A New Zealander no more?

Beneath the facade of our supposedly tolerant, modern and multicultural society, lies a seething undercurrent of bigotry, racism and ignorance

As an Asian immigrant who first arrived to these shores 36 years ago, I am grateful for what New Zealand has given me and my family. I also like to believe that I have contributed something back to this country. My family certainly has.

But in the ensuing debate following Paul Henry's remarks, I have seriously questioned the premise of whether I should continue to describe myself as a New Zealander. Beneath the facade of our supposedly tolerant, modern and multicultural society, lies a seething undercurrent of bigotry, racism and ignorance.

I mean no disrespect to all those courageous individuals that have risen to challenge Paul Henry’s boorish performances. It is indeed heartening to note how many have stood up and, as Sue Bradford has so eloquently put it, said, “Not in my name, Paul Henry”.

Yet, sadly, it boils down to the numbers. Living in cosmopolitan Wellington, it is easy to forget about how parochial and insular much of New Zealand still remains. I fear that behind the voices of the liberal intellectuals and those fighting for social justice, TVNZ’s initial defence of Henry – that he is prepared to say what the silent majority are thinking – might well be true.

In a recent Close Up poll, 82% of respondents believed that our government should not have apologised to the Indian government following Henry’s deprecating mockery of the Chief Minister of India’s surname. A similar poll conducted by 3 News found that 64% of respondents did not believe Paul Henry should be sacked. Of course, two opinion polls do not reflect the sentiments of the entire nation, but there is an undeniably large constituency to whom the Paul Henrys of this land deliberately stoop to pander (and whose viewership generates substantial advertising revenue for our state broadcaster).

To all who continue to believe our government shouldn’t have apologised to India, I have this to say. New Zealand appears to be suffering from a country-version of the ‘short-man syndrome’. Godzone is really not that much more than a vast dairy farm at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

By contrast, India is an emerging giant at the heart of Asia and a technological superpower. It launches satellites into space and is at the cutting edge of scientific innovation. Its best and brightest university graduates are sought after across the world. It also has a burgeoning middle class approaching 300 million. True, it also still has hundreds of millions living in poverty, but it has only been independent for 63 years (following centuries of colonial domination in which its rich resources were ruthlessly exploited to fill the coffers in Whitehall). While India produced about 25% of world industrial output in 1750, by 1900, this figure had fallen to only 2%. In short, the industrialisation of England was accompanied by the active de-industrialisation of India.

To those who believe it is appropriate for a state-funded public broadcaster in New Zealand to insult the Chief Minister of the capital city of India, I say this. Pull the wool back from over your eyes, tear down the veil of ignorance that you are living behind and face the stark reality of the 21st century.

After five centuries at the helm of international affairs, the era of Western hegemony is coming to an end. Asia is on the ascendency. Much of the world wouldn’t bat an eyelid if New Zealand sank into the sea tomorrow. We need India much more than India needs us. Our diplomats, trade officials and business leaders have been working hard to broaden and deepen our relationship with India. We don’t need individuals like Paul Henry undermining their efforts. Our High Commissioner’s apology in Delhi was nothing but correct. As was Henry’s decision to resign, although he will no doubt now be perceived as a martyr in many quarters. TVNZ must follow through on its promise to review its editorial policies and processes to avoid a repeat of this embarrassing fiasco.

I am proud of my South Asian heritage and of my brown skin. Until recently, I was also proud to describe myself as a New Zealander. But if being a New Zealander means having to choose between renouncing my cultural heritage or accepting ‘Kiwi values’ (whatever that may mean – getting pissed while watching the rugby perhaps?), then I would rather remain a ‘foreigner’ for the rest of my life.