Toh Swee-Hin is Distinguished Professor at the UN mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. From 2003 to 2009, he was also the founding Director of the Multi-Faith Centre, Griffith University, Australia, a centre that promotes inter-faith dialogue towards a culture of peace. Born in Malaysia and a citizen of Canada and Australia, he has been a high school teacher and taught in Faculties of Education of universities in the interrelated fields of Education for a Culture of Peace, human rights, justice, intercultural understanding, environmental sustainability and interfaith dialogue, as well as sociology of education and education for national development. He has also contributed greatly in the field of education for a culture of peace, working on various projects in Uganda, South Africa, Jamaica, Japan, United States and the Philippines. Dr Toh has also contributed to several international networks and is especially committed to APCEIU as one of the members on the Governing Board and was involved as facilitator in various APCEIU workshops. He was awarded the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education in 2000 in recognition of his efforts towards peace education and peace building. I am extremely honored and grateful to Dr Toh for taking time out of his busy schedule for a skype interview to talk about some of his personal experiences, his thoughts on peace education and some of his motivations in overcoming challenges.
YH: It’s something that I’ve been extremely curious about since I saw your profile; you graduated with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and education, and taught in high school in Malaysia, which is a little different from what you are doing now. Can you tell us how you came to become interested in peace and intercultural education? What led to your decision to dedicate your life to education development and EIU?
Toh: My movement into science initially was because I did well in school in science and math so I just continued studying that after receiving a scholarship to pursue my undergraduate studies in Australia. The Vietnam War was going on at that time and there was an anti-war movement in Australia, so I came to be involved in many issues outside of chemistry, outside of the laboratory. Later when I started teaching, I became interested in the environmental movement when it was still fairly new in the 1970s. I then involved my chemistry and biology students in environmental projects where they made it into the finals of the school science exhibitions in Kuala Lumpur. As you can tell, although I was studying science and I became a science teacher, I was quite involved in science and society. So when I decided to do my graduate studies, I made a shift from science to social science. As part of growing up you become concerned about the world and its issues, but science itself doesn’t provide all the ideas that I needed to understand the world.
YH: Was it then a difficult choice to move from something that you were familiar with to something that is different?
Toh: It is obviously a challenge to move from studying science, all you did was science, biology, math. When I moved into graduate studies I became interested in sociology, education, development, and in the beginning I had to study all over again because I didn’t do a Bachelor of Arts. You have to read a lot more, understand more but I think with commitment you will be able to overcome it. If you’re studying together with other students in social sciences you engage in discussion and participating in class.
For me studying is never just about books, it’s important to be involved in the world. When I was pursuing my graduate studies in Canada, there was a social movement on my campus that developed around the apartheid and human rights, so I joined that movement. As a result I also learnt more about people who are struggling for freedom and human rights injustice that is going on in South Africa and we contributed a little bit to the struggle there as people are asking for solidarity from all over the world to put pressure on the South African govt. For me who was studying social science I had to think of ways to apply that in daily life.
YH: You were born in Malaysia and later studied in Australia and Canada, before traveling the world for your projects and now you’re teaching in Costa Rica. I’m sure that your experiences in Australia and Canada at the timing of the Vietnam war and anti-apartheid movement shaped your interest greatly. Do you think that it is important for someone to travel abroad to have a better understanding of how to promote cultural tolerance and understanding?
Toh: I don’t think it is compulsory. I think experiences outside one’s country and culture can help, but I also think it’s your attitude when you go outside. Commercial tourism is a big business nowadays and people go all over the world to Disneyland and all sorts of tourist spots. But that kind of tourism is not very engaging and it does not really promote real intercultural understanding.
However there is now alternative tourism where you go live with people in villages and work with them on projects or other activities, that’s where I think you really learn about other people, about peace, human rights, development, intercultural understanding and interfaith dialogue.
Having those experiences are helpful but I don’t want to say that it is compulsory. There are many people in the world who do not have the opportunity to go abroad but they are already trying to build peace in their own communities. So on the one hand it can help, but it only helps if you have a certain attitude and approach to that experience. It’s the opportunities you create when you’re out of your home culture.
YH: In your many years of experience, do you see positive trend of awareness and efforts towards EIU and peace education? When one mentions education I think most people will think of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of universal primary education, and if one mentions peace they won’t immediately connect it with education. So I was wondering what you thought about the level of awareness.
Toh: When people are doing peace education they may not call it peace education to begin with. What matters is that they are educating children and young adults to become citizens who are more globally aware but also have certain values and attitudes in daily lives such as non-violence, respect for other cultures, belief in multicultural society and how you treat people who are different from you. There are also many different dimensions of peace education, even if you say gender equality although it’s still difficult in some cultures, but just simply non-violence against women is already a part of educating for peace. Nowadays we are very concerned about the environment, environmental destruction, climate change; these are also key parts of building a peaceful world. If you think of schools nowadays we try to promote no bullying, no violence in schools, if kids or youths have conflicts they don’t fight it out, and there is a notion of non-violence. But the media and video games sometimes promote a lot of violent attitude, so how do you change this through education? So in this way peace education is multi-dimensional and holistic.
I’m not worried if people are not saying that they are doing peace education, but rather what they are doing as an educator, whether as a teacher or parent, whether they are encouraging people to do things to build a peaceful world, a world based on respect and non-discrimination, a world where men and women are equal, issues of sexuality and LGBT right, also think of people with disabilities and how their needs are facilitated. It’s a very long answer but I’m hopeful that even if you don’t see a peace education subject in the school, it is not something to be worried about. I’m more concerned about how people learn different subjects in the schools and how they can become better human beings. If you only study to be successful and only concentrate on wealth and such you will end up becoming very greedy, unscrupulous and corrupt. Values education is sometimes neglected nowadays with emphasis on technology, productivity and growth nowadays. Growth for growth’s sake is going to lead the world to disaster, if you don’t see how we use resources and destroy the planet, future generations will have difficulties.
YH: I really do agree with that. From my own schooling experience in Singapore, there is a subject called “Moral education.” But it tends to be taken up as time to teach other subjects.
Toh: Sometimes these moral education subjects are not taken very seriously. When you teach values, morality and ethics, you have to think about what it means in daily life and how you practice it. If you just teach it and give an exam, students get good marks for that exam but if you don’t ask how to show it when treating other people or the student’s vision of a better world, then it becomes mechanistic. Many countries have tried to bring that in but it doesn’t challenge people to look at themselves seriously, and this includes teachers. Peace education is not just what you teach but how you teach, as a teacher you have to say I’m a human being, you have to tell the students that I’m also struggling to be better.
YH: Over the years what are some challenges commonly faced in implementing your projects? For instance Mindanao in the Philippines is known for its long history of conflicts, so was it particularly difficult to deliver your ideas to them? How did you overcome these challenges? What gives you motivation to overcome these challenges and dedicate yourself to this cause for so many years?
Toh: Well even if it is not in Mindanao, even in Canada or Australia or nowadays in Costa Rica, the prevailing sociocultural economic and political system is still very much in the dominant paradigm of growth, consume, compete, and that’s where most of the world is still in. This also leads to armed conflicts, wars and destruction. But you should not feel depressed or be in despair, it takes time to shift from the dominant to alternative paradigm. It may be slow but if you’re too impatient you will lose your cool or get angry. In peace education we also stress very much on cultivating inner peace, with emphasis on being calm and able to meditate. I think it’s very important to show that even in the middle of conflict you don’t lose your sense of balance and you don’t get so stressed that nothing is happening. Sometimes you have to admit that if you take one step you may go back half a step, because in the dominant system there are individuals, groups, organizations that have interests and they pursue those interests with a lot of power. But from a Gandhian perspective we say active non-violence, in the end you may take a longer time but it is more sustainable. In order to have real change in the world people have to change from within. If you change the system without changing the individual I don’t think it will work. You can have all the laws in the world but if people don’t have the transformation they are not going to follow the laws. But of course on the other hand if you transform internally you should also work for the social change. For me cultivating inner peace is a very important part of peace education and we include this in the curriculum, to remind people to focus on our spirituality. In peace education we don’t believe in experts, we learn a lot from our students and they bring a lot of experiences a lot of hope too and encouragement to renew ourselves.
Dr Toh was extremely sincere and one could see his conviction and dedication as he talked about his experiences and thoughts about how he came into this profession, what he thinks about peace education and some of his motivations. He was also very friendly and engaging, asking about my experiences in Korea and even offering to make some introductions to relevant people in the field! It did not feel like a formal interview but rather, a chat with one of the most devoted figures in the field who was imparting some of his knowledge and insights to me and all others who might be reading this article. It was a great honor and an enjoyable morning, and I hope that more youths around the world will be inspired to take up the cause of a Culture of Peace and overcome challenges as we learn from Dr Toh.