Higher Education Reforms in Myanmar: Re-orientating Tertiary Research for Democratic Transition

Myanmar Keynote Lecture

Professor Myo Kywe, National Education Policy Commission (NEPC) Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar

Myanmar’s Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are committed to develop a world-class HE system with a strong focus on research and innovation, to meet the country’s social and economic development needs. In our Myanmar context, long-standing neglect of critical inquiry has resulted in a withered research community, with academic institutions largely inward-looking and static. Hence, efforts are being undertaken to reform the Myanmar HE sector by upgrading university ranking, by developing autonomous and comprehensive universities, and by promoting internationalization.
The National Education Policy Commission (NEPC) has a broad and bold vision for education reform, and a crucial element of this is the re-orientation of academic institutions to be more engaged, active contributors of the research which sorely needed at this stage in Myanmar’s development. I will outline five key steps which I believe can facilitate this process: enabling autonomy of tertiary institutes; providing support to select institutions to develop centres of excellence in different fields; re-establishing the National Research Council, which would concurrently fund and disseminate research as well as provide much needed technical support and mentorship for emerging academics; embedding research training as a core capacity across undergraduate and postgraduate courses; and supporting the development of Community Engagement (CE) programmes which promote genuine collaboration with a wide range of communities beyond academia. The NEPC has a profound concern for the future employability of graduates of Myanmar Universities.
This reform is one of a number of steps in wider education reform which resets the broader objective of our education system: a new generation of citizens who embody an altruistic spirit, engage a critical mind, and deploy rich and varied set of skills to enable our nation to reach ‘consensus solutions for the common good’.


Professor Dr. Myo Kywe has been the Chairman of National Education Policy Commission (NEPC) in Myanmar since July 2018. The NEPC is an independent organization which sets national education objects formulates national education Policies. He is the former Rector of Yezin Agricultural University (YAU), Naypyitaw, Myanmar, which is the only Tertiary institution in Myanmar which offers both undergraduate and postgraduate programs in Agriculture. He worked at YAU since he graduated in 1979 until joining the NEPC, specializing in Agronomy. He obtained Bachelor degree in General Agriculture (B.Ag.) from YAU in 1979, and his Master’s degree (M.Agr.St.) specialized in Crop Science at the University of Queensland, Australia in 1989. He received his PhD degree in Agronomy – Crop Rotation at the University of Kassel, Germany in 2006. He has supervised twenty PhD students and more than thirty students of Master of Science/M.Phil./Postgraduate Diploma in Agriculture and Botany. Dr. Myo Kywe was also the Chairman of Agricultural University Alumni Association (AUAA) of Myanmar from 2014 to 2019 and serves as a consultant to many NGOs, companies and other organizations.

Reading Indonesia

Indonesia Council

Garin Nugoroho, Independent Filmaker

As a filmmaker, to create art is akin to mapping my thoughts and feelings about Indonesia’s social and political condition. Creating narrative film, documentary or theatre is like reading a condensed version of ‘Indonesia’ from a personal perspective. The films and theatre productions I created between 1991 to 2020 emerged from Indonesia’s diverse historical and contemporary context. Yet, they tend to share similar subject matter, namely an engagement with topics which are considered to be sensitive or taboo in Indonesia. For example, Puisi Tak Terkuburkan [The Poet, 1999] is about an Acehnese poet who witnessed the anti-communist killings of 1965-66; Mata Tertutup [The Blindfold, 2011] talks about the dangerous lure of Islamic radicalism faced by young Indonesians; Nyai: A Woman from Java (2018) based during the Dutch East Indies period in the 1920s is about a woman’s struggle to maintain her independence; Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku [Memories of My Body, 2019] speaks about the challenges of expressing non-normative gender identity in Indonesia. And more recently, The Planet: A Lament (2020) is a multi-disciplinary performance that speaks about climate change from the perspective of Eastern Indonesia.

The keynote lecture will reflect on the challenges artists and filmmakers face producing work that deals with sensitive subject matter. We are currently in era when the international film circuit is demanding a localised framing of the subject, yet local filmmakers may still face the challenges of market domination and censorship from radical elements in their home country. The lecture will discuss the strategies to navigate these challenges through building an understanding of the specific market, adapting with the ever-changing technology and younger audience and most importantly, the power of storytelling. Films and other art forms now face a huge task in connecting to the audience in relation to some of the urgent issues facing our world, from democratic regression to climate change. What role can arts and activism play in bringing change and hope? How can an Indonesian perspective contribute to building resilient and tolerant communities in future Asias?


Born in Jogjakarta, Indonesia in 1961 and completed his studies in 1985 at the film academy in Jakarta. Garin Nugroho is considered to be a pioneer of a new generation of Indonesian filmmakers from the 1990s. His films have been screened at numerous film festivals, such as Cannes, Venice and Berlin, and have won multiple awards. He began his career as film critic and documentary maker; his body of work is represented across a broad range of criticism of the establishment, social issues, historical taboos, and native cultures and customs in Indonesia. In addition to his provocative films, he also demonstrates his many talents to dance drama, fine art, and music.

Nugroho’s debut film Love Is A Slice Of Bread (1991) was selected as the Best Young Director at the Asia Pacific International Film Festival. Letter For An Angel (1994) won Best Film at the Taormina Film Festival and the Tokyo International Film Festival. His film Leaf On A Pillow (1998) won the Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 1998 and screening at CANNES Film Festival 1998. Since then, his name skyrocketed and spread to various international film festivals. In celebration of 250 years of Mozart (2006), he was selected as one of the six ‘innovative directors’ world to make the film. The result, Opera Jawa, was based on the Ramayana and produced by Simon Fields and was premiered in Venice 2006. Opera Jawa was nominated for Best Feature Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in 2007. The Mirror Never Lies (Laut Bercermin) produced by Nugroho and Nadine Chandrawinata won the APSA Best Children’s Feature film in 2012. His most recent film Memories of My Body (Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku) won the APSA Cultural Diversity Award under the patronage of UNESCO at the 2018 Asia Pacific Screen Awards.



The Past, Present, and Future of the Mekong River

Association of Mainland Southeast Asia Studies

Philip Hirsch, University of Sydney

In recent years, key publications on the Mekong River have described the waterway as “at risk”, “under threat” and in its “last days”.  The fate of the river is bound up in its geography, history, geopolitical setting, governance, economic role, societal context including the changing livelihoods and cultures of those who have historically most depended on it, environmental change and, perhaps above all, evolving ideas about development.  As such, the trajectory of the river is a window onto many wider aspects of change in mainland Southeast Asia.  This talk will consider the future of the river in light of its past and current transformations in their regional context, including – but not limited to – the longstanding, partially realised and ambitious plans for hydropower development on the Mekong’s mainstream and its tributaries.


Philip Hirsch is Emeritus Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sydney and is a research affiliate at Chiang Mai University. He has published extensively on environment, development and agrarian change in Southeast Asia and has carried out rural fieldwork in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia over a period of three and a half decades. His recent books include the Routledge Handbook of the Environment in Southeast Asia (Routledge 2017); (with Ben Boer, Fleur Johns, Ben Saul and Natalia Scurrah), The Mekong: A Socio-Legal Approach to River Basin Development (Earthscan/Routledge 2016); and (with Derek Hall and Tania Li), Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia (NUS Press/University of Hawaii Press 2011).

Seeking the invisible Malays: The politics of national myth making in Singapore

Malaysia and Singapore Society of Australia

Michael D. Barr, Flinders University

Singapore’s state-directed historiography, seen naked in school History textbooks and curricula, is a shifting compromise between competing visions of Singapore, most of which were given full voice in the politics of ethnic identity that lay behind its Separation from Malaysia in 1965. The issue of ethnic communalism was a central feature of Singapore’s birth as an independent republic and it left the government in a quandary: how to talk about the country’s history when the main feature of its foundation was mired in contention between its dominant Chinese population and its large Malay minority? In answering this dilemma, the government adopted a range of strategies, including, at one point, discouraging the study of History per se. Yet whenever it did turn its attention to History, it has until very recently always selectively built it on scholarship that held Malay contributions to Singapore’s success at a discount, instead offering an overly neat story whereby British colonialism provided an environment in which Chinese enterprise could flourish. This precipitated a national act of forgetting that was achieved by two exercises of exclusion. First, centuries of Malay and other Asian agency were excluded from the dominant narrative by the simple expedient of declaring everything that happened before British settlement irrelevant. Second, the pivotal contributions of the 19th century ancestors of the Johor royal family in the foundation and the economic development of colonial Singapore were completely ignored, seemingly without even a conscious decision. These responses were determined most immediately by short-term political needs and sustained in the longer term by an insistence that national history must follow current national boundaries, but these are insufficient explanations. The consistent thread running through these responses is an implicit prejudice against Malays. This paper explores the shifting phases and drivers of Singapore’s official classroom and national historiography through to the latest developments, which involve the slow collapse over the last two decades of one of the two mainstays of Malay exclusion – the refusal to consider Singapore’s pre-colonial past as part of Singapore’s history. The rehabilitation of Malays in Singapore’s classroom History is still woefully incomplete, but it is a hopeful sign that the latest shifts are being driven by scholars rather than by politicians.


Michael Barr was awarded his PhD in History by the University of Queensland in 1998 for his thesis on the development of Lee Kuan Yew’s political thought. He received a national award from the Asian Studies Association of Australia for his dissertation and then won a Queensland University of Technology Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, which he used to continue his research on Singapore politics while writing a book on the ‘Asian values’ debate. He subsequently accepted an ARC postdoctoral research fellowship, which he took at Queensland University. The second fellowship was dedicated to continuing his research on Singapore. In 2007 he joined Flinders University as a lecturer in International Relations and became the director of several degree programmes and majors. He has been an Associate Professor since 2014.

From 2012-2017 he was Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review, flagship journal of the Asian Studies Association of Australia and now he is Associate Editor of that journal. Articles accepted and managed under his editorship appeared from 2013-2018.

He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 2018.

Michael has written 5 books and co-edited 2 volumes of collected essays, along with dozens of journal articles and individual book chapters – mainly on Singapore politics and history. He is a regular commentator on Singaporean and Asian affairs, and his commentary and op-eds have appear in many media outlets including the BBC, ABC (TV, radio and online), Wall Street JournalFinancial TimesAustralian Financial Review, CNN (online), South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Straits Times (Singapore), Lianhe Zaobao (Singapore), Washington Post and The New York Times.

In the Global Streets (and Alleyways) of Asia

Society of Architecture Urban Historians of Asia

Jeffrey Hou, University of Washington

Protesters, vendors, dancers, office workers, migrant workers, law enforcement – streets (and alleyways) are where cities in Asia come alive and space where people from all walks of life participate in their collective making. Designed primarily for utilitarian functions and even social and political control, streets in Asia are often subject to appropriation and adaptation, sometimes in the most subversive manners – as a stage of political uprising. As such, the streets of Asia are a window through which we can begin to understand the shifting politics of space and society at both macro and micro levels in the region. Borrowing the term “Global Street” from Saskia Sassen, this talk examines streets, alleyways, and other formal and informal public spaces in selected cities in Asia as a stage for both agonistic and affective forms of collective actions. Distinct from the ritualized forms of public spaces in the other traditions, the appropriation and adaptation of streets themselves represent a form of transgression and insurgency, a process that involves the agency of individuals and collectives in challenging or circumventing the established norms and hegemony. By challenging the contemporary norms of publicness and properties, the recent actions in the streets and alleyways in Asia also signify a resurgence of urban spaces as commons.


Jeffrey Hou is Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Washington, Seattle. His work focuses on community design, civic engagement, and public space. In a career that spans the Pacific, he has worked with indigenous tribes, farmers, and fishers in Taiwan, neighborhood residents in Japan, villagers in China, and inner-city immigrant youths and elders in North American cities. Hou is recognized for his pioneering writings on guerrilla urbanism and bottom-up placemaking, with collaborative publications including Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities (2010), Transcultural Cities: Border-Crossing and Placemaking (2013), Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia (2016), Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity (2017), and City Unsilenced: Urban Resistance and Public Space in the Age of Shrinking Democracy (2017). He was a recipient of the Great Places Book Award and the CELA Excellence in Research and Creative Work Award. Hou was appointed as the City of Vienna Visiting Professor at TU Wien in 2013 and was a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan in 2015. For the past 18 years, he has worked with community organizations in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District to renovate and develop new community open spaces and streetscapes while building community capacity. More recently, his work has focused on civic urbanisms in East Asia, examining new models of community building and civic actions.

The Modern Junzi and His Future Prospects

China Studies Association of Australia

Kam Louie, Honorary Professor at UNSW and HKU, China Studies Association of Australia

Traditionally, most Chinese men aspired to be a junzi, the gentleman ideal that Confucius advocated. No matter how one interpreted it, the junzi was central to Confucian framework from the earliest times in Chinese history until the May Fourth era, remembered for its slogan “Down with Confucius Shop”. In terms of gender relations, May Fourth portrayals of women as being oppressed by the Confucian system had a dramatic impact on how men viewed were viewed. Although the men did often hold “the system” responsible for women’s oppression, they certainly could not escape the spotlight and emerge unscathed. Using some well-known works such as Lu Xun’s short story “Kong Yizi” (1919) as illustrations, this paper will show how the attacks on Confucianism from that time helped push the Confucian gentleman who was already dying from the collapse of the old imperial examination system further into the grave.

I will do this by reviewing some significant and influential ideas on the junzi in Mainland China in the last hundred years. As well as Lu Xun, I will look at other thinkers whose ideas have shaped scholarly and general thinking about how to be a good man. For example, Communist philosophers such as Zhao Zibin were extremely influential in the first 30 years of the PRC. With Marxist ideology on the decline, philosophers looked inwards and backwards for inspiration. I will examine the gender implications of popular writers such as Yu Qiuyu and Jiang Qing to illustrate the futility of efforts made by these latter-day New Confucians in calling for the return of the traditional Confucian gentleman ideals.

My contention is that despite their advocacy of the revival of old gender roles and the junzi model, these calls are but a flag-waving exercise to show commitment to the nationalist turn in the political sphere, and young people — young women in particular – will find them simply laughable. With the help of popular media such as blogs and online chat forums, the legacy of May Fourth, in its liberationist calls for gender equality and more modern and less bookish Chinese men, still dictates the direction of current debates.


Kam Louie FHKAH FAHA was Dean of the Arts Faculty (2005-13), MB Lee Professor of Humanities and Medicine at Hong Kong University (HKU) and President of The Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities (2011-13). He is currently Honorary Professor at UNSW and HKU.

His research interests cover interdisciplinary studies of gender, history, language, literature, and philosophy in China. He has published 18 books and about 80 articles, on diverse topics such as Inheriting Tradition: Interpretations of the Classical Philosophers in Communist China, 1949-1966 (Oxford University Press, 1986) and Theorising Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

He studied at Sydney University, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Peking University, and spent 1992 as Professorial Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, Taipei. He has taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Nanjing, Auckland and Murdoch Universities. He has also served as Professor of Chinese Studies and Head of Department at University of Queensland and Australian National University.

As well as serving on various committees such as the Australia-China Council, Cultural and Educational Advisory Committee of the Queensland-China Council, he was Chief Editor of Asian Studies Review and is an Editorial Board member of various scholarly journals.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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