Saturday, April 14, 2012

Enact real change by keeping an open mind

Apr 14, 2012
By Priscilla Goy & Tan Wei Lie

OPTIMISTIC slogans such as 'the change is me' and 'vote for change' have been used in successful campaigns.

The first was the slogan for this year's National University of Singapore (NUS) admissions campaign, while the second was used in United States President Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008.

Whether the change effected turns out to be for better or worse depends on our intentions, as well as the contexts and the needs of the people affected by the change. One cannot assume that good intentions will translate to positive differences.

This year, one of NUS' University Scholars Programme (USP) modules will examine state-minority relations in mainland South-east Asia. The inter-disciplinary course includes a three-week field trip, where students will undertake field research on highland minority groups in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, and Luang Namtha in Laos.

This is the product of a summer trip that both of us, together with four other students and our professor Dr Peter Vail, embarked on last year.

Dr Vail actively involved us in the planning of the course and immersed us in real-world field situations. Conventional stereotypes of highland and minority peoples were dispelled through our first-hand interaction with them during our homestays at several villages.

The experiences of bathing in the river, eating bamboo shoots for weeks and interacting with Thai and Laotian government officials were all equally memorable.

It was during this trip that our idea of 'change' was redefined, and we hope to share it with prospective students looking for their desired education paths and what they expect out of them.

We often push for change in a unilateral, hopeful manner, unaware that such change can fall short of real impact.

For instance, in one of the villages we visited, we encountered a stairway apparently leading to nowhere. The villagers later told us that it was built by external companies who wanted to boost tourist revenues by creating a pathway to a waterfall.

Little did the external parties know that the waterfall was only seasonal.

Our trip was replete with such examples of one-sided hope for change.

Nevertheless, when the recipients of change were themselves involved, efficacy improved, people were more engaged and real change happened.

For example, the problem of restricted access to health care does not always have to be addressed by using medical aid from non-government organisations. It may be better addressed by awarding villagers their citizenship rights to free basic health care, or by building a proper road to connect villages to the nearest town hospital.

Having an academic module with a field trip component allowed us to learn about policy issues and social trends on the macro level, as well as the micro-level effects that these policies have on people. Some micro-level problems can be more easily solved with policies on the macro scale, and these policies should also be made with the people affected by them in mind.

Real change happens when we break out of our mental moulds and see that problems may not always take on the form we expect them to. In our case, not all rural people were cut off from communications. Education can be provided by installing televisions - for example, some Laotian children learn Thai from TV shows. Also, not all villagers prefer washing in bathrooms to bathing in the natural flowing water of rivers.

It was only when we took problems on their own terms and appreciated them in their real contexts that our trip culminated in something fruitful for our juniors and future entrants of this course.

The change is you - but only if you break out of your initial mindsets and stereotypes to face reality head-on with an open mind.

Priscilla Goy, 23, is a final-year economics student and Tan Wei Lie, 22, is a second-year sociology student at the National University of Singapore. Both are active in the University Scholars Programme.

[So true.]

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