Dr. Su-Ming Khoo

Introduction by Wayne Tobin

On June 17, Dr. Su-Ming Khoo presented the role of critical global citizenship education in reducing and understanding global inequality through solidarity at the Bridge 47 Knowledge Exchange Partnership event.  "Inequalities and Solidarity: The role of Critical Global Citizenship Education in responding glocally to marginalisation in the Global North" was held over three days with more than 20 participants. Contributors included leading Researchers and Academics from across Europe. We were fortunate enough to be able to have an interview with Dr. Khoo regarding her presentation on the day.

The presentation itself began by noting how solidarity is a complex topic to fully understand and even more complex in the multidimensional sphere of GCE. The concept of “bioethical solidarity” was proposed as an approach to help critical GCE find itself when dealing with challenges such as inequalities within democracy or health injustice.  A visual metaphor of a rope was used to elucidate the multi-stranded nature of solidarity and the historical direction in which each of the different strands have been woven. Just as ropes can be made right or left-handed, approaches to global challenges can be left-wing or right-wing. To understand this fully it was suggested that solidarity should replace the word fraternity from the French revolution motto "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” with the principles of bioethics namely “Justice, Equality, Solidarity”. The word fraternity symbolises the exclusion of many and critical GCE rejects this in favour of a more democratic and inclusive approach.

Dr. Khoo noted how contemporary concepts of global citizenship have been shaped by neo-liberal attempts to transform the modern welfare state. It was pointed out how the New Deal or Keynesian Welfare states came into being alongside imperialist and socially conservative social contracts. But critical GCE rejects market freedom in favour of social justice and solidarity. This begins with a grassroots approach centred on bottom-up struggles.

The 20th century social contract was renegotiated by groups like Trade Unions but was weakened after 1918 as demands for solidarity remained in a right-handed or neo-liberal fashion. The historical background of global co-operation has many failures around issues like global justice, health and the control of multinationals and the protection of corporate rights over knowledge with little regard for the poor and vulnerable. However Bioethical commitments require everyone to have basic ethical standards and minimum core rights. Dr. Khoo also stressed the importance of critical GCE in assisting those whose citizenship has become eroded or those who have become “stateless”.

It is clear bioethical solidarity offers GCE practitioners a critical lens to explore the plight of the most vulnerable. Recent events such as the death of George Floyd in the United States and the ongoing Refugee crisis in the Mediterranean should remind us of the importance of global solidarity.

Here is our interview with Dr.Khoo, we hope you enjoy it!

Interview by Christian Bardales

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

My name is Su-Ming Khoo and I'm a lecturer in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland in Galway, which is in Connemara in the west of Ireland. It's one component of the federal National University structure, which has several campuses across the country. I would describe it as a medium sized public university with around 19,000 students and around 2000 staff. It's a comprehensive public university with all the different disciplines and specializations that you would expect in a public university. Originally, I was born in Malaysia of a Chinese ethnic heritage. I lived in England for 12 years where I did my upper secondary schooling and bachelors. I did my PhD in Northern Ireland on democracy and development in Malaysia on a Northern Ireland Department of Education scholarship. I was lucky enough to get my first temporary position at University College Cork nearly 25 years ago before I received a tenure position at Galway. I've been working for about a quarter century now on the basic connections between development and democracy. Because of my Southeast Asian roots, I have an interest in the Southeast Asian region, diaspora, and migration, but broadly I've been working on this connection or lack thereof between human rights and development. I'm also involved in lots of different collaborative networks and projects that overlap with Bridge 47 including one currently funded by the Irish Research Council on redefining quality with equity in mind for higher education. It's broadly on the theme of critical higher education studies. I’m always researching and writing about the connections between development and human rights. I'm particularly interested in the ‘Third World’ approach to human rights, or Right to Development approach. I'm very broadly interested in the political economy of neo-colonialism and development including questions around capitalism's historical connections with racism, patriarchy, and economic exploitation. I'm involved in quite a number of different overlapping research networks which work on decolonial ethics and human development.


In your presentation, you spoke of bioethical global citizens citizenship education. How will you define that?

The ethical part of critical global citizenship education basically relates to each of these words, critical, global, citizenship, and education. We could look at how bioethics relates to each of these, but that would take too long. So, a shortcut might be to think about what it is that citizens of the world need to think about and critically look at both from within our presumed ethical containers like our nation or state regulatory framework because of course, no nation lives alone. We are living in the world which is also a planet, in a solar system, in a universe, in a cosmos. I think the ethical aspect of critical global citizenship education is thinking about these locations and the relationships they imply. Bioethics is about life, health, and how we think about them morally as the basis for relating to others and the world. What do bioethics principles say about justice or equality and what does solidarity require? Solidarity being what those who have owe to those who have not. It's not just an abstract ethical principle. It's a practical ethical principle.

Solidarity is about the practical ethical principle of what we owe to others, how we situate ourselves in relation to others, which in today's world, is about sustainable development. Sustainable development which is becoming much more to the fore of our consciousness again. It's about the obligations and duties to younger people and people of generations yet to come, as well as thinking about the burdens that are imposed by the deaths, suffering and other shortfalls of justice and equality. Getting bioethical concerns inside critical global citizenship education is about thinking about the ‘floor’ and the ‘ceiling’ for citizenship and education. The ‘floor’ concerns those who are experiencing the shortfalls, falling below what we might consider to be necessary to be human and to be a citizen in the world. This is especially concerning today because we have more refugees and more people who are losing their citizenship rights than ever before. At the same time, we're thinking about all the people in the world and the ‘ceiling’ of planetary boundaries. How much can our planet bear in terms of generating those resources that are needed for people to live with dignity is a complicated question to answer. I think the ‘floor’ is the foundation of global citizenship and the ceiling for global citizenship is thinking about just distributions of resources within planetary limits - justice not just in principle, but as a practical ethical horizon.

How would bioethics reframe how we view human rights as a whole?

I think bioethics reframes how we view citizenship or human rights. Human rights determine the ‘floor’ of global citizenship because human rights, first and foremost starts, with the right to have rights. So human rights are the rights attached to a person in the world when talking about global citizenship. Bioethics reframe how we view human rights by both recentering and by decentering the human subject at the same time. Human rights, since its origins in the mid-20th century, has been very much a legalistic concept. It has to somehow escape from this legalism and become a more truly human concept. It can only do this by decentering the human subject because bioethics is about the fact that we as human beings are not islands of splendid isolation or atoms, that we all live in relation. We need other people and other beings intensely through relations, so by recentering and decentering the human, human rights become not just about laws, but about human beings and what’s required to vindicate their humanity. Decentering that humanity and saying, humanity isn't about being individuals, the individual lumps of people to which all rights stick to, but that those rights are constructed as a dialogue between ourselves, other people, and each other in the world in order for them to become substantive and real. So, I think bioethics gives us the key that unlocks the substantive dimension of human rights.


Would bioethics not be compatible with the constructivist understanding of human rights and society’s legalist interpretation or is it leaning more towards an enlightenment principle of natural rights?

I think natural rights are really problematic because of their historical construction, but I wouldn't frame it in that way. I think that bioethics gives us keys to rethink human rights in ways that bring creativity and relationality into thinking about rights and thinking about humanity and justice. So, I'm not really that bothered about the restrictions of particular frameworks, as I think that's not what bioethics is. I don’t think that you can easily substitute bioethics for some other foundational framework, which simply continues to be there. There's something different about bioethics and I think that it’s substantive around life. It’s concerned with living beings and their life, liveliness, their being alive. Being alive is about needing other types of life. That's how I think it's different from the legalistic interpretation, which is an abstraction, some kind of medical abstraction or something. But really, that's not what it's about to me. I suppose I have a strongly feminist reading of bioethics which puts me in a particular position from which I think about the substance of human rights. What attracts people to human rights is this lively aspect of them, that sort of mojo that human rights has that somehow gives you a key to unlock justice. It gives you a key to thinking about humanity as if the humanity of human beings really matters and that can't be just about the sovereignty of the legal personality. That cuts through what we basically think legal interpretation is and I think that we need to give ourselves permission to think more broadly.

What were the historical trends of human solidarity?

I think we can think of trends as maybe just going in two directions. First, we need to start by acknowledging that what any of us knows about history is vanishingly small. That even someone like me of Chinese heritage or Asian heritage knows about Asian traditions of history or solidarity is probably vanishingly non-existent. With that caveat in mind, you know what we know about history is based on what we may have been forced to read about in earlier times. This limitation comes with the fact that the historical trends could go in two directions, they could go in conservative directions, or in transformative and egalitarian directions. Conservative directions have always been about maintaining disparity, about the fact that history is the property of the winners, the masters of the universe, in terms of who defines what the universe is and what counts or doesn't count in that universe. It has always been based on appropriating rights, so in that discourse, creates rights for those who have it and disenfranchises and dispossesses others. Whereas I think our radical or transformative understanding of historical trends looks for redistributive and egalitarian moments in history. In western history or in 20th century history, there are certain moments, but they’re different moments in different countries. I think that it's really about thinking about directions or horizons rather than me definitively saying that was this in 1789 and that in 1834 because there will always be other facts that come to light. Depending on what tradition you're drawing on like Sanskritic teaching, Buddhist thinking, Daoist or Confucian teachings, Islamic thought, or Western European history, or indigenous thought, I think different stories or narratives of what counts have always constructed solidarity in terms of what does it include, what are we trying to keep the same, and what are we trying to change. I know that may not be as definitive as some might like, but I think we should think about what we're looking for when we make the story and when we look for the story. Every history has stories of those in power, either trying to keep it or get it back. And those who don't have power, finding the voice to demand what they think is rightfully theirs.


Has Rousseauean concept of the social contract failed certain groups?

Well, there were so many failures in a very limited contract. You have to remember who Rousseau was and that he had some pretty weird ideas. First of all, if you're an elite male person in Geneva at the time of Rousseau and he reckons that Geneva has cracked it but only for people like him. He had very exclusivist concepts of the social contract and it's all very well to say that we all decide to be free and we freely decide to force each other to be free if needed. That's a social contract if we're all free, white propertied men and eminent citizens of Geneva. He had extremely sexist views and his ideas about ‘Nobel Savagery’ were terribly misused by racist theory. The western enlightenment failed to question how men in places like Geneva could become so rich and free in the first place, how the elites could have the educational, financial, and material circumstances. These were the fortunate circumstances that Rousseau found himself in. That social contract usually fails through what are called contracts of domination, and contracts of domination are unconsented contracts. The story of slavery and oppression of women was really about social contracts that encapsulated sub-political subjects into being subjects of lesser standing in contracts of domination. In terms of Rousseau’s time, where women and slaves were concerned, these would have been unconsented contracts of domination for large numbers of persons, to be held as property by other people. So, it’s highly problematic because you have some citizens who agree on egalitarian social contracts based on enslaving large numbers of others and entire categories of others by designating that they’re slightly lesser types of people than us “real” people. The concept of the contract of domination, a concept developed by the feminist theorist Carole Pateman and further developed by the race theorist Charles Mills in their two critiques of the liberal social contract, the sexual contract and the racial contract. I think they are really key to understanding why Rousseau's view of the social contract is deeply problematic. It's not that we can't take anything from it, but you have to qualify it.


Do you think that this unqualified view of the social contract has created the problems that we have in society today, as shown by what's happening in America, the UK, and across the globe?

Yes, but also, it's worse because we have this history that is much more than slavery. Even after abolition, structural racism persisted in Jim Crow, voter oppression, and massive inequalities that have undermined the potential for great numbers of people to even stand on the ‘floor’ with some expectations of equality. If you're talking about social contracts and contravening contracts politically, that creates political equality, which is what the social contract is. The Rousseau contract is a contract that creates the conditions of social and political equality, but if you have this massive heritage of this increasingly massive pile of inequality that just keeps mounting up, you see the trouble we have today. The trouble we have today with discourses of inequality is that there's so much inequality everywhere and I agree that the contracts of domination underlie many of the troubles that we have in terms of the actually existing unfinished business of persisting structures of injustice.


How could critical GC be used to reinterpret these contracts?

Well, cosmopolitanism gets a bad rap, but I think it’s about how critical global citizenship education could think about the dominating contract, whilst being critical about its own liberal basis. We talk about the Rousseau contract in the language of equality and freedom. It is problematized that it has to confront its own silences and structural ignorances because either it's egalitarian or it's not. It shouldn't pretend to favour egalitarianism while pushing some, possibly many people below the ‘floor’. By pretending that equality exists is very difficult because the ‘floor’ is where the border is. It is where we decide who belongs to ‘us’ and who doesn't. This goes back to the theme of solidarity and who owes something to somebody else, whose humanity is going to be denied at the border. This applies to the literal borders where humanity suffers, whether the Mediterranean shore, US-Mexico border, or the Burma-Bangladesh border. So, I think critical global citizenship education has to think about the ‘floor’ and borderization to become aware of how this ‘floor’ thinking becomes salient. It's very troublesome and difficult because we'd like to stay in the center, far away from any border situations, because it's terribly inconvenient. I think we need to go to those inconvenient places, if you really are committed to a critical global solution. Then we can think about the ceiling, which is the other threshold. How much space do we have together to live in the world and how much we then have to think about historically about the people who were pushed below the floor. What the present owes to the past. I mean, it's not really the past, because the ‘past’ is the people in the present who are still burdened with the baggage and the difficulties of the past. This requires some reparation and redistributive justice and is what Bell Hooks, the feminist writer, calls going from the center to the margin. Those of us who are in the center have to go to the margin. We can't expect the margin to come to us. In doing that, we can think about and explore what we mean by having freedom as citizens and the rights of citizens’ and their ability to live together. At that point, we can explore what kinds of affordances are there for human freedom, creativity, wellbeing, and flourishing within that common ceiling.

What has been the greatest benefit of your participation with the Bridge 47 project?

I think it's reconnecting with a kind of family of people who I've been working alongside and together, but in different ways. Some of these people are people I have known for quite a few years working on different aspects of internationalization on critical global citizenship education and development education. The possibility to reconnect with people is really precious and helpful for me. Those reconnections seen in a different light, bring the sustainability agenda more to the fore. So, in the last meeting, agreeing on the thematic focus, I think has been really useful to focus our ongoing collaborations. Just being able to continue these ongoing collaboration conversations, which are forms of critical friendship, accompaniment, and walking together is almost like a new direction for sustainable development and critical global citizenship education. We've all been walking in this general direction for quite a few years, but exploring that more and the tension between what is it that we're sustaining in the sustainable development, the ecology, and the environment questions that tends to get sidelined.


Besides establishing a connection or reconnecting a community, has it changed the way you thought about GCE?

It's made me slightly more hopeful that it actually wants to face the difficult questions that GCE didn't seem to want to face before. I think it's gone a little bit more towards the harder to resolve questions about incommensurability, taking different paths, and where do we go with the decolonial critiques, which has always been very much in the background of our conversations. I think we've all been involved in some aspect of critiquing decolonialism, eurocentrism, or of the northern focused ways of thinking for a long time. They're not like absolutely new things, but it's just the sense that people are traveling in a direction of wanting to work more on these things, deal with them, and not run away.

About the Author

Dr. Su-Ming Khoo

Dr. Khoo is a Lecturer in Political Science and Sociology, and Cluster Leader of the Whitaker Institute: Environment, Development and Sustainability and Ryan Institute: Socio-Economic Impact Research Clusters at NUI Galway. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and Social Policy from The Queen's University of Belfast. Her research and teaching connect human rights, global public goods, higher education and ethical perspectives on international development. Drawing from human development and capabilities approaches, postcolonial theory, feminism and ecology and arguing for strong sustainability, she is committed to inter and transdisciplinary research and public scholarship. In addressing the role of higher education and research, she seeks to infuse decolonial perspectives in research and teaching and to enact critical higher education curriculum which asks questions about global ethics and the futures of ‘development’.