Somsak's European adventure

It was honesty, pure and unadulterated, when parliament president Somsak Kiatsuranont shrugged off criticisms of his nine day, seven million baht, taxpayer-funded study trip to Europe with 39 media staff and close aides by saying that there was no hidden agenda.

There's no need for a hidden agenda. This is simply a time-honoured tradition.

When you are a phuyai in Thai society, which members of parliament are, you've earned the perks and privileges, even at the expense of taxpayers.

When society functions and interacts based on the principles of patronage, it is expected that the phuyai treat the phunoi, which includes the media, to some smacking good times, and, of course, perhaps learn something in the process; these are study trips after all.

This relationship is important, because politicians want reporters to write wonderful things about them, so pampering them is, of course, the right strategy. And the opposite holds true: A reporter is only as good as his or her sources, so maintain that relationship and enjoy the perks that come with it.

Ethically, however, reporters are obliged to be impartial and not write wonderful things about politicians in return for ''study trip'' pampering, or any other sort of favour. And there are many ways in which politicians pamper reporters.

Most reporters would not compromise on ethics, but let's dig deeper into the dilemma. Might not all the pampering and favours, as well as the relationship that has been forged, deter reporters from exposing the wrongdoings of his or her political patron?

This simply depends on each individual reporter and his or her conscience, but bear in mind the cultural values of boon khun, or gratitude, and nae ra khun, betrayal.

Every fiscal year government agencies receive funds for study trips, courtesy of the taxpayers. For example, in January of this year Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra asked government departments and agencies to cut their spending by 10 per cent to allocate more funds for flood relief efforts. But in the end several government organisations, including parliament as a whole, increased their overall budget. In fact, the parliament added 50 million baht of taxpayers' money for study trips, on top of the original allocation of 125 million tax baht, for a grand total of 175 million baht.

Taking into account that there are 35 parliamentary committees, that's approximately five million baht per committee for study trips. Now, I'm only giving the figures for the parliament, not other agencies, because too many numbers give me a headache.

There are two points here.

First, study trips are a routine matter with every government. They provide deserved privileges to the phuyai, while upholding and strengthening the social and professional bonds with the phunoi.

It's a matter of connections and relationships under the patronage system.

The second point is that people just don't seem to listen to the prime minister. Where's big brother when she needs him?

The itinerary for the parliament trip - England, France and Belgium, Sunday night's premier English Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United, foreign government and media headquarters, shopping, eating and nice accommodation - is nothing new.

In fact, it is all quite normal, except perhaps for the footie matches, which are supposedly being funded by the Siam Sport Company anyway, not taxpayers.

If an entourage of personal aides, wives, children and friends was on board that too would be nothing new.

Posting trip photos with one's wife and daughters shopping gaily on Facebook isn't anything new either, nor is taking them down quickly once someone makes a comment like ''Hey, wait a second, isn't that trip on taxpayers money?''

I fondly remember reporters saying the greatest accomplishment of a particular female minister from a previous government, who was in fact a nominee of her husband, was taking reporters on so many shopping trips abroad on taxpayers' money.

There's a reason why I enjoyed my lifestyle better back when I was writing about nightclubs and restaurants. Those trips were termed more matter-of-factly as media trips. I got to fly business class to destinations across the globe to basically drink and party, courtesy of the PR budget of various whisky and beer brands.

Ah, the good old days.

So when I was first invited on the parliament president's study trip, which departed last Wednesday and is due back on Thursday, my first invitation anywhere since those glorious days writing about nightclubs and restaurants, I'm not going to lie, I went "Oh yes, take me. For the love of the gods, take me!"

Of course, there was that tiny, microscopic pang of guilt that the trip wasn't on the PR budget of some whisky or beer brands, but instead on taxpayers' money - I am one of about only two million people in my beloved Kingdom who actually pays income tax.

But really, this is a small point.

What prompted a change of mind was that the nine-day trip would cause a couple of Sunday columns to be missed, and everyone knows if that happens the conveyer belt of the universe would cease to function, throwing the entire solar system into chaos, leading to the extinction of not just mankind, but any extraterrestrial life forms that might exist out there.

And everyone would blame me, so we cannot have that.

The Premier League match wouldn't be missed, since I'm the only Thai male who doesn't watch football. (You have my permission to use that as a line when picking up a girl.)

Lunch at the Four Seasons in Bayswater won't be missed, because they have a branch at Siam Paragon, and really, what's the big deal, it's just khao nha ped.

The biggest reason why missing out on the trip didn't cause much regret is that the itinerary doesn't include any drunken parties.

Of course, I am saddened to miss out on learning new theories on flood management and witnessing the trials and tribulations of that dysfunctional family called the EU parliament.

But I'll survive.

Let me reiterate, study trips are a normal, time-honoured tradition that serve the cultural values of perks and privileges and maintain harmonious social relationships between phu yai and phu noi at the expense of taxpayers. All of this is part of the patronage system.

There's no hidden agenda here.

Now if we want to upset this tradition and shake things up a bit, is there something we can do? Yes, of course, it's so easy.

Those in the media can simply turn down all invitations from government agencies to go on taxpayer-funded trips abroad. Just say no.

See now, more people are going to be angry with me.

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About the author

Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator