A view from Sydney
9 July 2001
It is quite another when corporate leaders use the same tactics to support short-term commercial ends - especially when in doing so they bite the hand that feeds them. And yet in Australia the rise of what is being called 'corporate Hansonism', on the surface at least, seems to represent just that.
Hanson, the maverick right-wing Australian politician who rose to prominence preaching a blend of racist and economically isolationist policies, played on minority fears in the community, particularly among those who are the losers in the economic globalisation process. Now, in the same way, some commercial leaders have raised concerns about the level of foreign takeovers in Australia, singling out Singapore in the process. In doing so, they have damaged a positive image of Australia as an economically open economy that supports and welcomes foreign investment. However, as with Hanson herself, the corporate version of this xenophobia is more a product of media hype than reality.
The media, after all, overplayed the significance of the failure of Shell's attempt to take control of Woodside Petroleum, operator of the politically sensitive North West Shelf gas project. True, it was an unusual step for the Foreign Investment Review Board to block the takeover on the grounds of 'national interest', but the markets took the news in their stride. Shell, after all, remains a major Woodside shareholder.
The media has also become over excited by recent criticism of proposed Singaporean investments in Australia, including the acquisition of Cable & Wireless Optus by SingTel. The comments simply do not reflect mainstream business opinion in Australia, but unfortunately, with the profile given to the critics by the media, they do harm Australia's reputation - at the very least they do little to enhance it. The region has often looked on Australia's motives with suspicion, and there are many commentators eager to pounce on any apparent Australian racism or imperialist tendencies.
The comments themselves are not helpful. They betray an ignorance of the business opportunities of Asian countries, in particular Singapore, which remains a close neighbour, ally and significant trading partner. From time to time, Australians may have bristled at being told home truths by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, but long-term business and cultural ties mean that the relationship is fundamentally in good shape. Australia does have many differences with Singapore, but they tend to complement one another.
Singapore, with its closely planned economy, has been an extraordinary success story in post-war Asia. But the nation, whose role as a free-trading hub has contributed dramatically to its growth, is now becoming something of a victim of its own commercial success. While it has leveraged superbly off limited resources, it still remains a small market and, as Singaporean corporates are finding, it is increasingly necessary to internationalise. With that trend has come some serious soul-searching.
When Singaporeans look offshore, Australia is an attractive destination for investment. They like its stability, orderly markets, its rule of law and the fact that it is relatively free of corruption. Meanwhile, Singapore represents an important market for Australian skills and services.
Australia stands to be a big winner if it learns to work with Singapore more effectively; and happily, most major Australian corporates are doing just that. While the dissenting minority may be the ones to catch the media's attention, their unfortunate echoes of a bygone era of protectionism are sounding increasingly hollow. Now is the time to embrace change.
Jennifer McKay is an international strategic relations consultant at Minter Ellison Consulting, Sydney