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Bolstering support for Asian personnel in the NZ Defence Force

Blessen Tom, journalist

The founder of a Pan-Asian network in the New Zealand Defence Force hopes to support Asian personnel in their defence careers.

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) launched the group at Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Base Auckland in February.

"Originally, I wanted to start it off as a small meeting group on Base Auckland but the NZDF ... encouraged me to go bigger and wider," says Nachiket "Nash" Alur, founder of the Pan-Asian Network.

When the squadron leader first joined the NZDF in 2013, he found himself frustrated by a lack of fellow Asian colleagues who understood his perspective.

"I didn't feel confident, even as a junior leader, to have that conversation," Alur says.

Before joining the military, Alur considered himself to be an assimilated Kiwi. However, this changed once he entered the service.

"It was a bit of culture shock, but it only sort of came to the forefront once I graduated from an officer training course and realized that I'd be working and leading people who had a different cultural wiring than I have," he says.

According to NZDF statistics as of 30 June last year, 653 members of Asian descent were serving in the country's navy, army, air force, civilian workforce and reserves.

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The army boasts the highest number of Asian personnel at 157, followed by the air force with 110 and navy with 67.

Alur says he has seen an uptick in the number of people from ethnic communities entering the service in recent years.

Four hundred and forty-one personnel of Asian descent were employed by NZDF in 2019.

Born in Mumbai, India, Alur moved to New Zealand when he was 13 years old.

After studying to become an aerospace engineer, Alur decided to join the military at the age of 24 after seeing some of his friends entered the Australian Air Force.

Alur says his parents were initially opposed to the decision.

"My parents, obviously as immigrants, came here with a vision for me, probably involving something like engineering, an MBA and then CEO," he says.

NZDF applicants must be a New Zealand citizen, permanent resident or hold a residence class visa holder with an indefinite stay.

Additionally, there is a self-help tool available to determine eligibility for security clearance.

Philip Kim has no hesitation in encouraging young people to join the military.

"No other organization that I know promotes continuous training and development like the NZDF, and I've become a more resilient and confident person since joining the navy," Kim says.

Kim's family moved to New Zealand from South Korea in the 1990s.

Before joining the navy, he was working as an engineer but wanted a career change.

"I wanted something challenging and also just wanted to do my part serving my country, which is Aotearoa New Zealand," Kim says.

The sub-lieutenant says the NZDF is a great place to work, especially if you're from a diverse background.

"The defence force and government work with a lot of other countries in the Asia-Pacific [region] and having that kind of background really is an asset," he says.

"There's always going to be a need for translators, interpreters and liaison officers just to help build relationships with the countries we work with."

He says he was asked to help with the Korean Navy when it made a port call to New Zealand a couple of years ago and he hopes one day to become a UN observer in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

Kevin Lee believes the NZDF benefits from having more Asians in the service.

Originally from Shenzhen, China, Lee and his family relocated to New Zealand when he was five years old.

"I'd love to get out there and advertise [joining the NZDF] a little bit," Lee says.

The corporal finds working in the army to be an engaging experience, particularly suited for those who prefer variety in their daily tasks.

Like Kim, Lee says having an ethnic background is advantageous in the defense force.

"I can speak Chinese, and it came in real handy during the Covid managed isolation period because there were so many flights coming from China," he recalls. "I was able to translate instead of just watching my friends play charades with the guests, trying to figure out what they're saying."

Alur is optimistic about the future of the network.

"When we had the pan-Asian morning tea back in February, I was blown away by the number of people who showed up," Alur says.

For those still contemplating their career paths, especially from ethnic communities within the country, Alur points to the opportunities available at the NZDF.

"It's like no other job. I could have been working in an aerospace company outside, but I don't think I would have had half the experiences I've had," he says.

"It's a very supportive environment. The leadership is great. The leadership training we do is fantastic. It really sets you up for a great career for life."

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