[Viewpoint] Looking beyond our own little countries

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[Viewpoint] Looking beyond our own little countries

As 2009 drew to a close and the new year of 2010 unfolded, I wrote reflections in my journal on what I am learning from life in Manila, Seoul and East Timor.

My 6-year-old son, Hadomi (whose name means “love” in Tetun)’s father is East Timorese. He and I are now reading a book together titled “Letters from a Father to his Daughter” by Jawaharlal Nehru, written for his daughter Indira Gandhi and first published in 1929. The book was given to my son by Vandna Khare, an Indian author and former diplomat who is the wife of the former UN Special Representative of the Secretary General in East Timor, Atul Khare.

In the book, Nehru writes to his then 10-year-old daughter: “You have read a little about English history and Indian history. But England is only a little island and India, though a big country, is only a small part of the earth’s surface. If we want to know something about the story of this world of ours we must think of all the countries and all the peoples that have inhabited it, and not merely of one little country where we may have been born.”

I feel really grateful for this book because I have been searching for ways to educate my own child about cosmopolitan virtue.

Since I arrived in East Timor on Dec. 16 from Seoul (for my “winter vacation” in tropical Dili), I have been sharing ideas, books and photocopying articles on what I’ve learned from Korea with my Timorese family, friends and colleagues. In my past four months in Korea I’ve learned about the New Village Movement and the high value placed on frugality, spiritual rearmament, “compulsory” savings and investment in education.

With millions of dollars in oil money now circulating in Dili, there is a propensity to spend on cars, parties and clothes, not on new methods of learning. Korea has a lesson for East Timor about the importance of investing values, human capital and human resources, and not just depending on oil, which can be a curse rather than a blessing.

Yesterday, my husband and I took our son to his new school, run by the Canossa sisters, where he is to attend grade one starting today. One of the nuns asked us why we brought him there, the implication being that their school is cheaper and therefore not as good. Why not send him to Dili International School where all the “ema boot” - literally “big people” - send their kids? We told her that if the ruling elite did not invest in developing and nurturing local educational institutions because they can afford to send their kids to expensive foreign schools, who will? In response, she and a male colleague began to open up, expressing all the problems they are having with the Ministry of Education.

On the way home, my husband said to my son: “From now on, you must save your money to buy books. No more toy-buying. You need to focus on your education.” In turn, I jokingly repeated the same policy to my husband: “You too. From now on, you need to save your money to buy books. No more car-buying. You also need to focus on your education.” In the front of the car I could see the Close Special Protection Officer from the Policia Nacional de Timor-Leste and the driver giggling at this conversation.

There is much that the East Timorese can learn from both Korea and the Philippines in terms of education (e.g., valuing new methods of learning and books over cars and expensive military equipment) and values formation (assuming of course that they want to listen).

In Korea, presidents and ministers feeling vulnerable to the criticism of scholars, something one rarely sees in Southeast Asia, where scholars are often undervalued and underpaid.

On New Year’s Eve, I sat beside East Timor’s President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. President Ramos-Horta asked me, “How do you like Korea?” I replied, “It is a country that values scholars and takes education very seriously. They treat professors well, compared to East Timor where professors are treated badly.”

He smiled. I wasn’t saying anything new or outrageous. People here know what a serious problem it is when the defense budget is larger than the education budget.

The Philippines, though economically poor, is phenomenally rich in terms of intellectual capital. It’s full of creative thinkers, with a long tradition of valuing the joy and process of constant striving and learning (not just the “destination” of acquiring diplomas to hang on the wall). It has one of the oldest universities in Asia. Even in my hometown of Dagupan, it is common to meet women with several graduate degrees in a variety of fields.

Institutions like the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), founded and run primarily by inspiring and powerful women like Sheila Coronel, have enriched our democratic discourse and brought down corrupt governments. We desperately need this kind of daring in East Timor, where officials get away with almost anything because regulatory institutions and checks and balances continue to be weak.

Sadly, at the beginning of 2010, when one wishes to be optimistic, most of the good friends I’ve met in East Timor, insiders in the state bureaucracy who do have the critical capacity for ironic self-reflection, have nothing but paradoxes to offer.

The say, “Yes, we are rich and independent, with millions of dollars circulating in Dili and the districts, but public officials are losing their moral authority after a year full of scandals, and poor people in rural districts continue not to have access to basic services like water, electricity, health, and education.”

Will the new year bring change and transformation to East Timor? Did East Timor truly become independent of Indonesia, or did the Indonesian New Order and the military successfully “colonize” the minds of the East Timorese, to continue with the old corruption?

An apologist might say, “No movement would struggle for independence and then continue to make their own people suffer.” Yes, and yet so many independence and revolutionary movements in the world have done just that, betraying their own ideals and their own people. History has no shortage of examples.

Can Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia learn from each other about conflict and governance? Can we engender new forms of cooperation, or will some countries continue to think that they know better?

Like Nehru, my hope is that we will all learn from each other as kindred spirits. That Koreans will go to the Philippines not just to learn English but to learn about the history and oral traditions of Pangasinan, to read Jose Rizal and Isabelo de los Reyes and to study the anticolonial movement. Koreans can share the New Village Movement with the East Timorese, while at the same time learning from the incredible resilience of this country that resisted double colonialism and neo-colonial occupation. They can also, of course, enjoy the natural beauty of Timor Leste.

Having both been colonized by their own Asian neighbors (Japan and Indonesia) and afterwards occupied by the UN, U.S., international donors and “experts,” Koreans and East Timorese have so much to share, if they only have the curiosity, skill and humility to listen to each other without “energy diplomacy” getting in the way.

*The writer is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Interna-tional Studies, SNU.

by Jacqueline Aquino Siapno
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