New Zealanders Perceptions
of Asia and Asian Peoples
2017 Annual Survey

This year’s Perceptions of Asia survey has made for sobering reading. We learned last year that eight of out 10 New Zealanders thought Asia was important to New Zealand in economic, social and cultural terms – but two-thirds of us said we knew little or nothing about Asia.

At the Foundation, we thought this was probably a question of confidence – that New Zealanders just weren’t backing ourselves in what we knew about Asia.

This year’s data tells us that this simply isn’t the case. If anything, New Zealanders are overstating what they know about Asia. When asked six general knowledge questions about Asia, only 13 percent achieved a pass mark.

What worries us at the Foundation is that young people have a particularly low knowledge of Asia. Fifty-two percent of people aged under 30 did not provide any correct answers, or only provided one correct answer.

This lack of youth knowledge doesn’t surprise us. Our research into school leavers last year showed us that only eight percent of Year 12 and 13 students were ‘Asia-ready’. Only four in 10 saw Asia-related skills as being relevant for our future workforce.

This all suggests we have our work cut out if we are looking to raise ‘global citizens’. This matters, hugely, for all sorts of reasons.

In 20 years’ time, around 60 percent of the world’s middle class will be in Asia. Our business community tells us that they need a workforce that is ‘Asia-capable’. However, this message isn’t getting through to young people looking to make decisions about their future career pathways. Through our ‘#ThinkAsia’ programme, the Foundation is working with partners to proactively address this deficit.

But it goes wider than that – it is about New Zealanders having the confidence, skills and knowledge to engage meaningfully with Asia, both domestically and offshore.

So much has changed in New Zealand and globally since this survey began 20 years ago. Our changing demography is an obvious shift. What New Zealanders think and feel about Asia has a very real influence on our engagement with the region and with people who identify as Asian.

I think this year’s data emphatically shows it’s time to get real – we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that New Zealanders are ‘Asia-savvy’.

There are some reasons to be hopeful, however. The data tells us more than half of us are travelling to Asia – and that this travel is strongly associated with greater Asia-related knowledge and confidence. More than four in 10 of us have ‘a lot or a fair amount’ to do with Asian cultures or with people who identify as Asian – this is another key predictor of knowledge.

And then there’s our bellies – more than seven in 10 New Zealanders are interested in Asian food and cuisine. The Foundation continues to work in a positive and collaborative way to grow New Zealanders’ confidence and knowledge of Asia. Much of this is experiential, based on data which shows that travel, food and personal interactions all make a positive difference.

Finally, this survey is part one of a two-part story. Later this year we’ll be publishing research on Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples in Te Ao Māori. We think this deserves more focus and we’re looking forward to the conversations around these important findings.

Simon J Draper
Asia New Zealand Foundation