THE MEKONG INTEGRATED

RURAL DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME

 

Mr. Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of today’s honorary degree recipients, I would like to express our gratitude to the University of Singapore, for the honour that you have so graciously accorded to all four of us. It is to me a new and most gratifying experience to have the highest academic recognition bestowed upon one, without having been mercilessly tortured by one’s professors, without going through the painful nightmare of written and oral examinations, of writing and rewriting theses, which, if I am permitted to say, are usually boring to writers and readers alike. So we are really grateful for what we have received today. My own feeling is of pride and humility; I feel proud to be associated with this famous university and its learned scholars of extensive reputation; at the same time, I feel humble in the hope that I have deserved this high honour, and in fear, lest in the future my failings should reveal themselves to you and warrant a sense of profound disappointment for all concerned. All I can do is to assure this learned company that I shall try my best not to cause any such disappointment.

Speaking of disappointment, it is natural that in our human behaviour and social interaction, we should be swept up one day by a sense of elation due to random success that might come our way and then the next day, month, or year, a reaction follows with a depressive mood caused by thoughts that the so-called success is really an illusion. Public opinion no doubt plays a big role in these changes of mood. And public opinion, like the operatic donna, is fickle. Buddha has taught us to view successes and failures as impermanent, immaterial, to be treated with the equanimity that they deserve.

 

Universities, like human individuals, are also subject to success and failure, hope and disappointment, praise and criticism. When scientific discoveries occur, when academic excellence is manifest, when our students have brought about change desired by the people, such as the change of government in Thailand last year, then public opinion registers appreciation and praise, which are often exaggerated. Exaggeration is usually even more pronounced when university, professors, and students are attacked with students at best a nuisance, unruly, unkempt, immoral, and ill-mannered; with professors who are parasites; and universities as ivory towers which are breeding grounds nowadays for extremists, anarchists, and drug addicts. Ministries of Finance, bent on being mean to universities, would point out the low-benefit, high-cost character of the university compared with other levels of education.

Mr. Chancellor, I submit that irrespective of the swings of public opinion, universities should go their own sweet and bitter way. What needs to be considered is the question, are we serving society?

Regardless of what people might think, in Thailand, three universities have come together to cooperate in a rural development programme designed to serve society. The three universities are Kasetsart University (agriculture), Mahidol University (medicine), and Thammasat University (social sciences). The project is called the Mekong Integrated Rural Development Programme, encompassing a total area of some 1,470,000 hectares and a population of 1,500,000. The area includes parts of seven provinces west of Bangkok, with the nearest point some 50 km from the capital. The Meklong Valley is bordered on the eastern side by the Tha Chin River, which runs through Nakhon Pathom Province,  and on the western side by the Mekong River, one of whose tributaries is the famous Khwae Yai River on which the equally famous, but fictitious, bridge stood. This portion of the Kingdom is of special interest to social, medical, and agricultural scientists because of the variety of problems it offers. Social scientists will deal with people of at least four races and dialects, with problems of land tenure, theft, maladministration, illiteracy, and failure of the cooperative system, to name but a few. Medical scientists will be challenged by problems of preventive medicine, and, we hope to a lesser extent, curative medicine. Family planning, home and personal hygiene, nutrition, and pollution are high on the agenda. Agricultural scientists will be fascinated and motivated by the variety of soils and crops - rice, fruits, vegetables, tapioca, sugar cane, livestock, salt farming, fisheries - and the all-important water management project. Students of all three universities will provide the main workforce in the spirit of study service.

We began early this year and have undertaken three surveys: one to find out what service and facilities are presently available from the government; the second, to find facts regarding the people and their modes of life; the third, to study and analyse the character of soil in the area. The next step, in preparation, is to send six teams of field workers to live in six selected villages scattered across the valley. Each team will comprise a faculty member and three or four students; the emphasis is on amalgamation and cooperation among members of the three universities. The field workers will live in the villages as villagers, trying to gain the confidence of local residents, assessing their problems in all aspects, helping them to help themselves, and introduce changes according to their wishes to improve their livelihood, health, education, and self-government. A list of faculty members willing to serve as consultants in each specific field is being drawn up for the programme, pooling the three universities’ expertise and scientific resources. A close link will be established between field workers and the Bangkok headquarters. Development projects beyond the capacity of the universities will be submitted to the Planning Board, Budget Bureau, and competent government departments for consideration and implementation, fully supported by data, facts, and assessment of local needs and expected benefits.

What do we expect from this Mekong Integrated Rural Development Programme?

1) University teachers and students will serve as links between the ordinary people and officialdom; because of the defect in our system of government and public administration during the past twenty years, the gap between people and officials has grown ever wider.

2) In a scaled-down version, the programme will supplement government development efforts which, so far, have concentrated on building infrastructure, which is necessary, but insufficient, for combatting poverty and improving quality of life.

3) Villagers will be helped to help themselves and create institutions for mutual help in their midst.

4) Teachers and students will acquire scientific knowledge from the real world to supplement what they normally learn from textbooks in classrooms.

5) Teachers and students will benefit from a wide multidisciplinary approach to development.

6) Universities will learn how to cooperate with one other and to make themselves directly useful to society.

7) This methodology of development will be analysed periodically to find out where it goes right and where it goes wrong; lessons to be learned from this assessment can perhaps be applied to other parts of the Kingdom, and perhaps wider generalisations could be made.

It is too early to say whether this development programme by our universities will live up to our expectations. And no doubt there are many other programmes organized by many other universities around the world, the University of Singapore included, which deserve even greater mention and attention than the Mekong programme. I hope this distinguished and learned company will forgive my audacity in attempting to share with you our hopes and ambitions in this particular case. We Asians have always been great travelers, and our literature is rich with interesting and exciting travelers’ tales. If this traveler’s tale cannot be called interesting or exciting, at least I hope that this assembly will graciously accept it as being submitted in gratitude for the honour bestowed upon me.

 

Address on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctor of letters degree from the University of Singapore,

4 August 1974.