Singapore. Malaysia. The Philippines. Nations are a lot like people. Markedly different, yet all struggling in their own ways. One is living proof that prosperity is not the end all and be all of the national aspirations. Another is wracked by the undeniable deadweight of affirmative action for a racial majority. The third has been known as the “Sick Man of Asia” for decades after being an economic star in the 1960s, second only to Japan. Is there a common thread running through these three distinct narratives? Karol Mark Yee, who joined CAL’s Asia Leadership Trek in 2014 together with other Ivy League scholars, takes a closer look at the different socio-political pains and strains in Southeast Asia. The specific root causes and possible remedies may be different. But Yee notes that just as it is true with people, self-efficacy or the belief that one will eventually succeed is crucial to a progressive national psyche.
In the following excerpt taken from Rethinking Asia 1: Education and Innovation, Yee shares about first-hand encounters he had during the Trek that brought scholars from Harvard, MIT, and Tufts University to different cities in Asia for an “out-of-the-classroom” learning experience.
Young Malaysians speaking out
“The problem is that even if we make our national universities great, I cannot get in,” said a Chinese Malaysian student in an open forum that we held with Malaysia’s Secretary General of Education, Dr. Zaini Ujang. The comment was met with the applause of hundreds of students in the gymnasium. Coming from Southeast Asia myself I found this tension between the students and the government representatives at this forum surprising: the direct confrontation of leaders in Asian countries happens rarely, after all. We later learned that the tension that unfolded before we were brought about by a decades-long affirmative action instituted by the government: one in which opportunities in both education and work have been reserved for Malays, effectively easing out the Chinese and Indian populations in a highly racially diverse society.
While this affirmative action has, as we learned, going on for years in Malaysia, the encounter in the gym and several other conversations after gave me the impression that resistance to the policy is gaining ground with the advent of a more outspoken youth and the freedom granted by the internet (in comparison with government-controlled broadcast and print media). Despite the tight grip of the ruling coalition party, which has governed the country since it gained independence in 1957, the opposition is growing, and there appears to be strengthening, albeit still disjointed, move to work towards a more equal and democratic society in Malaysia.
A recurring theme in our conversations in Malaysia was that of “squandered potential”—many people we spoke with recounted past glories of a country that has been blessed with many advantages but has not lived up to its potential. As a result, while we found budding optimism among the Malaysians, it was still shaky and seemed in need of nurturing. Challenging a ruling party that has been in power for decades takes persistence, one which could become the litmus test for Malaysia’s new generation of opposition leaders. It will not be long before we find out if they are able to rise to this call.
The Malaysian narrative of “squandered potential” is similar to the Philippines’ narrative of a “damaged culture.” Of all the countries we visited on the Trek, Malaysia with its worries seemed the closest to my native land. I discussed this similarity with two Malaysian friends who were also on the Trek: we wondered if the similarity existed because of a shared tendency to dwell on the past and its failures or because of a shared ability to recognize inherent greatness in two countries that have not yet reached their full potential. Perhaps the answer lies in both.
Renegotiating a (very successful) social contract
“The social contract in question is this: in 1965, after their independence from Malaysia, Singaporeans agreed to accept the great power held by the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the restrictions on political and civil freedoms that the PAP imposed, in exchange for good housing, good jobs, a decent education system, and a strengthening economy. The contract proved both highly successful and satisfactory to both sides for over forty years. Recently, however, the agreement has begun to fray, partly because Singaporean society’s demands have become a lot more diverse and pluralistic, and partly because the government’s ability to ensure rising social mobility, affordable public housing, and a strengthening economy is beginning to come under strain.” These words came from a commentator in Singapore.
Before I arrived in Singapore, I found it difficult to understand how its citizens could still have worries, given that it has one of the highest GDPs in the world and arguably the best education system in the region. I have visited this island-state many times in the past decade and have always admired the great progress they have achieved, not to mention, respect for Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, whose visionary leadership is well acknowledged by many in the region. To my surprise, however, when I arrived in Singapore I found that the discussions we had there were more philosophical than in many other countries we visited prior: despite the success of their social contract, many Singaporeans now view the system as outdated and no longer appropriate for dealing with the needs of today.
More social policies
While there remains great admiration for Mr. Lee, the original architect of this social contract, many people are explicitly speaking of a renegotiation. During our conversations, a recurring theme was a need for less technical solutions and a call for an expansion of political and social policies: among them, healthcare and early childhood education. And these gaps, according to the academics we talked to, exist despite Singapore’s capacity to become a welfare state in the tradition of the Nordic countries, given its 5 to 6 percent GDP surplus.
Another criticism of the current system is the lack of freedom for the press, in an era of global information flows and communication—a realm in which Singaporeans are conspicuously silent.
Thus, while reaping the rewards of its first generation of leaders led by Mr. Lee, policymakers in Singapore today are grappling with the evolution of their country’s culture and the increased demand for social policy. I could sense their worry about a transition in government leadership, particularly over sustaining the country’s advantages in the coming years while still allowing for reform.
For many Singaporeans this sustainability rests in the hands of a new generation of leaders who can skillfully and knowledgeably steer the country, as they do today, but also listen to and empower their own people—breaking this so-called “strong dependency mindset”—referring to a tendency to accept passively all the government’s decisions.
Essentially, in spite of the success of their own government, a growing number of Singaporeans want to have a bigger stake in their own country’s affairs and to be a part of shaping their own futures.
Unlike President John F. Kennedy who roused a nation by telling them to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” in Singapore, the clamor seems to come from the people telling their government, “We want to do something, let us.”
The questions we ask ourselves
At the end of the Trek, I asked myself once again how and where the Philippines had gone wrong in the quest to strengthen its political, economic, and social systems. Once again I sought the reasons behind the Philippines’ “damaged culture.”
In one of the Trek’s meetings in Singapore, when I asked a prominent economist how Filipinos could work with the existing institutions in the Philippines to bring about change, he responded, “You have a different problem. The Philippines’ issues are much more complicated than the ones we have. You’ll need bloodshed to change how things are right now.”
This was hardly a vote of confidence. Yet, reflecting on this conversation on our flight home, I realized that what had struck me in Singapore and in all the countries we visited was people’s unwavering faith in themselves: in each country, the people we spoke to believed that they could pull through—and so they do.
Great courage, faith
When Korea was trying to rebuild itself after the Korean Civil War, with a sluggish economy and a divided country, they were able to revive their economy and come out stronger than they had ever been.
Today they are asking themselves how they can make their success sustainable and are putting the weight of government behind creating a “creative economy,” while everyone else is still working towards a “knowledge-based economy.”
In Malaysia, I learned an essential lesson from one of the country’s leaders. During our talk with Dr. Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the current Governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, the Malaysian central bank, she told us that in the aftermath of the damning Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 she and the other financial leaders of Malaysia decided to introduce a unique exchange control strategy. Initially, the strategy came under fire from bankers and experts all over the world. A year of great international pressure tested Dr. Aziz’s resolve. She described moments when “what seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel turned out to be an oncoming train.” Nevertheless, she stayed focused on her goal, refusing to “be distracted by the great noise around us.”
Such focus requires not only great courage but a steadfast knowledge and faith in one’s self. In the end, her resolve paid off: the strategy restored stability to Malaysia’s financial system.
Lastly, though they were leading a new country with no natural resources, a population of migrants, and a contentious past, Mr. Lee and his fellow founding fathers gave life to the unknown island-state of Singapore, which has since become one of the most important economies in the world. Today, undaunted by the double challenge of past achievements and future uncertainty, Mr. Lionel Yeo, Chief Executive of the Singapore Tourism Board, responding to the many challenges that continue to come their way in a rapidly evolving and competitive tourism industry, answered: “It’s never been done before, but we’re Singapore. We’ll do it.”
The game-changer: self-efficacy
In the Harvard Graduate School of Education, one of the core concepts I learned in many of my classes is that of “self-efficacy,” the belief in one’s abilities to succeed. It is so important that researchers sometimes use it interchangeably with the word “power.” In the school setting, evidence shows that teachers can tailor the curriculum, provide all the books, and even revise a teaching style to help a particular child, but if that child does not believe in his or her own ability to succeed, all the teacher’s efforts will be in vain.
So does the Philippines suffer from a fatally damaged culture? After going on the Asia Trek, I believe the answer is no. The country’s history speaks of the capacity of its people to resist centuries of colonial power, to challenge a sitting government and effectively take down leaders who have not served the interests of its people, as well as to actively engage in public discourse and push for social policies for improved healthcare, women’s rights, land reform, and reproductive health, even amidst the constant battering of hurricanes and natural disasters.
Looking to the future
Are Filipinos a people who are tired of trying, making them less confident in the face of adversity? Perhaps: particularly when it comes to the broader reforms that have since become binding constraints to the country’s growth.
- Sionil Jose, one of my favorite Filipino authors and a man who has written much on the Philippines’ national identity, culture, and poverty, once claimed, “Power will always elude the very poor until they believe what that poor Spaniard cried out during Spain’s Civil War: ‘In my hunger, I command.’”
The stories of Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore speak to this truth: that in the face of adversity, despite threats of hunger, war, and constraints in natural and human resource, the ability of a people or a nation to believe their capacity to command, is what ultimately gives them the ability to.
Therefore looking towards the future, instead of asking, “Where have we gone wrong?” a better starting point might be to ask “How can we succeed?” And in this commanding phrase, finally, author a worthy resolution and dénouement to the much-extended Filipino story of efficacy and resilience.