Exploring pathways in the east

May 2, 1997

THE conventional view that land, capital and labour provide the keys to economic development has been augmented by economic theories which stress that updated knowledge and skills through education are increasingly important for future growth.

The value that Asian cultures, especially those in east Asia, place on education is thought to be a crucial ingredient in their recent economic achievement. What is not clear, however, is whether the countries know which of their education programmes have been vital to that success.

Education stories in east Asia make headline news more often than similar news elsewhere, especially if they are linked to personal achievement and a threat to standards. But there are interesting differences in experience, and in the ways the new theory about the knowledge economy is interpreted.

What is most vital? Secondary and university education? Or is it the kind of start experienced at pre-school and primary level that really matters? Is it a question of more money at a higher level, and generous funds for basic research, with better rewards for creative scholars? Or must we keep up the pressure throughout the education process, from kindergarten to the research laboratories?

For decades, the Japanese have placed an emphasis on severe competition in high-schools for places in a handful of elite universities, notably those of Tokyo and Kyoto. The lack of rigorous standards of examinations in these universities did attract attention, but it was not until much later that the government worried about the research output of the graduates.

China, on the other hand, was proud of the brilliance and originality of Chinese scientists and mathematicians. Even between the 1950s and 1970s, when the Beijing authorities were forcing all intellectuals to be politically correct, they invested a sizable part of their revenue in scientific and technological research, to enhance the country's defence needs. To get the required standards, they concentrated on a few elite schools and universities, and, generally, ne-glected education for the many.

More recently, quite different issues have been highlighted. For example, in South Korea, the major concerns have been about students being worked too hard, especially given the horrendously long hours of private tuition taken after a full day at school. Government intervention to curb the spectacular profits of that tuition industry has long been promised and thought long overdue. But when the measures were introduced, they were met with surprisingly strong parental resistance.

In Japan, other problems have caught the attention of the media. Bullying and lack of discipline in schools has led to some suicides and nervous breakdowns among young school children. As in China, the big growth in higher education has led to reduced public funding for even the best universities, and research funding has been the worst hit.

In China, an issue is to what extent universities can persuade their academics to earn money outside the campuses, and their benefactors within and outside China to make larger donations to help fund work. This is relevant if the universities still believe a research culture is essential for the country's development. Primary and secondary education, however, remains underfunded. And the reservoir of talent is thought to be so large that concentrating on the urban centres will still produce enough skilled and educated people to meet the country's needs.

Taiwan set a striking example from the 1980s by investing heavily in industrial and engineering research, and attracted some of its best re-searchers back from the United States. The return of Li Yuan-tse, the Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, to become president of the Academia Sinica, was a great encouragement to local scholars. Extensive changes by the authorities to create a new knowledge culture has stimulated several generations of students. The hopes are that this work will not be diverted off-course by the trend towards politicisation which is now evident on the island.

Elsewhere in the region, there has recently been a remarkable spate of education reform measures - not least in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. The two island communities in particular have long stressed the value of education because they have recognised that people are one of their most important resources. Malaysia, too, with a relatively small population by the standards of the region, has realised that the way the young are educated and trained is vital to the country's rate and direction of growth. In this context, the question is, how should limited resources be distributed to best provide what the country needs? If you cannot afford quality education at all levels, when is the best time for students to be given their education? Should resources be spread evenly throughout the system? If the old saying that "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" is true, a demand for intense academic study could be counter-productive.

What is striking is that while the economic success of several of the states in east and southeast Asia may be comparable, no common answer can be found for these questions. There may be several education roads to Rome, and past education policies may not have played as large a part in the region's economic success as claimed.

But there is little doubt that some countries in this part of the world expect the importance of education to grow. Singapore has stressed the need for education which encourages creativity from the start, but, at the same time, is planning to promote commitment to high-level research. The strong support given to an international conference on thinking this June is symptomatic of the concern for a more dynamic approach to education. Nevertheless, spectacular re-sults in science and maths among lower secondary students point to the efficacy of conventional tuition.

Malaysia has made some revolutionary changes to enable universities to be privatised, so helping cut the number of students going overseas for higher education. Hong Kong, which expanded its universities earlier, is now anxious to give more resources to primary and secondary schools. There are many voices calling for change, and many different powerful interests at work. Political changes will have to be considered, and it is no wonder that Tung Chee-hwa, the chief executive designate of Hong Kong, states that education is one of the priorities.

It is significant, though, that a widespread agreement that we face a new knowledge-based economy, has not made it any easier to find the best way to achieve results.

Wang Gungwu is director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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