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York Centre for Asian Research Update                        Issue 19, Monday, July 25, 2005

SSHRC-MCRI project calls for proposals on agrarian transitions in Southeast Asia

The Challenges of the Agrarian Transition in Southeast Asia (ChATSEA) project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada under the Major Collaborative Research Initiatives Program (SSHRC-MCRI), is calling for project proposals to fund research by York graduate students on Southeast Asian agrarian transitions. The research project will on draw on contemporary academic work around globalization, environmental change, human mobility, and market integration to rethink the theory of the agrarian transition in Southeast Asia. There are six process papers providing the organizing framework for the study that will be made available to applicants. These papers set out in more detail the research agendas to which proposals should respond. Attached are the guidelines and research proposal form. Interested students at York should contact Peter Vandergeest (pvander@yorku.ca) or Philip Kelly (pfkelly@yorku.ca) for more information. Deadline for submission: 29 August 2005.

YCAR ExeCom members meet and plan for the new academic year 2005/06

On July 21, the YCAR Executive Committee (ExeCom) met to discuss the priority programs of the centre for the new academic year. The current ExeCom members include Peter Vandergeest (Director) and Wendy Wong (Associate Director) as ex officio, Balbinder Bhogal (Humanities), Shubhra Gururani (Anthropology), Philip Kelly (Geography), Lucia Lo (Geography), Max Brem (Community Member), Maire O'Brien (China Management Training Program) and Rhoda Reyes (Centre Coordinator).

Previous members Judith Nagata (former Associate Director) and Lorna Wright (Schulich School of Business) also attended the meeting to share their ideas with the new members. Pablo Bose (Environmental Studies) and Brad Fidler (Political Science) represented the graduate students during the meeting.

The priority programs discussed in the agenda included: YCAR membership, Asian Studies Diploma and Tsunami Fund updates, seminar and working paper series, website development and the Southeast Asian Studies Conference in October 2005.

Join the Vietnam-Netherlands MDE Foreign Student Program, October-December 2005

Want to study in Vietnam? The Masters in Development Economics (MDE) is a part-time degree offered by the National Economics University in Hanoi, Vietnam and taught in English by Vietnamese and foreign lecturers. The curriculum focuses on applying economic theory to the policy challenges facing Vietnam. The MDE has achieved international standards in the teaching of development economics. The program provides an opportunity to get practical, in-country experience of the development challenges facing contemporary Vietnam. It includes a field-trip to the remote Phu Tho province to conduct hands-on studies of development issues. It also provides an excellent opportunity to conduct research for dissertation and for cultural exchange purposes. Language courses will be provided by the program.

For more information about the MDE, visit www.mde.edu.vn. Attached is the link to the course outline.

Me and My Shadows launches new website

After months of hard work, Me and My Shadows would like to share their website for you to enjoy and take note of its activities. Susan Allen and Susiawan offer diverse performances and workshop classes in holistic arts, creative movement, yoga and shadow puppetry (inspired by the arts of the Javanese and Balinese traditions) to inspire and engage all ages in creative, active, cultural expression and sharing. The arts processes highlight peace-building, friendship, multiculturalism, conflict resolution, ecosystems, environmental awareness, folktales and beliefs, science and global learning. Upcoming events include: Storytelling in the Franklin Children's Garden on the Toronto Islands, the International Puppetry Festival in Almonte, Ontario and the Danskinetics Workshop at Suri Yoga!

Small rise of yuan is a big step for China - Asia Pacific Bulletin, July 2005

Last week, the Chinese central bank, the People's Bank of China, made a surprise announcement that the yuan has been unpegged from the US Dollar and moved to a managed floating exchange rate regime based on a basket of currencies. At just 2.1%, the revaluation was considered to be about as small as it could possibly be but the much-anticipated removal of the peg is seen as the first step in a gradual appreciation of the yuan in the future. Prices in the currency forward markets anticipate the yuan to rise a total of 9% over the next 12 months. More>>

The bamboo choo-choo - by Liz Price, The Star, 2005-07-24

When asked if I wanted to ride on the bamboo train, I had no idea what was in store. The picture that came to mind was of a cute toy train with bamboo carriages. I was in Battambang province in northwest Cambodia and had spent the day visiting the killing fields of the Pol Pot regime, as well as temples, a rice processing factory and various other attractions. From my hotel in Battambang, I hired a motorbike and driver for a mere RM23 (US$6), for a seven-hour trip.  

We crossed a river using a narrow suspension bridge. This was upstream of the Stung Sangker, or Sangker River, which flows through the centre of Battambang. Despite being Cambodia’s second largest city, Battambang has a laid-back atmosphere. It is an elegant riverside town with French period architecture. We were heading west, out of town, in the direction of the Thai border. We stopped at a wat to look at the fruit bats in the trees. The bats living here are protected by the monks. Without this protection, they would be hunted and eaten. From the wat, it was quite a muddy ride through small villages and along the river. I thought we were going back to the hotel and was surprised when we came to a railway line. 

I was told this was the bamboo railway but could see no sign of a train, and there were definitely no cute bamboo carriages. I got off the bike and walked in the drizzle to the station. There were quite a few people bustling around and lots of goods waiting to be transported. I wondered how long we would have to wait for the train to arrive. I knew that the train service in Cambodia was fairly primitive and incredibly slow.  

Train travel is cheap, but patience is required. The trains travel at an average speed of 20kph and unscheduled stops because of mechanical problems are not uncommon. We were on the main railway line from Phnom Penh to Poipet, the border town. The French built this single-track, metre-gauge line in the 1920s. They used it to carry coffee and bananas to the city. The first tiny steam engines were replaced later by more powerful steam locomotives. But during the Khmer Rouge regime, the trains were destroyed. The tracks were spared but became overgrown with jungle. After the civil war, the locals cleared the rails and the line was back in operation again.

The 274km journey from Battambang to Phnom Penh takes around 15 hours. The train runs up one day and down the next day. Whilst I was contemplating the speed of the train, the penny suddenly dropped. I realised that I had been looking at the bamboo train without recognising it. The Battambang bamboo train (or norry in Cambodian) is, in fact, a metal frame with bamboo slats that sit on two axles with wheels. It is used to transport people and goods up and down the railway.  

After the days of the Khmer Rouge, the land mines were cleared from the tracks, and the local residents built dozens of these miniature trains. It was interesting to watch the contraption, 3ft (1m) x 8ft (2.4m), being assembled. Two young men appeared, carrying two steel axles with cast-iron wheels at both ends. These were placed on the track – a perfect fit.   Next, a metal frame with the bamboo slats was positioned atop the axles. The engine sits on top, linked to the wheels by a rubber drive wheel. To brake, the driver turns the engine off and coasts to a stop.  The older trains don’t have a metal frame. There is instead a long bamboo mat. The axles fit into two steel forks on the underside of the mat. The mat sits atop the wheels. The train is driven by a motorcycle or tractor engine. Gasoline is available at village crossings, sold in glass whiskey bottles. In the past, men used poles to push the train along.  

It runs about 10km up and down the line, and costs 1,000riel (US$0.26) ) between stations. As the regular train only goes up one day and down the next, there is no danger of collision. However, if two trains do meet, the lighter one is simply taken off the rails to allow the other to pass. I was lucky as one train was being loaded when we arrived. Before I really grasped what was happening, people jumped aboard and a few men started pushing it whilst running along behind. And off went the bamboo train. 

The old French station would have been elegant in its day. Today, it is used as a store for the train parts. The rain continued, and somehow both my shorts and T-shirt had got plastered in mud underneath my poncho. But it was worth it as I had seen the Battambang bamboo train.

Meritocracy, not style, creates great universities - by Janadas Devan, The Straits Times, 2005-07-24

It was possible once to distinguish between universities in terms of their culture and style. Take Britain's Oxford and Cambridge universities. For centuries, their alumni were drawn from the same social class. And yet, as recently as 80 years ago, they were identifiably different. Cambridge man E.M. Foster, for example, thought Oxford men had "little fish faces", while Cambridge men had "tight little faces".

Aldous Huxley, an Oxford man, thought they sounded different. "At Oxford, a certain clerical rotundity of tone is apt to make itself heard in the voices of the best people," he observed. They would pronounce the words "he that has ears to hear, let him hear", for example, as though they were written: "He that hath yars to hyar let'm hyar."

A Cambridge man, on the other hand, would modulate his voice constantly from high to low. Referring to the rubber bulbs used as car horns then, Huxley wrote: "You will have noticed that sometimes, when you loosen your squeeze of the rubber bulb, the instrument as it draws in breath makes a faint strangled sound in its throat. If TOOT is the noise made when you squeeze the bulb, then toot, in the smallest of letters, is the sound that is heard when you let go and the bulb replenishes itself with air.

"The conversation of Cambridge intellectuals is marked by precisely the same alternation between TOOT and toot." TOO lovely; HOW delightful; OH dear. The differences, of course, went beyond such trivialities. The literature of the 1920s was full of generalisations describing the deeper differences: Oxford was literary and scholarly; Cambridge mathematical and scientific. The Oxford style enthusiastic and mystical; the Cambridge style dry and rational. Oxford emphasised history and tradition; Cambridge the contemporary and radical.

The generalisations were too sweeping to have been wholly true. But they must have had at least a modicum of truth to have been so widely current. A cursory look at that era's iconic intellectual figures would suggest as much: Oxford - the classicist Gilbert Murray and the idealist philosopher F.H. Bradley; Cambridge - the logician Bertrand Russell and the economist Maynard Keynes.

Russell once claimed that the only evidence of science in the Oxford of his youth were its gas lights. Objecting to a book by an Oxford don who had treated Euclid's propositions as though they were still the last word in mathematics, he snapped that such views could still be held in only two universities in the world - Oxford and Lhasa!

Goodness knows what Lhasa taught then, but it is certain that no university mathematics department today would stop at Euclid. Not only are the differences between Oxford and Cambridge today minimal, there is little disagreement across the globe on the fundamentals of a good university. TOO lovely or too LOVELY? Who cares? Science or tradition? Both. A mystical enthusiasm? Nyet. The small change of culture and style no longer have much currency in today's universities.

One reason for that is globalisation, which is responsible for the portability of knowledges and techniques, their spread. Systems engineering and cybernetics, aeronautics and quantum mechanics do not acquire Chinese airs in China or Indian features in India. Globalisation has erased the specificities of different cultures, the local. Where universities are concerned, it has fostered also a universal meritocracy where cultural distinctions have only a residual significance.

In this sense, universities have finally caught up with their ancient promise. The Middle English word, "university", comes from the Old French universite. Their root is the Latin universus - from uni (one) and versus (turned); thus, universus - "combined into one" - which, for centuries, had no more than an organisational significance: The mediaeval schools known as studia generalia became known as universities as they brought together, "combined into one", a body of teachers and students.

But how about the other associations of "university"? Universus, after all, also shares the same base as universum (universe) and universalis (universal). Up to the 18th century, most European universities were more devoted to defending religious doctrine than to promoting science or inquiry. It was not till 1694, when the University of Halle became the first in Europe to renounce religious orthodoxy in favour of rational inquiry, that we saw the emergence of the modern university. It was only then that universus, an organisational structure, could aspire to be truly universalis, a meritocracy of knowledge and skill quite divorced from cultural or religious prejudices.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew recently said that he began his academic life thinking great universities make for good graduates. After years as a policymaker, he has learnt that it's the other way round: Good students and faculties make for great universities.

As recently as 80 years ago, few, if any, at Oxbridge would have understood what he meant. It was obvious then that the cultural tone of a university trumped everything else. That it no longer does represents an opportunity as well as a challenge: A strict devotion to, and application of, meritocracy can transform NUS and NTU from good to great universities. The lack of an identifiable style, a unique tradition or history, are no longer insurmountable obstacles.

York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR). For further information, contact ycar@yorku.ca
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