The Asian renaissance

August 11, 1995

I note that James Boswell died 200 years ago and Robert Burns followed a year later. This leads me to reflect on something that I have always found interesting: the Scottish renaissance of the 18th century that produced such outstanding men as David Hume and Adam Smith. Even more noteworthy is the question, why did these Scots suddenly do so well? Was it the Act of Union of 1707? Was it the peace that the Union brought across the border?

One suggestion was that it was the Scotland Act of 1696 which "enforced previous legislation setting up a school in every parish". The quality of education in Scotland was exceptional, and that was probably what made the difference.

My thoughts turn to the place of education in Asia, especially in the areas that had been parts of European empires. Was there "a school in every parish" by the beginning of the 20th century? Probably in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), parts of British India, and the Straits Settlements. Burma and the Malay States had to wait longer, but the Philippines under the Americans and Cochin-China under the French were not far behind. By the time of independence, all the former colonies in Southeast Asia were building schools at a very fast rate.

During the 1950s, apart from Singapore and Malaysia remaining active in the British Commonwealth education system and the Philippines maintaining close connections with the United States, Southeast Asia's direct ties with former imperial powers were largely broken. But for the three countries which kept their lines open, the advances in education were quite spectacular, as were those in parts of South Asia.

There have been claims for an Asian "renaissance". How far can they be related to progress in education? Writers, scholars and scientists are normally the most prominent direct beneficiaries of education.

For Southeast Asia, the list of those who have made an impact on the rest of the world is small but growing. In contrast, the political figures have been larger than life. In the English-speaking world, such men as Rizal, Quezon, Tengku Abdul Rahman, Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Mahathir might not have been of the stature of Gandhi and Nehru, but they were well-educated in modern schools and universities, and the "technology transfers" in their public careers were remarkable. Some were also considerable intellects.

Others like Aung San had learnt little from the British, though U Nu was a careful student of British ways, Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh picked what they needed from the west, the former desultorily and the latter with deadly purpose, but really became great because of their direct opposition to what colonial systems had to offer. Perhaps Prince Sihanouk can claim to have thrived because of his metropolitan education. Thus, political leaders tend to dominate in Southeast Asia. They owed less to formal education, but were really heroic figures created by the opportunities of their times.

The story in South Asia, of course, is somewhat different. It saw the establishment of the earliest modern universities in the three great cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. The stress from the start was on cultural and philosophical education, and the splendid achievements reflect these beginnings.

From Rammohan Roy to Tagore, from Vivekenanda, Radhakrishnan, Satyajit Ray to Salman Rushdie, South Asia's renaissance came early, was well-sustained, and has continued vigorously to the present.

What about Thailand, China and Japan, countries which were never colonised? Here the contrasts are great. In Japan, education was given the strongest possible emphasis and official support, and there were far more writers, scholars, scientists, and engineers than politicians among the great achievers. By learning systematically and directly from European institutions, the Japanese mastered the latest advances in learning at a spectacular speed. They were also quick to turn their new-found knowledge to practical use. Their national renaissance could be said to have been "hard" in comparison with that of India's, which might be described as being of a "softer" variety.

Neither the Chinese nor the Thais could match what the Japanese did in education. Both were constrained during the first half of this century by circumstances beyond their control. The Thais still lacked a strong national identity and remained very insecure in between the British and French empires.The Chinese were overwhelmed by military humiliations and civil wars. For most of the past 150 years, their education system developed despite the lack of a consistent policy. But because they had the numbers and they opened themselves to modern ideas and practices through Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city in Asia, they did produce their share of brilliant individual writers, scholars and scientists.

They had begun well, with intellectuals like Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Zhang Binglin, followed by Lu Hsun, Hu Shih and others, but their best scientists seem to have done better outside. China never had the peace and political order for its educated people to sustain their achievements or allow them to contribute more to the country. Like many of the Southeast Asian countries, it was the politicians and military figures who dominated all developments: from Tseng Kuo-fan, Lu Hung-chang, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai to Deng Xiaoping, and their rise to greatness had less to do with education than the tenor of their times.

The two colonies of Japan, Korea and Taiwan, fared poorly. Only when they were free to turn to tertiary education in the United States in the 1950s did they join the race. But the long line of scholars, scientists, writers and film-makers produced in the two countries in less than four decades is spectacular. Nothing in post-colonial Southeast Asia can match their numbers.

What do we make of all this? There is little doubt that, unlike the 18th century Scots who had their renaissance when they numbered about one million, we are dealing here with much larger populations. Nevertheless, it would appear that, in Asia, numbers do count, not in absolute terms, but relative to those who received modern education. Also, how many schools and universities did each country have, say, in 1950? Not surprisingly, with a few exceptions, there is a positive correlation between population size and quality of education, and the local and national renaissance that is later claimed.

What is less clear is how important was the contribution from the indigenous traditions. The East and South Asian experiences suggest that these could help prepare the response to the western challenge. For Southeast Asia, there is the added question of whether the colonies fared worse. Did it matter how long they were colonies for, and which great powers they were colonies of? Did those under the British do better than those under the French, the Dutch, the Japanese or the Americans? It is noteworthy that, after the 1950s, there has been a rapid spread of schools, colleges and universities everywhere.

The keen response to increased tertiary opportunities abroad, especially to the United States, has clearly had a significant impact on intellectual development. For the post-colonial decades, looking to the US may be like the Scots looking to England 300 years ago. If that is so, perhaps an historic Asian renaissance will not be long coming.

Wang Gungwu is vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.

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