make the decisions on appointments of partners, of senior counsel, of judicial and other office, are aware of the breadth and strength of Asian Australian talent.
On the issue of training it is true, as the DCA observes, that as a society we have Westernised models of leadership. Yet, these are not the only models for success, as the emergence of big Asian business has proved. However, you can’t change a cultural paradigm overnight and I think there is also an opportunity to educate Asian Australians about how to overcome some of the internalised barriers, such as the reluctance to self-promote and be assertive. We should also be encouraging our children to become well rounded individuals. While academic success is important, to really succeed in Australia, they need to be involved in sports, the arts and the wider community.
We can – and must – make a difference.
We cannot – and should not – wait for things to change by themselves.
And I think that if we do succeed in effecting change, this will be of enormous benefit to the wider Australian community.
Value is created when people are energised to achieve their full potential.
Value is lost if people settle for less because they feel there is no point.
And, of course, the opportunity is enhanced as Australia transforms as the global economy moves into the so-called “Asian century”. Sure, there are many Australians who have studied Asian culture and language and that have proved adept in engaging and conducting business with and into Asia. However, how much more successful could Australia be if we actually engage those who share a cultural heritage with our Asian neighbours?
It reminds me that when I went with the then Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu, and 600 others on the first super trade mission to China in 2012, the majority of participants were not Asian. I don’t think that it was a good look because instead of suggesting that Australia understands Asia, it can serve to bring up collective memories of Western colonialism.
While I’d like to think that I have been pretty successful in my life and professional journey, I’d also like to imagine – perhaps wishfully – that I could have been even more successful if some of these things were already in place when I started out. In any event, having children that are also Asian Australian – in genetic percentage terms, more so than me – it is my fervent hope that there will be no barriers to their full – and fulfilling – participation in leadership and participation down the track.
On that point, and before I finish, I thought it is worth sharing an amusing anecdote. For his 11th birthday, my son invited a few friends from his year 5 class to our house. While playing foosball, I overheard one of his friends who is half Chinese proclaim that, when he becomes the Prime Minister of Australia, he was going to make foosball a national sport. Let’s hope that he maintains the ambition, and that he is not put off by any barriers to doing so.