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It’s who you know, not what you know

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Rattana LaoRattana Lao is a recipient of the Ananda Mahidol Scholarship. She has a doctorate in Comparative and International Education (Political Science) from Columbia University’s Teachers College and is currently a lecturer at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Learning Sciences and Education. Her 230-page book, A Critical Study of Thailand’s Higher Education Reforms: The Culture of Borrowing, published by Routledge, will be launched at Thammasat on Aug 18.

The 31-year-old spoke to Spectrum about Thailand’s “selective borrowing”, the value of controversial quality assessments in higher education and the patronage system.

I understand that your book is mainly based on your postgraduate thesis. Can you explain more?

My thesis was interested broadly in external forces such as globalisation, how these forces influence policymaking, and the state response. With that broad theoretical question, I looked at Thai education as a case study. I received the Tokyo Foundation scholarship to investigate this large theme. When I came back to Thailand to interview higher education policymakers, it became clear that quality assessments (QA) had become a contested issue. Everyone was talking about QA, so I became interested in what it was, and whether it has an effect on education quality.

I went to 12 universities in four regions to interview deans, rectors, academics and staff; all the policymakers. “Why not use it? It’s an international standard, everyone has it,” they would say. At first I thought their answers were very simple, but then I began to research the history of Thailand’s educational development.

What issues do you explore in the book, and how does it expand from your original thesis?

At Hong Kong University, I saw a call for a book proposal on critical studies of Asian education. It got me thinking I could maybe adopt my dissertation, so I took academic leave last year to write the book. The dissertation became 30% of the book. I also looked at different policies in higher education. I researched internationalisation and why our ranking is still so low. If we are copying everyone else, why are we still falling behind?

How is Thailand’s education sector influenced by the West?

Since the time of King Chulalongkorn, we’ve wanted to be like the West; to be like Oxford and Cambridge. Lots of our princes went to France and England 100 years ago and came back with the idea that higher learning should emulate the Western style. But it became clear we don’t just copy 100%; we selectively choose what we want. I call it selective borrowing.

For example, Thai education used to be in temples. When Western education came, Vajiravudh College sought to emulate English boarding schools, but the architecture was still Thai. Whether it’s worse or not is a different issue, the point is that it’s a half-hearted adoption.

We are so influenced by the West, but the Thai culture of patronage is so prevalent that the Western influence doesn’t matter at the end of the day. We want to have a better global ranking, but in the higher education sector you begin to see that Thai characteristics are still there in the networks that exist. Thainess is still very prevalent and that Thainess is a seniority culture, a patronage system, connections and cliques.

05844There is a perception among the Thai public that Ananda Mahidol recipients have the endorsement of the Thai elite. Is this true in your case?

I know that connections work in Thailand. During my interviews for the book, senior rectors and university policymakers would often say, “If you want a position at my university, contact me when you graduate.” I did not contact them because I believe the patronage system is killing Thailand and don’t want to be a hypocrite.

I applied to three Thai universities where I knew no one. The first sent me an email and said they would contact me if my qualifications were good enough. The second had put out an open call for a job. When I applied they said they were no longer looking for an applicant because they had someone else in mind. In the case of the third, everyone told me I would have to go and see two people if I wanted to work in this particular faculty. I applied without going to see anyone. What is the point of going to see these people if you have all the qualifications? Despite every reform that Thailand has tried to implement, the patronage system is embedded in every level of higher education to the point that modernity is a joke.

What does that mean?

The current situation is like a feudal system in the name of higher education. Maybe I’m really not good enough, but everyone told me that if I wanted to get a job, I’d have to speak to someone. Then what’s the point of having a degree? This kind of system discourages hard work, productivity and honesty. Once you get accepted, you become a luk nong, or junior, to that person, and you’re indebted for life. It’s disgusting.

My rejections show that even if you get a good scholarship, it doesn’t matter. What matters is who you know.

How does politics play a role in Thailand’s education system?

Politics is not just about national politics, elections and political parties, but it’s about power, and power exists everywhere in everyday life. In higher education, the powerful use their positions and authority against the powerless. And the powerless in this case are academics. Those who adapt to the system get ahead. Those who are in the lab and write academic papers might not necessarily be the ones rewarded.

The politics of higher education is about how rectors, deans and administrators use their positions to advance their agenda at the expense of academic freedom.

Progressive academics who question the status quo are less likely to get funded. For example, if you’re interested in democracy and the role of the state, funding agencies already know you’re going to criticise them. It’s not healthy for the production of knowledge and academic excellence.

It sounds like you have lost hope in Thailand’s educational system. Do we still have a chance to recover?

There is still some hope, but that hope is very dim. My six months of experience at Thammasat University has been self-evident in showing that the patronage system is ingrained at every level. But how can we expect education to change when education in itself is about connections, not meritocracy? Then what’s the incentive to learn?

I am not feeling hopeless but I am very discouraged. Six months in, the system has sapped a lot of my positive energy. We talk about international standards and rankings, but everyday work is full of nonsense. It’s all about who endorses your faculty, who is in your network, who you are bound to. That discourages the acquisition of knowledge and stifles the debate of ideas.

There has been a public movement against quality assessments in Thailand. Are they that bad?

There are some good parts to QAs. But the system that we have is too complicated. It requires you to do so much for so little. Quality assessments are not there for quality education.

Then what are they for?

They are there for bureaucracy. It’s all for having paperwork for paperwork’s sake. For example, how many papers you publish per year is quantity, not quality. Assessments are supposed to be a tool to assess whether you have quality or not. But Thai people do QA for QA’s sake. They think that if they do QA they have quality, which is not true. We’ve ended up paying so much attention to QA.

Should the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment — the core agency responsible for external quality assessments — be abolished?

No. But I believe we should abolish the law that enforces QA. The situation is that all universities have to have internal and external quality assessments under the Education Act. QA is too hard for new universities and too easy for universities such as Chulalongkorn. The majority of universities in Thailand struggle to meet the minimum requirements of QA. We should abolish the law, but Onesqa can still function and do QA for whoever wants it. Onesqa isn’t the problem. The problem is with the system.

What projects are you currently working on?

In 2011, I set up a group called “Unite Thailand”. It was based on the idea that colour in Thailand has been politicised. You can only wear red or yellow. I’m frustrated by the symbolism. You might be wearing the colour green today, for example, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily like the military. To assume that would be an over-simplification. Thai children use colours to have fun. Thai adults use colour to kill the nation.

Unite Thailand has held 14 camps for more than 2,000 students since 2011. In the beginning we wanted students to be free from political colours. Now we don’t really care about it and just want them to have fun.

(*) Amp Rattana Lao is a member of Advisory Board of Modern Diplomacy.

 

First published by Bangkok Post

Southeast Asia

Vietnamese PM Chinh visit to Japan: A new era of cyber, space and defence cooperation

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pham minh chinh

Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh visited Japan from November 22-25 and discussions about trade, investment, defence, cultural and enhancing political ties took place between the two leaders. The former prime minister of Japan Suga had visited Vietnam in October 2020, and it was his first visit to any foreign country. With the coming of Fumo Kishida new prime minister in Japan, Vietnamese Prime Minister thought it prudent to engage the new political leadership. When recently Kurt Campbell stated that India and Vietnam will be crucial in deciding the fate of Asia and the three countries namely India, Vietnam and Japan have been closely cooperating with one another because of two major factors. The three countries are in the periphery of China and have major stakes in the resolution of the South China Sea dispute. Second, these three economies are promising economies in Asia and are seen to be major harbingers of technology, economic growth and sustainable development. 

The visit of Vietnamese prime minister is primarily seen from the point of view of projecting the need for ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ and developing close cooperation between Vietnam and Japan. During the visit of Japanese defence minister to Vietnam last year several agreements have been signed between the two sides which included transfer of technology and defence trade between the two sides. Vietnam is facing a few challenges related to trade and investment, growing cases of Covid 19 pandemic, need for modernisation of its armed forces and realising the potential of the regional organisations such as ASEAN .In terms of developing necessary technical acumen for renewable energy sources and facilitating foreign direct investment from Japan were the major agendas for the visit of the Vietnamese Prime Minister. 

The Vietnamese Prime Minister visit was his first official visit to Japan. Vietnam is increasingly seen as a middle power which requires support and cooperation from Japanese in areas such as waste management, infrastructure development, developing technology parks, export processing zones and vocational training skills to emerge as one of the engines of economic growth in Southeast Asia. In fact, Japan was the only few countries in Asia with which Vietnam has developed air bubble agreement during COVID-19 to facilitate travel of passengers and businesspeople from the two countries. Given the fact that Vietnam is slowly opening its trade and investment and tourism sector it would be looking for countries in Europe and in Asia to spur development in the country. Japanese tourists are important incoming visitors for Vietnam because of their spending and booking high end resorts and hotels.  

Following the COP- 26 meeting which was held in London there have been huge expectations from the Asian countries to reduce their carbon footprints and look for other viable sources of energy. The visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister explored diverse issues related to politics, security, cultural interactions and development of human resources in Vietnam. The two defence ministers also signed aagreements related to transfer of technology and exports of Japanese defence equipment and weapons to Vietnam. Japan has already embarked on a policy to support littoral countries of South China Sea through patrol boats and fast attack crafts. 

One of the critical areas that Vietnam is looking for is the development of technology and scientific rigour within the country. In this context collaboration with Japanese scientific institutions and academic community would help Vietnam to develop skills and human resources to cater to the industrial revolution 4.0. Also, Vietnam is looking for developing expertise in areas such as machine learning, big data mining, artificial intelligence, underwater systems, developing sustainable development and energy resources in those South China Sea islands so that the soldiers can become self-sufficient in energy and clean water resources. Japan has been looking for alternate sources of investment and developing infrastructure in countries such as Vietnam Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam itself is emerging as a viable alternative to China in the wake of recurring cases of COVID-19 pandemic in China. Japanese investors and entrepreneurs are looking for relocating their businesses and investments. 

There is no denying of the fact that developments in South China Sea are of critical importance both for Vietnam and Japan, and it is expected that the two leaders discussed these issues in detail. The Chinese assertive activities in South China Sea have been deplored by Japan and other allied partners in the past. Vietnam is looking for cooperation with Japan in terms of submarine hunting capabilities and developing acumen for better management of human resources in defence sector. In terms of military cooperation between the two sides there is a lot of potential in terms of maritime surveillance aircraft, fast attack crafts, and coastal radar systems. Also, sonar systems and developing helicopter mounted surveillance systems would and has Vietnamese defence and surveillance capabilities. The two countries signed an agreement on space defence and cyber security. 

One of the important critical areas that the two countries discussed was related to the implementation of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and promoting intra regional trade so that better complementarities could be developed between the two sides. Another important forum where Japan and Vietnam are members is CPTPP and there is speculation that President Joe Biden might be interested in re-joining the grouping. Taiwan and China have expressed interest in joining it, but Japan is in favour of only Taiwan.  In such a context when the two countries are at the crossroads of economic integration and regional economic groupings, it is expected that the two leaders discussed necessary checks and balances so the trade interests of the two countries can be protected while enhancing the integration at the regional level. 

Vietnam is also seen as a probable candidate for the Quad Plus initiative and Japan has been very insistent on engaging the country in a more proactive way. India, Vietnam and Japan could be one trilateral which will bring in a large market, Strong technology fundamentals, unique cultural identities and common strategic concerns acts as glue between the three countries. The development of Vietnam and Japan ties would reconfigure Asian identity and future.      

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ASEAN’s prospects in 2022 under Cambodian Chairmanship

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Exactly a decade later Cambodia faces the big question that whether the memory of the past can be erased, given the fact that during the last ASEAN meeting in Cambodia in 2012 the ASEAN communiqué was not released because of strong differences on the issue of South China Sea among various ASEAN claimant states. In the year 2021 after the ASEAN chairmanship of Brunei, Cambodia assumed the charge as the chairman of ASEAN for next year and there are expectations among the ASEAN member countries regarding the future course of action of the organization as such. During the 2021 ASEAN summit there were number of issues which were raised pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, return of democracy in Myanmar, participation of dialogue partners in reviving trade and investment in the region, and realizing the blueprint for ASEAN communities.

During the year 2021 the ASEAN meeting’s theme was “we care, we prepared, we prosper”, and the stress was on regaining the ASEAN community and working on harmonious region with more focus on people. The meeting reflected the desire of the people for maintaining the regional organization’s momentum within the ASEAN and beyond. During this year’s meetings (38th and 39th) the stress was on economic recovery and addressing the aftereffects of COVID-19 pandemic. There was much stress regarding the regional organization’s resilience, peace, security, and social progress. In fact, most of the member countries tried to work on strengthening the ASEAN’s capacities and working on solutions in the wake of economic slowdown because of the pandemic.


Under the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 the stress was on realizing the targets which are been set in the past and this year took note of the achievements in the last decade. The stress was on implementing the provisions of the ASEAN charter and improve the efficiency of the regional organization. Time and again it has been stated that ASEAN centrality is critical for peace and security in the region and therefore dialogue partners should make extra effort to recognize provisions of Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in the current context. The cohesiveness of the organization which was stimulated under the Vietnam chairmanship in 2020 gained support and it is expected that Vietnam whatever was required to support the agenda for future.

The mid-term review of the ASEAN community blueprints, and ASEAN agenda would progress further during Summit in Cambodia in 2022. However, the ASEAN’s Cambodian Summit would be seen with apprehension given the fact that Hun Sen has stated that he would go that extra distance so that the ASEAN summit meetings are held peacefully and there are no domestic protests during that time against ruling party. This year’s ASEAN meeting already took note of the developments in Myanmar and raised apprehensions about the human right violations in the country and the atrocities which have been committed against the pro-democracy protesters.The dialogue partners have also raised concerns regarding developments in Myanmar. In such a context it would be interesting to note how Cambodia manages the domestic upheavals as well as demands from China which in the past has dictated terms to Cambodia on various issues which concern China. One issue which ASEAN is facing is the increasing Chinese assertion in the contested waters of South China Sea. As it has seen in the past the criticism of China was not accepted by the Cambodian Prime minister Hun Sen and therefore the issue of politics and security would shadow ASEAN unity and centrality.


One of the important things which have been achieved by Cambodia in the past was the adoption of the Declaration of Code of Conduct of Parties (DOC) in South China Sea in the year 2002. It would be two decades when the negotiations related to South China Sea have taken place and there is no sign of adoption of Code of Conduct in the contested waters. More importantly, the global community will be looking at the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh because it will facilitate better trade and investment opportunities for the three countries namely Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. This region is also seen as a potent competitor against China for shifting of select production and manufacturing facilities to this region. However, Cambodia is seen as increasingly getting into China’s strategic orbit because of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the development of the Ream naval base by the Chinese PLA. Even US investment in Cambodia is suffering because of increased influence of China in Cambodia ‘s political apparatus.


Cambodia ASEAN Summit 2022 is expected to be in person summit and there is attendance likely to be of all the other member states and the dialogue partners as well. The 2022 ASEAN summit meeting would be seen as a precursor to other developments in the  region, particularly in the context of managing pandemics, promoting inter-ASEAN trade and investment, encouraging people to people connectivity, and also undertaking efforts to build digital and financial infrastructure in the region. The region itself is facing various challenges, particularly in the context of adopting measures required for realization of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and reducing tariffs and non-tariff barriers among the signatory countries. Therefore, in the year 2022, the summit at Phnom Penh might see the utility of new alliances such as AUKUS and how Cambodia responses to the request of United Kingdom to be the dialogue partner of the organization.

Also, as it has been seen in the year 2016 Cambodia hindered any reference to Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) judgment in favour of Philippines while entertaining Chinese request in this regard. The critical security challenges that the organization faces would again get reflected during the Cambodian Summit and it would be interesting to note whether Cambodia will come out of Chinese shadow and release the joint statement which was missing during the last Cambodia Summit. Invariably, it would also pave the way for ASEAN to emerge as a formidable organization or  be relegated just as a ‘talk shop’. 

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Green Volunteering ASEAN: Our common future

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Volunteerism is the voice of the people put into action.  These actions shape and mold the present into a future of which we can all be proud.“ — Helen Dyer

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘volunteerism’ as an act in which a person voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service. People who volunteer in non-profit organizations, for example, are willing to offer their personal services, oftentimes expecting nothing in return. Taking it a step further, what is ‘green volunteering’?

Green volunteering refers to a range of activities which include environmental monitoring, ecological restoration, and educating others about the natural environment. It can come in three forms: practical, fundraising, and administrative.

Practical green volunteering involves environmental volunteers who are involved in habitat management, for example, such as vegetation cutting or removal of invasive species. Fundraising green volunteering involves organizations that raise funds for a particular environmental cause. Finally, administrative green volunteering refers to volunteers who offer their skills and expertise in terms of legal support and public relations, to name a few. In other words, there are many types of green volunteering initiatives that you can take on today.

In the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), which consists of 10 member states, there are plenty of green volunteering initiatives that one can participate in. For instance, in Bali, Indonesia you can become a reef conservation supporter wherein you will work with other volunteers and local communities to restore and protect Bali’s coral reef ecosystems. Meanwhile, in Thailand, you can volunteer in an Elephant Sanctuary and help provide refuge to domesticated elephants that have been rescued from a life of working in zoos or other establishments. Finally, you can also do conservation work in the island of Palawan in the Philippines, wherein you will assist in the restoration of a mangrove swamp.

As reports have shown, several countries in the ASEAN will be among the most to be most significantly impacted by the climate crisis. Rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, and declining biodiversity are just a few environmental issues that ASEAN countries are facing. On a bright side, we are also seeing many opportunities when it comes to a sustainable energy transition and sustainable finance, to name a few. It is, indeed, a big set of challenges and opportunities we are facing, which is why we need different people and organizations to work together. Green volunteering in the ASEAN is one great way to contribute towards the sustainability agenda.

Clearly, there are many opportunities to choose from in green volunteering in the ASEAN. As Helen Dyer highlighted, volunteerism is the voice of people put into action. As the climate crisis intensifies across the world, we need to translate our voices into action. One way to do this is by participating in green volunteering work.

International Volunteering Day 2021

The International Volunteering Day (IVD) 2021 is coming this December 5, and what better way to celebrate it by highlighting the initiatives taking place across the globe during the pandemic. In 2020, the United Nations (UN) reported that it had 9,459 volunteers hosted by various UN entities. These partners come from 100 different professions, 158 countries of assignment, and served with 60 UN partners worldwide. The UN also received a total of 68,173 online volunteer applications. Despite the impact of the pandemic, this did not stop the volunteers from offering their services.

The theme of IVD 2021 is “Volunteer now for our common future,” which aims to inspire people, whether they are decision makers or citizens, to take action for people and the planet. As IVD 2021 draws near, the ASEAN youth and young professionals are called on to take action and participate in green volunteering across the region.

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