Major differencies between eastern and western philosophies as the basis for adult education - The Singapore experience
written by Chia Mun Onn, Singapore
Association for Continuing Education, Singapore
I asked a few people what they
thought were the major differences between Eastern and Western philosophies
while preparing for this paper.
One of them pointed me to
Tennyson's poem, Ulysses: To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
This, to him, captures the
restlessnness, or to put it in a milder form, the venturing spirit of the West. I thought about the hardware (electronic gadgets and 'state of the art'
audio‑visual equipment) and the software (consultants whom we have engaged, and
their usage of innovative teaching techniques) that have made their presence in
the training and conference rooms in Singapore.
Another commented that, broadly
speaking, Western philosophy is based on rational thought and hence the
emphasis on logic, cause and effect. Eastern philosophy, on the other hand, is
mainly derived from the religious teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism and
Taoism. There is more of a one‑way transmission of knowledge and this is more
authoritative. I thought about the expectations which adult learners have
of their teachers as being the store house of knowledge and their reluctance to
challenge the authority of the teacher.
I mentioned Bo Yang's caustic
comment of the Chinese as "being crass, arrogant, loud, uncivilised,
slavish, uncooperative and given to 'swell‑headedness' easily" to another
friend. She doubted if such characterisation of the Ugly Chinaman was
reflective of Eastern values. To her there is an "ugly" aspect to
everyone, be he a Westerner or an Easterner. It is human nature.
These are perceptions of the
differences and I have little doubt that they must have tried to relate what
they saw to what they understand or know as values of the West.
It is difficult, if not
impossible, to approach the topic without sterotyping the East and the West. Ho
reminded us of the misleading claim that Asians are more spiritual in the sense
that they have a long tradition of aversion for material wealth and comfort.
The fact that wars have been fought very frequently in the history of Asian
countries would indicate, among other things, that Asians were, after all, no less
materialistic in their outlook than Westerners.
I shall attempt to grapple with
the immensity of the subject by reflecting on my experiences as a student of
adult education, as a language instructor and my involvement in the work of our
adult education association. I write as one who has lived in a culture that has
consciously tried to select the best from the East and the West so as to ensure
the best for our people. As our Minister for Information and the Arts put it:
We want to be an advanced society
but we do not want to become European or American because we are not ...
At the same time, we are aware
that we have to learn from the West if we are to succeed. This is a
contradiction which we face every day. We try to resolve this contradiction but
it is never fully resolved. This is the Singapore society that we have
sought to create by Eastern morality and Western technology.
I shall first highlight the major
differences between Eastern and Western philosophies and contextualise them in
Singapore. Singapore provides the setting for the interplay of Eastern and
Western philosophical values and these are manifested in the way adult
education is being organised and practised.
Differences between the philosophies of the east and west
Western philosophy has its roots
in Athens, Rome and JudeoChristianity while Eastern philosophy is derived from
Confucianism, Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. As Greek and Latin are to Western
civilisation, so classical Chinese is to East Asian civilisation. I will focus
on four major differences between Eastern and Western philosophies.
1. Western Individualism and
In the Greco‑Roman tradition, the
image of Prometheus powerfully illustrates the struggle for individual freedom.
Prometheus had gone against Zeus, the all powerful god who ruled the sky from
Mt. Olympus. Prometheus annoyed Zeus by creating human beings. To protect the
human beings from Zeus, he stole fire from Hephaestos, the blackmith god and
gave it to the human beings. This angered Zeus to the extent that Prometheus
was chained to a rock and an eagle tore out his liver. In European consciousness, Prometheus had
become the hero who:
"...defied the patriarchy in
the name of individual freedom, who brought light into our darkness. He was the
saviour who sacrificed himself for the sake of mankind, the benefactor who
brought the gift of technology down from heaven, the teacher who taught us that
we are not at the whims of the gods any more, who showed us how to use our
intelligence to take control of the world".
The Christian tradition has also
reinforced the notion of individual rights. The Bible speaks of God creating
Man in His own image and letting him "have dominion over the fish of the
sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth,
and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth" (Genesis 1:26).
By comparison, the Chinese live
in a world of obligations:
"...obligations to serve the
ruler, obligations to work for the family, obligations to obey elders,
obligations to help relatives, obligations to do well to glorify the name of
ancestors, obligations to defend the country in times of trouble, and
obligations to oneself to cultivate one's own virtue. It would also seem that
rights only belong to one individual ‑ the Son of Heaven.
conservatism and this stifles creativity and robs the people of self‑introspection.
2. Fragmentary and Holistic
According to Fritjof Capra, the
emphasis of rational thought is epitomised in Descartes' celebrated
statement,'Cognito, ergo sum' ‑ 'I think, therefore, I exist.' This has
forcefully encouraged Westerners to equate their identity with their rational
mind rather than with the whole organism. This division between the mind and
the body has led to a view of the universe as a mechanical system consisting of
separate objects, which in turn were reduced to fundamental building blocks
whose properties and interactions were thought to completely determine all
This mechanistic conception of
the whole world is still the basis of most of our sciences and continues to
have a tremendous influence on our lives. Academic disciplines become
fragmented and this has served as a rationale for treating the universe as if
it consisted of separate parts to be exploited by different groups.
The essence of the Eastern world
view is the awareness of the unity and the mutual inter‑relation of all things
and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestation of a
basic oneness. All things are seen as independent and inseparable parts of a
cosmic whole, as different manifestations of the same ultimate reality. The
Eastern traditions refer to this ultimate,
indivisible reality as Brahman in Hinduism, Dharmakaya in Buddhism and Tao in
3. Conflict and Harmony
The Marxist view of history saw
change as arising from a 'dialectic 'interplay of opposites ‑hence class
struggle and conflict. Western civilisation based itself on the struggle
between the Good and Evil, God and Satan or Psyche and Cupid.
Eastern philosophical thought is
based on this notion of the Yin and the Yang. Frithjof Capra describes the Yang as the strong,male
creative power associated with Heaven while yin is the dark,receptive, female
and maternal element.
The dark yin and the bright yang
are arranged in a symmetrical manner. They are dynamic ‑ a rotating symmetry
suggesting very forcefully a continuous cyclic movement.The two dots in the
diagram symbolise the idea that each one of the forces reaches its extreme, it
contains in itself the seed of the opposite.'Life' says Chuang Tzu'is the
blended harmony of the yin and the yang.'
permeates the economic and social lives of the Chinese through geomancy, qigong, Chinese medicine and idol
worship. As Chan observes:"Almost every hotel, office and commercial
building that has gone up within the last decade adheres to certain principles
of geomancy or "Fengshui" ‑ the art and science of harmonising man
4. Idealism and Pragmatism.
The Western idea of democracy
does not fit into the Eastern scheme of things easily. In an interview by the
Daily Telegraph on 16 October 1989 the former Prime Minister remarked that:
I think in a mainly Chinese
electorate, the idea of a loyal opposition and an alternative government does
not come easily. You're either for or against the government.
The Confucianistic idea of social
hierarchy where a person's existence is relational, extending from his family,
society and country. The pragmatism of the East is exemplied in the way
Confucianism has been used to emphasize order through social hierarchy and the
rules and conventions. Taoism provided the meaning of life and thus compliment
Confucius preached the doctrine
of the here and now. The emphasis is one of "life and life" and not
"life and death." The sage hoped to "hear the right way in the
morning, and die in the evening without regret. "What lays the foundation
of life for the Chinese is the family and the continuation of the family also
means the passing on of experience, culture and thought. The Taoists has an
equal view of life and death seeing life and death as the coming out and going
back of a human form of existence. Chuang Tsu talks of "coming and going
". Lao Tzu said,"out to life, in to death." The crux of the
matter is to make the best of the present.
Singapore as a case study
The island city‑state of
Singapore with its multiracial population can serve as a case study of how
philosophical differences can affect adult education.
Despite her historic links with
Britain as a colony from 1819 to 1963, adult education in Singapore did not
take on the form of her former colonial masters. The classical British
tradition of adult education was aimed at the enlargement of knowledge, not
simply for its own delight or for personal enrichment or advancement, but for the
discharge of democratic responsibility the value derived from the fact that in
a democracy no man is an island, that the quality of our communal action
depends on the quality of the individuals values by which they are decided.
Adult education in Singapore has
been principally adult education and its organisation and practice reflect the
administrative efficiency of the government. In fact since Independence in 1965
there has been a deliberate depoliticisation of the state administration.
Politics is not to be mixed with education and religion. Dr Chan Heng Chee
refers to such a contrivance as an "administrative state". Such
states are distinguished by the increased power of the bureaucratic sector
because of the government in many nontraditional activities. The government
has been described as "paternalistic" ‑ the needs of the people are
provided for but they were given no responsibility and their freedom is limited
by well‑ meant regulations.
Iain Buchanan writes of the Singapore
population in the early 70s as one which was stratified by race,language
,education,religion and economic specialisation.
Residue of such stratifications
still exist. This has provided the basis for the government to perceive its
vulnerability as a small multi‑racial nation with a predominantly Chinese
population living in a non ‑Chinese world. Malay is the language of 150 million
people whose religion is Islam.
Economic survival has been the
preoccupation of the government since Independence.This is largely pursued
through industrialisation and an educational system which emphasises skill
training so as to supply the manpower needs of the economy. This strong belief
in the maximisation of human resource development has resulted in an relentless
pursue of paper qualifications ‑ credentialism. Concomitantly the people are
frequently exhorted to be disciplined productive,adaptable and tolerant.
According to the 1990 Census
Singapore has a population of 3 million comprising 77.7 % Chinese, .14.1 %
Malays, .7.1 % Indians, and 1.1 % others. The multi‑religiosity of Singaporeans
is seen by the fact that 53.9% of the population are Buddhists/Taoists, 15.4 %
Muslim, 12.6 % Christians, 3.6 Hindus and 0.5 % other religions and 14 %
profess to have no religion.
The model of survival of 3
million in Singapore crammed into 665 square kilometre island is based on the
Se = C+ M + I + O where C, M, I
and O represent the equal treatment of Chinese ,Malays,Indians and other races
The is further buttressed by the 4 Ms ‑ multi ‑ racialism , multiculturalism,
multi‑ lingualism and multi‑ religiosity.
While there is parity in the
status of the four languages, English is the official language of
administration, the medium of instruction in educational institutions. Language
and culture are inexorably linked. English is associated with Western values
which is seen to be eroding traditional Asian values.
As one writer puts it,
"Singapore has a larger window to the West than the East " Given its
colonial past and the retention of English as the language of administration,
there is a strong affinity to values that are attributed to the West individualism
and liberty. This is in sharp contrast to the values that are more traditional
to the East such as loyalty respect for the elders and submissiveness. The
study of Confucianism (as a philosophy) and the mother tongue (Mandarin for the
Chinese) in addition to English are aimed at providing a cultural ballast to
Adult education is an umbrella notion for the
variety of learning activities deliberately organised to enable adults to
acquire knowledge for the economic ,social and political betterment of their
lives.In Singapore economic development takes precedence over everything else .
‑ a reflection of pragmatism.
The organisation and provision of adult education
The organisation and practice of
adult education in Singapore tended towards the central planned provision model
as described by Jarvis. In this provider model it is assumed that people
need help to see their real needs or to achieve their real aspirations .The
central agency plans the programmes and make them, available to the consumers
Singapore takes a multi‑ institutional approach towards adult education. The
government through its ministries and statutory boards initiates the various
Adult education is largely
financed through the skill development fund levy ‑ based on 1 % of the payroll
of employees earning less than $750 per month is the principal source of
financing national workers education; the most visible form of adult education in
Singapore. Whilst this would appear to be egalitarian and democratic ‑ making
adult education more accessible to the people, the emphasis on skill
development also reflect the Confucianistic thinking ‑ the obligation of the
workers to be trained and the employees to be trained. The work ethics stresses
loyalty to the group or to the employers.
Hence the "priority of the
government" exerts a very heavy influence in resource allocation. It also
reflects the important role that the Singapore government plays in identifying
priority areas in which educational programmes are needed.
Differences in the philosophical
orientations affect the way adult education associations perceive their roles.
There are differences between East Asian and Southeast Asian societies.
Confucianism has a strong influence on the former and hence the stress on
duties and obligations of the ruled and rulers . Southeast Asian societies
which have Buddhists ,Muslims and Catholic backgrounds show a stronger desire
" to get along as smoothly with others as possible, avoid arguments and
Given the strong Confucianistic
orientation in Singapore, adult education has to be non‑confrontational and
complimentary to government policies. It is difficult to accept the paternalistic
role of adult education associations.
Pratt has identified two
conceptions of teaching and learning which are applicable to Singapore. The
first and most dominant is the Engineering conception . Learners are
objectified and teaching is "content to be delivered" and
"efficient transmission of information".Pratt describes the
Apprenticeship conception in which wisdom is handed down from "those who
know to those who don't know." In Singapore this is often expressed as a
duty or obligation, that is, to be a model of correct moral character.
The teacher is still very much
the dispenser, the judge and the jury. For the teacher to take a back‑seat is
very discomforting to the learners.
The ethic of self‑ effacement is
very powerful and is related to the various eastern philosophies of Islam,
Hinduism, Taoism, Budddhism and Confucianism. The prevalent value of
"modest" behaviour, of not drawing too much attention to oneself can
affect the training methodology. Open discussion in front of a large group
requires the student to infringe this ethic as he may be perceived as placing
himself above.This position is illustrated by the Japanese saying, "The
nail that sticks out must be hammered down." The Western assumption of
active vocalisation as a sign of maturity is not universal. Many Chinese
socialise their children to avoid being overly talkative.
The Eastern culture stresses on
maintaining harmonious relationships within and outside the family so as to
avoid the "loss of face". Westerners prefer emotional openness to
emotional inhibition, which is really maintaining harmony to avoid loss of
The use of participatory teaching
techniques like role‑playing and simulation may not be appropriate for certain
The practice of identifying the
strengths and weaknesses in any learning situation may not be acceptable for
Eastern culture. The Western style of conferencing where individual ideas have
been criticised would be too much a loss of face for some.
Yet it is this fear of failure
(resulting in the loss of face for the person and his family) that motivates
learning. The education system is still based on competitive examination ‑ a
belief that despite its imperfection there is no fairer system for identifying the
more able from the mediocre.
Some Concluding remarks
Some years ago Singapore
was thought to be the "melting pot" of the East and West. The wide
variety of food was seen to represent the cultural heritage of the Chinese,
Malays, Indian and European immigrants. This analogy has suffered somewhat
because someone has pointed out that mixing the food does not make them tastier
and more appetising. It is better to allow them to retain their distinctive
flavours. In the same way adult educators should be sensitive to the different
philosophical values that have helped to shape the practice of adult education