How not to create an idyllic town

Malay school children on Cocos Keeling IslandThe Australian town of Wadeye, 400 kilometres (240 miles) southeast of the nearest city, Darwin. It has about 2,500 residents, all Aboriginal apart from 200 public servants and businessmen, making it the largest indigenous town in Australia. And one of the most frightening.

Wadeye could be an idyllic place, a sleepy tourist town in the middle of the vast, red Outback. Instead, it is best known in Sydney and Melbourne because of vicious gang warfare between Judas Priest and Evil Warriors. In December, when the roads flood and town is completely isolated, fights with axes, machetes and sharpened iron bars landed dozens in jail and in hospital.

"Seeing what is happening, my tears are never dry," Wadeye elder Theodora Narndu told The Age newspaper in 2007. "I hear the screams at night, terrified women and children. It has never been like this before. Our kids are not safe."

Wadeye is dysfunctional. An average of 17 people live in its dilapidated, graffiti-covered houses. Almost half the population is under 15, but teenagers cannot speak English. In 2003 only 45 Aboriginals in the town had jobs. The rest lived on welfare payments.

Government money pours into the sand in Wadeye. A school teacher at the local primary school there lamented in the journal Quadrant that his children resisted education.

“The minute your back is turned, the kids are stealing or vandalising anything they can lay their hands on... At night those who have been told ‘no’ during the day’s lessons come to defecate outside your classroom door or urinate through broken louvres in the classroom windows.”

And Wadeye is not the worst. At least it is a “dry” town where no alcohol is sold. Elsewhere many live in a perpetual alcoholic stupour.

Successive Australian governments have announced their shock at the ghastly statistics of a Fifth World economy. Their embarrassment is sincere, but they are baffled. Plan after plan has foundered.

One indigenous settlement, however, defies these ghastly statistics. The obstacles there are the same: a different language, a different culture, unemployment, isolation, a history of oppression. But, on the surface at least, it is an idyllic community with paved streets, tidy houses, a lively cultural life and regular schooling.

It is the Cocos Islands, a territory of Australia about halfway to Sri Lanka. And the majority of the inhabitants are strictly observant Sunni Muslim Malays. Only two of the islands are inhabited, Home Island by 450 Malays, and West Island by 120 white bureaucrats and business people who cater for a small tourist industry. It is a forgotten part of Australia.

The Malays are descendants of immigrants and slaves brought from the Malay Peninsula in the 19th Century to work on a copra plantation owned by a Scottish trader, John Clunies-Ross. “I see them as having a strong connection much the same as the Australian indigenous population do,” says Michael Simms, chief executive officer of the Cocos.

Despite its white beaches and palm trees, the Malay community is not perfect. The disappearance of the copra industry destroyed local employment. It is estimated that between 60 and 70 percent are on welfare. However, Home Island is not dysfunctional – it is just a gentle, sleepy tropical town.  

Aren’t there some lessons here the indigenous people of Mainland Australia – and the rest of us? What life buoys have kept the Malays afloat when they were buffetted by consumerism, technology and a vastly more powerful culture? Two things stick out like a sore thumb.

First, families. The Malays have traditional marriages and strong family life. This is evident in the statistics for education. Illegal drugs are almost unknown; school attendance is nearly 100 percent.

Second, religion. The Member of Parliament who represents the Cocos Islands, Warren Snowdon (also Federal Minister for Defence), describes the Malays as “highly religious, with high moral codes and very strong values”. The women all wear the hijab and visitors to their island are told sternly to dress properly.

But the two words “family” and “religion” are absent in government deliberations about Aboriginal welfare.

True, families in traditional society were looser than Western, Christian families. But instead of strengthening them, the bureaucrats have allowed them to wither and decay. Nearly all children are born out of wedlock and promiscuity is endemic. But politically-correct bureaucrats never talk about strengthening families.

And no one talks about religion. A town like Wadeye was once a Catholic mission station. But traditional culture is vanishing fast and the cultural certainties conferred by Christianity have faded. The dominant culture seems to be the offscourings of affluent consumerism: pornography, drugs, rock music and videos.

Governments ought to stay out of homes and churches, but the stark differences between these two communities speak for themselves. Successful communities need strong families and strong cultural values. Policies which ignore them lead only to tears and despair.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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