10th April 2011
Thai commentator and social critic Voranai Vanijaka writes another penetrating piece on the average Thai’s lack of integrity, pointing to a cultural deficiency that encourages anti-social behaviour http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/231230/decency-drowns-in-a-culture-without-a-sense-of-shame.
Voranai cites the contrasting examples of the behaviour of the Japanese following their earthquake and tsunami, and that of Thais after the recent floods in the south of their country as a clear example of the differences in social attitudes that brings no credit to his countrymen.
This is somewhat ironic because Thais, while willing at times to acknowledge their own proclivities – at least to other Thais – pride themselves on their kindness to one another. Kindness, nam jai – a generosity of spirit, are regarded as quintessential to the Thai character that distinguishes them from and makes them nobler than other peoples, or so they believe (despite any evidence to the contrary).
Thais are also equally proud of their anarchic spirit. Thailand: “the Land of the Free” is too often translated in their minds to mean that they are not subject to the social constraints that other peoples accept. However, their innate kindness is what redeems them.
As anyone who has travelled extensively knows, “people are people are people” – in other words, people are the same all over the world and it is our basic humanity that connects us all. While quaint nineteenth century notions of race still resonates in the popular culture, it is “culture that is destiny” as Arnold Toynbee pointed out. It is culture and its various expressions that define us as Thais or Americans or French, not differences in DNA.
It is well established scientific fact these days that there is more diversity within a culturally distinct group that there in between such groups. And, anyway, there are very few ethnically homogeneous societies today, and Thailand has never been an example of one.
At the risk of lapsing into a series of clichés, one could add it’s “what we tell ourselves – and believe – that helps create our reality” (a sugar plum from the self-help industry that nonetheless has a grain of truth). This can even have social benefits: people that believe that kindness is one of their communal virtues are more likely to display this in their actions. When Thais rise to the occasion, they can do their country proud, as many tourists to The Land of Smiles can attest.
Government leaders in this part of the world despair periodically about what they perceive as a decline in morality, which they regard as the catalyst for whatever current social ills are in evidence. Banging on about morality is common to authoritarian regimes because it is consistent with their paternalistic instincts. And they usually look back to some mythic “golden age” when they claim people were better behaved, despite there being no compelling evidence to support this belief beyond that social control may have been more ruthlessly imposed.
A rule of thumb that recommends itself to my experience is that in any society, roughly a quarter of the population tries to do the right thing all of the time, while another quartile will try to get away with whatever they can, whenever they can. Meanwhile, the fifty percent in the middle will scan the horizon and go with the prevailing flow. If they live in a society where it is evident that the bottom quartile are in control and have created a culture of impunity, meaning that dishonesty can be a successful strategy, then they will be persuaded that cheating is the road to success. This is what appears to have happened in Thailand.
The rule of law is essential if you want a society where honesty is not honoured simply in the breach – as it is pretty much throughout the region. This is because laws are there not simply to regulate an orderly society, but to protect society’s weak from the predations of the powerful.
The absence of the rule of law allows powerful elites to run roughshod over everyone else. And, surprisingly, most people don’t like it, even if they are forced to put up with it.
Thais (who are not alone in this) do not respect the law because, in their experience, it’s application is often arbitrary, usually unfair and frequently inconsistent. Instead, they fear the law because it is the vehicle of state power and control, and an unpredictable one at that.
However, there can even appear to be individual advantages at times to being able to slip the traffic policeman five hundred baht when stopped for drunk driving and then let go again. However, if you happen to be a poor farmer driving a taxi in Bangkok between harvests, the shakedown for five hundred baht for ‘lunch money’ is an invidious form of taxation – especially if it represents your whole day’s take!
This is the real problem that corruption poses for society. It functions in effect as a form of taxation that confers no real benefits for society as a whole, as taxation should.
In all societies, a professional middle class emerges as they grow economically that is more aware of just how power operates and usually less fatalistic about their place in some sort of immutable social fabric. Moreover, they recognise that to get ahead and, perhaps more importantly, for their children to get ahead, they will benefit from a level playing field where clear social principles governing conduct are enforced in an equitable way. As a result, when the middle class reaches critical mass, the rule of law is what they demand.
This is what has happened in the middle east and is largely behind the current widespread unrest there.
It is curious that this doesn’t appear to be happening in Thailand. Instead, fear of losing their comparative privileges has turned (many of) the Thai middle class into the reactionaries of the Yellow Shirt movement who have aligned them with the elite against the lower orders – a potentially explosive development – and a retrograde one that is in contrast to earlier times when middle class students were at the forefront of protests against the elite.
Fortunately the demagogues that harnessed this fear appear to be losing their ability to enthral. Nevertheless the situation in Thailand remains very fluid. Another military putsch, unfortunately, appears very much in the offing.
The rule of the gun only ever works for a while because it is, by its very nature, unstable. The gun endeavours to maintain a status quo that cannot be upheld by any other means. Ultimately it proves unsustainable (although as Burma has shown, it can go on for a long time!). The Thai army has demonstrated time and time again that it is incapable of effectively running the country. Inevitably, the arbitrary nature of their rule leads to corruption, plus they always prove themselves to be incompetence economic managers.
The weakness in the rule of law is a serious social deficiency that has proved the military’s undoing time and again. Society as a whole also pays a terrible price as it destroys the basis of trust that is fundamental to what society must have if it is to cohere and strive. Of course there are risks to placing too much trust, especially in the government, but clear and predictable social rules that are applied equitably are the nexus that allows a society to weather the vagaries of fate and to endure.
Anything else is just asking for trouble.