Whilst most celebrations for South Asians starting towards the middle of the month, QandA and Tony Jones may have given people all over Australia an early surprise. In late 2018 ABC placed a pitch to its viewers to be ‘Peoples Panelist’ alongside its usual array of special guests, mainly politicians, academics, activist, authors and the odd celebrity.
On the 1st of April 2019, audiences across Australia were introduced to a young woman, proudly dressed in traditional Desi attire. She wasn’t imported from Bollywood as nor she star Bend it like Beckham, her name is Lakshmi Logathassan and she was very much (our) Peoples Panelist. Desi Australia caught up with Lakshmi for an exclusive interview.
1) ‘ Theeyinal Sutta Pun Ullarum, Araathe Naavinal Sutta Vadu’, these are the first words of Tamil that have been spoken on ABC’s QandA. It’s perhaps one of the first time audiences they had seen a female panelist dress in Indian traditional attire. What motivated you to present yourself in such a way and what message do you feel it delivers?
I’m so overwhelmed with how generous people have been with their feedback and encouragement. Going into the show, my aim was to share my thoughts and ideas as honestly and openly as possible. Wearing a saree and referencing Tamil philosophy came naturally – it is my reality and it is part of what inspires and informs my thinking and analysis of contemporary issues. I hadn’t given too much thought to how people would connect, or if they would connect at all, but I am deeply humbled that people have reacted positively and that it has prompted a discussion.
I think this response from audiences speaks a lot to the argument about having Australia’s multicultural reality reflected in our media. True diversity is not just about the colour of your skin, it’s about different ideas and different viewpoints and how incorporating these aspects bring a rich roundedness to public discourse.
2) Do you feel that at times our leaders are often out of touch with their communities?
Good leaders bring out the best in their people, listen carefully enough to gauge the pulse of their community and ultimately, work towards shaping a better future for all. People will always have different opinions about the best way to do things, but I think the general consensus is our world could do with more good leaders.
At the moment, Australia’s leaders aren’t doing a good job of reflecting the sheer breadth of stories that define the Australian experience. As the song goes, “We are one, but we are many”. Every person across this nation carries an incredible wealth of knowledge, history and culture. Our First Nations people more so than anyone else. By choosing to absorb and celebrate only a sliver of the wealth that we each bring, we are all missing out.
I was born in Auburn Hospital and grew up in Auburn for almost 15 years before moving further west during my final years of high school. Growing up in Western Sydney opened my eyes to many of the incredible life experiences that shape our nation. I look forward to a time where, as a nation, we are confident enough to explore culture and traditions beyond mere food and attire, and into thoughts and ideas so that we broaden the ideas bank of Australia.
3) Growing up in Western Sydney, from a Sri Lankan Tamil background. What impact if any did your upbringing have in your decision to pursue Law?
The persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka influenced my decision to pursue law in a big way. I have seen first-hand the devastating effects that discriminatory laws can have on a people, their culture and history. Legal systems reflect the values and principles that underpin a society; it provides a framework of what we consider to be acceptable and unacceptable forms of behaviour.
In democratic countries, like Sri Lanka and Australia, citizens have the immense responsibility of electing their lawmakers. When those lawmakers get it wrong, we have the responsibility to make that known. To remain silent in the face of discriminatory laws is to accept that those laws are right. We all need to own our democratic responsibility in shaping our society and keeping our lawmakers accountable, especially with regards to the treatment of the most vulnerable members of our society.
4) As an 18-year-old, you were named the NSW Young Woman of the Year (2014), how did this come about and what advice would you have for young South Asian Women of the future?
I was awarded NSW Young Woman of the Year in recognition of my non-profit, The Laptop Project. All four 2014 finalists are such society-minded, tuned-in young women and, to this day, I’m so proud to have shared that experience with them.
A big influence on me has been that I grew up around people who were gap-fillers. Whether it is my family, friends or local community, I was surrounded by empathetic people who were receptive to social issues, identified gaps and were proactive in developing solutions. The Laptop Project came about because we identified a gap, found a solution and just went about building a bridge between the two.
But this is just one pathway to making positive impacts. I’ve discovered that the key is to recognise that society places no expectation on you of who you need to be or what you need to look like. In fact, we all have a social responsibility to live in a way that is a honest expression of who we are; to find what is important to us, to work towards that and, by doing so, makes a positive contribution to our society. It’s not easy, but once you unshackle yourself from perceived social expectations, life is fun.
5) Overall, how was your experience on QandA as People’s Panelist? How did this come about and what have you talent back from this experience?
Last year, the QandA team invited people to apply to be a People’s Panelist. Applicants were asked to submit a sixty second online pitch video. Since then, there have been a number of panels featuring People’s Panelists and, overwhelmingly, they’ve been outstanding voices representing a range of ideas.
The experience was incredible. The biggest takeaway for me is that the ABC is indeed an organisation we can all be so proud of. Every person I interacted with was so kind and professional. It is so refreshing to interact with people who are at the top of their game and, at the same time, so generous and open with their skill, knowledge and experiences. They genuinely believed in my capacity to contribute and that was empowering. For me, it was a lesson that in work and in life, empathy and success feed off each other, and one cannot truly exist without the other.
6) In 2020, it is estimated that 1 in 20 Australian’s will be of South Asian heritage. What impact do you think this will have on Australian society and more importantly do you feel it is important to maintain our cultural ties to the Subcontinent?
Here in Australia, we live on the land of one of the world’s oldest cultures. As a nation, we have yet to even scratch the surface of understanding how our First Nations people lived on this land. We barely understand the values that underpinned their way of life, the knowledge that propelled them forward, or the leaders and innovators that shaped their societies. We are oblivious to how privileged we are to live on their land and walk their tracks. There is a grave injustice in that ignorance.
In my view, for me to ignore or dismiss my Tamil culture and heritage would be equally unjust. To be born in the Tamil lineage of Thiruvalluvar, Avvaiyar, and Mahaakavi Bharathi is inspiring – it informs my perspective and provides a grounding force for the kind of contributions I want to make in society. Each of us are a reflection of those who came before us; millennia of culture, language, history and tradition. That doesn’t vanish. It is an inherent part of who we are. It only takes a few questions to discover those treasures hidden within us. If we start tapping into that resource, the creative solutions we can contribute to Australia are boundless.
7) Since your debut on ABC’s QandA, (apart from the fan mail), has much changed and what can we expect from Lakshmi Logathassan in the future? Perhaps a name on ballot forms someday?
My QandA experience has shown me how supportive and wonderful people can be. I am so encouraged and I feel a great sense of responsibility to act and think with greater social awareness. Nothing has changed in terms of what I wish to pursue and what interests me. I’ve always been deeply interested in law and policy, and motivated by fairness, justice and social equity. That will remain. But now, I have a strengthened resolve to do better.