Education

Thai Studies, Harvard University and the problem with political lobbyists

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 26, 2014 It is an unfortunate reality that many areas of study at universities across the world will never have the same draw than others. Very often, the more exotic the area, the less attractive it is for most prospective students.

There can, however, be certain benefits to taking the road less traveled. With (theoretically) smaller student to faculty ratios and (theoretically) a broader range of topics to cover, the more exotic subjects provide students with an opportunity to study something that is substantially less crowded than, say, law, economics or medicine, engage in cultural and academic exchanges with foreign cultures, and maybe even become a rare expert in that area.

Despite being often ridiculed as such an exotic fringe subject (or as the Germans say an ”Orchideenfach”, comparing it to an orchid flower - small, expensive and useless according to some) by the general public, Thai Studies at foreign universities actually have a tradition going back several decades. Cornell University was the first in the United States to open a Thai Studies center in 1947.  Formal Thai-language education in Germany dates back to the 1930s. Today, a number of Thai Studies programs with vastly different specializations are being offered at universities worldwide.

One of the institutions that may, or may not, be added to this list is Harvard University in the United States, considered to be one of the elite universities in the world. That is the wish of Michael Herzfeld, professor of anthropology at Harvard and a key figure behind the initiative to establish a Thai Studies program there.

In 2012, the first seeds were sown:

On April 18, Thai Studies at Harvard was launched with an inaugural lecture on "Thailand at Harvard." (…)

The targeted $6 million in funds will enable the programme to provide Thai language instruction; fund a chair (professorship) of Thai studies; and host seminars, workshops, lectures, and a film series focusing on Thailand. (…)

Prof Herzfeld emphasised it was crucial to establish a Thai programme in perpetuity at Harvard. He maintains the only way to do so was to create a dedicated professorship and a dedicated programme of Thai language instruction, and seminars and lectures on Thailand across the entire university. These facilities would provide resources for people in the community who have interests in working in, or doing research about Thailand.

According to the plan, the chair of Thai studies would be open to researchers on Thailand from any academic discipline. This would be a tenured position for a senior professor and would have a title that includes the name of the chair. The incumbent could be of any nationality.

Harvard plans to launch Thai studies initiative”, The Nation, May 21, 2012

Last week, The Harvard Crimson - a student-run college newspaper - published an article by Harvard alumni Ilya Garger that focuses on the current state of the Thai Studies efforts, in particular its financing and its supporters:

(…) Harvard is collaborating with key supporters of the recent coup to create a permanent Thai Studies program at the university. These individuals, most prominently former Foreign Ministers Surin Pitsuwan and Surakiart Satirathai, have spearheaded a campaign to raise $6 million for the program, which they have characterized as a means of promoting Thailand’s monarchy and national interests. Professor Michael Herzfeld, who is leading the initiative, wrote in an emailed statement to me that the program would not be tied to specific political interests and Harvard conducts due diligence on its donors. (…)

(…) At a fundraising event I attended in Bangkok last August, Surakiart declared that the Thai Studies at Harvard was intended as “a program to honor the King.” (…)

(…) Surin used the word “beachhead” to describe the envisioned role of the Thai Studies program. (…) Surin announced donations from several tycoons, and said he was seeking funding for the program from the King’s Crown Property Bureau, which manages the monarch’s wealth of more than $30 billion.

The Thai Studies program’s proponents at Harvard include well-intentioned and politically astute individuals who are aware that the some of the money being raised comes with an agenda. Michael Herzfeld in particular has a strong record of standing up for academic freedom. Harvard must ensure that the program is funded and run transparently, and that it is not co-opted by coup apologists (…)

”Troubles with Thai Studies”, by Ilya Garger, The Harvard Crimson, August 18, 2014

The article also elaborates on Harvard University’s ties to members of the Thai royal family. That is likely the reason why the article and the allegations made in it got even more attention when it was taken off The Harvard Crimson’s website last Wednesday because of ”concerns about the personal safety of its author” during his stay in Thailand at the time of publishing.

”The fact that we were compelled to temporarily remove the piece certainly was surprising,” said Crimson president Sam Weinstock in an email reply to Asian Correspondent. "We avoid removing content from our website in all but extremely exceptional circumstances.” Weinstock also added that he is not aware if a similar situation has occurred before at the college newspaper.

Indeed, given the tone and sensitive issues raised in the article, the author might well have put himself in the crosshairs. An apparent death threat was made  against Garger by a Los Angeles-based Thai national on Facebook, but that reportedly happened after the removal of the critical article and also not on the Facebook pages of anybody directly involved.

A day later the article was put back up on the Crimson website with a note that the author Ilya Garger had left Thailand. The Hong Kong-based founder of a business research service told Asian Correspondent that the request to temporarily remove his article from The Harvard Crimson’s website ”wasn’t in response to any individual threat. (…) No one has personally contacted me with any threats, ” but admitted that the response to his article was ”stronger than expected.”

Garger added that the Thai Studies initiative at Harvard has progressed as far as it is has ”because relatively few people knew about it.” While lauding Prof. Herzfeld in his article for his strong standing for academic freedom, Garger thinks Herzfeld made ”too many concessions in exchange for donations. (…) I wrote the article because I think that with more scrutiny, this program will be carried out in a more responsible way.”

In the aforementioned article, two Thai politicians are named the main campaigners raising the estimated $6m for the Thai Studies program. One is Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy prime minister under Thaksin Shinawatra, with whom he split after the military coup of 2006. The other man is Surin Pitsuwan, former foreign minister under Chuan Leekpai and 2013 ASEAN secretary-general. The latter publicly supported the anti-government protests (at least in their early stages) that preluded the military coup of May 22.

Both Harvard alumni, Surakiart and Surin invited members of the Harvard Club of Thailand for a fundraiser evening in August last year. The event, which was attended by high-ranking members of the Democrat Party (as shown in a ThaiPBS news report), held a reception for Michael Herzfeld and Jay Rosengard of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

In the invitation seen by Asian Correspondent, Mr. Surakiart and Mr. Surin called for a permanent Thai Studies program ”for the benefits of our own Thai people,” but also ”Harvard scholars and students to learn Thai, to study our rich history and our proud culture” in order ”to offer solutions to our issues of the day within a larger global context, to help increase competitiveness of our human resources, to raise our profile and that of our products and services, among others.”

The event also highlighted the need for scholarships and fellowships to Harvard University are for Thai students ”less privileged than us” and a need for Thai professors ”hold prominent teaching and research positions” at the Thai Studies program at Harvard.

Herzfeld declined to respond to Asian Correspondent’s questions about the Crimson article, and also more general questions about the current progress of the Thai Studies initiative. Instead, we were referred to a Harvard spokesman, who issued a statement  saying that ”faculty searches and appointments are conducted independently, and faculty members determine and pursue their own research interests and teaching” whenever donations are accepted.

The involvement of Thai politicians and apparent supporters of Thailand’s recent military coup shows the difficult relationship between academia and politics, especially when it comes to fundraising. It remains to be seen that due diligence will be conducted in the creation of a Thai Studies program at one of the top ranked universities in the world, and whether the initiative will spawn a multi-disciplinary and critical program that upholds academic freedom or it becomes solely a training ground for Thailand’s political elites.

Siam Voices 2013 review – Part 4: Hey, teachers! Allow those kids to grow

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 30, 2013 In the penultimate part of the Siam Voices 2013 year in review, we look at an important but often neglected issue: education

As regular readers may know, we often have talked about Thailand's lagging education system, which has a lot of problems in a lot of areas. Whether it's ridiculous questions being asked in the annual O-Net testsquestionable standardization of these tests, poor PISA scoreshorrendous English-language training and thus proficiency, or virtually non-existent sexual education, most Thais are in agreement that something needs to be done about it if the country doesn't want to fall behind its neighbors competitively. Thailand's standard of education is already a concern for foreign companies operating in Thailand.

And again in 2013 the international education listings and surveys did not show any signs of improvement. The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013 ranked Thailand's education dead last among ASEAN countries, Thailand's English proficiency is "low" according to a survey by Education First, although the trend is showing a slight improvement. The same goes for the OECD's PISA survey, in which Thailand makes some improvement in reading and science. Amidst such results, Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang (already the fourth during Yingluck's tenure), acknowledged that the country's education system is severely outdated and needs an overhaul.

Yet the Yingluck Shinawatra government's most notable education policy is the pricey "one tablet per child"-scheme, which needs some time (like most education policies) to see its results. The problem that has been plaguing this and past administrations is that Thailand spends a lot on its education with little improvement to show for it. Nevertheless, some issues were tackled this year, such as plans to reduce the study hours from over 1,000 to 600-800 a year, reduce  the home-workload or link teacher payment to the student performance.

But as many pointed out, there are far more deeper problems with the education system...

Thai students have an altogether different impression. In Thai schools, a drill sergeant’s dream of regimentation rooted in the military dictatorships of the past, discipline and enforced deference prevail.

At a public school in this industrial Bangkok suburb, teachers wield bamboo canes and reprimand students for long hair, ordering it sheared on the spot. Students are inspected for dirty fingernails, colored socks or any other violation of the school dress code. (…) a system that stresses unquestioned obedience.

In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule“, by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013

Indeed. That archaic attitude is being reflected in widespread rote learning and repetitious memorization methods, but also the fact that Thailand is one of the last few countries left in world which requires university students to wear uniforms. Also, school children have strict haircut guidelines that were relaxed this year.

But what this year also showed is that more resistance is forming against the old ways of learning and teaching. There's the Anti-SOTUS group that calls for an end to the harsh hazing rituals at universities. We also saw the Facebook campaign by "Frank" Nethiwit Chotpatpaisan against the "mechanic" education system and oppressive school rules, going as far as declare himself "sick of Thainess". In a final display of his principles this year, the opinionated and strong-willed 11th-grader rejected a nomination by the National Human Rights Commission, criticizing its callousness towards the 2010 crackdown and the report it produced.

Then there's the Thammasat University student provocateur nicknamed "Aum Neko", who protested against compulsory uniforms with racy and suggestive posters, much to the annoyance of fellow students and university officials. Aum Neko is no stranger to controversy (having casually posed on the lap of Thammasat’s founder Pridi Banomyong's statue last year) as a TV reporter rather pompously filed a lèse majesté complaint against the student for comments she made in an interview months earlier. Earlier this month, in the middle of the anti-government protests, Aum Neko got into trouble again for protesting against Thammasat's perceived siding with the protesters, as she attempted to take down the Thai national flag and replace it with a black banner. That led to even stronger reactions by fellow students and officials (one vice rector even wrote on his Facebook page that he would "trample" her). She is now facing expulsion from the university.

What all these stories from the past 12 months show is that Thailand's education (and not only that) still has yet to adapt to a changing social and cultural landscape and is in desperate need of a system that can accommodate the growing diversity of (free) thinking, opinions, access to knowledge and lifestyles. This will require the will to completely overhaul the education system (which also means dealing with the aging bureaucratic structures and curriculum) and the necessary time to grow to fruition - and that is more time than the average duration of governments in Thailand.

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series concludes tomorrow! Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

Racy posters spark uniform debate at Thai university

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 16, 2013 The ongoing debate on student uniforms takes a racy turn, as one student's poster campaign challenges the necessity of uniforms at Thammasat University.

They're a common sight everywhere you go: young women in white blouses and black skirts or young men in white dress shirts and black dress pants, sometimes with belt buckles (in the case of the girls only held by a few binder clips) or pins sporting their university logos.

Thailand is one of the very few countries left in the world - next to neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - that requires students to wear uniforms even at university level. While the wearing of uniforms is mandatory at every academic institution in the country, how strict the rules are enforced varies from place to place and is mostly up to the teaching personnel.

And every now and then there is some controversy about the outfits students are wearing, mostly about their interpretation. For example back in 2009, the directors of the nation's top tier universities Chulalongkorn and Thammasat in Bangkok complained about female students wearing uniforms that are "too sexy" and "inappropriate" - a publicly announced clampdown by both universities fell flat. Then in 2011, a similar short-lived uproar by education officials took place after a Japanese news website poll listed Thailand's student uniforms as "the sexiest in the world."

However, the questions about the necessity of uniforms at higher education level and its effects on student performance is rarely asked.

Several posters were plastered across notice boards in early September at Thammasat University's Rangsit campus on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. The four different motives have slogans such as "Isn't sex more exciting with student uniforms?", "Were you required to wear a uniform at your last midterms?", "When student uniforms are being challenged" and "Free humanity from the shackles" while depicting couples (both hetero and homosexual) having sex.

These were the creation of a transgender female liberal arts student at Thammasat University nicknamed "Aum Neko", who shows her opposition to the mandatory uniform rule after it emerged that students were not allowed to take part in an exam in a compulsory freshmen course as they were not wearing the required uniforms.

In the Bangkok Post, she explains the reasons for her protest and why she chose the provocative motives:

"Personally, I believe in liberalism. I believe that 'forcing' students to wear uniforms at university level is an insult to their intellect and humanity. You are using the power of uniforms to control, not only their bodies, but their behaviour and thoughts." About the provocative posters, in which she poses as one of the models, Aum Neko said that the main concept is to tie the uniform, which traditionally represents goodness and morality, together with sex, which represents wickedness, something that shouldn't be expressed.

"Uniform opinions", Bangkok Post, September 11, 2013

An extensive interview with Prachatai goes more in-depth about the motives and themes of her posters, explains why no fellow female students were taking part in the campaign and what she believes her university is supposed to stand for.

Unsurprisingly, the poster campaign has sparked debate on social and mainstream media on the necessity of student uniforms, but also about the 'inappropriateness' and shock value of the posters - with plenty of support and condemnation towards Aum. Thammasat University announced that it will conduct a disciplinary review of her actions (she caused another stir last year by casually posing on the lap of the statue of the university's founder Pridi Banomyong), as some social media users are calling for her expulsion. However, Thammasat will also set up a committee consisting of lecturers and students to "to investigate the issue and come up with solutions."

The story also raises the question whether or not the university is still maintaining it's liberal-democratic roots, as its students have historically been politically active in the past - but the internal debate on the lèse majesté law (which bizarrely featured journalism students protesting against the reformists) has put the institution at odds with itself.

While on the surface the debate over student uniforms may appear to be just a superficial issue, it is one of many aspects in Thailand's militaristic education system that reinforces uniformity and obedience, since for Thai conservatives these are still the most important characteristics of our education - while Thailand's society has changed and is more than ready to move on.

The fight against Thailand's archaic and militaristic education system

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 31, 2013 We have previously highlighted the dismal state of Thailand's education system and have explored the various reasons for its failures: from ridiculous questions being asked in the annual O-Net tests, questionable standardization of these tests, to poor PISA scoreshorrendous English-language training and thus proficiency or virtually non-existent sexual education - there're a lot of problem spots that doesn't bode well for the present but also for the (near-)future of the country economically, but also culturally.

Previous governments have only thrown more money at the problem and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, while promising on a press conference after her election victory in 2011 to shift the focus on "life-long learning", her administration's best known education policy has been so far handing out free tablet PCs. But the problems lie much deeper.

The New York Times recently ran a story pointing to the root cause of our aching education system:

Thai students have an altogether different impression. In Thai schools, a drill sergeant’s dream of regimentation rooted in the military dictatorships of the past, discipline and enforced deference prevail.

At a public school in this industrial Bangkok suburb, teachers wield bamboo canes and reprimand students for long hair, ordering it sheared on the spot. Students are inspected for dirty fingernails, colored socks or any other violation of the school dress code.

(...) a system that stresses unquestioned obedience.

"In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule", by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013

This unquestioned discipline also reflects in the learning methods: rote learning, repetitious memorization is still widespread in Thai classrooms.

Another apparent factor is the enforced uniformity of Thai students: apart from the uniforms - Thailand is one of very few countries worldwide that requires even university students to wear uniforms - Thai schoolchildren have strict guidelines of hair cuts (boys have to wear a crew cut, girls can't grow their hair longer than the neckline and dyeing is absolutely prohibited) from very early on.

But this archaic regulation (dating back to 1972 during the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn) is undergoing a change since earlier this year, as the Education Ministry is proposing to relax these rules following a recommendation by the National Human Rights Commission, (NHRC) as we have previously reported and commented:

Hair on Thai school children’s heads has become a national policy issue. The student hair debate has been simmering and finally came to a boil after a schoolboy filed a complaint with the NHRC in December 2011. The complaint said that the school regulation prohibiting all hairstyles except the crew cut for boys and ear-lobe-length bob for girls is in violation of children’s human rights and that the schools allowing selected students such as those engaged in classical art performances to wear long hair is discrimination against other students subject to the hair rule. (...)

Since the student’s complaint to the NHRC in 2011 made the news, academics, policy makers, government officials and leading thinkers have weighed in with both pros and cons. The larger public recently jumped into the fray following the NHRC ruling in November 2012 and the decision by the education ministry just before Children’s Day. (...)

Perhaps these people are oblivious to the new reality that Thailand is in the midst of change - more young Thais are now getting a taste of questioning and blind obedience can no longer be taken for granted. Today’s Thai youth are rushing headlong into the 21st century, only to be pulled back by the hair - so to speak - by arcane rules. However, at least some Thai grown-ups are beginning to appreciate the children’s frustration. But enough to set them free?

"Thailand: What has hair got to do with children’s rights?", by Kaewmala/Siam Voices, Asian Correspondent, January 13, 2013

The aforementioned New York Times article also highlights another campaign to modernize education:

Late last year, a freethinking Thai high school student, Nethiwit Chotpatpaisan, who goes by the nickname Frank, started a Facebook campaign calling for the abolition of the “mechanistic” education system. Together with like-minded friends, he started a group called the Thailand Educational Revolution Alliance. He rose to national prominence in January after speaking out on a prime-time television program.

“School is like a factory that manufactures identical people,” he said one recent morning at his school, Nawaminthrachinuthit Triam Udomsuksa Pattanakarn, (...) Frank described the teachers there as “dictators” who order students to “bow, bow, bow” and never to contradict them.

"In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule", by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013

Indeed there is now growing resistance to the status quo in the classrooms and, surprisingly enough, has found an unlikely ally in current Education Minister Phongthep Thepkanjana - at least to the New York Times reporter. But at least a few changes are being implemented: aside from the hair cuts, the number of school hours will be shaved off from 1,000-1,200 to 800 hours per year, in line with UNESCO recommendations.

But there needs to be a lot more to be done - like the lacking reading culture despite Bangkok being named World Book Capital 2013, the problem of corruption for school admissions while also planning to close down smaller schools or also the abusive culture of rite-of-passage rituals among first-year university students - all these and much more need a fundamental thorough overhaul not only to the curriculum, but also to the attitude towards teaching and preparing our children for the future to lead and not to follow.

Thailand: What we missed in September 2012

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 27, 2012 We look back at some news stories that made the headlines in Thailand this month.

Rich kids, fast cars, solid impunity: Social injustice on the roadside

At the beginning of this month, Central Juvenile and Family Court in Bangkok sentenced an 18-year-old girl to two years in jail for reckless driving, resulting in a crash with a van in which nine people were killed in December 2010. The sentence was suspended and the girl is banned from driving until the age of 25. What caught the attention of the public eye in this case is that not only was the driver 16 years old at the time of the accident (thus not legally old enough to drive a car), but also the daughter of a well-connected, high-society family, or "hi-so" in common Thai slang. That fact and that she survived almost unharmed made her the target of a relentless online witch hunt (we reported).

Just a few days later another lethal traffic accident involving an heir of a wealthy and influential businessman occurred in Bangkok when a police officer was hit by a sports car and dragged down the road for some distance. The drunk driver fled the scene and was later to be revealed as Vorayuth Yoovidhaya, the 27-year-old grandson of the recently deceased founder of Red Bull. However, since this is a wealthy and well-connected heir, the Thong Lor district police inspector initially attempted to cover up the hit-and-run case by detaining the family's caretaker as a scapegoat. This did not work and the inspector got suspended and Vorayuth will be brought to court. In the meantime, his family has reached a settlement with the siblings of the victim: a meager sum of 3m Baht ($97,000).

There have been countless incidents in the past were the offspring of the rich and powerful have gotten away after somebody else was killed (*cough*Chalerm's son*cough*) and these two incidents have yet again spurred some widespread outrage - but also, as usual with such widespread public outcries, quickly died down. Ironically, days later after Vorayuth's incident,  a female pop singer was caught drunk driving at a police control, but - showing her total obliviousness to recent events - initially refused the breathalyzer test because - according to herself - she "is a celebrity and knows many senior police officials" and felt "not in an appropriate condition. And when I'm sober, I'll blow into it."

2012 Flood Watch: Waiting for the deluge?

After last year's flood crisis swept through Thailand and had most of central Bangkok spiraling into panic, many were wondering if such a large deluge can happen again this year. According to the numbers, this is unlikely to repeat, as there weren't heavy rainfalls that raised the water levels at the nation's dams like in 2011. Nevertheless the question that has been often raised is whether or not the country is ready for a big flood again and the if lessons were learnt from last year's failures. The problem that appeared this month though is that the heavy rainfalls that are falling directly over Bangkok are flooding the streets, prompting a deluge of pictures from sois under water on social media. The reason is the city's drainage system is struggling to cope with the downpours.

ASEAN Economic Community: Coming soon-ish

One of the big upcoming projects for Southeast Asia is the common ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). That is supposed to launch in 2015, but concerning Thailand there are some doubts whether or not the country is ready for the regional economic changes as many areas are still in dire need of improvement - education and English proficiency would be two right off the top of my head. It looks like that the other ASEAN countries have similar issues in the run-up to the AEC and thus the economic ministers have agreed to delay the launch from the first day of 2015 to the very last day of the year. However, ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan has a rather interesting take on the issue:

"However, there was never an agreed, exact date as to when in 2015 we should all work towards -- should it be 1 January?  Mid-year?  Or year-end 2015?  The AEM (asean economic ministers) agreed on 31 December 2015," he said in the statement.

"Surin: AEC still on track", Bangkok Post, September 12, 2012

Ah yes, so we also learn that the launch date of "2015" was apparently just meant as a general guideline and they expected to set this off somewhere in those 365 days...!

Reading: World Book Capital of a non-bookish country 

A recent story in the Bangkok Post revealed this:

About 60% of Thai children never even get to see a book in the first three years of their lives, according to the former president of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT).

Citing a study conducted in 2008, Rissawol Aramcharoen said the parents of over five million young children never read any stories, or fairy tales, to their children when they are young.

These children had also never been involved in activities that could develop their intelligence, she told told a seminar to mark International Literacy Day on Sunday.

"60% of preschoolers never see a book", Bangkok Post, September 10, 2012

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised by the numbers, since we have often reported on the dismal state of Thai education (see above) and that also correlates to a much cited study that says Thais on average read seven or eight lines per year - yes, you read that right: not eight to seven pages, let alone books, but lines! However, not much else is known about the source of this study. Regardless, it does not hide the fact that Thais are not very bookish. The reasons for a lack of reading culture are very clear as mentioned over at Bangkok Pundit.

Note: The release of the final report by the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) into the deaths during the anti-government red shirt protests of 2010 will be addressed in a future column.