Twenty years ago, Nobel Prize Laureate (Chemistry) Dr Lee Yuan Tseh was tasked with gathering members for the National Education Reform Committee in Taiwan. Twenty years later, EduNation had the honour of interviewing the newly-appointed President of the International Council for Science (ICSU) and asking him to share his views on the current state of society and education. “I am a rebellious type,” he said. “I constantly reflect upon the current situation and rules in order to challenge them. I believe that without challenges, society will not advance.”
In an interview lasting almost two hours, Dr Lee not only provided EduNation with an analysis of the current situation from social, educational and Singaporean perspectives, he also shared his vision of leading the ICSU and influencing both Asia and the rest of the world in crossing boundaries and implementing reforms.
Globalisation of the Economy Causes Social Inequality
The globalisation of the world economy has caused increasing disparities in wealth. As the gap between the rich and the poor widens, ideals like “all human lives are equal”, and “no discrimination among professions” have been slowly eroded. Dr Lee remarked, “It seems to me that such economic globalisation only benefits a few, namely those who can make the international stage a platform for their success. It is unfavourable to the rest.
“While wealthy entrepreneurs can capitalise on globalisation to make profits, members of the working class are often trapped by their circumstances. Large companies are constantly shifting their sites of operations, the implications of which include the loss of jobs for local workers. Wealthy players with vested interests can and do exert significant political influence by supporting candidates and policies that work in their favour.
“Many countries now have representatives in governments that have effectively been put there by large corporations. These office holders often neglect the public good in favour of protecting the interests of their sponsors. I think the demands for social equality and justice will escalate and the result will be reminiscent of the Arab Spring revolution.”
In terms of educational systems Nordic countries such as Finland seem to have found a way to buck this trend towards inequality. The question on everyone’s minds is therefore: how has Finland succeeded where others have failed?
“Nordic European countries incline in some ways towards socialist principles. For instance, they all employ progressive taxation, meaning that higher salaries naturally incur higher taxes. High-wage workers typically find that they lose 70–80 per cent of their wages to tax and the resulting discrepancy in actual disposable incomes across the entire spectrum of the working population is thus minimised. The government then uses this money to fund things like public infrastructure.
“On the other hand, capitalist principles will widen the imbalances in the wealth distribution of any society, as the pursuit of riches and power become the population’s main driving force. In the year before last, 67 per cent of Harvard and 70 per cent of Princeton graduates went on to get jobs in Wall Street. Everyone is obsessed with the race for wealth, and with wealth comes power and authority — and therein lies the potential for money to cause social fractures and class divisions. If only the motivation for wealth could come from altruistic and philanthropic sentiments, what a difference it would make,” Dr Lee said.
The Education System of Today Puts Too Much Emphasis on Imparting Knowledge
Dr Lee has been involved in research and education for decades, and he thinks that there are many problems with our current education system. He referred to an anecdote shared by Professor John Fenn, one of the 2002 Nobel Prize winners for Chemistry, at his 90th birthday dinner. “Professor Fenn told us that when he was in university, a General Chemistry textbook would be around 200 pages thick. At that time, students wanted to learn, and would fill those textbooks with notes detailing their own growing knowledge. The students today, however, walk into their classrooms with textbooks a thousand pages thick, and openly proclaim their contempt for Chemistry.
“Many educators think that imparting the accumulated knowledge of mankind to the younger generation is a priority. But it is unreasonable to expect students to absorb such quantities of information. When every teacher in every subject wants to impart their knowledge, it becomes an overwhelming burden on the students. And because they have to cope with exams they spend so much time learning that they have no time left to mature as individuals.”
The advent of the Internet has ushered in the age of information overload. Everything we want to know, it seems, is at our fingertips. “Now, students have countless sources of data. But a lot of this data is fragmented. Guiding the students in arranging this data into coherent information is one of the challenges a modern educator faces. Thus, an educator needs to impart the techniques of learning — he or she needs to teach the vital skills, so that the students can build upon their own base of knowledge. Teachers should not attempt to spoon feed today’s students.
“New media channels facilitate a rapid flow of information. By comparison, a teacher’s lesson in the classroom can seem abysmally slow, and will not hold the students’ attention. Teachers need to adopt original approaches and present their course materials in ways that can arouse their students’ interest.”
Dr Lee recalled a speech he gave at a high school in Berkeley, California. His co-speaker was Professor George Pimentel from the University of California, Berkeley. “I went first,” he said. “I dished out a whole lot of information on that podium, but I was unable to grab anybody’s attention. I was overcome with a sense of frustration. The principal even tried to reassure me that the students were talking because they were trying to verify the information I was giving them, and that they weren’t uninterested. But I knew better.
“Then came Professor Pimentel’s turn to speak. In came a figure dressed as Ronald McDonald, holding a telephone in his hands. That figure was Professor Pimentel. All eyes were on him. He placed the telephone on the desk, pretended to make a call, and said: ‘Hi, am I talking to Mr Einstein?’
“The students were immediately captivated by the riveting conversation between Ronald McDonald and Einstein. Their attention was very focused for the whole presentation. That’s when I realised that students are very different now. There needs to be an aspect of performance if you want to attract and retain their attention. This professor was very successful in doing so.
“Many students tell me that they want to become scientists. I tell them that even if they learn fervently from their teachers, all they are doing is learning the accrued knowledge of mankind. If one really wants to be a scientist, then one needs to be able to seek new knowledge, to gnaw at the very boundaries of the field one studies, and to explore the unknown.
“Even if you learn well from your teachers and get a 100 per cent score for your examinations, it means nothing to the world of Science. You are at best an excellent student. If we want Science to advance, then we need students who can see further than their teachers. We need students to think differently from their mentors. Challenging what is established is the path for advancement and improvement. Of course, there is a contradiction here between telling the teacher, ‘You are wrong.’ And the teacher telling you, ‘You are a good student. You know everything.’ Both can define a good student but they are inherently very different.”
Teachers Must Inspire
In trying to put together an ideal picture of how education should work, Dr Lee recalled another one of Professor Fenn’s anecdotes. This one was about the novelist John Steinbeck. “His son was already tired of lessons in primary school. So he asked his father, ‘How long more do I have to go to school for?’ His father told him he still had ten years of school ahead of him. Steinbeck’s son reacted by exclaiming, ‘Oh God, I have to endure this torture for ten more years?’ Steinbeck responded by saying that if you can find a good teacher, your time in school will be anything but torture.
“Steinbeck then said, ‘I have had three excellent teachers. They all had something in common. All of them loved their jobs, and all of them had a burning desire to educate.’ His Mathematics teacher in high school was one of them. Her lessons were not restricted by the curriculum, and her discussions with the students were expansive and lively.
“Steinbeck continued, ‘This teacher ignited my desire for knowledge. I detested Mathematics at the beginning. But after being inspired by her, I felt that the subject was as precious as beautiful music. If a student’s desire to pursue knowledge is ignited, learning becomes a joy. It is regrettable that the teacher was sacked after the term. The reason for firing her was that she did not teach the syllabus.’
“Steinbeck said, ‘I had countless teachers over my many years of being a student. I have forgotten almost all of them. Yet I can never forget this particular one who was sacked. She was the one who ignited my desire to learn. She inspired me to realise that everything you see has a much deeper dimension that begs to be probed and studied.’”
Dr Lee believes that if teachers can cater to the students’ interests and inspire them to learn, then students will realise that the academic journey is as stirring and reinvigorating as a joyful melody. This way, they will never tire of learning.
“In the slum areas of New York, students don’t care about their studies. One particularly thoughtful teacher considered his students’ love of basketball and told them, ‘Alright, we can play together, but on the condition that we finish our revision.’ As a result, the students were naturally motivated to learn, and eventually they developed a passion for studying. Thus, a good teacher must know how to reward and motivate his or her students.
“Another example involves a group of students who had no love for learning, and were only interested in gambling and earning money. Their teacher capitalised on this, and stimulated their interest in schoolwork by introducing them to the concept of probability. From probability, he moved on to teaching permutations and combinations. By teaching them to gamble effectively through the application of mathematical concepts, the teacher inspired the students’ interest in figures and mathematical analysis.”
Building an Equitable and Fair Society
Dr Lee’s ideal society is one where “everyone is equal, and all professions have equal value”. He said, “It takes monumental effort to achieve this ideal. Relatively speaking, Finland’s society is very equitable and fair. Their progressive tax system minimises the impact of income disparity. Every profession is respected, and every person has an equal chance of distinguishing himself or herself regardless of their job. In a society where teachers and bankers receive the same respect and similar material benefits, there are many who are willing to follow their passion and become educators.
“But in places like Singapore and Taiwan, salaries in the education sector are lower than those in the corporate, finance and research sectors. This naturally puts a lot of people off teaching. Within the profession itself, those with a doctorate won’t be paid much if they teach at lower level schools like kindergartens. Naturally then, they aim to become university lecturers. If we wish to have equality among professions, then we need salaries and tax systems that reflect this desired equality.”
All parents want their children to be happy and successful; this is completely understandable. But in the eyes of parents today, the very first prerequisite for happiness is a high and stable income.
“Many parents overly idealise the white collar profession. When my son was young, he used to say, ‘Dad, I won’t become a scientist in the future.’ When I asked him why, he replied, ‘You look like you have a tough time Dad, you don’t get any off days on weekends or even time to rest at night.’ I responded by telling him that I enjoy my work. But at the time he could neither understand nor accept my response. Years later, he ended up being a doctor. When he was an intern he once told me, ‘Well Dad, now I’m working just as hard as you!’ The job might be taxing, but he clearly enjoys it.
“Taiwanese dancer Lin Hwai-min is the founder of the world renowned Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. When he first wanted to become a dancer, his father told him dancing was a beggar’s profession. Hwai-min responded by saying, ‘Even if I become a beggar, I will at least be a happy one.’ One’s profession should also be one’s passion. Those who love dancing should dance; people should be allowed to follow their passions, and still be accorded the respect and reward they deserve by society.”
However, ideals often have a tough time in the face of brute reality. Dr Lee lamented that in today’s world, it is difficult to persuade others to share these high-minded aspirations. “When we talk about changing the mindsets of parents today, we are talking about changes that must occur throughout society. Otherwise, it is pointless to preach to the young about ideals when wealth distribution is still so heavily polarised. The harsh reality they face dictates the choices they make.
“You can try telling the parents that there is no difference between professions. No one will be convinced. A mother told me, ‘I have two children. One is a manual labourer, the other a white collar employee in a high-tech company. There is a ten-fold difference between their salaries. The manual labourer cannot buy his own house or support a family of his own.’ This kind of situation should not happen. That is why we must change, we must oppose the institutions that allow such inequitable circumstances. If we keep silent on the injustices in our society, and still have the cheek to tell the younger generation that all professions have equal value, we are doing nothing more than telling them lies.
“When I was a young man, China was going through the Communist Revolution. Many people then had high hopes of creating a society based on equality and fairness. When the revolution ended, however, economic advancement came at a cost: the propensity for corruption. Wealth distribution became further polarised, and living conditions worsened. Sunlight was blocked out in Beijing, water sources were tainted, and food was unsafe for consumption. The people started questioning the purpose of the revolution. For the younger generation today, socialism and communism represent collapsed and meaningless ideals of the past. They end up believing only in money and power, and have no ideals to speak of. This is terrifying.”
Beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the West the drive for development has been a widespread and intensifying phenomenon, and as a result natural resources that once seemed inexhaustible have been driven to the brink of depletion in recent years. The problem mankind now has to face is finding a solution to sustainable development. Dr Lee said, “Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland once said that sustainable development is defined by the ability to fulfil the needs of the current generation without starving the next generation of resources.
“I grew up in Asia. After reading Dr Brundtland’s statement, a question came to my mind: what is sustainable development? What constitutes ‘development’? The United States is clearly considered developed. But the Earth is already overburdened — if every country aims to have American living standards, then we would need five and a half Earths’ worth of resources. If everyone on Earth lives like Singaporeans, four Earths wouldn’t be enough. The same goes for Taiwanese living standards: three Earths wouldn’t be enough.
“Thus, I am sceptical about the term ‘development’. What constitutes development? Economists will say that continuous production and consumption constitutes economic development. China adopts this definition as well. China sees that the American automobile market is a strong driving force of the western economy, and therefore thinks that having its own automobile industry is a priority. The average car ownership level in the United States is such that there are more than 500 cars registered to every 1,000 citizens. China aims to have at least 300 cars to every 1,000 Chinese citizens. By the time China achieves this aim, everyone will have cars, but there will be none of us left to drive them.
“Thus, the modern perspective on ‘development’ is not right. A high consumption model does not equate to development. Mankind cannot continue to develop like this. First World countries need to acknowledge that the Earth is already overburdened, and stop imposing their own trajectory of development onto developing countries when helping them. While developing countries must still continue to advance, their path of progress should not seek to repeat the European history of development. Developing countries of today need to find a new path. There is no future for Asian countries if they blindly follow European models of development. On the contrary, we will all suffer the consequences together.”
The Future Earth Project
Dr Lee asked us to direct our attention to an issue that is more pressing than any other — our environment. “Human societies have been developing for a few thousand years, and yet it is only within the last fifty years that we have started to seriously overburden Earth’s resources.
“Human beings are a part of nature. Our lives depend on the Sun and its ecosystem. In the past 50 years, the environment has undergone drastic changes. The world’s population has increased from 1.5 billion in the last century to the 7 billion of today. This quadrupling of the number of people on our Earth has resulted in the over consumption of its resources. At the same time, we are also producing excessive waste materials, and the Sun can no longer reintegrate these, especially carbon dioxide, back into the ecosystem through its photosynthetic processes.
“In a nutshell, our Earth is overloaded, and is on the path to destruction. There is no future in continuing our current state of development. Because our capacity for self-reflection is lacking, our world will soon come to an end.
“What worries me the most is how some academics have the opinion that global warming only causes an increase in global temperature of two degrees Celsius, and has a minimal impact on our environment. Europeans, especially, may see this as a coming of spring, and think that they can adapt. This is a misconception. Darwin’s theory of natural selection popularised the usage of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. Contrary to the contemporary application of the phrase, the word ‘fittest’ does not refer to the strongest or the most intelligent organisms, but the organisms that can best adapt to changes in their surroundings. However, the current rate at which changes in our atmosphere are occurring is not something that any human can keep up with.”
In the month of November last year, the ICSU held the Future Earth Asia-Pacific Regional Workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. At the opening of the ceremony Dr Lee remarked, “This region holds around 70 per cent of the world’s population and has some of its fastest growing economies. Its rate of urbanisation is faster than the global average. The disparity between rich and poor is enormous. And Asia-Pacific also represents a huge portion of the world’s carbon emissions — different estimates put it at more than 40 per cent of the total figure.
“What this means is that the Asia-Pacific region has the potential to decide the fate of human sustainability. If it continues with business as usual and follows the western way of development, this region has the power to make human development unsustainable. The good news, however, is that Asia-Pacific also has the vitality and creativity to blaze a new sustainable path for the world. It’s fully capable of kick-starting transformations that put humanity on a pathway to sustainability.
“I truly believe that where the Asia-Pacific region goes from here will heavily influence the future of humanity. We know that it cannot copy the western way of development and way of life. If it does, the environmental consequences will be catastrophic. We know this for a fact. Asia-Pacific needs to find a different path to sustainable prosperity.”
Population Control and Collaborative Policies
Other than changing development models, Dr Lee also stressed the importance of population control. “The world population is too large, and needs to be curbed. Third World countries like India, for example, need to implement family planning and birth control. They also need to educate the female population, so that young women develop a sense of independence both in their thinking and in their lifestyle choices.
“In my parents’ generation, it was common to have many children. I have nine siblings, and my neighbour was one of ten. Children are often seen as retirement insurance. But Taiwan, for instance, now has a National Health Insurance policy. Everyone has health polices and retirement pensions. When there is no dependence on the younger generation for support, the need to have large families disappears.”
Overpopulated countries need to restrict their population growth. But countries like Singapore, Taiwan and Japan are facing a different problem — an ageing population that results from slower population growth. If these countries also curb their population growth, they will further diminish the size of their young talent pool — and how then will they be able to survive?
“We can only solve this problem through collaboration. If Singapore’s talent pool is waning, then talented people from overpopulated countries should be allowed to move and contribute to Singapore. My suggestion is for governments to practice open-door immigration policies, and assist in the integration of foreigners in new countries. We should respect every individual and all their differences. Taiwan often complains about its lack of youngsters and its decline in productivity and competitive strength. If we view the workforce and military strength of countries from a solely competitive perspective, then an ageing population will indeed pose a very difficult problem.
“Additionally, as we face the prospect of an ageing population, we must stop thinking that we should depend on the younger generation. Older people must learn how to support themselves financially, and how to maintain a healthy body. This way, they can take care of themselves and not rely on the young.
“Take me as an example, I am 77 years old this year. I am still working at the ICSU, and I share the burden of doing household chores with my wife at home. My wife does the cooking, and we shop for groceries together. My wife sweeps the floor while I wash the dishes. Of course, we leave the laundry to our washing machine, though my wife handles the drying. If we stretch the definition of the ‘elderly’ to mean those above 80 years of age, I am still considered young! I have many friends who retire by the age of 50 to 60, sit at home, and refuse to work or handle the household chores. This is not acceptable,” Dr Lee said.
Standing Firm for Revolution
Dr Lee has been reflecting on social ills and advocating reforms for the betterment of society for a long time. He has also participated regularly and passionately in social movements. Even at his age, he still spares no effort to help bring about good. He said, “The reason why I am the President of the ICSU is because I want to forge a bright future for our world with like-minded people from all around the world. I am currently travelling the world in order to help change society.”
As Dr Lee remembered his younger years, he reiterated the importance of sustainability. “During the Second World War, I had to take refuge in the mountains with my family. There was no electricity in the wild. There was only sunlight. Our survival depended entirely on the Sun.
“And when I used to live in Hsinchu, Taiwan, I could do everything I needed to do on foot or by bicycle. There were large grass fields near my house where I could play baseball. Those days were blissful. But Hsinchu of now is a totally automobile-dependent community. You cannot get around without a car. Then, after you buy a car, you realise that you still cannot get around because you find yourself trapped in traffic.
“I often tell the young that if you want to save the world, you cannot just adhere to a herd mentality and conventional knowledge. You need to walk a different path. Our values, philosophical perspectives, concepts of development, and relationship with nature need to change.”