Australia's spartan skill code

Rome fell when it snubbed foreigners and Japan stagnated. Australia is showing signs of walking into a similar talent trap.

Graph for Australia's spartan skill code

Australian Member of Parliament and Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Brendan O’'Connor addressing the media to discuss ongoing cooperation in enhancing migration management. (EPA/M.A.PUSHPA KUMARA)

The ancient Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta, the birthplaces of Western civilisation, stagnated when they became inward-looking and shunned foreigners.

“The narrow policy of preserving, without any foreign mixture, the pure blood of the ancient citizens, had checked the fortune and hastened the ruin of Athens and Sparta”, wrote Edward Gibbon, the grand historian of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Across the Adriatic Sea, the Romans gradually and steadily absorbed their conquered provincials, granting them not only citizenship but seats at the Roman senate.  “The grandsons of the Gauls, who had besieged Julius Caesar in Alesia, commanded legions, governed provinces and were admitted into the senate of Rome.”

In contemporary times, Japan is the new Sparta and Athens, and the United States is the new Roman Empire. Japan’s biggest challenge is not its two-decade long deflation but its ageing population. In 2013, the former challenger to US' economic supremacy lost a quarter of million people.

If this trend continues unabated, the current Japanese population of 127 million will be halved by the end of this century, according to the Japanese government’s projection. This will have serious repercussions for the status of the country as a political and economic power.

Japanese businesses, once the envy of the world, are slowly fading away. Some blame Japan’s stubborn anti-immigration policy as a source of problem, denying the country the benefits of foreign talent.

Koreans, who have been living in Japan for more than three generations, are still regarded as zainichi, or foreigners.  Though Frenchman Carlos Ghosn turned the once-failing Nissan into one of the world’s most profitable automakers, Japan is still reluctant to embrace foreign talent.

In contrast, one of the greatest and most enduring strengths of the United States is its ability to attract talent from all over the world, including Australia. From Ivy League universities to the Silicon Valley, Indian IT engineers, Chinese geneticists and Russian physicists are calling America home.  

Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sums up the US' strength in the following words:

“Whether you are African or South American or Indian or Filipino, or Chinese or Korean, Americans will let you work for them in America and in their multinational corporations abroad,” he told Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill of Harvard University. “Throughout history, all empires that succeed have embraced  and included in their midst people of other races, languages, religions and cultures.”

As we are about to celebrate the Australia Day next week, the rise and decline of ancient empires and contemporary superpowers provides a useful lesson for Australia – particularly as we look forward to an Asian century.

Though Australia has welcomed successive generations of migrants, the country is not yet ready to take part in the global battle for talent. Our immigration policy favours accountants and hairdressers over scientists and engineers. I have known university medallists who would love to stay in Australia but are in wrong disciplines.

Graduates from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, a most sought-after commodity in the United States and Singapore, are not even recognised in Australia. They have risen to the top of many global companies, including Vodafone, Berkshire Hathaway Insurance, Citi Group, Google and Intel.

Deepak Saxena, a Melbourne-based Indian entrepreneur and IIT graduate said: “If you ask 100 top CEOs in America, “have you heard of IIT?’, I bet 95 to 99 per cent of them would say yes. I can assure you that if you go to top 100 CEOs in this country, I would be surprised if more than five have heard of it.”

Politicians of all persuasions have talked about the need to innovate and become a 'knowledge nation'. It is important that they translate that into action. One of the key policy initiatives we ought to be thinking about is how to attract the best talent to come to Australia.

We can start with the thousands of foreign students who are studying here. Too many prized places have been offered to accountants, cooks and hairdressers. Australian immigration officials need to look beyond the needs of now and into the future.

Follow Peter Cai on Twitter: @peteryuancai

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