Interview #76 — Padmini Sebastian

By Devana Senanayake


Padmini Sebastian OAM was born in Sri Lanka and arrived in Australia under the refugee program in the 1980s.  She is interested in the role culture can play in creating dynamic, open and friendly communities.

She led the award-winning Melbourne Immigration Museum as General Manager. Currently, she is the Civic and Community Engagement Director at the University of Melbourne, a judge at the Melbourne Awards and is on the Board of Directors for the Islamic Museum of Australia. For her service to multiculturalism and community, she has received a Medal of the Order of Australia.

Padmini spoke to us about immigration, taking initiative, and her career in arts and cultural management.  


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Like me, you are from a Sri Lankan background. Did you family influence your love for arts and culture?
For me, its been a really interesting journey because growing up in Sri Lanka, I was completely immersed in the arts. We are a Sri Lankan family with a Tamil heritage. My father was a fan of Tamil films in Sri Lanka. He named me after one of his favourite South Indian actresses, a woman called Padmini Ramachandran. When I was two or three years old and, he took me to a film that had a lot of baratanatyam in it and I came home and I started dancing.

When I was three they put me into baratanatyam classes in Colombo and it was the beginning of my immersion in culture. My mother acted in more Western plays, she used to do a lot of Shakespearean plays in Sri Lanka. There’s a thespian cultural sensibility in my family. Then like all children do I learned piano. I got into Western study at the same time as studying dance. After the 1983 riots when we came to Australia, I was really interested in continuing my connection to my culture.

I did a few classes with Dr. Chandrabhanu who was teaching here at Melbourne at this time. So I dabbled in a bit of theatre when I did years 11 and 12. Then at university, I think I started in 1987, I joined Guild Theatre and Guild Dance. I continued that dance aspect while I was here and through that I progressed a career in the arts which was unusual.

As a term, ‘people of colour’ is very general, and can often hide diversity inside non-Western, non-White countries. Your family unit is a small hub of diversity, right?
Our ethnicity was Tamil. My father came from Batticaloa in the East and my mother was mixed.  She had a Tamil father from Jaffna who was Anglican (converted by the missionaries) and my grandmother was Singhalese, Burgher and English.

I always find it interesting because my parents, in an ecumenical way, got us to study Singhalese. While we identified as Tamil, we were affected by the riots in 1983—our house was burned and we had to go into hiding; we grew up in a very culturally diverse space. We studied Singhalese and were made aware of the diversity of language, religion and ethnicity.

…the richness of diversity has not been used as an asset. This is a problem that we face around the world—we face it here in Australia, because the extraordinary wealth of our indigenous heritage and spirit that can distinguish us here is not valued.


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 Dr. Ameer Ali’s article for the Colombo Telegraph, Sri Lanka’s Grand Failure, considers the mismanagement of Sri Lanka’s rich cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. Can you speak to this?

Well, the thing is the minorities or the diversities, as I prefer to call it, have given it that richness. In Sri Lanka, those beautiful regional distinctions: you have Muslims; and the diversity of Tamils whether you come from the East or the North; some Indian; some Chinese; the richness of diversity has not been used as an asset. This is a problem that we face around the world—we face it here in Australia because the extraordinary wealth of our indigenous heritage and spirit that can distinguish us here is not valued.

So it’s hard. I’m constantly asking the question: Why are human beings the way we are? I think I have made sure: I am who I am. I bring to the table what I genuinely can bring to the table; it is shaped by my identity which has a diverse trajectory. As I spent my seminal years growing up in a Sri Lankan context, that’s very much who I am and how I express myself. It is interesting how strong that influence that is, yes I have spent more time in Australia but I think the foundation of who I am, I still find myself being that person.

Let’s talk about the unique position of gender in Sri Lanka. Sexism is a problem. Gender-based violence and domestic violence is a problem. The patriarchy is still intact and strongly so. Yet women have occupied leadership roles in careers for decades, and Sri Lanka is famous for having the first female prime minister in the world. Where you influenced by your culture and family to pursue leadership roles?  

My grandmother was a teacher, involved in various not-for-profit groups and supporting community. My mother was also a teacher. My mother’s sister joined the diplomatic corps and was a senior diplomat representing the family. I grew up in a period where Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the prime minster of Sri Lanka—I was growing up in an environment with women leaders around me. That influenced me a great deal.

In school, the two mediums of instructions were either in Singhalese or Tamil. We wouldn’t study in English, though English was basically our second language. In the school, if you were in the Singhalese stream you didn’t really interact with your peers in the Tamil stream, and vice versa. I found it really complex because I was studying baratanatyam, I really wanted to be part of the Tamil concerts but because I was part of the Singhalese stream, I couldn’t be part of the them. This was a very strange kind of divisiveness; there was a lot of discrimination in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways in the community towards ethnic and religious diversity.

I must have been twelve. I said ‘Hey, I’ll organise a concert that will include my classmates from the Tamil and Singhalese stream’. I’m still thinking, gosh, how did that happen.

I think there was this sense of taking initiative. My parents gave me a sense of independence, they did not interfere. I grew up in a family where I was given the license to be independent and shape my own path. I was supported and given a lot of love. I have a strong ethos around equality of participation, access; and I also like the idea of sense of fairness as well.

Migration is seen as a non-asset or a burden. Yet if you think about it, people have come from all over the world and have contributed to who we are today.


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 Recently Queensland senator Fraser Anning called for a return to the White Australia policy as a ‘final solution to the immigration problem’. This speech targeted Muslims and those ‘from the third world’. What are your thoughts about this?

We are in political and leadership environment today where the messages are divisive. There isn’t a leadership conversation that promotes respect and social cohesion–there just isn’t. Migration is seen as a non-asset or a burden. Yet if you think about it, people have come from all over the world and have contributed to who we are today.

I found Anning’s speech to be coloured by a deep-rooted insecurity. Why do you think people are so scared of immigration?
I think the fear of the unknown, and of difference, is what has always created xenophobia. There’s also power and control: How does power manifest? It’s the fear of loss of control, and fear of the unknown. So what Australia is facing is this massive diversity it has never seen before. The messaging around the South Sudanese communities is an election platform. ‘Stop the Boats’ is about using fear as a political platform.

It’s a long journey; communities are now having to mobilise and build from the ground up. That’s the critical thing. We need to come together collectively and build from the group up. That takes time.

What are your thoughts about the wave of anti-migration on an international level?
There are 65 million people in this world who are displaced. It is a global issue; many of the so-called developed countries are party to this. So, we are responsible. It is the global context we live in. We can’t just close our borders; that’s not the solution! We are not having a constructive global and local conversation. We are not dealing with migration and dealing with it in a constructive way.

After WWII, this country had the greatest number of displaced people who migrated to Australia—who then continued to contribute to our society. Diversity is not without its challenges. The more people you have living in a country, the more challenges we have to face. We have to consider it in the context of new and different policies. I think by having a divisive attitude and approach, where we are shutting down the conversations, which is effectively my opinion in what is happening and it is dividing society. You are fostering a lack of respect for diversity. You are fostering racism.

It’s complex, it’s not easy. But: Let’s recognise it! Let’s acknowledge it! I think it’s not about being pro- or anti-migration. Migration is our reality. People are being displaced in their own countries. People are being made stateless in greater in numbers in India, in Mynamar, in Sri Lanka.

I think the fear of the unknown, and of difference, is what has always created xenophobia.

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Tim Soutphommasane, the ex-Race Discrimination Commissioner for the Human Rights Commission, conducted a study and found Australia’s Top 100 ASX listed companies to be run by men of Anglo-Celtic and European background. He also found an alarming trend that to succeed in Australia’s corporate sector, men kept quiet, had an Australian accent and belonged to a sports club. Do you have any advice for any young people of colour trying to navigate the arts and cultural management sector?  

I would like to say that the arts and cultural space and the not-for-profit are not necessarily different to the corporate world. In arts and cultural [spaces] even today, we don’t see a lot of diversity, and in particular, women of colour I would say in leadership roles. So, I have thought about that a lot.

At the start, I had a mind to either be a journalist or to work in the diplomatic corps, building relationships internationally and globally. I sat the DFAT exam and didn’t pass. They were other areas I was interested in and spoke to people, built relationships, had mentors along the way.

If there is a role I am interested in I will pursue it. It’s hard sometimes because you have to build up the confidence and to build those relationships. Its hard because sometimes people are open and will speak to you and you can explore career opportunities and other times you can’t. It takes time to build those relationships. You have to be gently persistent and persuasive. I think that this combination of building relationships, networking and not being dissuaded by not being given opportunities and interviews is something that I’ve had to do.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been fortunate because the people that have interviewed me have seen my potential, maybe, and have given me the opportunity. That’s really important.

Perhaps the other part of it is, maybe, not having an accent helped. People have perceptions if you speak in a particular way, some of those may have been overcome because I didn’t sound different but I did look different. I speak very simply and plainly, so sometimes I don’t fit in some environments either but I have managed to negotiate and navigate that.

Every single one of us can make a difference to breaking down cultural and racial barriers. If you can do that and expose what a brown person can or cannot do by being in the room; by participating in discussions and by exploring non-traditional opportunities then one can change those perceptions. It’s not straightforward. We have a long way to go.

Who are you listening to?
I appreciate the sound, craft and composition of Gill Scott Heron, Aretha Franklin and Elis Regina. I am a fan of Lou Reed, Blixa Bargeld and Einstürzende Neubauten and The Cure. 

 The eclectic and beautiful music of Jodie Savall, Montserrat Figueras, Arianna Savall, Ferran Savall and Savall’s ensemble Hespèrion XX expresses the merging and influences of cultures and the possibilities for reconciliation. 

What are you reading?

 Haruki Marakami’s I Want To Talk About Running. I am also reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing.

 And—I think Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country is a really important book. It’s about the stories of Australia and its beautifully written. Its easy to read. I’m really interested in an inclusive conversation that looks at our First People’s heritage, our broader diversity and where we are at today in a more holistic way. We are talking about the indigenous communities facing greater challenges; and conversations around racism and community are important for broader communities.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
For me, I am somebody who has greatly benefited from my Sri Lankan upbringing and heritage to the extraordinary opportunities and relationships I have had in Australia, as well as my constant interest in getting to know and understand people and their lives globally as I travel. People talk about how you live in and are shaped by the multiple worlds you inhabit.

After WWII, this country had the greatest number of displaced people who migrated to Australia—who then continued to contribute to our society.


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Interview by Devana Senanayake
Photographs by Leah Jing

2, InterviewLeah McIntosh