About a year back I wrote an article on the alleged racism encountered by a second-tier Indian actress in a British television program (The immigration reality show, Asia Times Online, January 20, 2007), which prompted then-chancellor and now Prime Minister Gordon Brown to issue an apology to the Indian people. The rationale for that apology was entirely economic, as the new Britain needed immigrants to work its sewers and pay its taxes even as the existing population wiled away its time on the dole.

This time around, the Indians are being portrayed as the aggressors who shouted racist epithets on a non-white Australian cricketer by calling him a simian, a “monkey” to be precise. For their part, the Indians allege that an Australian player called their captain a “bastard”. Media reaction in both cricket-crazy countries has been to support the local team, in effect threatening consequences far beyond cricket. Cooler heads may yet prevail, but the makings of a mess are all too apparent in this incident.

Asia is racist, and that is that

Understanding the interplay between economic factors and social incidents that augur racial friction is central to all this. To take a small deviation, it is not surprising to me that Japan leads the world in robotics, or that progress has been accelerated in recent years when the country’s demographic decline turned precipitous. The main factor underpinning the Japanese preference for robots that could help around the house, work in factories and drive cars to the supermarkets is the very real need to avoid any immigration from “lesser” Asian countries. This is an obvious case of technology being harnessed to maintain the natural isolationism of the Japanese. The truth of those cute robots you see being displayed in various shows then is that they represent the attempt of Japan Inc. to keep Filipino maids out of the country.

Similarly, it is all too common for Asians to use race for political and economic segregation. Malaysia is the most visible example of this process (When progress is against the law Asia Times Online, June 2, 2007), wherein the hardworking and entrepreneurial Chinese have to take a back seat to the state’s favored Malay sons. This openly racist country remains an anchor for Southeast Asian politics, a trusted US ally and much more – there is therefore not much surprise in seeing smaller Asian countries following the same path.

For their part, Chinese societies such as Hong Kong and Singapore have been frequently attacked by human rights groups for their own display of racism against minorities such as immigrant Filipino and Indonesian workers. Tales of grief are all too common for non-Chinese in these two rich enclaves, belying any notions of developed country standards at least when it comes to matters of human rights.

Meanwhile, Australia has created a culture to preserve its exclusivity, and this simply means treating non-Australians with measured contempt. This may have been acceptable in the past, but with regional dynamics now changed completely and Asia being on the rise, realities have changed. When such pressures spill over to the world of sport, results can be quite ugly, as the most recent fracas in Sydney showed.

That the incident should have occurred in Australia is perhaps more than coincidental; as I wrote in a previous article (Hazards of Oz Asia Times Online, November 18, 2006) Asians confront a fundamental quandary with respect to the country as it is neither fish nor fowl in their line of thinking. It is too isolated and European to be part of the regional milieu, but yet happens to be located very much within the same economic zone.

It follows curious double standards at home, as the forced removal of Aboriginal children to be raised by “normal” people in the sixties and seventies showed. While professing to be a democracy, Australia has no compunctions in turning the screws on “undesirable” immigrants, in particular Muslims as the various John Howard-sponsored events involving refugees showed in the past few years. Australia retains one of the most racist immigration policies in the Western world, favoring people based on skin color rather than specific credentials. It is thus ironic that my prognostication of doom for Australia in the above-referenced article was averted by surging exports of raw materials to Asia that cushioned the country’s over-dependence on the US economy.

Cultural misunderstanding

From what one can gather on the incident in question, it seems more than likely that both sides simply got the wrong end of their counterparts’ national cultures. Being greeted with comparisons to animals is, after all, all too common across all Asian cultures. Thus, a glutton or fat person is always a “pig”, an uncultured person a “dog”, an obstinate, stupid or lazy person is a “donkey” and an over-energetic person a “monkey”. It is not without reason that the Chinese zodiac assigns specific characteristics based on animals, and much the same can be seen across all Asian languages.

A friend who is a noted linguist in India pointed out that it is well nigh impossible to insult anyone in various Indian languages without invoking an animal metaphor of some sort or the other. He also sent me some quotes from Indian media outlets that were hilarious in their attempts to “rationalize” what the player, a Punjabi, may have said that was misconstrued as “monkey”. I am not at liberty to publish any of those translations on this web site, seeing as it is edited out of Asia rather than Australia. Suffice to say that many an English sailor would turn red like I did when these Punjabi expletives were translated for my benefit.

Similarly, while questioning the legitimacy of one’s birth is a strict no-no across Asia, the term “bastard” is one of endearment to any Australian, employed with almost as much frequency as “mate”. Indeed, it is quite common to hear the term uttered on television even during prime time, something that could simply not happen on too many Asian television channels. Most Australians I know smile when calling someone a “bastard”, showing more than anything else that far from malice being intended, it is used in the same meaning as “good old boy” would be in England.

Cause and effect

Given the cultural background, it almost seems surprising that more such incidents did not occur in the game nor indeed in cricket as a whole. As with most stories, it is likely that the economics of sport played a large part in determining both the cause and likely consequences of this racism incident. The game is largely played for Asian audiences, even if there are only three teams that seriously attract paying audiences in a motley crowd of eight to 10 countries.

With this reality in mind, the Indian cricket authorities retain an upper hand in determining the future of the game. That they would use it in fashion that bullies other teams or renders many of the rules of the game redundant should be taken as a given. There is too much money at stake for all this not to happen. The country’s cricketers aren’t as good as their fans would like them to be. This means that relevant authorities will over-compensate on the regulatory and other fields to ensure that meaningful participation from India is a given for the game to survive into the next few decades.

The history of field hockey shows cricket authorities why that should be the case. When rules were changed in favor of artificial turfs against natural turfs, the game swung decisively away from Asia and towards the Europeans. This produced enough gains in fans for European teams over the near-term, but as field hockey never became as popular as football (or “soccer” as Americans call it) in those countries, gains proved ephemeral if not Pyrrhic as Asian fans stopped caring about their national teams. The game is today rendered to niche status as a result.

So it is with the game of cricket. What happens from now on will be a function of ensuring that the economics of the sport remain untarnished. Those standing in the way will be pushed out to other pastures, sacrificed at the altar of Indian television audiences. The players they like will survive long after their sell-by dates, while those that the audiences dislike will be removed from the game quickly.

Much as war is too important to be left to the generals, sports are too profitable to be left to the whims (and mouths) of players.