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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

President Ho Chi Minh and his ideas about the world peace

Prof. Pankaj Jha

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The world would be celebrating the 130th birth Anniversary of President Ho Chi Minh on May 19th ,2020. He was named as Nguyen Sinh Cung after his birth inHoang Tru in Central Vietnam but adopted Ho Chi Minh (“Ho the Enlightened One”) as his name in early 1940s. He aspired for collective consciousness and loyalty to the nation. He proposed independence within society rather than independence of each individual.

President Ho Chi Minh was one of the strong supporters of Asian unity, and in one of the messages send to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during the Asian relations conference he said that this solidarity would make the Asian countries the mightiest defenders for the world speech and democracy. Alluding to the fact that Asian family is critical for unification and independence, he said that the brotherly countries in Asia would support Vietnam so that the objective of unifying North and South Vietnam could be realized.

President Ho Chi Minh was equally concerned with regard to peace in Asia and the world and during one of the welcome party speeches given in the honour of Prime Minister Nehru in Hanoi in 1954, he said that in order to maintain understand and peace, the people and the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam are determined to execute correctly the ceasefire agreement signed in Geneva. He thanked the International Control Commission managed by Indian, Polish and Canadian delegates for having toiled hard and worked closely with the general headquarters of the Vietnam people’s army and gained sound results.

In most of his correspondence related to the ceasefire agreement between France and Vietnam, he was apprehensive that the imperialist powers should show some resolve to maintain peace. In one of the interviews given to the Indian news agency in 1954 on the question of the ending of the war with French, he said his purpose was to ‘…. promote peace, foster unity, independence and democracy across the country’. In performing these duties, he reiterated, “we are willing to sincerely cooperate with Vietnamese individuals or groups who supports such policies, regardless of their political and religious beliefs’’.

During the June 1954 Prime ministers of China, India, and Myanmar signed a joint declaration which stressed of the five guiding principles(Panchsheela) which included the respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; do not violate each other; do not interfere into internal affairs of each other; treat each other equally on the basis of mutual benefits and live peacefully together. President Ho Chi Minh completely endorsed these five principles of peaceful coexistence.

In his separate meetings with the three leaders of China (Zhou Enlai), India(Nehru) and Myanmar (U Nu), he buttressed the need for Asian peace and understanding. In one of the interviews given to the Indian New Age weekly on the question of building of military alliances and bases, he said that these military blocs and bases are threat to peace in Asia and the entire world. He also indicated very often to the growing coalition movement of Asian and African peoples. He always aspired for peaceful unification of North and South Vietnam and holding of elections under democratic process as further enunciated by the Geneva accords.

President Ho said in one of his speeches given on February 7th 1958, ‘at the present time, peaceful forces have been developing, more and more people have been raising their voices for disarmament, stopping nuclear testing and hydrogen bomb, protesting NATO, Baghdad and South East Asia bloc, requesting the world leaders to organize conferences for minimizing the tensions across the world.’

In the joint statement given during his visit to India in 1958, the two leaders (Ho Chi Minh and Nehru) specifically indicated that ‘the developments in the areas of aeronautics, atomic and hydrogen warfare has put the need for peace more than ever’. The two sides agreed that it was imperative to organize a high level conference to find solutions so that the atomic and hydrogen weapons test can be stopped. There was a need for gradual disarmament and easing of the world situation, and expressed the hope that the conference will soon be convened addressing the subject. The two sides stressed that the military blocs have made the international situation precarious and determined that there is need for ideological adversaries to maintain the world peace as well as develop understanding among nations.

In his congratulatory message given on the occasion of India’s Afro Asian solidarity conference 1955, he said, ‘…the conference would be contributing to the cause of fight for the end of colonialism, disarmament and the end of the Cold War to protect freedom, independence and bring peace’.

President Ho Chi Minh was also very influenced by the Buddhist ideals of peace, forgiveness, spirituality, minimalism, and non-ego as the critical elements of human survival and global peace.Ho Chi Minh idea was to develop human affection, sacrifice world pleasures for the people; self-improvement, regular quality exercises, developing human ethics, forge close bonding with people and creating a mass grassroots movement for people’s solidarity. He also looked into the Buddhism ideals which included philosophy, developing a peaceful outlook towards the world, sincerity, goodness, beauty, mercy, impermanence and protecting oneself from misfortune, and the problems germinating because of more pompous live than usual. He even during the visits to different nations and official letters alluded to the spiritual integration, mercy, altruism, ethics, human quality and empathy with fellow human beings.

In fact, one of the ideas that President Ho Chi Minh derived from Buddhism was related to peaceful humanity of Buddhism and Buddhist consciousness in every activity.

If one analyses the resonance in President Ho Chi Minh ideas, it was primarily aimed at bringing about global peace through anti-colonialism and reducing the influence of imperialist powers so that development and growth can be ushered among the newly independent nations. In his letters, he has reposed faith with regard to Geneva accord and time and again in his personal correspondence stressed on democratic principles and respecting will of the people. However, he was conscious of the fact that imperialist powers will not give away easy freedom to the colonies that they possess. In order to pressurize the imperialist powers, he had urged the newly independent countries to avoid power bloc politics and strive for the betterment of the people. His commitment towards his people and unification of Vietnam through peaceful means has been largely unreported but looking into the letters that he had sent to various leaders one thing crops up in each of the letters that he had always striven for global peace and development. It was the last line in most of his letters.

During his visit to India, he had visited Punjab to look into the construction of the Bhakra Nangal dam and was astonished to see that how a single dam could resolve the problems related to power generation and dedication in that particular region. Also during his leadership, he was very of the fact that prolonged wars are not good for the society and the general people. His stress on disarmament, and against Cold War highlights this fact that he was foreseeing the tension which might get intensified because of Cold war. He had full faith in the UN as an institution and was categorical that the global body must undertake initiatives to protect the rights of the people and the suffering of the people in the dependencies should be reduced.

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Vietnam’s success in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic

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Vietnam’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been lauded globally. The total number of covid19 as of May 15, 2020 was estimated at 312, and  the country has not reported a single death.

Vietnam’s success in dealing with the pandemic has been attributed to some decisive, but tough, steps which it enforced without dithering like  some of its neighbors in ASEAN. These measures included, a lockdown from April 1, 2020 (which lasted for less than a month) , quarantining of international travelers for a period of 14 days, effective tracing,  Vietnam’s experience in dealing with the SARS epidemic of 2003 also stood the ASEAN nation in good stead. The fact, that Vietnam a country with a population of over 900 million people, has performed far better than many developed countries, has also been recognized globally. Vietnam’s effective handling of the pandemic is all the more remarkable given the fact that it shares a border, and close economic linkages, with China.

Economy

While the ASEAN nation has been able to control the virus, like other countries its economy is likely to be impacted adversely. It’s growth, rate this year has been estimated at 2.7% this year according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (according to the World Bank, Vietnam’s growth will be around 1.5%, but it will escape a recession). Even in the aftermath of the pandemic, Vietnam is likely to fare better, in terms of GDP, as compared to other ASEAN nations, but this is nowhere near the robust economic growth witnessed in previous years(in 2019, Vietnam grew at 7.02%). In recent years, the ASEAN nation emerged as an important manufacturing hub, and has been able to draw in significant FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in manufacturing from a number of countries, including Japan and South Korea, and  has not been dependent merely upon China. In 2019, pledged investment in the manufacturing sector was estimated at a little less than 25 Billion USD (24.6) USD.

Investor friendly policies, efficient labor force and the country’s strategic location have played an important role in Vietnam’s success in drawing FDI, and emerging as an economic hub, not just within Asia but globally. Addressing a business conference, on May 9, 2020, attended by participants from multilateral institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, Chambers of Commerce, and domestic and international business groups, the Vietnamese PM, Nguyen Xuan Phuc sought ideas to kickstart the economy. He also stated, that his governments would make all necessary efforts, to ensure that Vietnam attains 5% growth. The Vietnamese PM stated that foreign investments would be crucial, if Vietnam was to achieve this objective.

 Vietnam’s economy post-covid

The question on most people’s minds is that how will Vietnam deal with the economic challenges posed by the covid19 pandemic. While in the short run, there are numerous challenges, the fact that many companies are keen to shift out of China is likely to help the ASEAN nation. According to many analysts, while some companies are likely to shift to other Asian countries like India and Bangladesh, Vietnam is likely to emerge as a preferred destination, as a result of it’s location, logistical advantages and trade pacts with numerous countries including the US.

 It would be pertinent to point out, that Vietnam had benefitted immensely from the China-US Trade wars, with numerous companies clearly preferring Vietnam, over its other competitors.

Japan which has earmarked over 2.2 billion USD for its manufacturing firms to shift from China, is likely to encourage it’s companies to move to Vietnam (Japan was the second largest investor in Vietnam in the first quarter of 2020). Strategic ties between both countries have also witnessed an upswing in recent years. It would be pertinent to point out, that Vietnam along with Japan, also happens to be a member of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and this will help in bolstering economic linkages with other member states (already some member states within TPP are working closely to keep supply chains intact)

Steps taken

Apart from its economic relevance, Vietnam is also important from a strategic context. It is the ASEAN chair for 2020, and its increasing relevance in the Indo-Pacific region mean that not just Japan, but even other key players in the Indo-Pacific, are likely to bolster strategic and economic linkages with the ASEAN nation in a post corona world.

Vietnam’s stature has risen not just because of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but also ramping up of medical equipment production — such as masks. It was able to provide masks not just to neighboring countries in ASEAN, but also the US, Russia, Germany, France and UK. The ASEAN nation, despite paucity of resources, has emerged as a key stakeholder in the battle against the deadly pandemic. In a post corona world, the ASEAN chair is likely to emerge as an important global player, both in the economic and strategic context.

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Singaporean Daren Tang Appointed as the Next WIPO Director General

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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On May 8, Daren Tang, Chief Executive of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) was officially appointed as the next Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

WIPO is a specialized United Nations (UN) agency based in Geneva, Switzerland, with 193 member states and an annual revenue in excess of $600 million. Tang will take over the helm of WIPO on 1 October 2020 for a term of six years. This marks the first time a Singaporean will lead a UN agency, and WIPO’s first Director General from Asia.

In his acceptance speech, Tang thanked all member states for their support and paid tribute, in particular, to the WIPO staff and out-going Director General Dr Francis Gurry.

He further outlined the global challenges faced by the world today, including the “deeper forces of unilateralism and parochialism” threatening to undermine multilateral institutions, and urged member states to respond by working “even more closely together” through a common, global effort.

Tang noted in his speech that WIPO has grown stronger and more relevant since its inception 50 years ago due to the “proven willingness of all member states to share joint responsibility, confront challenges, and transform together.”

Laying out his plans for WIPO, Tang prioritized the need to build an inclusive, balanced, vibrant, and forward-looking global intellectual property (IP) ecosystem.

Senior Minister of State (Law and Health), Edwin Tong, congratulated Daren for being the first Singaporean to lead a UN Agency and to be appointed as Director General of WIPO. This is a momentous occasion for Singapore.

Edwin Tong pointed out that under Daren’s leadership as Chief Executive of IPOS we have seen Singapore’s IP ecosystem flourish. During his term, Singapore has risen in ranks to become second globally and top in Asia for the best IP protection in the World Economic Forum’s “Ideas Today. Assets Tomorrow.”

As he takes on the new role as Director General of the WIPO, it is expected that Daren will lead the organization towards building a more vibrant IP community internationally. Daren will continue his great work at WIPO and contribute towards moulding the future of the global IP ecosystem.

Chairman of the IPOS Board, Dr Stanley Lai, on behalf of the IPOS Board of Directors, extended heartiest congratulations to IPOS Chief Executive Daren Tang for his new appointment as the next Director General of the WIPO.

Dr Stanley Lai said: “We are confident that he will bring the same vision orientation, energy, outcomes, and capabilities that have come to define him during his time at IPOS into the auspices of WIPO. Having worked with him for several years, the Board is certain that the global IP community will be served by a Director General who is exceptionally attuned to the interests of countries, economies, and also equipped with a deep understanding of IP and its forceful impact on innovation and global development, especially during these challenging times. These qualities will serve WIPO, the member states and the larger IP community well.”  

Dr Lai added, “IPOS remains committed as an active member of the international IP community, and we will continue to partner and support the important work of WIPO. We wish Daren every success and look forward to working with him and WIPO to build the future of the global IP ecosystem.”

Daren Tang will relinquish his role as the Chief Executive of IPOS, a statutory board under the Ministry of Law, where he drove the strategic transformation of IPOS from an IP registry and regulator into an innovation agency that helps to build Singapore’s future economy.

His term saw major updates to Singapore’s IP Hub Masterplan, legislative and policy reforms to the IP regime and a scaling up of international engagement. Currently, IPOS has cooperation agreements with over 70 regional and international partners.

Under his leadership, Singapore ranked second globally and top in Asia for the best IP protection in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report and IPOS was also recognized as the world’s most innovative IP office by the World Trademark Review in 2020.

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