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It’s who you know, not what you know

MD Staff

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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

France returns to Laos

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The geographical location of Laos, a small landlocked state surrounded by China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, has made it imperative for this country to pursue a well-balanced multi-faceted foreign policy that hinges on the development of a mobile system of economic and political counterbalances.

Regional integration is key to the economic development of Laos. A major integration mechanism is ASEAN, of which Laos has been a member since 1997. 99% of Laos’ residents believe that their country’s membership in this organization yields tangible economic benefits; 92.5% say it has improved their personal financial standing.

As a member of ASEAN, Laos is committed to developing relations with China, Thailand and Vietnam but pursues a preferential policy as regards each of them.

China remains number one investor in the Laotian economy ($ 8.5 billion) with the bulk of the finances channeled into the mining, transport infrastructure and energy sectors. In 2016, trade turnover between the two countries reached $ 2 billion , a significant amount for Laos with its less than 7 million population. The largest Chinese-Lao project is the railway from Kunming Province (PRC) to Laotian capital, Vientiane. China is ready to inject more than $ 6 billion in the project

Meanwhile, Laos has been stepping up cooperation with Vietnam, which maintains a wait and see position in relation to China. Laos views Vietnam as a political and ideological counterweight to China. Cultural ties with Vietnam serve as an additional means of preventing the transformation of Beijing’s economic influence into the ideological one. Members of the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party of Laos receive training in Vietnam.

With a view to diversify foreign economic and foreign policy relations, Laos is developing contacts with France, whose colony it used to be in the past. Paris is seen as a remote neighbor of Laos, a partner in the economic and cultural spheres. Since 1991 Laos has been a member of the international organization for the cooperation of the francophone states “Francophone”. According to the French Embassy in Vientiane, the number of Laotians who speak French amounts to 3% and has been increasing over the past 12 years.

Laos is home to two branches of the Institut Francais du Laos (IFL) – an organization that promotes the French language and culture abroad; the French language is on the curriculum of three of the country’s five universities. In March 2018, Laos was visited by leaders of “Francophone”, and in May 2018 – by representatives of the Francophone University Agency. The official mission of the latter is to create a new French-language communication and educational space. The visits resulted in the signing of agreements on further cooperation with both organizations.

The period that saw a catastrophic fall in the demand for the French language in Laos since the mid-1970s is coming to an end. Nevertheless, the Lao Ministry of Education has designated English as a compulsory subject in schools for the 2019 academic year. The decision was prompted by the currently prevailing position of English worldwide and Vientiane’s intention to develop economic ties not only with the Francophone, but also with the Anglosphere.

Along with the cultural influence, France is trying to build up its economic presence in Laos. In May 2018, a French delegation led by French Ambassador Claudine Ledo visited a special economic zone in the province of Savannakhet to examine the prospects for French investment. For Laos, France is the ninth largest trading partner accounting for only 0.2% of the Lao market but it holds top position among non-Asian countries in the volume of investment.

Trade turnover between Laos and France has been fluctuating in recent years between $ 34 and $73 billion. France is prepared to invest in the Lao economy but the volume of investment is determined by the extent of Vientiane’s openness to foreign investment flows and the ability of the Lao economy to ‘digest’ them.

The year 2019 will mark greater cooperation within ASEAN for Laos. Last year, economic issues within ASEAN prevailed over political ones in connection with trade conflicts between the United States, the European Union and the People’s Republic of China. ASEAN countries are planning to launch the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership program (RCEP).

If the program is fulfilled, it will become the largest trade agreement in the world. The cumulative GDP of the countries participating in it makes up 25% of the global GDP, the population accounts for 45%, and the trade turnover amounts to 30% (5). Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea may all be attracted to the program. This will provide Vientiane with more opportunities to diversify foreign economic relations amid China’s growing financial presence in Southeast Asia.

France was the first European country to sign a partnership agreement with ASEAN. Paris regards this organization as key to its policy in the Indo-Pacific region and a major economic partner. The volume of French investments in the ASEAN economy in 2017 reached € 16 billion. France’s share in the ASEAN market is 1.6%. This figure has not changed for ten years.

Paris aims to give cooperation with ASEAN a new impetus, which will impart more momentum to French-Lao relations.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Southeast Asia

On Refugees… And Myanmar: It’s Not Just The Rohingya

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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… And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring; Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,  Of my heart too sad to sing.  — Paul Laurence Dunbar

The world now has more refugees than at any time since after WW2, more than the population of Britain.  They are often the consequence of wars usually instigated by great powers directly or through proxies.  Civil strife accompanied by the demonization of minorities, killing and expulsion is another reason.  Such is the story of the Rohingya in Burma, or Myanmar as it now likes to be known.

It is a country with the river Irrawaddy as a central artery.  Bordering it is the heartland, peopled by the Bamar who make up 68 percent of the population and are Buddhist.  The Rohingya are Muslim, look different and have lived in Rakhine state for at least five centuries.  During WW2 they supported the British while the Buddhist Burmese supported the Japanese, their coreligionists.  It brought lasting enmity.  After years of propaganda and vilification, the Rohingya were stripped of citizenship.  Not unlike Nazi Germany targeting Jewish people, new restrictive laws curtailed liberties, marriage rights, even children — limited to two.  The vilification turned most neighboring Buddhist villages against the Rohingya, and those attacking and burning their villages were often these neighbors when not the military.

In this latest violence, 90 percent of the Rohingyas were driven out and about three-quarters of a million sought refuge across the border in Bangladesh.  The story does not end with the Rohingya for there are other threatened minorities in Burma occupying the periphery in the north and south:

In northern Shan state, a simmering conflict with the Taang National Liberation Army dating back to 1963 has displaced 300,000.  The army emboldened by the relatively meek response to the assault on the Rohingyas have intensified their efforts also against the ethnic Kokang’s  Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.  The consequence is an addition to the tens of thousands that had streamed from earlier conflicts over the border into China.  Also in the north the largely Christian Kachin minority formed the Kachin Independence Army to defend their villages.   The ongoing conflict has displaced more than 135,000 internally.  And in the south the conflict with the Karen (Buddhist, Animist and 15 percent Christian) resulted in over 100,000 refugees … this time in Thailand, plus a 100,000 diaspora to the rest of the world including some 65,000 in the US.  Myanmar’s perverse antipathy towards all its minorities makes a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi, its leader.  Is meaningful censure an answer, or is innate tribalism an unconquerable primitive amygdala response?

The top five refugee hosting countries might also come as a surprise.  Amid all the news of Angela Merkel’s generous offer to accept everyone entering her country, Germany is not one of them.  Shortly thereafter her party lost by-elections and she is departing.  The actual figures are Turkey (3.5 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million) and Iran (0.98 million).  The chaos in countries adjoining them (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia) explains why, and the great power with a finger in each pie, when not actually baking it, is also not difficult to discern.

Imagine being forced to flee with just the clothes on your back or just a bag.  A word here also for the people who had to do just that to escape wildfires.  They all have our heartfelt sympathy, often taking a concrete form through donations to help.  A happy new year to everyone and a better one for the unfortunate among us.  We can try to make it so.

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Southeast Asia

In Thailand, Mahathir offers a hypocritical take on ASEAN unity

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“The stability and prosperity of our region,” Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad claimed earlier this week, “rely heavily on a united and integrated ASEAN.” The call for regional unity came as Malaysia’s prime minister was conferred an honorary doctorate in Thailand in the field of social leadership, entrepreneurship and politics, an occasion that marked Mahathir’s second visit to the country since winning a landmark election in May this year. His earlier visit saw him pledge to facilitate peace in the southern border provinces of Thailand amid a persistent separatist insurgency.

While his speech may have been stirring, Mahathir’s grandiose vision of a more unified ASEAN community does not extend to his own government’s policies, at least judging by the escalating border dispute Putrajaya has ignited in recent weeks with neighbouring Singapore. The same Mahathir that called for regional unity in Thailand is refusing to remove ships from disputed waters, while a senior member of his party threatened Singapore with “pain by a thousand cuts”. The provocative language harkens back to the long and tense relationship between the two countries since their 1965 split, with boundary issues typically flaring up in parallel with domestic politics.

This latest dispute straddles two sets of issues. On the maritime side, Malaysia’s October claim to extended limits of the Johor Bahru port has been rejected by Singapore on the grounds that the new boundaries exceed previous claims. In terms of airspace, Malaysia has voiced opposition to the Instrument Landing System (ILS), an assisted navigational aviation facility for Seletar Airport. Malaysia protests the system’s implementation on the grounds that it infringes on national sovereignty and creates adverse impacts on flight paths and shipping in Pasir Gudang.

Mahathir’s renewed aggression toward Singapore marks a notable about-face from predecessor NajibRazak’s efforts to build stronger ties between Malaysia and the city-state. Najib sought to increase mutual trust through cross-border infrastructure and education projects. “We certainly do not want to return to the era of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric between our two countries,” he declared earlier this year in a barely-veiled barb at Mahathir’s preceding stint in office. “It was an era that we want to forget.”

That attitude was echoed by international observers, who held high hopes for bilateral relations upon Mahathir’s election as PM in May despite his widely-known frosty attitude towards Singapore. A few months in, those hopes have given way to somber disillusionment. The tensions of the past several weeks have revived uncomfortable memories of cross-causeway relations during Mahathir’s first stint in power, when he ruled Malaysia with an iron fist from 1981 to 2003.

One focal point of tensions is Mahathir’s so-called 2001 “crooked bridge” plan, designed to replace the causeway linking the two countries with a bridge to allow ships to cross the Johor Strait. Singapore refused to back the project, declaring the bridge unnecessary as long as the causeway was in good condition. Mahathir’s insistence on building Malaysia’s end of the bridge, and more recent attempts to revive project discussions, have confirmed fears that his return to power would revive old issues previously laid to rest.

It’s difficult to determine exactly why Mahathir is so blatantly after confrontation with Singapore. Two main theories have emerged to explain the PM’s enmity towards Malaysia’s tiny neighbour. According to the first theory, the idiosyncratic Mahathir holds a grudge from his university days in Singapore, where he faced anti-Malay prejudice and condescension from Singaporeans.

Mahathir does indeed have a history of holding grudges. Long before the Seletar airport issue and the revival of the Johor Strait bridge project, Mahathir had one-time protégé Anwar Ibrahim thrown in jail on trumped up sodomy charges after they disagreed over financial policy in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Anwar, who has since re-emerged as a critical political ally for Mahathir, was just one of a long list of political opponents to suffer similar fates during Mahathir’s first tenure.

That trend has carried over into the premier’s second term. Having already spoken at length of his soured impression of successor Abdullah Badawi, the newly reinstated leader is now going after predecessor Najib. Arrested in July in connection with the billion-dollar corruption scandal surrounding state investment fund 1MDB, Malaysia has also filed criminal charges against Goldman Sachs for its involvement in the embezzlement of large sums of money. The unfolding case against Najib is being held up as a litmus test of Mahathir’s commitment to justice. The supposedly “bitter” Mahathir is unlikely to disappoint.

The second theory, however, may offer a more straightforward explanation. It suggests Mahathir is using this latest spat with Singapore as a means of drawing attention away from domestic problems. A Nikkei Asian Review report released earlier this year held Mahathir’s government responsible for a rapidly declining ringgit, with the new administration lacking in substantial new economic policies and failing to curb capital outflow.

Mahathir’s economic woes are compounded by rising concerns over Malaysia’s ballooning debt. In the wake of the 1MDB scandal, realizations that government debt exceeds RM1 trillion – more than $238 billion – are ringing national alarm bells. The benchmark FTSE Bursa Malaysia Kuala Lumpur Composite Index has fallen nearly ten percent since Mahathir took office.

Amid rising debt, dubious economic policies, and broken election promises, Mahathir’s comments in Thailand earlier this week belied what could very well be a conscious strategy of exploiting regional tensions to maintain domestic control. While ASEAN unity almost certainly is the only path to shared regional prosperity, Mahathir does not seem to be to be listening to his own advice.

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