This project investigates the representation and engagement of Asian-Australian populations in public spheres. It particularly focuses on analysing their roles in education and research in major Australian universities, local and national policy making processes, and diplomatic relations with Asia and the Pacific.

The research project’s goal is to explore Australia’s growing and diversifying Asian-Australian communities, seeking better to understand the experience, status, contribution, and recognition of these communities in Australia, and their role in the development of Australia’s relations with diverse Asian countries. A wide range of activities will be delivered, including forums, conferences and publications, that aim to build the research capacity and profile of the Research Project and position it to influence government. The Research Project has received the generous financial support of Mr Jason Yeap OAM as well as the encouragement of prominent community leaders.

This project examines the representation and engagement of Asians within Australian public life and is located within the Asia Institute of the Faculty of Arts. Public life refers not only to elected office, but also senior decision-making positions within fields such as health and education.

Professor Pookong Kee is the chief investigator. Also involved are Associate Professor Nana Oishi of the Japanese Studies programme, Associate Professor Gao Jia, Assistant Dean (China) of the Faculty of Arts, and three part-time research assistants.

There is a clear need to better understand how Australians of Asian background can and have contributed to a wide range of public issues, especially relations between Australia and Asia. Prof. Kee has been interested in pursuing this project for some time, but funding had been a barrier. The University’s Believe campaign helped overcome this.

Mr Jason Yeap OAM, a member of the Believe campaign board, is a Malaysian-born lawyer and entrepreneur who was also concerned about the lack of visibility of Asian-Australians in public life. Funding commenced in December 2013 with his donation of $250,000, which will support a five-year programme of research. Professor Kee is planning applications for additional funding, especially to engage researchers in Canada, New Zealand, and the United States to understand Asian communities throughout the Pacific Rim.

The current research programme involves multiple projects. A second stream looks at the demography of Australians of Asian ancestry. “In time”, says Professor Kee, “there will be a volume that provides a factual account of this growing and diversifying segment of Australian society.”

Professor Kee has been studying the political participation of Asian-Australians. The research can be challenging. “It has been quite difficult to get candidates or elected officials to talk because of party discipline”, he explains. “They don’t want to talk about things that could potentially affect the party’s image.”

A successful public forum in November 2014 featured a majority of the Victorian state election candidates of Asian backgrounds as well as two federal senators, Penny Wong and Lisa Singh. Other events have been held, dating back to a roundtable in November 2013, and public events featuring opinion leaders will continue to be prominent within the project.

The researchers are developing evidence-based recommendations. Their findings will be relevant to policymakers, and reports and working papers are forthcoming. The most significant output will be an authoritative monograph.

One of the main findings to emerge so far is the under-representation of Asian-Australians in public decision-making, and the complex reasons behind this. “If you go to any health organisation”, observes Professor Kee, “there’s a good chance you will come across many doctors and nurses of Asian backgrounds and yet hardly any are prominent as administrative leaders. Why is this happening? Is it because of institutionalised reasons – conscious or unconscious – or is it a result of self-selection?”

Professor Kee is looking to the future with his aim to develop a teaching component out of this research programme. Asian-American Studies has been a major growth area in recent decades in the US. “We think that in time that here in Australia the second-generation students of Asian background may also begin to want to understand the circumstances under which their ancestors came here and how they themselves relate to Australia – their identities, their links to homelands.”


Asia Institute


Asia Studies

Chief investigators

Professor Pookong Kee, Asia Institute University of Melbourne
Assoc. Professor Nana Oishi, Japanese Studies, Asia Institute University of Melbourne