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Thai universities must look beyond ranking

Rattana Lao

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National University of Singapore

Bangkok – The recent 2018 Asia University Rankings published by the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine is calling attention for the state of Thai higher education.

Unlike its Asian neighbors, Thai universities are falling behind.

The National University of Singapore maintained its number one status for the third consecutive year due to its continuous improvement in teaching and research environments, greater citation impact and higher amounts of industrial income, said Ellie Bothwell of the Times Higher Education.

This year, the numbers of universities being ranked increased from 300 to 350 universities. Japanese universities are amongst the most qualified universities in Asia with 89 universities made it to the list. 63 universities from China are included in the top 350.

The picture looks worrisome for Thailand. Only ten universities made it. However, none of them was ranked in the top 50. The best performing university from Thailand was Mahidol– with ranking of 97th place, same as that in 2017, while the oldest higher education establishment, Chulalongkorn University, is only 167th place amongst 350 institutions.

Should we be concerned about this?

Yes, and no.

Given that ranking has been taken as a face value that it equates the overall quality of higher education, the poor performance sends a negative signal. It is a setback for Thailand’s aspiration to become the regional hub of education in Southeast Asia. How can we be a regional center when the best of our universities are far behind that of Singapore and Malaysia?

This is also bad for internationalization process. The low performance is discouraging for potential research partners and foreign students to come to Thailand. It lowers Thailand’s attractiveness and competitiveness.

While the results are not promising, what is worse is how they are used and interpreted by policymakers and the media to create, what professor Gita Steiner-Khamsi of Teachers College, Columbia University called “a scandalization effect”. That means, results from international league tables haven been used as external forces to generate reforms pressure at the local level.

Thailand is no exception. Since Asia Week published the first Asian universities ranking in 1997, Thai politicians, policymakers and the media have used the international results to create reform pressure. A decade long of higher education policy analysis confirmed that boosting the ranking seems to be the only policy goal for most Thai policymakers.

But ranking is not everything.

Mrs. Ruangrat Wongpramote, Assistant Secretary General of the Education Council poignantly said: “ranking helps us to mirror the reality. It is a good tool for us to know where we are standing in comparison with others. But it does not tell us everything. There are more pressing issues in Thai higher education.”

These issues include quality of the students, quality curriculum and quality teaching.

Firstly, Thailand has to shift its focus from quantity students to quality students.

For the past 100 years, the system has done well in terms of access. There were only five universities in the first 50 years of Thai higher education and all of them were established in Bangkok Metropolitan area. Now the official record reported that there are 151 universities across the country – with 81 public universities and 75 universities in most of provinces. The expansion has made it available for more than 2 million enrollments.

While the massification provides more equitable educational opportunities for students, the mismatch between skills and jobs requirement, low quality of English proficiency and lack of critical thinking are amongst key issues that need to be seriously addressed.

Secondly, Thai curriculum needs to be upgraded. The Office of Higher Education Commission has implemented Thailand Qualification Framework or TQF with the hope of improving and standardizing Thai curriculum. However, what the government has had in mind is counter-productive to improvement of the curriculum.

TQF is academics worst nightmare. It requires academics to fill in lengthy lesson plans, detailed description of their syllabus and anticipated unimaginable outcomes. The rubrics are demanding and micro-managing. Instead of improving curriculum, academics report they cut and pasted, worst, lied just to complete the form.

This policy takes away precious class preparation time for nonsensical administrative things.

A more efficient and collegial way of improving the curriculum is needed.

Thirdly, quality teaching must be improved. Large classrooms are not in and of themselves problematic. But ones that are passive, top-down and lecture-based are outdated. Lecturers must work harder than regurgitating the texts to students. Classrooms need to be conducive space for learning where conceptual debates, analytical discussion and constructive dialogues are promoted. In the era where students can google to get basic facts, university students must be pushed harder to think critically. Students must learn to ask difficult questions and come up with creative answers.

A bad ranking is a good wake up call. But what we will do about it is what matters most.

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.

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Southeast Asia

What Jokowi’s anti-radicalism cabinet can do for Indonesian security

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Jokowi second terms have been preoccupied with the issue of radicalism following the shocking attack to former coordinator minister of politics, law and security, Wiranto. The attack has re-write insecurity of radical movement in Indonesia.

Just in time after the attack, Jokowi needs to prepare his new cabinet as he won the presidential election for the second time. Some promising names have surprised the people namely Nadiem Makariem, Erick Tohir and former Jokowi’s opponent in the election, Prabowo Subianto. But this has not surprised me as much as Jokowi decision to entice 6 former military general to the cabinet.

Coordinator ministry of maritime and investment; Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, presidential office stuff; Moeldoko, minister of health; Dr. Terawan, minister of defense; Prabowo Subianto, minister of home affairs; Tito Karnavian and minister of religious affairs; FachrulRazi. It was continuing Jokowi image that has a close relation with military figures.

However, some controversy popping up due to Jokowi decision to choose FachrulRazi as the minister of religious affairs. His background was far from his current position. His statement to prohibit niqab for civil servants has responded with a major disagreement. Fachrul acclaimed that it was in order to prevent radicalization in the governmental office while on the other side believed that the minister was affected by Islamist-radicalism stereotyping.

Aside from that, Jokowi himself declare that his decision to put former general at the ministry of religious affairs was in order to counter radicalization movement. Several strategic posts in the ministry have also fulfilled by a former general, such as the ministry of home affairs and presidential office stuff. Even more, coordinator ministry of politics, law and human rights, Mahfud MD, has spoken loudly in public about radicalism, and eager to challenge whoever believed in the idea of an Islamic state.

Introducing non-traditional approach to Counter radicalization

Jokowi keeps his eyes on radical movement as his efforts to maintain political stability in the country. The appointment of several military generals in the cabinet was in order to take down radicalism that has been threatened state stability. Therefore, some observers nicknamed Jokowi second term as ‘anti-radicalism cabinet’, as he put radicalism as something that we must abolish mercilessly.

However, Jokowi deradicalization efforts have not been able to prevent radical movement. Terrorism expert from University of Indonesia, Ali Abdullah Wibisono, argued in the interview with CNN Indonesia, that only about 30% of former terrorists succeeded to prevent recidivism.

It must be a concern for the government as they are trying to prevent the radical movement by using deterrent effect. This approach has been widely criticized by the experts, as Dugan and LaFree suggest that harsh counter-terrorism measures can have a backlash effect. Take, for example, Said Ali Al-Shihri, who was graduated from Saudi deradicalization program, and return to terrorism as deputy leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen after his released[4].

Jessica Stern suggested that any deradicalization efforts must be based on a clear understanding of what motivates people to join or leave radical movement. She added that ideology is not an important factor of someone decision to be a terrorist, a survey of 516 Guantanamo detainees found that knowing another member of Al Qaeda was better predictor of who becomes a terrorist than was believing in the notion of Jihad.

Assigning former military general in the ministry of religious affairs to deter radicalization was an oversimplified policy, as Stern indicates in her article that deradicalization program should integrate convicted terrorists to religious reeducation, psychological healing, and assistance in finding their job. Given that, deradicalization was not only about political stability, an institution and foremost the government should also ensure personal and economic security of convicted terrorists.

The convicted terrorist might have social pressure and reluctant to accept in society. Moreover, radical groups that affiliated with international terrorism network tend to have wider potential to return in the radical group after rehabilitation. This has been important to determine through comprehensive assessment as well as a holistic understanding of the human security approach. 

Furthermore, political stability and national security have been widely known as Jokowi’s ultimate dream. Yet, the cabinet should not adopt a state-centric perspective to deter radicalization. The radical group has deep rooted societal problems that should be the case for the government to look from a different angle. 

Given that, deradicalization efforts have to starts from acknowledgment to protect human security. Therefore, Jokowi anti-radicalism cabinet need to have a clear understanding on societal problem of radical groups, and minimizing the use of force in order to reduce harsh backlash from the radical movements. 

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Belt and Road Initiative: Challenging South and Southeast Asia

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The euphoria about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Indonesia and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia (SEA) has been felt since 2017, particularly following the country’s participation in the BRI Summit in Beijing that year, where Indonesia (along with other SAARC and ASEAN member states) was expected to receive massive investments from China to support several infrastructure projects.

This year, the debates concerning the BRI are again becoming prevalent after Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan as Indonesia’s representative signed 28 BRI projects last April. Among the various debated subjects is the growing concern about the real nature of the BRI. Is that a Chinese developmental initiative or a geopolitical instrument that uses debt-trap as a tool to bring targeted countries into the desired terms.

The BRI as Chinese debt trap

In the realisation of the BRI, China is targeted to spend US $ 4.4 trillion (Rp 62.7 thousand trillion) which is divided into various infrastructure projects in 65 countries. The funds from China will be disbursed from three main institutions, namely the Export-Import Bank of China, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund. However, the implementation of the BRI caused various kinds of controversy, one of which was related to the fear of a debt trap.

Sri Lanka is one of the BRI participating countries that must give up on China’s debt. The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) project in Sri Lanka which costed US $ 190 million (Rp 2.7 trillion) with an interest of 6.3 percent did not benefit from the airport’s operations.

As a result, the Sri Lankan government is losing money. This made the country unable to pay debts to China. The inability to pay credit or interest, at the end of June 2016, led Sri Lanka to make an agreement with China in the form of equity (surrendering land for lease) for 99 years to the country.

According to a well-known SAARC strategic analyst based in India, Brahma Chellaney, what China does with its BRI is a debt-trap diplomacy effort, where this type of diplomacy is a bilateral relationship that is interwoven on the basis of debt. In its operations, this type of diplomacy involves a creditor country that deliberately extends excessive credit to the debtor country. If the debtor country cannot fulfill its debt obligations, often the creditor country will make it possible to interfere with economic and political conditions in the debtor country.

Acknowledging this, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in August 2018 said his country would stop funding-backed projects from China, including a railway line worth US $ 20 billion as there is a possibility that the country would be trapped in huge debts.

“We should avoid binary categorisations… However, a bilateral approach in developmental strategies historically does not bring back satisfactory results. Besides the Bretton Woods instruments – often enveloped in controversies, do not forget developmental champions. All of them are multilateral institutions of fair conditionalities, of balanced and transparent instruments: UNIDO, ADB, but also Islamic Development Bank, OFID or UNCTAD. If not a loan, ask them at least for advice”, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic reminded us recently in Kuala Lumpur at the Economic Forum.

Indonesia and lessons from Malaysia 

The same concern is also prevalent in Indonesia, given that the country, in the midst of many of its own problems, the government seemed to be incessantly ambitious to continue to take part in the BRI. It is important to remember that currently Indonesia’s external debt has reached US$387.6 billion at the first quarter of 2019.  It consists of government and central bank external debts of US$190.5 billion that have slightly rose by 3.1 percent (year-on-year) and private external debts of US$197.1 bilion that have rocketed by 12.8 percent (year-on-year).

Although the ratio of Indonesia’s external debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is relatively safe at the level 36.9 percent and S&P Global Rating has just raised the long-term sovereign credit ratio for Indonesia from “BBB-“ to “BBB”, the Indonesia’s economic foundation is very fragile.

In 2018, for instance, the massive capital outflow made significant depreciation of the Rupiah against the US dollar due to the hike of Fed Fund Rates and the contagion of Turkish lira crisis. The currency hit about 15,000 rupiah against the greenbacks, the lowest level since the 1998 financial crisis, and made it one of the worst performing currencies in the region.

The extreme volatility of the Rupiah causes payments of interests and foreign debts more expensive. The 1998 financial crisis provided a precious experience that many companies faced default and the country’s economy experience chaos with economic growth of -13.1%. With such conditions, how come Indonesia dear to magnify its debts by signing massive BRI projects?

There is also a concern that the BRI projects is, instead of profiting Indonesia, putting the country at a disadvantage. One example comes from the Palembang LRT project, which has the same potential as the airport in Sri Lanka, is empty with little visitors. In fact, this project must suffer losses with an operating burden of Rp. 8.9 billion (US$618, 545) per month.

By looking at the fact that infrastructure projects have not been able to improve economic growth and to the gap in inequality – especially in the East – as well as various other disputes, the government’s decision to sign many BRI projects is certainly questionable. Also ironic is that the implementation of infrastructure development in Indonesia remains suffering from overt corruption practices. Instead of aiming at the welfare of society, infrastructure projects often become fields of concern for interested parties. Overall, there is a possibility that Indonesia will face Chinese debt trap is it is not careful, which would have negative impacts on the Indonesian economy.

The government needs to be able to make sure that participating in the BRI would not led to its loss. As what Malaysia has done, Jakarta may need to renegotiate with China on the terms and conditions of those projects. Indonesia must realise that China needs them more than they need China as the planned maritime route under the BRI would not be realised without Indonesia. Malaysian case demonstrates that negotiation is possible with China. Failure to do the above, it would not be surprising if what happened to Sri Lanka would also happen to Indonesia.

*Dendy Indramawan is a research assistant at Jakarta-based Institute for Development of Economics and Finance.

From our partner International Affairs

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ASEAN Summit Meeting 2019: Expectations and Norms

Prof. Pankaj Jha

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The 2018 ASEAN Summit had posed a valid question with regard to the compatibility between ASEAN centrality and the Indo-Pacific concept. ASEAN addressed this impending question through its approach paper on the Indo-Pacific. However, the question remains that whether ASEAN can remain central to the Indo-Pacific or would address regional issues in routine manner which have become victim of ASEAN norms without any strong recourse to regional mechanisms related to security.  ASEAN policy of consensus building has made ASEAN more predictable in terms of its yearly communique and discussions. During the last three years ASEAN Communiqué have outlined lofty ideals and impressive blueprint for future but the core security issues have been sidelined or accorded with a low priority listing, in the face of bon homie between ASEAN member states and dialogue partners. The fault lines on major economic issues, South China Sea, environmental problems such as Indonesian haze and the template for industrial revolution 4.0 needs better focus and strategy along with new ideas and compatible processes.

ASEAN strategy on the efficacy of Indo-Pacific manifests itself in the document which highlights that ‘ASEAN centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, with ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), as platforms for dialogue and implementation of the Indo–Pacific idea, while preserving their formats’. The dichotomy with regard to ASEAN position is that Indo-Pacific is more of a strategic and regional security construct. The subscribers of Indo-Pacific are not very accommodating towards China in the architecture despite the fact that few dialogue partners have expounded the need for the construct to be inclusive. The long drawn US-China trade war and the barb of words on the increasing Chinese assertiveness in South China Sea have made matters more complicated. Further, Vietnam has been highlighting the Chinese bullying tactics in Vanguard bank and also its repeated foreign ministry briefings have stressed that China is trying to make non-disputed zones as contentious zones. Over a period of time, it is expected that US and Vietnam might enter strategic partnership agreement with defence and security cooperation as a priority. This would jeopardize Chinese designs in South China Sea and also bring the Eagle closer to the Dragon’s chest.

The incompatibility between ASEAN centric approach in even regional security apparatus envisaged under Indo-Pacific is a concern. ASEAN has imposed the recurrent and repeated thoughts of Indo-Pacific as inclusive zone and a zone for promoting interconnectedness and dialogue between partners. ASEAN position is understood in terms of maintaining its relevance but it must recognize the fact that Indo-Pacific was not an ASEAN process to serve its interests. The dialogue partners’ interests are involved and they might or might not accept ASEAN diktats on the subject. In that case ASEAN would be seen as the fog horn without much contribution to larger security issues. The synergies envisaged between ASEAN and Indo-Pacific is flawed because ASEAN as an institution has failed in terms of providing maritime security but has been successful in information sharing through institutional mechanisms. Given the limited naval capacities that most of the ASEAN members have, with the exception of Singapore, the efforts for regional maritime security needs a better approach. The naval and maritime security cooperation under ASEAN needs better coordination with dialogue partners and structural support.

The ASEAN summit meeting 2019 might have to address the following issues in a more focused way rather than template responses which now anyone can anticipate. Firstly, it will have to make clear commitment among the members of maintaining the status quo and promising that the skirmishes between the ASEAN member states on South China Sea(SCS)should not be advantageous to China. China has been advocating negotiations through bilateral consultations, incrementally happening in this region. Secondly, ASEAN will have to stop meting out step-motherly treatment to the interest of Vietnam because of the intrinsic Cold war apprehensions. Thirdly, ASEAN must make a strong stance with regard to finalizing the draft Code of Conduct with China on terms acceptable to all the claimant parties rather than towing the Chinese instructions. Fourthly, the dialogue partners have also failed the security initiatives undertaken by ASEAN and it would be prudent for the Dialogue partners to commit to a new framework which might be known as Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) Plus framework which provides natural corollary to offensive action undertaken by any dialogue partner against any ASEAN member, leading to its eviction from the ASEAN and ASEAN centered mechanisms. The consensus laden framework at times leads to constraining action in the regional organization. Lastly, the ASEAN members must institute a South China Sea high powered committee to bring about dialogue and also raise relevant issues of concern without any fear or favour.

It has been seen that the deployment of Chinese survey ship in Vanguard bank for long duration of time defies any logic with regard to any scientific experiments or serious survey. China has used the survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 as a decoy for its strategic military activities and the deployment of large coastguard and naval vessels are a testimony to it. The withdrawal of the survey ship just before the ASEAN summit shows that China does not want SCS to figure anywhere in the ASEAN Communique and thereby taking evasive measures. Also, there is no guarantee that China would not return to the same area in future. The international community must take note of Chinese tactics and must issue a strong rebuttal. Mike Pence, US vice President speech (October 24) during a lecture at Wilson Center said, “…. make it clear to Beijing that no nation has a right to claim the maritime commons as territorial seas”. He accepted that, “the Chinese Coast Guard has tried to strong-arm Vietnam from drilling for oil and natural gas off of Vietnam’s own shores’’. It clearly shows that Chinese activities were illegal and were strong arm tactics, the signs of an irresponsible UN Security Council member. Vietnam would also be joining as non-permanent member of Security Council in 2020, and therefore it is imperative for the country to raise the South China Sea issue at this important forum. Vietnam would also be assuming the ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020. It has been seen in the past chairmanship of 2010 that Vietnam has avoided larger discussion on South China Sea. This shortsightedness was detrimental to the interests of Vietnam due to which the South China Sea as a major security hot spot was avoided in subsequent ASEAN meetings. Even in ADMM plus meeting this has to be raised and better rebuttal of Chinese action in Vanguard Bank is needed. China has already established the bilateral consultation mechanism with Malaysia on South China Sea, completely undermining the role and responsibility of ASEAN as a legitimate organization for such discussions. This also forewarns that China might wean away other claimants from the South China Sea consultations, forcing Vietnam to protect its own interest in not so obliging ASEAN forum.  During this year ASEAN Summit Vietnam must do lobbying with dialogue partners as well as claimants to put South China Sea as a main point in the East Asia Summit discussion and also in 35th ASEAN Summit Communique. This would help getting necessary traction in international and regional media.  

In conclusion, one might witness that in this ASEAN summit the resonance of ‘One ASEAN One Identity’, ASEAN Community, sustainable development partnership, marine pollution, haze, culture, strategic trust, defence cooperation, military medicine, cyber security, transnational crime, and industrial revolution 4.0 would be discussed. The ASEAN would have to identify its approach to evolve as the regional organization furthering the needs of the region and consolidating itself as one homogenous identity. Interestingly, the core values of ‘ASEAN way’ and consensus might get reflected in the communiqué under Thailand’s chairmanship. However, much depends on Thailand’s priorities in highlighting issues and taking cognizance of the developments in economic cooperation, security and building strategic trust while keeping the ASEAN values intact. The biggest question is whether ASEAN is ready for its role in ASEAN 4.0. Vietnam would have to make assertive diplomatic approach and not a hesitant demeanor to protect its EEZ and territorial waters threatened by Chinese encroachments.

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