Background to mathematical development in Southeast Asia

The following is a collection of extracts taken from S K Lim-Teo's paper ICMI Activities in East and Southeast Asia: Thirty Years of Academic Discourse and Deliberations (2007).

Southeast Asia's connections with the International Congress on Mathematical Education began with the founding of the Southeast Asian Mathematical Society in 1972 and the founding of national mathematical societies in Southeast Asia. The ensuing activities should be understood against the backdrop of the socio-political developments in the region. Many of these Southeast Asian nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam) were under colonial rule until after World War II. With post-war independence and some initial unrest, greater cooperation and promotion of economic growth and peace were formally endorsed with the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1967. While Thailand, which went through governmental changes, was held intact through its strong monarchy, countries like Vietnam and Cambodia had also to deal with further wars and internal struggles before nation building could proceed.

In the northern East Asian region, the nations of China, Japan, North and South Korea were all engaged after World War II in working out their international relationships within the context of communism and capitalism and building or re-building their economies in this context. In these past decades, the economies of Japan and in more current years, China, are important players on the world stage. All these nations, together with Taiwan and Hong Kong share similar oriental heritages known today as the Confucian Heritage Cultures and this common heritage appears to have much influence on the development of their mathematics education practices. Again, the development of International Congress on Mathematical Education activities in the region should be seen within such a context.

While the Southeast Asian Mathematical Society was formed in 1972, the focus of the national mathematical societies has been on mathematical activities rather than on Mathematics education. The national societies were housed in mathematics departments of universities and members were in a sense the mathematical elite of the countries concerned. It would be quite accurate to say that in the region, mathematics education, as a significant and different branch in the mathematics world together with its own form of research and theories, was yet in infancy in the Southeast Asian region. This is not surprising considering that the education systems of the countries were grappling with literacy problems and the education of masses to meet the workforce needs of slowly developing economies.

While the Southeast Asian countries are rather diverse and had come under the influence of colonial masters, the northeast Asian countries of China, Japan and the Koreas had longer histories and greater homogeneity within each country. Formal collaboration among these north East Asian countries began in the later part of the 1980s after China joined the International Mathematical Union and the International Congress on Mathematical Education.

As mentioned above, during the two decades after World War 2, many of the Southeast Asian nations were much occupied with early independence and nation building. The withdrawal of the European colonials meant some political upheaval and turbulence before self-government could mature and stabilize. These nations had to grapple with newly established educational systems which sought to educate the masses rather than the elite. Taking Singapore as a case in point, the need to educate her population to meet the needs of industry was imperative if she was to attract foreign investment to grow the economy. Although the problem was not as life threatening for her neighbouring countries with natural resources, all these countries faced the need to raise the literacy and numeracy of their people, especially those in the rural regions. In the 1960s and early 1970s, mathematics curriculum was affected by the new mathematics movement and on hindsight, it does seem strange that such abstract approaches to mathematics could have been adopted at a time when there was mass education with common syllabus for all.

JOC/EFR February 2018

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