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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

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Southeast Asia

Vietnam President Visit to US for UNGA Meeting

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President Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Viet Nam addresses the general debate of the UN General Assembly’s 76th session. UN Photo/Cia Pak

Following his visit to Cuba, Vietnam president Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited New York to attend 76th meeting of the UN (United Nations) General Assembly and participated in the deliberations related to the important aspects of global order and international development. He also attended Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Summit.  Vietnam President in his address at the global COVID-19 summit at New York stated that Vietnam is equally concerned about ending the Corona virus pandemic and helping countries regain the pre-COVID levels of economic growth. While supporting President Joe Biden’s initiatives related to supporting the international community in terms of medicines, vaccines, and diagnostic equipment, he concurred that the well-being of the humanity and the people in various parts of the world is critical at this moment. He stated that with new variants of COVID-19 emerging every day it is pertinent to note that there is need for accelerated early detection techniques, trailing the contacts, and developing foolproof quarantine mechanisms. He added that in many of the developing countries there is need for better testing facilities, oxygenators, oxygen equipment, lifesaving kit such as ventilators and while at the same time undertaking vaccination on a war footing.

He articulated that there is need for effective global cooperation, promoting resilient health care systems, maintaining supply chains of medicines and medical equipment, particularly in the Global South. He appreciated the fact that global health security fund has been instituted which will help the underdeveloped and developing countries in procuring many of these critical equipment. He stated that there is a need for effective vaccinations and undertaking preventive measures to contain the pandemic. Only then, he opined, that there will be an economic recovery of many of the economies across the world. 

Expressing concerns regarding maintaining the vaccine supplies, he avowed that Vietnam would be keen in joining the global COVAX program and undertake its role in supporting developing countries. He valued the fact that many of the countries have come forward to donate vaccines to Vietnam now when the country is suffering from resurgence of COVID-19 virus and increasing deaths because of the newer variants of this virus. He indicated that there is need for vaccinating minimum two-third of the global population the forthcoming session of the United Nations General Assembly next year. Vietnam has also donated 500,000 U.S. dollars for the global COVAX program and assured that Vietnam will be contributing to this endeavor in future also. He alluded to the fact that the Vietnam has promoted the ASEAN Region Response Fund in 2020 and many of the ASEAN countries have used 20.5 million U.S. dollars from this fund. He exuded confidence that in this endeavor against the Corona virus the global community will come together to protect the larger humanity.

During his visit to the US. the Vietnamese president also met CEOs (Chief Executive Officer) of major companies such as US Quantum group and even oversaw an agreement between the company and the Vietnamese group comprising of Kinhbac City Development Holding Corp (KBC) and Saigon Telecom Technology Joint Stock company. The CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of the US’s Quantum group expressed that in Vietnam the company wouldbe willing to make an investment of $20 to $30 billion in future.  The major investment will be in the field of biotechnology research, vaccine production, health care and setting up a vaccine production center in Vietnam itself. 

During the visit of the Vietnamese president Vietnam and US have signed a memorandum of understanding between the agricultural departments of the two countries. During the meeting related to the signing of the MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) between the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural development of Vietnam and US Grains Council it was expressed that Vietnam can emerge as a potential destination for ethanol fuel and this MoU would help Vietnam in promoting use of technology and science to promote green, sustainable, and low emission agriculture. The US Green Council would also provide COVID-19 test kits and COVID-19 treatment drugs for Vietnamese livestock. 

During the visit to US, Vietnamese president also met Vietnamese diaspora in New York to connect and exchange their views. He appreciated the role that the Vietnamese community has played regarding raising the issue of export of vaccines to Vietnam and raised funds for Vietnam’s COVID-19 vaccine fund. President appreciated the role played by the Vietnamese overseas community and stated that they comprise the extended family of the Vietnamese nation. He stated that the younger Vietnamese will be contributing to the development of the homeland with their knowledge and enthusiasm.

In his statement which he delivered during the UN General Assembly’s 76 session he acknowledged that with the reelection of Antonio Guterres as the UN Secretary General the organization will achieve the objectives and the priorities in the future. He further added that for protecting citizens and to sustain economic growth as well as ensuring social security there is a need for global corporation and effective approach. He stated that nontraditional security challenges are a threat for the humankind and issues such as diseases and climate change can change the future. He expressed concern that the global governance system and inequalities among nations have exposed the shortcomings and challenges in front of the global community. He alluded to the fact that tensions between major powers, unstable international system, and wars had been a major concern in the recent past. Without alluding to China, he stated that the disregard for international law and the unilateral acts of aggression has jeopardized the exercise of maritime legal rights for many littoral nations.

He stated that there is a need for effective countermeasures to contain coronavirus pandemic and there is a need for reinforcing global support for COVAX facility. This is necessary for fair and equitable distribution of vaccines and medications to the global South. He further added that countries which have low vaccination rate should be focused and necessary structural support should be provided. He indicated that because of this pandemic there is need to adapt to this scourge and the time has come for digital transformation and promoting self-reliance among economies. 

He buttressed the fact that their need for pursuing green technologies, promoting sustainable development, and undertaking functional changes for promoting trade and investment. He mentioned that global supply change needs to be maintained and under the agenda of 2030 of the UN sustainable development goals provides the edifice for undertaking cooperative development, easing of the debt payments, and accelerating recovery after Corona. He was also apprehensive of the fact that the climate change might be instrumental in harsher weather conditions, pollution, and incremental rise of the sea level. He added that to meet the target cut in greenhouse gas emissions there is need for financial support, capacity building and technology transfer to the developing countries. 

He stated with conviction that global peace security and stability is a perquisite for fostering global economic recovery and facilitating humanitarian assistance. He reinforced Vietnam’s commitment to the UN Charter and respect for the international law. He retreated Vietnam solidarity with Cuba and asked the international community to end the unilateral embargoes against Cuba. He stated that the need for justice for women and children in Afghanistan and establishment of independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel is critical. 

He outlined Vietnam support to multilateralism and ask for more democratic an effective UN. He stated that in the 35 years of Vietnam’s economic reforms program (Doi Moi) there has been multiple changes in the country which helped the country toget integrated with the international community for its progress and equality. He added that Vietnam has been collaborating within ASEAN for peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia and the larger Asia Pacific. He acknowledged clearly that there is need for enforcing maritime security, freedom of navigation and over flight in South China Sea. While outlining the role that the Vietnam has placed as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the term 2020-2021, he stated that Vietnam upholds the principle of partnership for sustainable peace. He indicated to the fact that Vietnam has been undertaking UN peacekeeping missions in Central African Republic and in South Sudan, and Vietnam is aspiring for a seat in the UN Human Rights Council for the term 2023- 2025. 

During his stay at the New York, President Phuc met President of the World Bank David Malpass as well as leaders of many countries such as President of the Republic of Korea, Danish Prime Minister, and President of Slovenia.  Apart from high-level business leaders, he also met John Kerry who is the US Special Presidential envoy for climate. He expressed that there should be more focus on developing renewable energy, better management of transnational water resources, and undertaking effective measures for climate change mitigation. 

While the visit of Vietnamese president has been short but highly effective as it engaged a wide variety of leaders and business entrepreneurs. Vietnam president has been very courteous in engaging the high-ranking leaders of Costa Rica, Colombia, Uruguay, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Latvia, Sweden, and many others. 

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Impunity for desertion of the Constitution

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jakarta indonesia

A collection of scratches depicting the nuances of “totalitarianism” (repressive actions of state stakeholders tend to be authoritarian) and “radicalism” (civil society groups that rebel against the authoritarian system through deep understanding and hard actions) are still etched in the minds of the nation’s children.

In 1955, September was the holding of voting in selecting members of the DPR in the first general election in Indonesia, which was attended by 29 political parties and individuals. Where the election left a sad one, the general election committee was kidnapped and killed. The tragedy of the massacre in 1965-1966, the Tanjung Priok incident in 1984, the Semanggi II incident in 1999, the murder of Munir in 2004, to the brutality of the apparatus in the “Corruption Reformasi” action in 2019 yesterday caused one of my friends in the struggle who was a student at Halu Oleo University to be shot dead by the police. in action.

All of the above events took place in September, which the author calls “September Mourning”. The historical record has shown that from time to time the civilization of the Indonesian State has not yet ended with problems that pose a great risk, especially regarding the loss of life. This collection of tragedies in September demonstrates an understanding that what happened was an act of desertion.

Desertion, usually used in the military world with the aim of describing the conditions for the defection of soldiers from unitary discipline. But in this article, the author contextualizes desertion to express defection to the constitution. This means that any conscious action intended to straddle the constitution is defiance. Both the perpetrators from civil society, the military, and even the president, must be brought to justice!

In Indonesia, constitutional deserters often occur, ranging from murder, kidnapping, corruption, selling state assets, and other actions that are detrimental to the state. However, in this discussion, the constitutional desertion that the author wants to discuss is the constitutional position for deserters between civil society and the government which can control the civil apparatus.

Many civil society groups were declared by the government as deserters to the constitution until they were disbanded. For example, HTI organizations, FPI, and others. And there are even civil society groups declared as deserters of the constitution which were then massacred to the max. For example, civilians who were victims of the struggle between the military and the PKI during the Old Order had claimed millions of lives.

Civil society who deserted the constitution in the midst of conflicting elite interests was faced with a dilemma. Although they may have strong complaints about the survival and sustainability of their generation, they face the problem of the government’s incompetence in managing the country, so they choose to fight ideas and ideas against the resistance movement.

This dilemma arises because of the extreme risks associated with the desertion process on the one hand and the fact that the relationship between deserters is dominated by mistrust on the other. The first problem makes the potential cost of desertion very high because civil society is certain to face a credible threat of punishment. Second, the potential rewards of desertion are uncertain because deserters have reason to believe that rebellion is the last resort for their ideas to be accepted by the State even though lives are at stake. The second problem implies that the perpetrators of desertion from the regime’s instructions will be very difficult to be punished fairly by the constitution.

But what is clear is that the constitutional position for deserters from civil society has always been made firm. It is even permissible to carry out massacres by simply using the term “in order to maintain the integrity and sovereignty of the State” as happened in 1965-1966. The death toll against innocent civilians and civil servants is not treated fairly by the State. The State should apologize for the incident, but not apologize to the PKI or to the military.

However, the regime’s uncompromising attitude and violent strategy of arrogance have led to further escalation of the conflict and caused increased anxiety at the level of civil society. A repressive ruling elite, a regime that often relies on military forces creates harsh and deteriorating conditions. Such as the kidnapping and murder of the election committee in 1955, the 1984 Tanjung Priok incident, and the 1999 Semanggi II incident.

Likewise with the murder of Munir in 2004, in fact it is a form of victimindividual desertion which later grew into a phenomenon of anger as well as mass fear. This is due to the unfair positioning of the constitution to punish deserters from the regime.

It is as if the regime’s position is higher than the constitution and interprets it at will. In almost every regime in this country, the constitution is weak and fails to bring the deserters entrusted by the regime to be punished fairly. This means that the impunity of desertion to the Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia is sweeping freely. This issue is a serious homework that must be realized as soon as possible by all elements of the State to make improvements.

We must position the constitution as forming a harmonious life order for the nation and state. By him forming all elements of the State as nationalists who forbid massacre, become humanists with basic principles, socialists without restraining society, and capitalists who prioritize the welfare of the people.

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The Race of Supremacy in the Indo-Pacific Region

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Amid the growing US-China rivalry for the supremacy, the geopolitics has been altered to gain favour for oneself and outsmart rival. This time the battlefield is Indo-Pacific region. Since US has forged AUKUS, the regional countries are concerned over this move. AUKUS is a defence agreement- comprising Australia, UK, and US- which is aimed to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific with nuclear-powered submarines potential on patrol and the deal enables Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

               China retorted it and termed it “Cold War Mentally” and claimed such partnership is anti-china clique. They do not have any definite purpose behind this agreement but to contain China’s rise. Signing such deals will destablise the peace and trigger an arm race in the region. She claimed that they, in order to contain China’s growth, are throwing military net around it in waterway like the South China Sea and attempting to halt China’s economic development.

                Also, Malaysia and Indonesia fuss with this move and are of the view that this will speed up arm race and aggression in the region; North Korea chastised this maneuver claiming it as undesirable and dangerous and stated that it will underscore North Korea to continue developing its arsenals of atomic weapons; Some Russian Diplomatic officials dubbed it an step to accelerate arm race and undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Besides regional countries, France was also ticked off with AUKUS, due to cancellation of previously signed deal of $66 billion between France and Australia for conventional submarines, which will cost France jobs and revenue.

               On the contrary, India and Japan, the antagonists of China and member of an anti-china pact namely Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as QUAD), have warmly welcomed this measure. But in reality, the AUKUS is nothing more than a potential hazard for the region, in which Washington is adopting Asian versus Asian strategy to pit them fight to contain China’s rise and sell its weaponry. However, the results of this gathering storm can be far beyond the thoughts of political scientists and eagerly participating Australia.

               The first unanticipated loss of this pact is the deteriorating ties of Australia with France. Reportedly, this in consequence has kept Australia away to finalise a free trade agreement with the European Union. Apart from this, Scott Morison’s, Australian Prime Minister, planned visit to Indonesia has been cancelled, because Indonesian President Joko Widodo is no longer available. Australia has been victimised in the US-China rivalry which has its first consequence in the loss of robust ties with France and Indonesia.

               Apart, Since the Australia had close economic relation with China, Australian Trade Union has opposed this maneuver; It has shamed AUKUS deal and insisted they do not want war with China and warned of dangers to country on multiple fronts. Also, the Maritime Union of Australia has opposed this deal and verbalised that Prime Minister should not engineer such secret deals instead supply vaccines and help lockdown affected.

               Moreover, a China state-owned newspaper, Global Times, warned arm race and grimly stated that Australian soldiers were likely to be first to die if China counterattacks.

               To sum this deal, without having any challenge to Australia, buying nuclear-powered submarines is a potential step toward endangering and victimising itself for nothing but US gain.

               Apart from this alliance, US have Quad and Five Eyes to focus the China and keep China’s power from spreading. Quad is consisting of US, Japan, India and Australia. The main purposes of this alliance were economic and security interests that span the Pacific and Indian oceans. Quad was actually tailored for tsunami relief efforts, which lay dormant until 2017. Later, it was revived by Trump to challenge China from every front. And, Five Eyes is pertaining to US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

               All the Quad members have poor diplomatic relations or even face-off with China, which strengthens US position in the region and collectively they are sparing no effort to undermine China’s rise.

               On September 24, Quad had an in-person summit, in which they had discussed vaccine export, trade, and technology. They also said, “We stand for the rule of law freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity of states.” besides this the main purpose behind the meeting was to opt strategy to counter China.

               In addition to this, Biden administration had made clear that it desires to forge a united front of democracies to deal with China across the board- on security, trade, technology, and human rights. Actually, the desire is to make alliance of democracies to defeat China. All the maneuvers US is taking are not to safeguard any human right but to contain China’s economic influence and military power.

               However, Chinese spokesman, Mr. Lijian said: “Faced with the common challenge of fighting the epidemic and economic recovery, the people of the Asia-Pacific region need growth and employment not submarines and gunpowder.” He further vocalized, “Individual powers have repeatedly dispatched military aircrafts and warships to South China Sea that spark trouble and deliberately provoke conflicts on maritime issues. And, Chinese determination to safeguard national and territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interest is unwavering, and all will continue to properly handle differences with the countries connected through consultation and negotiations.” This statement clarifies that China does not want war rather prefers consultations, but it is not necessary that it is the reality; China has already focused military power. If both rivals escalate military power, then danger will loom and exacerbate already worsened diplomatic ties.

               Furthermore, Japan is another active member of Quad, who is ardently participating in the US-China rivalry. However, the participation can be equally annihilatory for Japan.

               Li haidong, a professor at the Institute of International relations of China Foreign Affairs University, viewed that Japan has been leaving no stone unturned to use the anti-China clique to gain an upper hand in its territorial conflicts with China, Russia and on the Korean peninsula issue.

               Further, Chinese analysts also warned Japan, India and Australia that if they went too far in following the US strategy of containing China, they will become cannon fodder as China will steadily safeguard its interests.

               Additionally, China’s rocketing influence and military power deters America. If China finds any danger from US, China’s missile arsenal could annihilate American bases in Asia during opening hours. Equally gruesome for US is China’s rapidly growing economic reach, which has expanded state-owned companies buy up strategic assets such as ports around the globe that could be harnessed in times of war.

               To encapsulate, this ebbing situation can destablise peace in the region. Both the powers should repair their completely dysfunctional relationship and evade forging blocs in the region. If the region divides in the blocs, the regional as well as global peace will be at risk.

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