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“Building Bridges With Asia” - Christopher Butler

“Building Bridges With Asia”
Address to the Hutt Valley Rotary Club, 18 September 2002
Christopher Butler, Executive Director, Asia 2000

Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for the invitation to be with you this morning. I have been present at many Rotary meetings over the years, both in New Zealand and overseas.

My family has also benefited directly from the Rotary movement. One of my daughters had the great experience of a year in Brazil as a Rotary exchange student in the 1980s.

I have a great deal of respect for what you seek to achieve within the community. You provide the cement between people, build bridges between them, and support those who need a bit of a helping hand.

In that way you have a good deal in common with Asia 2000. But the cement, bridges and support of our mission are very specific. They are all to do with helping New Zealanders better understand and relate with the countries and people of Asia.

Why should we seek to do that? The simple answer is that people who understand each other do better business. People who understand each other build better communities. And people who understand each other learn better together.

Asia is Central

I have been involved with New Zealand’s Asian connections for so long that I must remind myself sometimes that other people don’t necessarily see the world in the same way as I do. I know that what seems self-evident to me can appear a little radical to others.

I have had the great good fortune of living in the rich environment of Asian cultures, marvelling at Asian landscapes, and enjoying the warmth and charm of Asian friends. I have also spent the best part of the last 15-years deeply involved in New Zealand’s Asia links.

So perhaps I need to start by saying very explicitly that I consider that the countries of Asia are absolutely crucial, not only to the future of New Zealand but also to its present.

More and more New Zealanders are likely to share that perception.

I have made recent visits to both South East and North East Asia. Did you know that there are literally thousands of New Zealanders living in the region as executives, teachers, students, sports players, clergy, officials and husbands or wives? I was lucky enough to meet some at business meetings in Seoul and Taipei, and encountered others less formally in the course of my travels.

These people are living bridges between this country and their adopted homes. And in the same way so too are the Asian students and migrants who are now embedded as part of the New Zealand landscape.

I emphasise the word “people”. A good deal of popular commentary in New Zealand confines itself to statistics or generalisations. We tend to talk of Asia in terms of billions of dollars of exports, and tens of thousands of “students” or “tourists” or “immigrants”. Even the term “Asia” is something of a generic label.

Asia 2000’s mission is to put a human face on statistics and replace stereotypes with the richness of detail. Our mission is about people, about cultures and about countries.

You don’t do business with a statistic, or build communities from stereotypes. And you don’t learn all that much from either statistics or stereotypes unless you get into the detail.

At the bottom line it is people who do business, people who make communities, and people who both teach and learn.

I have made the claim that Asia is of central importance to New Zealand. I’d like to back that up by talking briefly about each of the three issues I’ve singled out.


The importance to New Zealand of Asian economic links is an increasingly familiar story, but one so dramatic that it bears repeating. It really has been a quite extraordinary example of doing better business.

Only 30 years ago, Asia took a mere ten percent of New Zealand’s merchandise exports. Today it is the destination for close to 40-percent, and the region includes six of our Top Ten markets. This remarkable shift is the result both of British entry into the European Community in 1972 and of Asia’s own economic transformation.

Today, the call of the Asian Tiger sounds more loudly than that of the British Lion. You can get some idea of the power of economic transformation by comparing today’s annual value of exports to Asia with the 1970 figure, $11 billion today versus $150 million in 1970.

Nor is it simply a question of exports. Imports from Asia have grown in a similar manner, from $147 million in 1970 to over $10 billion today. These are the products that have transformed many aspects of New Zealand’s daily life, from transport and housework through to communications and entertainment.

Asian investors too have become an important part of New Zealand’s economic engine. Lives in regional areas of New Zealand have been transformed by Asian investment in primary processing industries, and our tourism industry is substantially supported by Asian investment in hotels.

One of Asia 2000’s main supporters is HSBC, an expanding presence in the banking sector which originated in Hong Kong.

Similarly, there are an increasing number of New Zealand businesses that are succeeding on the ground in Asia. Sealord is a presence with its fisheries products, ANZCO with meat, Wendy Pye with educational publishing, Lion Nathan with beer, Fonterra with dairy products, Interlock with fittings, and Richina Pacific with leather. There are many other examples.

Underpinning all this change are people, entrepreneurs from New Zealand and Asia who have invested their lives in pioneering new business frontiers, understanding different cultures and forging new friendships.


And so it is with communities. In 1970, only 350 Asian migrants came to New Zealand. The comparable figure for 2001 was nearly 20,000. People from Asia now represent over six percent of New Zealand’s population, and by some estimates this proportion could grow to nine percent over the next 15 years.

These statistics need to be kept in perspective. In the 30 years from 1970 to 2000, New Zealand actually lost more people through migration than it gained. The overall net outflow exceeded 65,000. That pattern has shifted slightly over the last decade, but net inflow from migration still contributed only 0.2 percent to New Zealand’s overall population growth of 1.1 percent.

Australia’s experience makes an interesting comparison. It too is a New World society in which immigration has played an important role. Since 1990, Australia’s population has increased by 1.2 percent, with immigration contributing 0.5 percent to that figure.

It would be interesting to know what part the energy, savings and linkages of new migrants have contributed to Australia’s economic performance over recent years.

Australia’s economy achieved annual average growth of 4.5 percent over the past five years, while exports grew 88 percent between 1992 and 2001. New Zealand’s export growth in the same period was 58 percent, well below the OECD average (of 85 percent).

I have met a good number of success stories among our Asian migrants, and I have read about others. I can think of a Commonwealth Games’ gold medallist, golf and music champions, university professors, young lawyers, international businessmen, politicians, computer engineers and media entrepreneurs.

The energy of Asia has brought variety to our food, comedy to our theatres, colour to our shops, and new movies to our screens. There is research too which indicates that migration has a positive fiscal impact, and anecdotal evidence points to its benefits in areas of new settlement with respect to factors such as real estate values.

But I have also seen or heard about the other side to the coin: the pharmacist or teacher driving taxis, the loneliness of language barriers, the difficulties of business entry, and the occasional tale of crime or misbehaviour. I have also seen the headlines raising questions about the impact on New Zealand of migration and change.

Asia 2000’s own research in fact suggests that New Zealanders are accommodating well to the new realities of Asia. A study we released earlier this year showed positive trends in attitudes to Asian-related issues, and a marked decline in negative perceptions.

But we should not be complacent. Recent public debates show that there are still questions that need to be addressed in an informed and sensitive way.

When we talk about migrants, we are not talking about “Them”. We are talking about “Us”. We are talking about fellow New Zealanders.

Can you imagine how difficult it must be to uproot your family, burn the bridges with your past, sever your friendships and start life over again in the middle of another culture and another language? How easy would we find it to meet that kind of challenge in the heart of Seoul or Taipei?

It is the kind of challenge that is at the heart of New Zealand. Migrants have faced it since the beginning of time, and their success has become the success of New Zealand as a whole. At the bottom line, migrants succeed because they don’t have the luxury of failure. There is no fallback on comfortable familiarity.

There is a special role for New Zealand communities and for organisations such as Rotary in smoothing the path. We have in our midst new human capital, new networks, new diversity and huge motivation. The challenge is to create new neighbours of the people who embody these assets.

In the words of the old New Zealand expression, it is largely a question of “giving the other guy a fair go”.

Communities are responding with constructive initiatives including ethnic networks, community trusts, hospitality functions, employment Websites, business workshops and advisory services.

With its long history of community engagement and its international outlook, I would be surprised if Rotary clubs in areas with large migrant communities are not very actively engaged in some aspects of these.

Wider Communities

Asian New Zealanders are not only contributors to local communities, but also personal bridges to the wider world of their birth.

It is a world that is rapidly changing. In 1970, New Zealand was a substantially wealthier country than most of its Asian neighbours, and a larger economy than many. That is no longer the case, and the competition for the attention of the region’s large and increasingly wealthy countries grows literally by the day.

So too do their common interests.

A colleague of mine once wrote that, with every day that passes, Asia becomes more and more important to New Zealand while New Zealand becomes less and less important to Asia.

Remaining engaged and relevant to the interests of Asian countries is a challenge for New Zealand as a whole. It is difficult to imagine what life would be like without the contribution to our economy that I outlined earlier. And I did not mention in that summary the billions of dollars we earn from tourism and education.

One quarter of all tourists visiting New Zealand, and 80-percent of all international students, come from Asia.

There has been talk for years of “hard regionalism” emerging in the form of closer economic linkages between the countries of East Asia, including the ASEAN members of South East Asia and the giant northern economies of China, Korea and Japan.

How this happens, and when, remains a matter for conjecture. But it would be surprising if the growth in mutual trade and investment interests among these countries did not lead inevitably in that general direction.

New Zealand would want very much to remain part of any new Asian constellation, because exclusion would have an impact reminiscent of British entry to the European Union.

If it was our British connections that secured years of special trading arrangements with the European Union, perhaps the time will come when we need our Asian connections to secure our trading future with our burgeoning regional markets.

Asians still regard New Zealand as essentially European. We will have to work hard to establish our credentials as a unique Asia-Pacific culture of wide interests, a culture which deserves its place in the regional sun.


The final leg of my Asian tripod is learning. Asian students dominate international education in this country. There are hundreds of New Zealand teachers in Asian countries, and tens of thousands of Asian students in New Zealand schools and colleges.

What makes the headlines is that it is a very big business indeed, returning well over a billion dollars a year to New Zealand.

It also has substantial flow-on effects. Not only are many of our educational institutions now substantially dependent on revenues from international students, but property values in New Zealand’s main centres are also linked to the demand for teaching and accommodation space.

What are less often discussed are the huge opportunities which international education offers New Zealand and its own young people.

Each student is at the heart of a personal network stretching back into Asia, carrying direct reports of a personal experience to a network of friends and relatives. Collectively they colour the views of New Zealand held by millions of people.

Each student is someone from whom a young New Zealander can learn. Each student is a potential friend at court in his or her country of origin. And each student is a potential ally for years into the future, carrying within them a memory of youth.

We need to continue doing the education job well and aspire to do it even better. We need to ask what we need to learn about our Asian students, and to take a very close interest in what we can learn from them.

We need to extend as communities the same kind of welcome to students that we are encouraged to give to tourists. And we need to actively foster exchanges and interaction between young students from Asia and their New Zealand counterparts.

Asia 2000

I would like to conclude with a few words about Asia 2000, where I have been privileged to work for the last six months.

We were established in 1994 by the Rt Hon Don McKinnon and the Hon Philip Burdon. We have a staff of 12 people, largely based in Wellington although we have also a one-person office in Auckland that I would dearly love to expand.

We have a very distinguished Board of Trustees chaired by Sir Dryden Spring, and an equally distinguished board of Honorary Advisers drawn from around Asia that is chaired by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

We are a non-political, non-profit foundation with the simple mission I stated at the outset. We receive an ongoing funding contribution from the government, which represents between one third and one half of our annual expenditure.

The balance we must secure from sponsors, philanthropists and other partners, both in New Zealand and offshore. HSBC, Fonterra and Trade NZ are all generous backers, and we have received past and present assistance from many other individuals and enterprises.

Fund raising nevertheless remains the kind of ongoing core business with which your Club will be only too familiar. To give, we must receive.

In the past eight years we have pursued our mission by using scholarships and grants to advance educational links and build personal networks.

We have created active media and business programmes. We have put policy issues on the public agenda and promoted informed discussion. And we have introduced New Zealanders to Asian culture through community events and cooperative projects with local interests.

The Auckland Lantern Festival and the nationwide Festivals of Asia are two examples. At a smaller level, so too is our support of community initiatives such as Lower Hutt’s “Haiku on the Hills” poetry event. Next month we will be staging Diwali Festival of Light events in Auckland and Wellington as a celebration of New Zealand’s Indian community.

Much of what we do we do in partnership with others, drawing on a network as wide as New Zealand itself.

It includes local authorities, news media, aid organisations, schools and universities, cultural networks, community groups and institutions, companies and business councils, politicians and many government agencies. And we access similar networks around Asia too.

Asia 2000 is a wonderful place to work. I feel very responsible and hugely privileged. I very much would welcome Rotary joining us at any point on our journey of discovery.


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