Time is running out. It is only three years until Thailand becomes part of the single market system under the Asean Economic
Community (AEC). Yet, the majority of people are still not prepared to face the new challenge.
According to a recent poll in the Northeast by Khon Kaen University, more than half the respondents have not heard of the AEC, and the situation is similar in other parts of the country. This is a bad sign.
According to poll respondents, they want to know more about what the impacts of the AEC on their lives will be. They also want the government to provide them with better language and technological skills so they can make use of new opportunities. In short, people know what they want. Yet, the country’s political instability over the past decade and the governments’ preoccupation with day-to-day politics have failed to prepare the populace for what is to come.
But even without divisive politics, ordinary folk still don’t have much chance of seeing equitable benefits from the AEC, due to the inequitable education system and the Education Ministry’s fierce resistance to reform.
Much has been said about the consistently poor teaching of English. But poor English is only a small part of the problem created by the authoritarian and ultra-nationalist Education Ministry.
Let’s face it. Many of the problems that will hinder Thailand’s smooth regional integration come from the wrong ideas the education system puts into people’s heads. For example, the myth of Thailand’s racial homogeneity and ultra-Thai nationalism. Lack of respect for different ethnic identities has led to eight years of southern violence. Ultra nationalism will continue to hurt relations and escalate conflicts with our neighbours.
In his recent speech at the Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Surin Pitsuwan stressed the importance of education reform if Thailand wants to enjoy AEC benefits. Firstly, accept cultural pluralism. Secondly, stop rote learning, encourage independent thinking, flexibility, and the ability to explore and readjust.
Similarly critical of the education system, historian Thongchai Winichakul also stressed the need for national Thai history to free itself from hyper nationalism which pits Thailand against its neighbours, and to use the study of history to foster a critical mind instead.
Their advice should be heeded. Leaving the ultra-nationalist cocoon will enable Thais to learn more about other Asean countries’ cultures and languages. Otherwise, the AEC opportunities will pass them by.
Respect for cultural diversity, meanwhile, will enable mainstream society to value its Malay, Lao, and Khmer-speaking communities because their language skills and cultural affinities can help the country boost relations and economic activities with other Asean members more effectively. This new appreciation will lead to state support for cultural pluralism, not ethnic suppression as is the case now. Meanwhile, a critical study of history which does not make people see history as part of their identity will open minds, encourage open discussions, promote tolerance, and strengthen political maturity. This is exactly what we need to make peace possible amid ethnic and ideological differences.
Without education reform, the country cannot maximise AEC opportunities. Any AEC benefits will be concentrated in the hands of the privileged few who are already well-equipped for change. With the slim chance of the AEC helping narrow the country’s outrageous disparities, hopes of ending our dangerously divisive politics remain as far off as ever.
By: Bangkok Post