Debate over Aussie centre to promote Western civilisation

Critics question its relevance in multicultural society while supporters point to its vision

Before his death in 2014, Mr Paul Ramsay, who built a global empire of private hospitals and was one of Australia's richest people, decided he wanted his fortune to be used for a somewhat grandiose purpose: to enhance the country's appreciation of Western civilisation.

In one of the largest bequests in the nation's history, Mr Ramsay, who never married and had no children when he died aged 78, left shares in his company Ramsay Health Care worth an estimated A$3 billion (S$4.7 billion) - amounting to most of his fortune - to a charitable foundation.

Along with funding for a range of community projects, he wanted his bequest to fund an academic institution to promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Western civilisation.

The result is an unusual new institution called the Centre for Western Civilisation.

Mr Ramsay's aim, said the centre, was to create a cadre of Australian leaders whose "awareness and appreciation of their country's Western heritage and values" would guide their future decision making.

"We believe generations of young Australians will eventually benefit from this unique opportunity, and learn to value their own civilisational heritage, at no cost to the taxpayer," the centre says on its website. It plans to work with two or three Australian universities to create new bachelor degrees in Western civilisation.

ITS DISTINCTION

The fact that it is 'for' the cultural inheritance of countries such as ours, rather than just interested in it, makes it distinctive.

AUSTRALIA'S FORMER PRIME MINISTER TONY ABBOTT, on the month-old Centre for Western Civilisation.

It will also recruit leading academics from home and abroad as staff or visiting guest lecturers, and will grant scholarships to Australians to study at leading international universities.

The extraordinary amount of money pumped into the centre and its unusual mission to promote Western civilisation have attracted attention. Critics questioned its relevance in today's multicultural Australian society.

The head of the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, Professor Catharine Coleborne, said the concept of Western civilisation was "outmoded".

"Western civilisation is a concept partly based on the belief that the world can be divided neatly into West and East, for example, the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, and those of Asia and Islam," she wrote on The Conversation website on Nov 21.

"However, this denies centuries of complex systems of trade, communication and cultural exchange between different peoples."

Noting Australia's increasingly multicultural population, Prof Coleborne said universities should be "expanding our sense of the humanities to include the increasing number of students from diverse backgrounds".

But the centre, launched last month, has the backing of some of the country's influential figures. Its board is chaired by former Liberal prime minister John Howard.

"Understanding Western civilisation does not imply any disrespect or lack of interest in other civilisations," he told The Straits Times. "It is simply a recognition of the reality that Western civilisation has played a major role in shaping modern Australia."

Another former prime minister, Mr Tony Abbott, who encouraged the founding of the centre, likened Mr Ramsay's legacy to that of British businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes, who set up the Rhodes Scholarship to fund global scholarships to Oxford University.

"(The centre) is not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it," Mr Abbott, himself a former Rhodes scholar, wrote in The Australian on Nov 20.

"The fact that it is 'for' the cultural inheritance of countries such as ours, rather than just interested in it, makes it distinctive."

Mr Abbott, a staunch conservative, has urged Australia to boost its association with fellow English-speaking nations and do more to celebrate its Western heritage.

Showing a bipartisan approach, the centre's board includes ex-Labor leader Kim Beazley and right-wing union chief Joe De Bruyn.

Mr Beazley rejected the idea that the centre's Western focus marked a rejection of Asian culture and history. "We're part of the region and we need to know and understand those things," he told The Australian on Nov 22.

The centre's CEO is Professor Simon Haines, a literature academic who was previously chair professor and head of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"No one is suggesting a neat division between East and West, or denying the incredibly beneficial exchange of ideas with other cultures and civilisations that has so greatly enriched the West," he told The Straits Times.

"As for the idea that Western civilisation excludes Australians from non-Western backgrounds, it's frankly absurd... Western civilisation has played the key role in the success of modern Australia as a prosperous, tolerant, dynamic nation, and it was Mr Ramsay's wish that all Australians could have the opportunity to have a deeper understanding of that fact."

The centre has been largely welcomed as providing a much-needed boost to universities. It will inject funds into struggling humanities departments which have often borne the brunt of budget cuts.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'Debate over Aussie centre to promote Western civilisation'. Print Edition | Subscribe