A Philip­pine am­bas­sador’s per­spec­tive on Asean ed­u­ca­tion

Manila Times - - OPINION - Iyo.” DahilSa Tales. Jataka Walangi­wanan) JAIME J. YAMBAO

FAIL­ING to get a speaker from the Lao Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Repub­lic, the or­ga­niz­ers of the World Coun­cil for Cur­ricu­lum and In­struc­tion-Asean Re­gional Con­fer­ence in­vited me re­cently as a for­mer am­bas­sador to that coun­try to share my per­spec­tive on ed­u­ca­tion there, pro­vid­ing me an op­por­tu­nity to make cer­tain points about ed­u­ca­tion in Asean as a whole.

My re­open­ing the Philip­pine Em­bassy in Vi­en­tiane in 1998 was warmly re­ceived by the Lao peo­ple be­cause they had won­der­ful mem­o­ries of the Philip­pine pres­ence in the 1960s to 1970s, of the Op­er­a­tion Broth­er­hood and the Filipino mu­si­cians.

Filipino con­tri­bu­tion in Laos

The Op­er­a­tion Broth­er­hood re­mains among the great­est sto­ries of the ac­com­plish­ments of Filipinos over­seas. Although funded by the United States as a pro­pa­ganda ef­fort to save In­dochina from the com­mu­nists, the face of OB was Filipino. All its doc­tors, agri­cul­tur­ists, nu­tri­tion­ists and nurses were Filipinos, and they en­deared them­selves to the peo­ple of this poor coun­try by pro­vid­ing free med­i­cal and other ser­vices re­gard­less side of the on­go­ing In­dochina War. The OB peo­ple had ex­cel­lent pub­lic re­la­tions, treat­ing the peo­ple of the lo­cal com­mu­nity as brothers and be­ing treated in re­turn as brothers. It is said that all par­ties in the war would warn the OB of any forth­com­ing skir­mish. I am thus not aware of OB suf­fer­ing any ca­su­alty in the war in Laos.

An­other group which made an in­deli­ble mark in the Lao land­scape of the 1960s and 1970s were the Filipino mu­si­cians. It seems the Filipinos, who had by then been dom­i­nat­ing the Asian mu­si­cal scene, pi­o­neered band or combo mu­sic in Laos. With the lib­er­al­iza­tion of the econ­omy and so­ci­ety, the Lao PDR al­lowed mu­si­cal nightspots to op­er­ate once again. When­ever I went to one, the Lao band would stop what they were play­ing and strike up a mas­ter­ful ren­di­tion of “

Ev­ery­one would then know the Philip­pine Am­bas­sador was around.

Out­side of th­ese groups teach­ing pre­ven­tive medicine, food se­cu­rity and bal­anc­ing one’s diet in a time to the pa­tients’ chil­dren, and mu­sic to its en­thu­si­asts, I do not think Filipinos were in­volved too much in ed­u­ca­tion in Laos. Tra­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion and ed­u­ca­tion dur­ing the French colo­nial pe­riod were not wel­com­ing to Filipinos.

Un­til the mid-20th cen­tury, ed­u­ca­tion in Laos was pri­mar­ily based in the Bud­dhist tem­ple school, where the monks taught novices to read Lao and Pali scripts, ba­sic arith­metic, and other re­li­gious and so­cial sub­jects, and morsels of wis­dom from an­i­mal fa­bles called the

Dur­ing the colo­nial pe­riod, the French es­tab­lished a sec­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem pat­terned af­ter schools in France, and French was the medium of in­struc­tion af­ter the sec­ond or third grade. But the sys­tem was largely ir­rel­e­vant to the vast ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion, pro­duc­ing a small elite from the royal fam­ily and noble house­holds and colo­nial civil ser­vants, ma­jor­ity of whom came from Viet­nam. In the 1960s there were Filipinos teach­ing in dis­tant Africa, but they taught in the English-speak­ing coun­tries.

Lao govt’s achieve­ment in ed­u­ca­tion

To the Lao PDR be­longs the credit of estab­lish­ing a sys­tem of uni­ver­sal, sec­u­lar, pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion. It took over the Royal Lao Gov­ern­ment ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem es­tab­lished in the 1950s and re­struc­tured it. The French sys­tem of ed­u­ca­tion was re­placed with a Lao­tian cur­ricu­lum.

Dur­ing my nearly four years’ stay in Laos, I was a daily wit­ness of the re­al­iza­tion of this com­mit­ment of the Lao PDR to uni­ver­sal pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion. I hap­pened to lo­cate the Philip­pine Chancery right be­side a school of pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion. The Chancery grounds seemed to quake with the run­ning and jump­ing of the yes, girls en­ter­ing the school in their im­mac­u­late, starched uni­forms. There was joy in their voices as they re­cited or sang their les­sons in cho­rus. There were many times I was asked why I chose such a noisy lo­ca­tion. And I would an­swer back, “The sound of happy chil­dren is not noise.” (I had of­ten told my­self what fun it must be to teach small chil­dren.) In the af­ter­noon on the way home to the Em­bassy res­i­dence, I would pass by I would have a pleas­ant im­pres­sion of a regime see­ing to it that chil­dren spend and en­joy their child­hood as they should.

But I would soon find out that the sit­u­a­tion out­side Vi­en­tiane, the cap­i­tal, was quite dif­fer­ent, and as you go farther away it was more and more riddled with prob­lems.

Lo­gis­ti­cal prob­lems

The Lao PDR was de­ter­mined to bring a uni­ver­sal sys­tem of pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion to ev­ery vil­lage in the coun­try. What, af­ter all, does “uni­ver­sal” mean? The prob­lem was that Laos was one of the least de­vel­oped coun­tries in the world and did not have the ma­te­rial and hu­man re­sources by it­self to sup­port a uni­ver­sal sys­tem of pri­mary school ed­u­ca­tion. It was in that eco­nomic stage when the dilemma of ed­u­ca­tion and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment was of the chicken-and-egg sort: There were so many se­ri­ous needs, and ev­ery one of those needs seemed like a pri­or­ity.

The Lao PDR had only been able to build makeshift or sub­stan­dard school­houses in the vil­lages and to pro­vide ev­ery school with only one or two teach­ers. At times grad­u­ates of the pri­mary level were be­ing made to teach the lower grades. And there was a sore lack of teach­ing ma­te­ri­als.

In one di­a­logue on the needs of ed­u­ca­tion with in­ter­na­tional part­ners, I joined the ap­peal of the host gov­ern­ment for donors to con­trib­ute gen­er­ously to the gov­ern­ment’s school­build­ing pro­gram. From our ex­pe­ri­ence in the Philip­pines, I cited the im­por­tance of school build­ings not only as class­rooms but in serv­ing many other pur­poses of the com­mu­nity, as town hall, elec­tion precinct, and evac­u­a­tion cen­ter in case of nat­u­ral and man­made dis­as­ters. I also found the oc­ca­sion to ex­press the view that among the pri­or­i­ties of ed­u­ca­tion in Laos the train­ing of the top­most pri­or­ity be­cause, cit­ing our ex­pe­ri­ence again, com­pe­tent teach­ers can teach un­der the trees or un­der any tar­pau­lin cover in the af­ter­math of a de­struc­tive calamity.

De­mo­graph­ics, cli­matic fac­tors

The lack of lo­gis­ti­cal re­sources was com­pounded by con­tex­tual prob­lems, by the nat­u­ral de­mo­graphic and cli­matic char­ac­ter­is­tics of the coun­try. Laos has an es­ti­mated pop­u­la­tion of 8.3 mil­lion di­vided into 47 dis­tinct eth­nic­i­ties, which are fur­ther sub­di­vided into149 sub­groups. Th­ese eth­nic­i­ties speak over 90 dis­tinct na­tive lan­guages. It is well for na­tion-build­ing that the Lao PDR adopted from the start Lao as a na­tional lan­guage and the medium of in­struc­tion. It is also very well that when I ar­rived, English was sec­ond lan­guage. (Lao bu­reau­crats pro­nounced English vow­els the way the Aus­tralians do be­cause they went en masse to Aus­tralia on schol­ar­ships.) Still, it is im­por­tant, even crit­i­cal, that teach­ers in the low­est grades speak the same lan­guage as their pupils, oth­er­wise teach­ers and stu­dents can­not com­mu­ni­cate with each other.

I found out that some parts of north­ern Laos were ex­ceed­ingly cold in win­ter dur­ing a visit up there to see the fa­mous gi­gan­tic pre­his­toric stone jars. There was no heat­ing of any kind and my group of Asean am­bas­sadors in our sweaters and jack­ets went to sleep un­der the mat­tress. The tow­els and bed­dings the inn pro­vided looked soiled and used be­cause they were im­pos­si­ble to wash in the cold. But I was dis­turbed look­ing at the chil­dren, their in­no­cent faces red with frost­bite. In the ex­treme cold, the pupils’ shiver their pen­cils to write. That is, if they grew up and reached school age. A group of Filipino nuns vol­un­teer­ing as teach­ers in the vil­lages in­formed me that quite a large num­ber of chil­dren in those moun­tains died from the cold. And the good nuns would ask me each time win­ter ap­proached to drop by their head­quar­ters in neigh­bor­ing Thai­land to pick up a car­ful of blan­kets and “smug­gle” them across the bor­der. Their char­i­ta­ble ac­tiv­i­ties were du­tyfree but they would have to un­dergo a lot of red tape be­fore they could cross the bor­der with those blan­kets.

As to how se­ri­ously the Lao PDR takes its mem­ber­ship in Asean, let me tell you a lit­tle story. One day, as I was en­ter­ing the Chancery, the teacher in the ad­join­ing school saw me and called me. She in­formed me that the gov­ern­ment had put a poster on the wall of the school and her pupils were ex­cited and happy to rec­og­nize me in it. It was a poster to cel­e­brate the 25th an­niver­sary of the es­tab­lish­ment of the Lao PDR. My picture was in it in con­nec­tion with Lao PDR’s be­com­ing a mem­ber of Asean. It was an in­di­ca­tion that the Lao PDR counted its mem­ber­ship in Asean as one of its most im­por­tant ac­com­plish­ments in the 25 years of its ex­is­tence.

In the be­gin­ning, the Lao PDR was spared from host­ing and chair­ing the an­nual sum­mits and min­is­te­rial meet­ings but be­fore long it was do­ing that. It must have by now chaired the Asean Summit of the Lead­ers four times.

Since be­com­ing an Asean mem­ber, the Lao PDR’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct has grown into one of the fastest rates in the world, but be­cause it started from a low base it is for now still a poor coun­try. It has made con­sid­er­able progress at uni­ver­sal­iz­ing pri­mary at less than 80 per­cent of chil­dren of pri­mary school age.

To be sure, the Asean has paid spe­cial at­ten­tion to the de­vel­op­ment of the Mekong Delta coun­tries. Its slo­gan “No one should be left be­hind” ( refers to the prob­lem of non-in­clu­sive­ness of some sec­tors in the do­mes­tic econ­omy but also ap­plies as well to Asean mem­bers lag­ging be­hind oth­ers eco­nom­i­cally.

Re­gional so­lu­tions to ed­u­ca­tion prob­lems

It is time that we look be­yond out navels. It is timely per­haps to search for re­gional so­lu­tions to the prob­lems of the ed­u­ca­tional sec­tor of the Lao PDR or any other mem­ber-coun­try of Asean. I no­ticed that there is an Asean Univer­sity Net­work. There is an Asean Net­work for Teacher Ed­u­ca­tion. Shouldn’t there also be an Asean Pri­mary School Net­work?

I be­lieve that the World Coun­cil for Cur­ricu­lum and In­struc­tion should study the im­pact of the fast ad­vances in com­mu­ni­ca­tion and in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, not only lo­gis­tics-wise but also con­tent- or cur­ricu­lum-wise. There are rea­sons to be con­cerned that th­ese ad­vances serve to erode the val­ues of civ­i­liza­tion and fur­ther frag­ment mankind. There is a need more than ever for an ed­u­ca­tion that en­ables the in­di­vid­ual to make in­formed choices and de­ci­sions that his fel­low­men.

It is timely for the ed­u­ca­tional sec­tor to con­sider what it can con­trib­ute to the re­al­iza­tion in 2025 of the Asean Com­mu­nity. The Asean ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ters are re­solved to en­hance re­gional co­op­er­a­tion in ed­u­ca­tion oth­ers, pro­mot­ing Asean aware­ness among Asean cit­i­zens, par­tic­u­larly the youth, and strength­en­ing Asean iden­tity through ed­u­ca­tion. I be­lieve the strength­en­ing of Asean iden­tity must start from an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the won­der­ful di­ver­sity among the peo­ples of Asean, in­clud­ing the va­ri­ety of eth­nic­i­ties such as the Lao PDR has. In­stead of be­ing viewed as ob­sta­cles to the unity of Asean, th­ese eth­nic­i­ties might con­trib­ute to that sense of iden­tity. For in­stance, I have seen many fea­tures in com­mon among in­dige­nous cul­tural groups of a num­ber of coun­tries. I sur­mise that th­ese were not just brought about by ac­ci­dent. Th­ese arise from a com­mon close­ness to Na­ture and its el­e­ments. Their gen­er­ally peace-lov­ing char­ac­ter come from their abid­ing con­cern for Na­ture’s con­ser­va­tion.

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