Professor Siah Hwee Angthe inaugural BNZ Chair in Business in Asia at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Marketing and International Business, writes New Zealand has a long way to go if we truly want to engage with Asia

Findings from the latest New Zealanders’ Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples Survey continue to show that New Zealand is far from understanding Asia and from being ready to open up and engage with the region.

Asia will be an important part of world development so it is vital for New Zealand to find ways to develop cultural and economic ties there.

Various other reports have already alerted us to the reality that Asia will contribute significantly to global economic growth over the next three decades.

Given the sheer size of the Asian continent, understanding Asia as a region is a daunting task. A good starting point is to establish some knowledge of a few Asian countries.

The pace of Asia is another sticking point. Policy changes and consumer trends are evolving all the time. In fact, they are evolving faster there than they are in New Zealand, which makes it difficult to keep up to date with what is happening in Asia.

Asian tourism and exports from New Zealand to Asia will remain the key highlights of New Zealand’s engagement. Investments from Asia, understanding Asian cultures and traditions, and immigration from Asia into New Zealand are perceived as less important to New Zealand in the next 10 to 20 years.

We should think of the New Zealand-Asia relationship as a partnership. As with any good partnership, both sides need to benefit as a result of their connection. 

Lop-sided thinking and the “keep your distance” mentality need to go.

It is not really fair to say, “We want you to spend money in New Zealand (tourism) and buy our products (NZ exports to Asia), but we do not have to appreciate who you are (understand Asian cultures and traditions), and we do not really welcome you to become a part of our country (investments and immigration)”.

As long as such behaviours persist, this equation will not stack up over time. Not in an era where countries across the globe are putting their own concerns ahead of the drive towards globalisation.

New Zealanders’ lack of knowledge about Asia has contributed to their lack of confidence to engage. So, it is essential to generate more awareness of — and exposure to — Asia, here in New Zealand. 

Whether they are travellers, visitors, or recent migrants to the country, having conversations with Asians about their cultures and practices back home is an easy thing to do.

A further step is to promote travelling, working or studying in Asian destinations. To really learn about Asia and have an authentic experience, New Zealand travellers need to explore the streets and meet the locals, not just those they encounter in hotels and restaurants.

There are various institutions and funding mechanisms that facilitate deeper forms of engagement in, and with, Asia.

A greater frequency of interactions will result in greater knowledge and confidence to engage with Asia.

For many New Zealanders, the news media is a major source of information. So, it’s no surprise that a lot of commonly-held views on Asia are a reflection of media coverage.

For example, investment from Asia into New Zealand is more often than not pitched as a negative item. The literature on the impact of foreign investments does recognise some downsides, but for the most part the benefits outweigh the potential pitfalls, which indeed can be mitigated. It isn’t a major exercise to show that inward investment is correlated to economic growth.

The onus is on the media to paint an accurate picture of Asian investment into New Zealand, and help facilitate the country in its economic progress. The dangers of not doing so are real.

During my travels in China, many English-speaking Chinese would prefer to communicate with me in Mandarin just to ensure they got the message across.

This shows that possessing foreign language skills continues to be an important part of engaging with Asia, despite English being the global business language.

It also illustrates that even in the “globalised” world where standardisation is the goal, local customisation and adaptation still holds the key to progress and success.

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