Education in South-East Asia: Disruptions Are Happily at Hand

The first Asean-Australia Education Dialogue was held in Penang in March this year. Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng, Executive Director of Penang Institute, presented the keynote speech, reproduced here.

Dato' Dr Ooi Kee Beng.

I am very happy that the first Asean-Australia Education Dialogue (AAED) is held here in Penang, my hometown. We like to think of Penang as the spot in South-East Asia where much of what we today recognise as “Modernity” first landed. This happened in 1786, 16 years after Captain James Cook landed in Australia for the first time.

I wish to draw your attention to certain factors – certain concepts and dynamics, in fact – which anyone studying South-East Asia and worrying about its future, or in fact anyone studying any single country in the region, should consider. I will try to describe South-East Asia in a historical fashion, and through that, I hope to project to you a broad understanding of the region’s challenges and self-image, and of Asean’s significance today.

A Peaceful and Peripheral Region

South-East Asia is indeed a strange and unique region. In many ways, it was peripheral to the major dynamics of human history, which to a large extent were played out on the Euro-Asia landmass. It was drawn into world events only in recent centuries. Before that, much civilisational influences did steadily come from across the Bay of Bengal, no doubt, and the traditional cultures in South-East Asia are recognisably Indic in character.

In the archipelago, there is an obvious overlay of Islamic and Arabic influences. The northern and continental parts of South-East Asia exhibit Sinic influences, especially in Vietnam and parts of northern Myanmar.

The Europeans came to the region in waves. The Catholic Iberian nations arrived first, and they were followed by the mercantilist government-linked companies that we know as the East India Companies of the Dutch and the British.

The British managed to gain a foothold on the Straits of Malacca, here in Penang, in 1786, 275 years after the Portuguese conquered Malacca, and 145 years after the Dutch took Malacca from the Portuguese.

The Nation-state and the Ethos of Nationalism

There is, thus, an overlay of European culture over the earlier Indic, Arabic and Sinic influences in the region. Now, what is interesting to us here is that the European influence took the form of clear territorial entities, in a region – especially in the south – whose cultures have always been sea-based (apart from the island Java, perhaps). The nations in the region were thus all born out of the political contingencies of late colonialism, and of colonial retreat.

They were also born under the banner of “nationalism”, a word that subsumed within it the powerful complexity of human feelings of the times. Nation-building has therefore been a hasty and painful process in most parts of the region, where the halfblind led the blind. I assume there were –and are – cases where the blind led the halfblind.

It is critical to remember here that the governments of the newly independent countries were building new nations, new states and new citizenries in the midst of the global Cold War that immediately followed the Second World War. For Malaysia, the Second World War was in effect the Japanese Occupation, while the Cold War were conflicts between communist parties and parties supported by the retreating colonialists.

Organisers and key partners.

While the Cold War raged hotly in the northern countries, in the maritime countries, the dynamics of their foreign policy moved towards security collaboration with their immediate neighbours. That was the basis for the formation of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean). It became quite clear early on that the cultural walls built by the colonialists were high ones, and diplomatic ties between the new nations would have to be akin to a treading on eggshells.

With the end of the Cold War, the northern nations began to join Asean, one by one. And today, we have 10 members in the regional body. But unlike Europe, there is no ancient civilisational imperative forthese countries to integrate too tightly. Their integration, therefore, driven as it is by insecure national governments, has been a cautious process.

In fact, Asean amounts to a project that is trying to create a region rather than be an expression for a region. The region, being peripheral to world history, also meant that its political, cultural and social dynamics were more driven by spontaneous economic activities than by far-reaching political and imperial ambitions. In many ways, one can see South-East Asia as a leftover region in the global context of imperial expansions, bordered from without rather than from within.

Let me elaborate further on what I mean by mentioning four main ways in which South-East Asia is geopolitically perceived. First, the British created a South-East Asia Command during the Second World War that had oversight over the areas East of India, but excluding the Philippines, which was an American concern. Second, for the Americans, the South-East Asia that interested them were the parts that bordered the Pacific or that could be of strategic use in containing China. Third, there is China’s view, which considers South-East Asia partly as the parts that are accessible by sea, and partly as those reachable by land, which would be continental South-East Asia. Lastly, there is how South-East Asian countries today wish to see themselves – as the region covered by the 10 Asean countries.

With former chief minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng.

Then one could ask what Australia’s view of South-East Asia is? Is it Indonesia and its northern neighbours? Is it the buffer between Australia and China, or Australia and India? Or is it a region Australia would like to be a part of? Would Australia complete Asean if it were a member? These questions are not for me to answer of course, so I will leave it at that.

Why I feel that I need to mention all these historical details and highlight the conceptual tenor of the region’s self-image is that it helps us understand the nature of nation-building in each country. Despite the region’s long history, what we have been witnessing the last 50-70 years are painful attempts by each country in the region to build a new nation, a new state and a new citizenry all at the same time. More poignantly, creating from disparate economies a national economy that is often at the mercy of fast-changing and relentless global dynamics often not easily understood has been no walk in the park.

In essence, I wish to highlight the contingent nature of the political landscape in the region, and the degree to which we are held hostage by history; and therewith suggest how much change is actually possible if we keep in mind how unplanned our present situation actually is, and how pragmatic our key concepts of identity actually are.

The organisation of Asean, therefore, has acted as a safe harbour for these countries in the global scheme of things, while each ship of state tried to work out how a new nation, a new state and a new citizenry were to be built to last.

Countries are generally more state-nations than they are nation-states. And perhaps it is more correct to say that we are dealing with nation-state-nation-state-nation-state in an endless process. The state seeks to create a nation, and nations within a state contest to create a state that suits them.

Since the aspect of nation-building which is important for us at this conference is Education, let me end by saying a few words about the future of this very important matter. Education is the great leveller – we all know that. So why do so many countries in the region have such trouble getting their education systems right? After more than half a century, why are so few countries in the region proud of their institutions of learning?

As a short answer to that, I would say that governments have tended to be overwhelmed by other matters – matters of identity, religion, race, security, the list goes on. In fact, many leaders in South-East Asia are not roundedly educated people who can appreciate the importance of scientific thinking as a common and economic good, and of good governance as a prerequisite for sustainable development.

Just as importantly, a clearer understanding of the socio-economic and socio-political prerequisites for creativity, and of the central importance of individual freedom in the process of learning and production, is possible if South-East Asians – and especially South-East Asian governments –can get over the fears and insecurities that accompanied the first half century of their nation-building history.

Regionalism is the Future

What is an effective way out of this? How should we think in order to quickly take advantage of the new age of digital technologies and the new mindsets and possibilities unleashed by the new connectedness we all live in?

For the region as a whole, being a latecomer can be a great advantage. But there must first be an admission on the part of policymakers that the longer they retain twentieth-century ways of doing things, the harder it will be for the next generation to take advantage of the new age. They owe it to their young to seriously consider how policies for the future should be formed. Old ways will merely recreate old problems.

Disruptions are definitely hitting the Education industry. But while the possibilities for comprehensive learning offered by new technologies appear to be endless, the educational infrastructure in developing countries appears also to be very conservative, and is probably acting as the biggest barrier to change. Changes, I believe therefore, will largely come from outside the traditional system. We do see such trends already, and the inefficiencies of traditional schooling are becoming unbearably obvious to those parents who are knowledgeable enough to see them.

Now, the reason I talked so much about the insecure nature of South-East Asia’s nationalism is simply to highlight the make-do, formalistic and copycat methods early nation-building adopted. There is no need to keep to that in this new age of possibilities. To lessen the conservativeness of twentieth-century governance, which tends to increase if left to its own devices, we need to consider politics, economics and educational possibilities in a regionalist manner.

For example, learning languages should not be seen as a zero-sum game. In many new nations that gained independence after the War, language as a national identifier led to a turning away from English, as if knowing one language made you weak in another. We saw that in China, we saw that in Malaysia, definitely. Luckily for China, the obvious solution soon took over there: you simply learn two languages, if not more. In fact, we now have many studies that show that bilingualism and multilingualism enhance your EQ and your analytical skills.

Cultural performance held during the dialogue's dinner.

Monolingualism as policy sounds ridiculous today, but some degree of that was visible in the old days, and definitely so in Malaysia in some quarters even today. There was an excessive concern with language as the identifier of national identity. In fact, in English-speaking countries, that is paradoxically still largely the case, and it limits their ability to understand the cultural complexity of the world.

But English is the language of globalisation, no doubt; it is the language through which a lot of new knowledge is transmitted. Mastering English does not make a child less able to use their mother tongue, but not mastering English will certainly hamper their educational development and make much new knowledge inaccessible to them.

In the near future, making centres of learning, or simply making teachers and lecturers more accessible to students throughout the region without the students having to move and live at a definite campus for years, would make schooling an easier process for many poorer families.

My organisation, Penang Institute, which is a Penang state-funded think tank, has been tasked to start something we call “Leadership Academy”. The point of this Academy is to facilitate the learning of cutting-edge managerial and analytical skills among top and middle management, and among promising young people. That is not an easy job, but it has to be done. It also shows that there is increasing consciousness about how quickly the world is changing, at all levels.

Where public policy is concerned, making sure all homes have internet connectivity and at acceptably high broadband speeds, should be the major concern of all governments. Now, more than ever, education is the great leveller. But for that process to happen on a broad scale, governments and teachers, and educationists from the private sector will have to be efficient facilitators.

It would seem that the smaller a country’s population, the faster it should be able to jump on the bandwagon of new educational technologies and digital infrastructures. But I think that does not need to be true. The more people being served will mean lower costs per person. So size is no excuse.

For educationists, and for students, this is the time of possibilities. By enhancing mobility, communication and choices, raising the educational level of the next generation of South-East Asians to a global level is fully possible.

We need political will, we need private sector push, and we need parents to be brave.

And most important of all, we need things to happen at the regional level if the region as a whole is to pull itself out of the educational equivalent of the middle-income trap. And here, I strongly believe, is where Australian initiatives like this one can play a strong facilitating role.

We need things to happen at the regional level if the region as a whole is to pull itself out of the educational equivalent of the middle-income trap. And here, I strongly believe, is where Australian initiatives like this one can play a strong facilitating role.

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