Many years ago I ran an English public speaking contest for Thai high schoolers. Students wishing to compete had to send in cassette tapes of their three-minute speeches to the magazine where I was editor, so we could choose the best 10 for competition day. Dozens and dozens of tapes came rolling in, and so one Monday we set aside the entire day to listen to them.
It was an experience on a par with having wisdom teeth pulled. Two of us sat through speech upon speech on topics such as "Exciting Nakhon Sawan", "The Traditional Thai Greeting Known As The Wai", "The Beauty Of Thai Dancing", and "Save Our Environment". Soon I was excusing myself to go to the kitchen in the hope of finding something steely and sharp to put an end to it all.
It was just before midday when I slipped yet another cassette into the player and pressed play.
"Hello," came the warm, sweet voice of a Thai girl. "My name is Somsri Prathanapermpoonsap, and I am a year 10 student at St Mary's School in Bang Na."
The force of Somsri's scream jolted even the most alcoholic of sub-editors clustered not so far away to sit up and take notice. But Somsri hadn't finished.
"CAN'T YOU HEAR MY SCREAMS? FOR I AM AN UNBORN FOETUS BEING ABORTED! ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Then a sudden return to her normal sweet voice. "Ladies and gentlemen, today I would like to talk on the topic of something terrible: Abortion, and why it should be banned."
What an entrance! We were wide-eyed with a tape that blew all the other dullards, with their three minutes of dirge about traditional Thai dancing, right out of the water. At the same time we were saddened that somewhere in a good Catholic school in Bangkok (I made up St Mary's of Bang Na), young Thai girls were being schooled in the philosophy of crucifying any girl who gets pregnant, let alone has an abortion.
Despite Somsri's unforgettable intro - if it weren't so damned Third Reich she would have been in the Top 10 faster than you could perform a traditional Thai wai - the rest was a by-the-numbers speech on the unforgivable depravity of Thai girls who gave up their hallowed virginity, and how if she decided to abort, the girl was nothing more than a "cold blood murderer" who deserved to die.
Even I, A-List English Teacher (the A stands for "anal"), didn't have the energy nor desire to educate Somsri on why she needed an "-ed" at the end of blood.
I still have Somsri's tape somewhere, and I would have probably forgotten about it forever if not for the controversy that erupted last week.
It's university entrance test time for Thai seniors, who have to take the O-Net exam, proudly written by the National Institute of Educational Testing Service, or NUTS - I beg your pardon, NIETS. Part of it is in the box on this page, which I translated into English for you. Please take a moment to read the saga of Nid, a girl who starts off beautiful and ends up dead from vaginal bleeding, then answer the accompanying five questions.
Finished? Good. Do you feel like I do after reading this? Do you want to go take a shower? This is not a test. It's an academic shouting at you in the same tone of voice as Somsri's: DON'T HAVE SEX, the only difference being they decided to omit the ARGHHHHHHHHHH. Ignore the fact Question 36 has four correct answers, or the lack of any evidence in the passage to support any of the choices for Question 37. Do you get a dull feeling in your stomach that in 2010, this is the best academics can do in deciding who gets into uni and who doesn't? More to the point, aren't the academics afraid of lightning bolts?
My favourite is Question 38. NUTS, I'm sorry, NIETS, wants you to answer "Her parents", but if Nid lives in a Klong Toey shelter because her father is a methamphetamine addict and her mother is in a perpetual state of drunkenness ... then what?
NIETS copped the most flak from Question 39, especially after announcing the correct answer is (4). Since abortion is a crime in Thailand, the only course is to go to the police to make the father culpable. But what if Nid comes from Saraburi? In that province a few years ago, local cops were drunk at a karaoke bar and tried to fondle a girl. When she escaped on a motorbike, the cops gave chase with a machete in hand - and sliced off her left arm at the shoulder. NIETS doesn't care. A machete is probably what you deserve if you give up your virginity anyway.
Are these people living in Dreamworld? This test paper reeks of something withered nuns from a Catholic School in my hometown of Brisbane would have made up in the 1970s - but what's it doing here in laid-back, anything-goes Thailand?
Well for a start, this country is not laid-back nor anything-goes - thank goodness. This is a country where teenagers do need to be educated on the dangers of premarital sex, such as Aids or unwanted pregnancies. But questions on test papers which ignore measuring a student's capacity for knowledge and focus instead on the sanctity of virginity fuel the scorn poured on girls who succumb to the temporary charms of testosteroned males, then get blamed when the inevitable happens. An under-age pregnant girl doesn't need this type of postulating from the evil eye of academics - she needs care and support, and most of all, ironically, education.
As I travel down Sukhumvit Road this week there are brand new posters showing Bangkok city police officers standing smartly to attention and the words: "If you spot any student misbehaving, dial 1555!" Good. But with test questions such as these, where's the hotline to call when their teachers start behaving slightly, well, NUTS?