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Emulate South Korea … ah, but what about the educational system and democratisation?

Recall the Gwangju Uprising in 1980

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If we are serious about emulating Korea’s drive for success, we have to look at what’s behind that “legendary high discipline and work culture”, says Francis Loh.

Recall the Gwangju Uprising in 1980
Recall the Gwangju Uprising in 1980

The prime minister offered excellent advice to some 500 Malaysians studying and working in South Korea when visiting the country in early December 2014. “Emulate the Koreans’ legendary high discipline and work culture,” he advised.

Unlike say Malaysia, South Korea has very little natural resources to speak of. Yet “the Korean people have managed to turn their country into what it is today – a country that is respected for its innovation and many success stories”.

Indeed, the Korean “drive to succeed and their strong sense of pride for their country are elements that made them succeed in every field, including sports”. The prime minister rightly pinpointed the fact that the question of education was important but that it was more than that (The Star, 10 December 2014).

The prime minister was on a two-day official visit prior to attending the Asean-South Korea Commemorative Summit for another two days. During the latter, the focus was on strengthening regional trade ties and on regional security issues while the first two days highlighted fostering Korean-Malaysian relations.

Yes, Malaysia has lots to learn from Korea. But it is important to ask where their “drive to succeed” comes from. For the prime minister, it came from a blurry “sense of pride for their country”. Looking behind that pride for nation, I argue that the Korean drive comes from their high regard for education and excellence on the one hand and the drive for democratic participation on the other.

First, the question of education. Whereas not a single Malaysian university is ranked among the top 400 universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE-WUR) powered by Thomson Reuters, the THE-WUR 2013-2014 ranks Seoul National University (44th), Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (56th) and Pohang University of Science and Technology (60th) among the top 100. More than ten other Korean universities are ranked 101st to 200th.

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It is important to highlight that Korean universities enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Unlike the Malaysian ones, they make their own decisions on the appointment of their top officers. In turn, these top university administrators make policies for their universities independent of the Korean government and/or the CEOs of private corporations, in the case of the universities sponsored by the private sector.

It is very clear that meritocracy is the principal that determines who gets promoted and whose research project gets priority in funding. No wonder, these Korean universities have that “drive to succeed” and are innovative. On the other hand, if the top officials and professors are appointed on the basis of political connections, it is not surprising if academic excellence does not naturally follow.

I recall attending a major conference of administrators and professors in Putrajaya called by the then Ministry of Higher Education. One of the presenters was then the deputy vice-chancellor for research and development in one of the research universities in Malaysia.

In her paper, she compared the research-funding nexus in Malaysian to Korean universities. Interestingly, almost the same amount of funds had been spent in both countries over a comparable period of time. However, whereas the Koreans had funded a large percentage of the funds on a very limited number of research projects, the Malaysians had spent the majority of funds on a large number of so-called ‘strategic research’ projects.

Her point was that the very focused way which the Koreans directed their research funding facilitated the Korean researchers to have adequate funds to make cutting-edge research breakthroughs in nano technology, in LED technology, and in stem-cell investigations, among others. On the other hand, no breakthrough research was reported in Malaysia, and one of the reasons always cited by the researchers apparently was inadequate funding. (Of course, we are leaving aside the question of quality of researchers in this comparison).

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As well, even high schools enjoy much independence. Earlier in 2014, a renowned, respected and radical scholar of Korean politics was elected publicly as superintendent of schools in Seoul. Imagine, holding popular elections to elect the officer in charge of schools for Kuala Lumpur! That would be unheard of. Here in Malaysia, all the directors of the state departments of education are appointees of the federal Ministry of Education. Why, all our principals, headmasters and teachers are recruited and promoted via a highly centralised system of education.

So, if we are going to emulate the Koreans so that we develop this drive for success based on excellence, a good place to start is to reform our educational system, from bottom to top!

More than that, the drive towards success is also connected to the democratisation process that has occurred in South Korea over the past 20-odd years. The Koreans that I know are very proud of how they have got rid of authoritarian military rule and replaced it with popular democracy. In fact, they are keen to share the story of their struggle for democracy with their Asian neighbours too.

No doubt for them, economic success would not have occurred and been maintained if progress towards democratic politics had not occurred simultaneously. This is another important aspect of the Korean success story if we wish to emulate them. The Malaysian prime minister was noticeably silent about this connection.

For example, recall the May 1980 Gwangju Democratic Uprising which was sparked off by the military killing university students who were demonstrating and calling for the dismantling of the military dictatorship and the restoration of democracy. As a result of the military’s brutality, the people of Gwangju – workers, farmers, homemakers and ordinary citizens – rallied behind the students and cooperated with one another against the military.

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It is this democratic awakening among ordinary Koreans that is celebrated today by the establishment of the May 18 Memorial Foundation, which is responsible for holding an annual conference on democracy and human rights in the May 18 Memorial Conference Hall, in Gwangju, where an Asian freedom fighter is awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights. Past awardees include Aung San Suu Kyi, Xanana Gusmao (of East Timor), Wardah Hafidz (Indonesia) and Basil Fernando (Sri Lanka).

Interestingly, Kim Dae Jung, the opposition leader who was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly masterminding the Gwangju Uprising would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and be elected as president of South Korea. It was under the charge of the more democratically elected presidents that the truth behind the Gwangju massacre would be investigated; the May 18 Memorial Foundation and the Korean Democracy Foundation established to promote democracy and human rights; and a more participatory and decentralised Korean political system put into place which among others allows for the Superintendent of Schools in Seoul and other cities to be elected.

These highlights of Korea’s democratic struggle, like its decentralised and meritocracy-based educational system undergirds Korea’s drive for success and innovation.

So, if we are serious about emulating Korea’s drive for success, we have to look behind that “legendary high discipline and work culture”. That pride in work and discipline is actually anchored in a drive for democracy and a deep respect for education and excellence.

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