Love, respect, reason: The world I want

We are approaching another decade with much confusion, insecurity, hostility and violence.

Let’s reimagine the world that we could have. For me, that world is a coming together of three things: love, respect and reason.


I am talking about benevolent love. It requires a cultivation of kindness and compassion as a practice of everything we do from education to politics or economics. It emphasises our service to humanity so we can put aside self-interest and dedicate our lives to helping others.

I am talking about what Martin Luther king called “the love that does justice”, signifying a consciousness about equality rather than hierarchy and disparity.

Love is not a particularistic kind of love that often come with conditions or conditionings that segment society to create hierarchies and privileges. Love is about a universal kind of love – equanimity – where we see others the way we see ourselves, and we love others the way we love ourselves, no more no less.

Love releases us from fear and insecurity and our diminished sense of self – the true SELF – the self that we and others are the same, and that others are all beings: humans, animals, nature. Recognition of that sameness will give us empathy and hope to expand our empathy and openness to others instead of closure.  


The respect I want is not the kind towards materiality through endowment or accumulation of influence, money or status. It is about respect for empowerment of others, for truth and authenticity of others.

Respect has to be active in everything we do as we engage with others in public spaces. It means considering the effects of oppressive or exploitative systems that impact the welfare of others so we can change that. Change is about respecting the liberation for all not just our immediate self and circle of family and friends.

Respect goes hand in hand with love because it requires a thinking and doing in and for the public. It is putting the common good above the individual good. It is about respecting socially just systems even if the unjust systems make our individual lives more comfortable.

I am talking about respect as a social science of love which is symptomatic of ethics and moral values. It is a social science because it is exercised in a certain way based on theories, models, methods and empirical evidence of culture, social, politics, economics etc. But these are often done within ethical and moral principles that are also based on existing power and privileges that govern a return of power and privileges to some and not others.

Respect here requires a recognition of such just or unjust systems and practices in order to respect the benevolence of love for the collective so that we can truly live with compassion, altruism and non-hierarchical engagement.


Reason is about reasoning in the public sphere for the public. It is about recognising truths are subjective truths where all have views, and all can be heard.

Reason here is about “public thinking”. Democracy is a concept often used and understood in talking about public reasoning. But, as a political science, it is typically associated with a certain of governance rather than the actual freedom it depends upon to deliberate in the public sphere.

Reason thus is about recognising politics of freedom but with an understanding that for polity to work, the polity has to care for the common good and have to the capacity to for all to deliberate democratically.

This kind of reason requires embracing love and respect in ways that we can engage in civil dialogue where no one has a monopoly over the truth and that everyone has an obligation to reason their truths with others.

Reason needs to be separated from rationality, which is often confounded in economic terms, where people are assumed to make choices based on rationality. Rationality is a myth because we make choices based on moral values, processes bound by institutional structures, and personal feelings and intuitions. None of this make us “rational”. Indeed, we are quite irrational. Reason is about recognising the irrationality in our lives and our place in society.

Reason is public because it means recognising that we have an important role in the pubic deliberation by all and for all. Reason is private because it asks how we as individuals can gain or use our individual capacity to make change, to speak truth to power, to love and respect others as we love and respect ourselves.

These ideas of love, respect and reason seem so abstract and distant from the very real day to day pressures of our lives. But if we can recognise that those pressures are so systematic that they appear natural and objective, yet they are conditions as well as conditionings that have been imposed on us, by us, in complicity with each other as we live in the collective.

If we can recognise that, at the intersection of love, respect and reason, lies also our future.

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The arbitrariness of educational advantage and disadvantage

In the Australian educational system, there is the idea of gifted and talented students. According to the NSW Education Department, gifted students are those whose potential is distinctly above average in intellectual, creative, social and physical performance. Talented students are those whose skills are distinctly above average in one or more areas of human performance.

This type of classification stems from the idea that “gifted” is due to genetically natural resources whereas “talented” is the product of labour.

Basing human performance for assessment is problematic for education. This is because education performance is the result of the social environment that the person is in, as much as the effort of the person, least of all is the person’s inherent characteristics.

One of the characteristics that the NSW Education website lists as demonstrable by academically gifted students is “highly-motivated, particularly in self-selected tasks is one characteristic”. But motivation depends on what activities a person has been exposed to and their experiences in these activities. A positive experience could lead to motivation whereas a negative experience may not.

Another characteristic is “unusual or advanced interests”. Interest in what? Who ranks interests and preferences? What is unusual or advanced for some might be norm for others. This characteristic is not only value-laden in terms of assessing, but a narrow way in understanding interests and exposure to life.

“Exceptional critical thinking skills or problem-solving ability” are also listed. Again, these characteristics are seen as “good” but we have to wonder in what contexts are they good for and who should be doing this judgement? Moreover, critical thinking skills would be exhibited differently in different domains because of different knowledge systems. For example, critical thinking in literature is different to critical thinking in religion, but both domains are life aspects as much as academic subjects.

Behavioural traits like “frequent asking in-depth and probing questions” seem to give currency to certain communication style which would be different across cultures. In Vietnamese and Chinese societies, the hierarchical structure informs the communication culture where people speak in accordance with the hierarchy of old vs young, senior vs junior, teacher vs students, master vs servant. When students from these cultural backgrounds come into Australian schools, they may not ask questions directly or in probing ways because they obey their own cultural rules and norms of communication. But they will be viewed as not “gifted”. In thsi way, viewing certain traits to be good assume homogenous culture – Western culture to be precise. It imposes such values onto people, and assess them in an arbitrary way that actually marginalise them.

The Department of Education considers these “gifted and talented” typologies as entry points to selective high schools or opportunity classes in primary schools. Yet, the tests which students undertake to gain access to these schools are not reflective of any of these characteristics. In fact, they are based on standardised tests that can be studied for usually through years of private tutoring.  

If the classification of “academically elite” seems arbitrary, the notion of “academic disadvantage” is equally arbitrary in its construct.

There is much evidence, for example, from PISA, TIMMS or ATAR that indicate low socioeconomic backgrounds are associated with lower test performances. In other words, economic capital provides material resources that give students the means to achieve educational outcomes.

However, effects of educational disadvantages that appear through economic status are shaped by broader cultural, political and educational contexts in which students, families and schools operate.

Associated with economic capital is embodied resources due to family upbringing, which may align parents’ interest and expectations with those of the schools’. In turn, these aligned values and expectations could lead to parental involvement with the schools and position students with advantage.

Linguistic diversity is a resource that students from ethnic background own, but whether they can mobilise it in schools depends on the linguistic capital of teachers, other students, and school curriculum and teaching and learning practices. If they cannot, then they are disadvantaged particularly if their teachers and peers do not value their linguistic skills or linguistic diversity.

Some teaching practices, for example collaborative learning or group work, are viewed to be positive for learning but not all students are equally inclined to these practices. If they are familiar with these teaching styles, then they are disadvantaged because they may not respond to these practices as well as those that are familiar. They then may be seen as lacking requisite to learning.

The school culture influences students’ dispositions toward the values that are expected of them. Those that find their school climate to be an extension of home life experience a match between their norms and school norms. Those that are not may encounter barriers that impact their learning.

So, disadvantage or advantage are really the effects of the social contexts which are often carried into schooling contexts. In a neoliberal educational system, where economic resources provide students with advantage and outcomes that emphasise economic values, they also create the conditions for educational disadvantage more profoundly.

Disadvantage and advantage are two sides of the same coin. They are both associated with social structures and relations that the students happen to be surrounded with, rather than something that is inherently theirs.

Disadvantage or advantage are also contingent on the values that schools and society place on certain skills, attributes and forms of knowledge, typically those of Western culture. If students have and are able to mobilise these skills, attributes and tacit knowledge, they are in a position of advantage. Conversely, those that are without or ability to mobilise such “capitals”, they are in a position of disadvantage.

Educational inequality is a societal problem which carries into the educational system, schools and classrooms. Improving inequality is thus a social responsibility.

This blog is a short version of an article “Capital and capabilities in
education: Re-examining Australia’s 2015 PISA performance and context assessment framework


Three waves of international education: political, political economy, politicisation

International education (IE) is an old idea – a phenomenon that emerged in the 19th century to today. I argued in my book that the evolution of IE has shifted from government to institutions as provider of IE, but the intention for IE has always been political and political economy underpinned by sovereign or institutional interests and power.

Broadly speaking, IE can be seen in three waves.

The first wave

This wave lasts from late 19th century to last decade of the 20th century, where states plays the central role in IE. In 1851, nation states began to see the idea of education beyond sovereign boundaries, which led to the World Fairs in London, an international congress on education in Paris, and the first international school system in Europe.

Japan followed in 1868 as part of the Meiji restoration that saw education from international resources to promote the welfare of the Empire.

In 1893, the USA hosted the Columbian Exposition in Chicago that included a significant gathering of international educators from many countries in Europe, Australia, Chile and Uruguay. This was followed by an explosion of business and professional groups operating with international connections and the rise of international schools across the world.

From 1920s through the 1950s, various international organisations backed by nation states were created to research and promote the idea of education for human development, for example the World Federation of Education (WFE) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Although these movements were based on political rationale of the states, there were nationalist sentiment as well as removing national prejudices. What is common is the idea of education for a “common humanity” and the heart of training scholars for international understanding and internationally minded person with an international outlook was at the core.

In the first period after World War II, IE leaned towards education at the tertiary level and furthered the political rationale of nation states in the context of global conflicts. IE was championed by states on humanitarian aims of improving people’s understanding of each other to achieve peace and for developed countries to gain solidarity with developing countries.

The Australian Colombo program is one example. Born out of the 1950 Commonwealth Meeting on Foreign Affairs, the Colombo Plan sought to train overseas students in Australia as part of Australia’s Technical Co-Operation Scheme. Its deeper political ambitions were aligned with Australia’s geopolitical contexts, particularly Australia’s role in the US alliance whose main concerns at that time were containing the two communist powers China and the Soviet Union.

It was also a tool for other diplomatic negotiations about trade and to raise Australia’s reputation in the South East Asian region, particularly to demonstrate absence of racial discrimination in Australia’s foreign policies to counter regional and international reactions against policies like White Australia Policy in 1967.

Colombo scholarships were awarded based on Australia’s foreign policy interest, for example, Indonesian students under the goodwill mission of Indonesia to Australia in negotiation for economic trades with Indonesia.

Another objective was to train public servants and educated electorate of countries of the new independent States in the Asian region and further African States, assuming these trained officials can enable political democracy in their countries.

The second wave

The second wave begins in the 1980s through to the early 21st century. This wave marked the shift of strategic thinking and transformation at the institutional level from the government level.

In Europe, embedded exchange and mobility programme began with the European Commission’s pilot of the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS) in 1981.

The Bologna declaration in 1999 by European Ministers of Education furthered the notion of openness across borders to allow students to access mobility. Universities became competitive in offering IE.

As with the first wave, Australia followed the world trend, and along with globalisation and pursuit of institutional competition, Australian universities became strong players in the IE industry. For Australia, IE shifted from political tools of the state to economic tools of universities partly to improve reduced public funding. Market forces in international education and ranking of universities on a global scale has seen a focus on marketisation, competition and management of student mobility and provider mobility. Many universities now have off shore campus and translation educational programs in addition to recruiting international students their campus in host countries.

IE has shifted from political rationale for the state to political economy of universities. Delivery of IE is now part of every university’s strategic plan as internationalisation strategy. IE is now seen as a market-based commodity to prop up the ranking and financial position of universities – an idea that falls far from the values of IE for understanding and world citizenship in the early days of its evolution.

It should be noted that the commodification of IE is not a one way process. Treating it as a market exchange, IE is also seen in terms of supply and demand. While universities are increasing their supply of IE, the demand for IE by international students, families and their governments is also increasing, albeit each of these stakeholders have very different motivations to enter the market. What is common is the idea of “knowledge economy” that justify pursuit of IE, where the outcome of IE is about improving human capital for labour market of developing countries that are in the process of industrialisation. Interesting, none of the stakeholders including universities seem to be very interested in researching whether such outcomes actually eventuate.

The third wave

Since the beginning of the 21st century, some emerging economies, for example China, Malaysia, Thailand, even Vietnam, are entering the IE market. Some of these countries pursue IE to raise the profile of their cultural heritage on the global stage as a form of ‘soft power’, for example, China has offered free classes in different parts of the world to teach Mandarin or Chinese languages to anyone who wants them especially planning business opportunities in the country. Confucian institutes located in many universities across the world is another example. In these cases, the assumption for IE in the Asian region is a form of cultural rationale to be gained from student exchange programmes or intra-institutional cultural activities for transcontinental influence.

Is this rationale different to the ERASMUS and Bologna movement in the first wave where one could argue that policy contexts of these large-scale policy developments reflected the Commission’s mission to firmly constitute and reconstitute higher education as a European policy domain?

The reaction to this phenomenon, particularly the rise of the Chinese (both the state and the students) in IE, suggest that there is a difference.

In Australia, there is a view that the Chinese doing IE with intentions contrary to Australian universities who do IE, in that the former emphasises institutional identities with nationalist ideologies, whereas the latter respond to economic imperatives and institutional ranking.

This wave is different to the others in the media’s serious role in debating about the deliberation of IE. For example, Four Corners ran a story on Australian universities viewing international students as cash cows by lowering admission and assessment standards for international students and make billions of dollars. Unsurprising, many IE providers reacted negatively against such framing. This story also led to an academic, who spoke up about admission standards of Murdoch University, being termed whistle-blower and sued by Murdoch University (MU) for their subsequent drop of international students. This then led to public campaign for MU to remove the lawsuit and uphold freedom of speech.

There’s also the story reported in mainstream media including the ABC, SBS, SMH, the Australian, that drew on Salvatones Babone’s (who is an academic working at Sydney University) opinion piece about the China student boom and risks it poses to Australian universities. This story also received many backlash from academics in the IE sector on issues of framing IE.

Most recently, Foreign Correspondent reported on an investigation by the government into foreign interference in Australian universities. The claims of this piece include cybersecurity referring to massive data hack at the ANU and China suspected to be behind the hack; theft of research and intellectual property referring to Australian universities receive extra support to curb foreign interference in their institutions and research projects; campus security referring to confrontations between students who clashed views on China and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong at the University of Queensland.

These stories told through the media have a common base of contention. Australian universities are too reliant on international students and are not doing enough to combat China’s influence. They are at risk of being complacent about the threats that they face, suggesting that countries – China – that send students or engage in international collaboration is looking at IE as a way to acquire knowledge, skills and intellectual property and use these acquired resources for their nationalistic mission rather than for the greater global good or for the good of Australia.

So, it seems that the concern is about political rationale of IE, to be specific, China’s political ambitions for sending students to Australia, or engaging with researchers in Australia.

But has political rationale, or political economy rationale, always been the intention for Australia and Australian universities, as with the Europe and North America, to engage in IE as seen in the first two waves? What is different here?

Perhaps it’s because the media has caught on to the game.

Or is it that the Australian media, or we as a society, have a problem with who can have the power in enacting the political intention behind IE. Do we have a problem with our universities selling education to further Australia’s means or do we have a problem with countries buying our education so that they can further their own means?

Perhaps there are simply too many people in the game now, all with different stakes in the game and different ways of maintaining their stakes by advancing some ideologies about IE.

Whatever it is, IE has indeed entered the third wave – politicisation – and everybody has something to say or something to protect.

The first two waves are extracted from chapter 2 International Education: A Potential for Ethical Development of my book on international graduates returning to Vietnam


Is authorship worth the candle it lights?

In my previous blog, I wrote about fiction writers and the issue of language as experience versus language as representation. These are just different perspectives about the status of language and its function.

If we view language as experience, then there’s something to be said about the need to have certain experiences as a writer; or as long as the author can invoke a certain experiences within the reader, then fiction can tell a “truth” and that there is a legitimacy for the fiction.  

If we view language as representation, then the question arises as to the extent to which the author can or should represent someone or some experiences that they might not have had. This too begs the question of what or whom can be represented by the author, and how might such representation turn the represented into objects of the author’s stories as opposed to giving them the rights as subjects of their world.

These issues are not binary although they are often if not always debated as if they are.  

I want to entertain a different way of thinking about these issues. Perhaps we should think about literary fiction, or writing in general, not only in terms of their expressive values, that is what stories or purpose they serve, but how we privilege the notion of “the author”.

The problem of cultural appropriation may be less about the representation of the people and the social relationships between the representor and the represented but more about our “ideological status” of the author.

By giving the author a status of representor, we assign the author with an authority to limit fictional characters as heroes or villains, victims or agents of the situations, which situation is marginalising or inclusive. The author is the principle in the communication of meaning and we are assigning legitimacy of what is being said to the author.

Might we consider the reverse – a do away of authorship? The author is not the creator of any work, but merely draws on the ideas or symbols of what are already out there. It’s the readers who are assembling these ideas or symbols through shared understandings of grammar or logic of metaphors that ultimately come up with their meanings. Meanings do not reside in the what the authors puts on the paper. Rather, meaning is formed by what readers assign to those words. There is no story until the readers make meanings that themselves precede the words appearing on the pages.

What I am suggesting is that the authors does not precede the writing that they produce. In fact, what they write abide with a functional principle by which we as a collective in society generally choose to accept or reject. In Foucault’s words, the author is an “ideological product” that we represent them to be. So, we could reverse the problem with representation by not giving authors the legitimacy of proliferating a certain meaning through their stories. We won’t then have a problem with cultural appropriation as there is no “representation” as such, only a production of a certain culture that we already know or perhaps fearful of knowing.

This may suggest that culture cannot be limited by any author, or a culture in which fictitious characters can operate freely and would develop freely without an author controlling them. In other words, we can all imagine culture within fiction without any constraining author. This could be seen in ghost writers or even blog writers – who is the real author? Or is there a real author? Does anyone care?

This idea of non-authorship is less about who is the real author but what is being said and the manner in which fiction can function as truth telling, which bring us back to how fiction is experienced. The limits of our imagination or truths are determined by the experienced, not by the person who writes the experiences.  

Perhaps I am suggesting a dangerous idea where authors are anonymous. We would no longer concern with who’s speaking? who spoke? for whom do they speak for? are they really them or someone else? with what authenticity or originality do they write?

Instead there might be questions like what is being experienced? what is the discourse? how can it be circulated? who can appropriate these ideas for themselves?

We also might hear nothing but an indifference: what difference does it make who is speaking?

As an academic whose lifeline is on publications and citations that ultimately privileges not only authorship but the knowledge that they advance, which paradoxically is constructed on the knowledge that was founded and therefore preceded their work, my suggestion of a do away with authorship is mad – so mad because it counters the very idea of academia, one that Foucault would refer to as “transcendental narcissism”.  


Is there truth within fiction?

I listened to a very interesting talk on the ABC podcast “The Minefield” about literary fiction, non- fiction and which format is more conducive to truth telling. Given that my work is in academic research, which centres on truth and justification through evidence and rational reasoning, I was very surprised when the guest Christos Tsiolkas, a novelist and playwright said that it’s fiction that can tell more truth than non-fiction.

One of the reasons that Tsiolkas gave is that through fiction, the specific experiences and emotions of the characters are made known in a way that evoke the truth about those experiences and emotions for the readers. In that way, it is not so much about the actual characters, plot, stories shift, settings and voices that are the “truth”, but rather, that these elements speak to the truth in a more generalised way. Tsiolkas’ premise is that truth is something that is not universal, therefore can be objective or objectified typically through non-fiction. Truth, rather, is dependent on the mind and can be subjective or relative to the people to whom the stories are told.

I have been thinking about Tsiolkas’ claim for a long time.

I want to first explore this idea of “truth” telling in the context of “cultural appropriation” in fiction writing.

There are those like Lionel Shriver that argue it is okay for fiction writers to write on minority cultures and that “cultural appropriation was opposed to the spirit of fiction”. Then, there are those, like Yassmin Abdel-Magied that argue in doing so, fiction writers “celebrate the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.” 

This debate on cultural appropriation is about the issue of identity of the minority groups. Shriver would argue that the problem of cultural appropriation is identity politics. It stifles the freedom of writers and narrows the scope of writing and creativity. Abdel-Magied would argue that telling stories about minority groups rob the voice of the minority writers who could not write or publish. It is not appropriate for white writers to ride on the coat tails of the experiences of the minority groups that are marginalised and profit from it, thereby perpetuating the hegemony by allowing the former to continue to have the stage and the microphone.

I can’t help but sense a familiarity to anthropological research practiced in the early to middle twentieth century, that usually involved an Anglo-American or European working in a small isolated community in a remote area of the world, often in Asia, North Africa, or the Middle East with a group of people who often lived without modern amenities, had little or no formal education, and existed at a modest if not impoverished economic level, and then they reported on that cultural group as exotic stories from the Far East.   

There is a deep moral issue here between the freedom to write and the responsibility to others when one chooses to exercise that freedom. The question is more than about representation of the people whom writers write about but who can be represented and who can write the representation and for whose benefits? This is also the point that Tsiolkas was trying to make in that there is something to be said about literary fiction and moral life. It is a philosophical question that never gets debated because of the politicisation of cultural appropriation itself.

I now want to draw on my own experience as a writer and a reader to ponder on the ultimate question: “How we can know an experience we have not had?”

Given my Vietnamese refugee background, whenever I read literary fiction about Vietnamese refugees written by Vietnamese authors in the diaspora, there is always something that strike me deeply. Perhaps, it’s the use of words, Vietnamese words woven into English words; or descriptions of small incidents that immediately take me somewhere back into my deep chasm of memories that I thought I had forgotten. It is almost as if the words are written for me.

There is also a sense of alliance between the Vietnamese writer and me because they have been where I have been. As writers and readers, we connect deeply through the real world. I recall Nam Le’s life at sea, what the child saw on the boat, or that the word “boat” resonates a familiarity that is deeply experiential about that time we di vuot bien (go across the sea). I also feel a sense of embeddedness within Emma Cao’s reflection on father-child relationship as nuoc duc (murky water) to nuoc trong (something is better than nothing) as my own fishing for memories about my father.

These experiences speak to me because I have lived them, and I know the authors have lived them. Somewhere in that space of reading, we share the language of experiences that is more than just words that have been crafted to stories on those pages. For me, the world is not imagined. It is real.

As a writer, and I have only written on the experiences of Vietnamese people that came to my research. As written in an early blog, I could only write on these people’s experiences as I imagined them to be, but I can only do so because I too have travelled the journeys that they have. The idea of representation becomes not methodological problem but an identity problem of what is and can be represented or who can represent or be represented. I could not tell their stories if I was not also a Vietnamese who struggled with identity issue, cultural norms issues and geographical and geopolitical positions which I was put into.

So, as a writer, I grappled with the idea of identity as a moral as well as practical problem. How can we not as writers who create characters and tell stories? Unless we see ourselves as outside the stories that we write, and that literary fiction serve as mere instruments for the craft of writing to which we bear no responsibility for.


Assimilation: multiculturalism or racism at the core?

Last year, I had a conversation with another researcher about my work on Vietnamese diaspora in Australia. I shared with her my project of examining cultural artefacts from Vietnamese newspapers in Australia. My analysis revealed proliferation of business relations within the close community of Vietnamese-Australians. At the same time, promotions of these business alliances in Sydney were juxtaposed with melancholic overtures of Saigon’s pre-1975 years.

I argued that the Vietnamese sense of ‘self’, home and belonging are constituted within the Vietnamese social and cultural norms of close family and community networks. These networks are intentional in procuring the social relations predominantly within the Vietnamese community. It is intentional because of economic pragmatism, rather incidental as they adjust to new life in Australia.

This researcher, whose work is in multiculturalism, was unhappy with my argument. She asked, “Are you not concerned that what you say will feed into the narrative that immigrants don’t try to fit in with the Australian ways?”

My argument actually rejects the “assimilation” premise of this researcher’s view – the idea that immigrants must assimilate to the Australian way of life, although what that is remains unclear in a country like Australia whose population comprises mainly of immigrants.

The problem with the “assimilationist” view is that it often is spoken by those who appear to fight against cultural oppression. Yet, it also implies that immigrants need to change their behaviour, their culture, who they want to hang around with in order to catch up to the new society and assimilate into that society. Unsurprisingly, the assimilation arguments tend to be located in the white Western countries, in telling stories about people from the non-White non-West.

I recall visiting Kuching in Borneo, Malaysia, and marvelled at the cultural diversity of the region. In this small area, there are over 40 cultural groups including the Malays, Melanau, Chinese, Indians, Iban, Bdayua, Orang Ulu, Melanau, and many more. They all seem to live happily side by side each other. Their ways of life, distinctly different, are all visible in the market stalls or food, and in different areas in Kuching. There is no dominant group that is seen as the cultural identity of Serawak. In conversations, people talk about food, languages, ways of life, clothes, traditions, houses in references to particular sub-ethnic groups without “othering” the groups.

Communities in Kuching are what I see as cultural diversity and inclusion. We must not be afraid to live our life predominantly within our ethnic groups because we have a sense of connection with our ethnic groups. If multiculturalism is viewed as simply about assimilating to a particular culture, then it risks cultural oppression and racism, and paradoxically it marginalises the fundamental core of multiculturalism.

Racism comes from the perception that different cultures behave differently, often in comparison to a preferred culture, therefore people of different cultures should be treated differently and often marginally to that preferred culture. If we accept assimilation, we are putting the blame for racism onto the people who is encountering racism. This is also Ibram X. Kendi’s view in his latest book about racism and antiracism in the American contexts. Kendi argued that talk of failures in culture or conduct supposes that black people are somehow to blame for the effects of racism—as if they could have chosen, instead, to be unaffected by it.

Perhaps in the Vietnamese diaspora case, networks within the Vietnamese precincts are important because they are the clientele. The mentality of the Vietnamese society is having a business typically a family business. The community in which the people live, and personal networks that they build in these communities are often the basis of their trade because they know the people’s “values” and their products can be offered along these values.

Another explanation could be that the Vietnamese diaspora locate themselves in areas where there are congregations of Vietnamese-Australians like Cabramatta or Bankstown because these clusters provide the opportunities that they otherwise are shut out of in the mainstream labour market.

It could also reflect the close community ideals of closed villages in the Mekong Delta or Red Delta as the fabrics of Vietnamese society. They are simply cultural ideals that transcend geographical borders rather than a resistance to the Australian values.

To address the concern of the researcher whom I had the conversation with, I replied, “I think we should be advocating for cultural acceptance rather cultural assimilation. We can do this by recognising cultural ideals in different pockets rather than according with universally preferred cultures, especially if we are aiming to advocate for those that belong in these different cultural pockets.”


International education as a public good

Vietnam has been a significant source country for international students in the last 30 years, and there is no sign of this trend changing in the near future.

Such growth aligns with the country’s economic development since the 1990s when Vietnam transitioned to a market-based economy with strategic efforts in entering the global economy. This is certainly seen at the national level with government and bilateral scholarships as a key element in the internationalisation of higher education policy.

The growth in Vietnamese students studying abroad also reflects a societal aspiration for Western education that has deep historical roots of colonial days. It would not be inaccurate to say that every Vietnamese family wish to send their children to study in the US, France or Australia.

What does this mean in terms of social equity for Vietnam?

First, studying overseas is expensive. In my research about Vietnamese international graduates, the majority of scholarship recipients was from high socioeconomic backgrounds while those that self-financed were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. This may suggest that the provision of scholarship by the Vietnamese government, bilateral agencies, and host universities amplify the “meritocracy” notion that reproduces the privileged class by giving them access to international experiences.

In a society that is undergoing dramatic economic change and increasing level of economic inequality, international education carries equity and social justice agendas from the wider society through unequal access.

Second, if acquired international education results in differentiating local-trained graduates from international graduates that advantage the latter over the former in terms of entering the jobs market and income, then it entrenches economic disparity that produce advantage in the first place. In a high-network society like Vietnam, where material is linked with social status, this would further marginalise those that are left outside the (local or international) education system.

My research also found that the majority of graduates participated passively in community work for public benefits citing economic betterment as the main benefit of international education. While this finding is not generalisable, it highlights the moral problem of the effects of international education.

If one sides with education as a private good, then one may accept the idea of education to benefit the individual.

The equity issue, though, is about “who pays and who benefits” in sending students abroad. If students are sent overseas to study on public funds through government scholarships, a return on this public investment ought to be students’ contribution to society for the benefits of society not only for themselves.

It is not possible to separate the contribution of international education to society if the selection of students carries social inequity of the wider society, and if these students are not willing or able to contribute to public benefits and improve a fair and just society.

The moral problem of equity can be addressed by shifting the international educational paradigm as a private good to a public good. A public good is when society is seen as the final beneficiary of education while the student is the target beneficiary. The public good concept originates from the political economy contexts where human capital is the goal of education. Given that international education is in part a response to Vietnam’s economic transition, as Singapore, Japan once were, this theoretical underpinning of public good has some appeals.

However, in the context of capitalist-developing economy, there are overlapping issues of access to and effects of international education in terms of social equity. The notion of education for human capital therefore needs to go much further.

Creating pathways for international graduates to participate in community development or service learning can be some ways to balance private interest position and public benevolence. Civic opportunities need not be seen as binary to career development. They can be embedded in internship or experiential learning programs in the home countries while abroad or upon returning home.  

Some of these initiatives are already part of the learning model in some Australian universities where students take internship in developing country in NGOs or community-based organisations. Leveraging these programs and the networks society in Vietnam to cultivate citizenship could be the key to sustainability in Vietnam’s development.

If you are an international student or graduate engaging in community development in your home or host country, I would love to hear your story. Please connect with me on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Email.