Old school ties key to Australia's role in new order

When Thai Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt met a group of Australian journalists on a balmy Bangkok afternoon recently, he was quick to offer a share tip to visitors.

When Thai Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt met a group of Australian journalists on a balmy Bangkok afternoon recently, he was quick to offer a share tip to visitors.

"You should buy stocks in Cochlear," said Dr Sittipunt, a MIT-educated engineering professor who spent 18 months in Australia 10 years ago as a researcher at the CSIRO.

The tip was as much personal as financial. Sittipunt's son had his hearing restored by an Australian medical expert with the aid of a Cochlear implant. He is a believer in the Australian technology, which he said had "changed the lives of many people".

As Transport Minister, Sittipunt is overseeing one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country's history, worth $67 billion. He is also one of many south-east Asian political and business elites with ties to Australia.

These Australian alumni can be found in the corridors of power across the region, from the presidential palace in Singapore to executive suites in Bangkok.

Even Maha Vajiralongkorn, the future King of Thailand, is a product of the famous old King's School in Sydney and the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

Brian Rogers, an Australian automotive executive based in Bangkok, said Thai alumni from Geelong Grammar could be found in many senior business positions in the country.

Together, these people form a crucial nexus linking Australia with the world's most economically dynamic region.

However, it is not clear whether the government or the business community is making best use of this valuable human asset, which is dwindling as the younger generation of Asian leaders turn to better known universities in the US and Europe for education.

For years, countries and educational institutions have cultivated their alumni for political and business advantages. Joseph Nye, the man who coined the term "soft power" - the ability to attract rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion - says: "Most of China's leaders have a son or daughter educated in the US who can portray a realistic view of the US that is often at odds with the caricatures in official Chinese propaganda."

Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale have built vast fortunes on the back of their active alumni fund-raising programs. Harvard alone has a $US31 billion war chest at its disposal to lure the best talent to its campus.

Britain and the US are courting future political, business and academic leaders around the world through famous scholarship schemes such as Rhodes, Fulbright and Marshall.

It is said that the special Anglo-American relationship is built on the back of Oxonians from both countries reminiscing about the good old days spent rowing on the Isis or drinking sherry at Magdalen College.

Australia has a large network of alumni in the region that is crying out to be nurtured and developed. This is an area where private firms such as Baker & McKenzie can teach the country a few lessons.

The managing partner of Baker & McKenzie in Australia, Chris Freeland, said the country must take a more proactive approach in courting Asian leaders educated in Australia. "Why isn't there someone in the government tracking where these people end up?" he said.

He says many companies in the private sector keep tabs on their alumni and invite them to functions regularly. "Some alumni are our most important clients and it is in our interest to treat them very well," he said.

Freeland suggested the government should fly 100 top Asian alumni to Canberra or Sydney for a two-day roadshow every year, keeping them up to date on what is happening in Australia.

"If we bring in the Indonesian Trade Minister, Mongolian Finance Minister and some Malaysian cabinet ministers [all Australian alumni], what a great dialogue they would have between themselves and we can impose the Australian dimension. It could be incredibly powerful."

Freeland's recommendation is a simple and practical way of implementing one of the key objectives of the government's Asian Century white paper - building people to people links.

This point has been recognised belatedly in the government's white paper. "We will strengthen the extensive alumni networks of Australian-educated leaders in Asia by providing a focal point for co-ordinating the networks through an Australia Awards Office," says the paper.

Establishing a co-ordination office is a good starting point but diplomats, business people and educators must develop strong awareness of this important human nexus. National Australia Bank's chief executive for Asia, Spiro Pappas, says the bank plays to natural ties between wealthy Asians and Australia as part of its strategy.

He says his Singaporean doctor, dentist and chiropractor were all educated in Australia and have relatives living in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. "There are a lot of wealthy Asians with a strong affinity to Australia," he says.

The business community as a whole needs to do more to develop people-to-people links with our most important neighbours. Ross Gittins is on leave.

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