By Janice Teo
Australia has big dreams and high hopes for Asia. So big that politicians on both side of the fence are calling this the Asian Century for Australia – and they’ve produced a government White Paper called Australia in the Asian Century to prove it.
A government website, asiancentury.dpmc.com.au shows just how serious about it they are – there are links to country strategies and cultural exchange programs with Indonesia, India, South Korea, South-east Asia and of course the grand-daddy of them all, China.
As the website states: “The scale and pace of Asia’s transformation is unprecedented and the implications for Australia are profound.”
There is perhaps no better time to be an Asian in Australia than now.
Into this fray comes ex-Singaporean and businessman Henry Heng, who is the CEO of Refresh Water, a Perth bottled water company that has six factories in four Australian capital cities.
Heng, 57, was a stockbroker with Singapore stockbroking firm Vickers Ballas and ran a small but successful chain of daycare centres and a bookshop in Singapore as well.
He is a soft-spoken man with a passion for profit whether it be business, politics or his persona life.
“Being a businessman, I don’t like to do something for no results. I decided to go into politics when I realized that today, with the current political climate, I can make a contribution,” he says.
Asians make up 10 per cent of the population in WA. This state, with its mineral wealth, has benefitted more than any other in Australia from resource-hungry China.
“Yet there are no Asians in state government,” says Heng. “With such a large number of Asians here, we could really do with an Asian voice to represent and familiarize Australians with the culture and the politics of the region.
“For instance, it’s quite pointless to try and sell eco-tourism to the Chinese market; generally when Chinese travel, they want to eat, they want to shop. These are valuable insights to a country trying to appeal in a big way to a huge market.”
So this year, Heng made the big move into politics and stood for election to the WA state government.
In addition to being Asian, Heng is also a Christian, which explains why he is standing with Family First, a party that campaigns for Australia to return to biblical and family values, to its Christian heritage and roots.
“I’ve always been passionate about public service, but being an Asian I never thought there was any hope for me,” he said. “But things have changed.
“Australia is now aggressively building ties with the region on both sides of the political fence I think, and Asian ownership of Australian businesses and cattle stations is becoming quite an issue.
“At the same time, Australia is suffering from an erosion of values and I believe we need to see the country return to its Judeo-Christian roots. Strong families I believe are the foundation of a strong country.”
He feels he has found the perfect platform for these twin passions – business and family values. “A vote for me is a vote for small business and a vote for strong families,” he says.
He was not successful in his bid, even though a simple election jingle written by a friend got more than 40,000 views on YouTube and attracted publicity from all the major media outlets who, never ever having seen this kind of election tactic before, were frankly quite bemused at its corny but catchy Sunday School flavour.
Unfortunately for Heng, the views did not translate into votes even though people in the street were recognizing him as ‘the man with the jingle’ by the end of the campaign, but he is undaunted and has thrown his hat in for a Federal seat by running as second ticket to the party’s primary candidate, Linda Rose, in Australia’s General Election this Saturday (Sept 7).
He knows that he will not win, but under Australia’s system of voting preferences, he can give all his votes to Ms Rose and thus bolster her final count.
But are Heng’s dreams too big? How does such a minority party make any kind of difference in Australia or in its legislation?
The answer lies in Australia’s two-tiered political system – an Upper House and a Lower House.
The Upper House consists of senators from a variety of political parties. It has the power to block legislation initiated by the government. To push legislation through, the government can and does barter terms with minority parties for their support.
This is where Heng hopes he and/or his party, if elected, will have a voice.
When he and his family moved to Perth 17 years ago, entering politics in Australia was the last thing on his mind, though in Singapore he was active in grassroots organization and was vice-chairman of the Queenstown community centre youth group.
“I never entered politics in Singapore because firstly it’s not an easy thing to be selected by the PAP, and opposition parties then are not like they are now. Singapore has become much more open,” says Heng.
“I was in Singapore during the 2011 election campaign and I saw people at opposition rallies unafraid to be seen on camera. In my day, anybody who attended an opposition rally would hide behind their umbrellas, their handbags, anything just to make sure they weren’t seen.”
Whatever the circumstances were that kept Heng out of politics then, he now stands firmly in the spotlight.