In his originally Thai language essay Anti-University (https://mekongreview.com/antiuniversity/ , “thinking is not a crime”, screamed Thongchai Winichakul, the renowned University of Wisconsin historian and 1976 uprising leader of Thailand, while lambasting at what he calls “the anti-university” phenomenon, which “produces docile people who stay inside the box”.
The intellectual emptying out of universities (and pre-collegiate schools) by ASEAN states – most of which are autocratic, feudal or downright repressive – is pervasive across the region, which is home to nearly 600 million inhabitants.
The typical “anti-thinking” policies of ASEAN governments have long thwarted the intellectual growth of several generations of Southeast Asians. Peoples are promised “economic growth” in implicit exchange for surrendering their fundamental human rights and political and civil liberties, including the freedoms to think and express, and academic freedom.
Recently, the National University of Singapore Press, one of Asia’s top academic publishers, dropped its originally scheduled publication of “Coup, King, Crisis: A Critical Interregnum in Thailand” (now published as Yale Southeast Asian Studies, Monograph #68), the timely volume of high quality research essays, critical of the Thai monarchy, edited by the University of Kyoto academic and Thai dissident Pavin Chachavalpongpun. Some years ago, Burmese scholar and activist Maung Zarni publicly resigned from Universiti Brunei Darussalam, citing his employer’s blatant attempt to gag him from speaking out and writing about Myanmar’s genocide of Rohingyas. For decades, the military-controlled Myanmar axed entire social science departments, banned teaching of political science and sociology, and tightly controlled access to university libraries.
This decades-old typical state repression in higher education needs to be critically understood, challenged and changed if Southeast Asia is to experience democratic transformation, not simple the growth of high rises and spread of mass consumerism in the name of (un-sustainable) growth and at the expense of the environment.