Ashalyna Noa (right) in Kuala Lumpur with the Foundation's Pip McLachlan (centre) and fellow Leadership Network member Jane Neilson
I recently joined the Leadership Network of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, and had heard a little about the Foundation’s Track II programme, supporting informal diplomacy with Asia-based think tanks and experts.
In early May I got the opportunity to experience Track II first hand when I attended the 32nd Asia Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur, with the support of the Centre for Strategic Studies. This year’s session focused on ‘Disruption: People. Technology. Power. Security’.
Gearing up for my first Track II event, I was looking forward to soaking up everything the experience had to offer. I knew it would push my boundaries both professionally and personally – a challenge I was pleased to take on.
I work at a university, supporting Pasifika development on campus while I complete my PhD study on China and New Zealand’s influence in the Pacific. It’s fair to say I was among the younger delegates at the roundtable. Generally, the panellists at the roundtable were not my demographic – although there were some younger female scholars talking to their areas of expertise, be it on women's issues and extremism, or cyberwarfare.
Discussions were robust. There are challenges in promoting constructive discussions on controversial topics especially when people intensely disagree. At times it felt as if there came a point where delegates did not want to push the boundary further.
However, it wasn’t always what was ‘on-stage’ that mattered. Networking opportunities were woven throughout the experience. This was such an important aspect of the forum because it was a space to have more in-depth conversations about the sessions and to build connections.
At times, networking can be a challenging endeavour. It can be anxiety producing but also incredibly fulfilling in two key ways.
On the one hand, you learn more about yourself – the way you interact with others, and the way you can be perceived by others.
As a young female in a male-dominated setting, I often wondered whether some males would find it difficult to connect with me. Additionally, as a New Zealand born Samoan, one thing that I had always grappled with was being in the presence of authority figures or people senior to me. Culturally, I was raised to be a certain way around people in more senior positions to myself, to show respect by observing rather than sharing my opinions as a newcomer to the environment. In a Western sense, this can be perceived as if I have little to contribute. It took me a little while to adjust. However, I felt increasingly confident as I got used to the environment and found common ground with people I was interacting with.
Foundation Honorary Adviser Thitinan Pongsudhirak (left), Foundation director of engagement and research Pip Mclachlan and Honorary Advisor Pavida Pananond
On the other hand, you also learn more about others, their perspectives and culture. With a diverse range of people represented from around the region, you also become accustomed to picking up on people’s cultural and social cues. Conversing with people from different countries was very enriching in understanding the context of some of the issues discussed from their perspective.
Upon reflecting on the Asia Pacific Roundtable, finding common ground within a situation was a key thread for me throughout this Track II experience.
Despite the complexity and diversity of issues within the region, having a shared understanding allowed for more constructive and robust discussions to occur. In addition, as a young researcher embarking on this new experience, the importance of finding common ground was important in valuing the prior knowledge that I brought to this space and in my own practice interacting and building connections with others.