Building a new Southeast Asian agenda

Building a new Southeast Asian agenda

Armin Luistro

“The big agenda of education will have to be truly education for all. Southeast Asia, with INNOTECH, must lead and push this big agenda for education forward.”


Coming from the education sector, I was familiar with SEAMEO and its different Centers, their services, and areas of expertise. However, fully understanding the organization with the treasures that it holds for the region had to come later when I joined the Department of Education (DepEd). It was kind of funny, because when I came to DepEd, it was the time when the Philippines took on the Presidency of the SEAMEO Council. It was like a straight-into-the-frying-pan situation. I realized that part of my role as Council President was to visit all the SEAMEO Centers and I had to do that within a period of one year. It was a real challenge. 

Looking back, though, it was a wonderful experience seeing the different Centers at work, including the three that are hosted by the Philippines. The mother Center is actually INNOTECH, with its different services and the events it hosts. The relationship among the Centers very closely mirrors the aspirations of educators in Southeast Asia.  It is very much like the 30th Southeast Asian Games tagline, WWin As One.”  

The general sentiment among the SEAMEO Centers, including that of INNOTECH’s, is that we are not in competition with each other.  Reforms in every country eventually contribute to fulfilling the education goals of the region. As an organization, SEAMEO is different from other political and government organizations or associations because we are led by education leaders. From our perspective, we must actually move together in providing better educational services to the learners, and because of that, we need to cooperate, collaborate, and work in synergy. That is the only way we can make a dent in responding to the region’s education concerns. 

Given the nature of SEAMEO as a regional organization, we turned to it when the Philippines embarked on the K to 12 reforms. We had to look at the structures and the systems adopted by our neighbors. DepEd’s engagement with INNOTECH was perhaps one of the most meaningful since INNOTECH has the contacts, basic data, best practices, and profiles of the different education systems in Southeast Asia.   

We were able to look closely at our mother tongue-based multilingual education (Southeast Asian countries have multiple mother tongues) and grapple with the issue of striking the right balance between pedagogical principles, the push for nationalism, and learning a second language such as English. We would not have resolved many of the contentious issues related to the mother tongue in the Philippines without learning from the experience of the other countries in the region. 

We also asked INNOTECH to work on promoting K to 12. One of the most difficult tasks of DepEd was to go across the country and meet with various groups through town hall meetings. We needed to explain big education concepts in sound bites for various levels — legislators, local government units, principals, parents, and students. INNOTECH was one of our partners that helped put together videos and promotional materials to help explain big complex concepts into a set of more understandable and palatable messages. 

Just about the time SEAMEO celebrated its 50th anniversary, there was this idea to start with fresh inputs and review SEAMEO’s contributions to education in the region and the world.  We wanted to come together in a sort of strategic planning or brainstorming, an off-the-cuff-remarks type of engagement among the Education Ministers. The usual meetings tended to discuss formal proposals and there was not much time spent to mull over things together, come up with innovations, and visualize SEAMEO and the region in a different light.  This was my experience of the earlier planning sessions.  INNOTECH was tasked to organize those two key events for the region. What I experienced was a free and open discussion where the Ministers, based on their experience and shared vision for the region, were able to express their aspirations openly and dream together. 

It became clear to me that when SEAMEO started 50 years ago, it was a milestone in developing relationships among the education systems in Southeast Asia.  The pioneers looked way ahead of their time.  Many of the policies and reforms they discussed were not only about education. They also touched on policies involving trade and political engagements. They contributed to writing the roadmap, so to speak, for the way the different countries could work together.  Those two dialogues were important in coming up with actual SEAMEO policy guidelines and an agenda for the next few years, if not the next decades. Most importantly, it affirmed our shared vision of education for Southeast Asia. 

On the offer to host SEAMEO Centers, proponents would have to make a case to justify the expense.  I have always thought that the actual outlay coming from the national budget is really minuscule if you set it against the actual benefits these Centers bring in.  For example, I have always thought that INNOTECH is a leader and a lot of Centers actually look at it as a model for sustaining regional programs. 

Reflecting on the challenges to education worldwide, one emerging insight from the Education 2030 goals is the recognition that we cannot push for the best education only for some segments of society. Education reforms will require new thinking. It should not only be about training the best and brightest but should ensure that quality education is accessible to everyone. And thus, when we look at the role of SEAMEO in general, and INNOTECH in particular, the innovation that we need to push involves sharing with the rest of the country, Southeast Asia, and more importantly, with the rest of the world.  Innovation sometimes takes on the perspective of trade and partly explains why sharing to a bigger audience is deemed impractical.  

When other children are deprived of quality education while other students who have the resources feel entitled to it, then something is terribly wrong. Part of the role of SEAMEO, and INNOTECH in particular, should be to push this agenda for inclusion.   

I hope that among the innovations in education in the next few years will actually include those that bring the different education systems together — whether through student and teacher mobility, or more importantly, through the free sharing of ideas and of things that work, and the full recognition that we cannot cut up the education agenda by country. The big agenda of education will have to be truly education for all.  Southeast Asia, with INNOTECH, must lead and push this big agenda for education forward.  

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