The government's 2.75 trillion baht infrastructure development plan unveiled on Oct 5 will, at best, have a mediocre effect on the development of Thailand. This is not a knock against the Pheu Thai regime. It would be mediocre with any of the previous governments in charge as well. We're not even factoring in corruption; instead we're factoring in an unyielding mindset.
Likewise, the marriage between tablet computers and the Thai educational system will be a rocky one, with a laundry list of irreconcilable differences, for the same reason that Thai educational reform is much talked about, but always falls to pieces even before the reforming "groom" gets to place a wedding ring on the bride's hand.
This is because the feudalistic cultural mentality is not conducive to national advancement. If we want to marry development with feudalism and beget the prodigal son or daughter of advancement, the mindset of Thai culture has to change.
Last month, I was interviewed by a group of 10 students from a local university. They were writing research papers, and as their professor had used my articles as teaching material (something all schools should do, if I may immodestly propose), it was suggested that they interview me. The result was as education should be: I learned from them as they learned from me.
Some of these students were previously in exchange programmes where they had the opportunity to study abroad. One interesting comment made by some was that their parents and schools arranged to send them to a Western country so that they could benefit from a Western education, but when they returned home and exhibited Western thinking and attitudes, their parents and schools reprimanded them for it.
They insisted instead on putting the students back inside that little box called "Thainess", with emphasis on what is appropriate and proper, such as not questioning your elders, including your parents and teachers.
One complained, "What's the point of sending us abroad if they don't like what we've learned?"
No doubt, there are both good and bad things one can learn from living in the West. The bad things are better left behind before you board the plane home, but be thankful that you've experienced and learned from them. The good things you check in with your luggage and take to Thailand to help develop the country.
The irony is that those who sent you over to learn are the ones who will try to prevent you from using the knowledge.
The problem is with the mindset of parents and schools. This says students should go to learn the wonderful subjects of business and finance, art and design, management, law and whatever else, but flush cultural values such as individualism, rationalism, free thought and others down the toilet before the plane lands at Suvarnabhumi.
Little do we realise that the Western education that leads to superior technology and industrial development, among other goodies, stems from the cultural values that we hold in disdain for the simple reason that they question authority and doubt faith.
Little do we realise that the West would not be the most developed part of the world today (economic crises notwithstanding), if it had not gone through the ages of Reason and Enlightenment, in which feudalistic cultural traditions were questioned and turned upside down.
So in Thailand we have international curriculums taught in English, and maybe even a few Western professors, but everything is run by the Thai bureaucracy, adhering to the strict and unyielding values of form over substance, ceremony over creativity, authority over individuality and rote learning over curiosity.
The issue is much the same in the workplace, where the office culture adheres to a bureaucratic feudal mentality.
Now take the mentality at place in the family, the school and the workplace and magnify it to the national level.
We talk of building a creative economy and encouraging the arts, of taking Thai media and entertainment to the world stage, and taking Thai industries to the global level. But at the same time Big Brother is looking over our shoulders, saying no, banning and censoring left, right and centre.
We live in a world of Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where knowledge and experiences from across the globe are available at our fingertips, but again with Big Brother looking over our shoulders.
Since it was introduced in 1932, Thai democracy has been slow to develop because the feudalistic mindset is so unyielding. It expects us to learn from the world without adapting to the world. It expects us to memorise a Western textbook, but warns us against absorbing the culture and thinking that went into the textbook. It expects us to modernise with objects and tools, rather than with minds and souls.
This is not to say that Western culture is inherently superior to our own, but that the fusing of cultures is indeed superior to a singular culture, boxed up and sealed tight. Western civilisation has dominated the world for the past 500 years for many reasons, one of which is its willingness and capacity to absorb knowledge from other cultures.
We Thais are the ones who have kept the country from advancement, due to our refusal to open our minds to what the world has to offer, even if we so readily open our purses to superficial products and material culture.
Thailand has benefited from relative stability over the past 60 years, unlike our neighbours. Yet today we are still on the far fringe of advancement, in danger of our neighbours passing us by, due to our unofficially, yet entrenched stance against absorbing the values of other cultures.
Suvarnabhumi airport is but a huge material object. The skytrain and the underground are also but objects. The 3G spectrum is but a tool. Having those things doesn't mean the country will advance. It's like showing a painting to a blind person or playing music for the deaf. No offence to either, but in such a case it matters little how beautiful the painting or melodic the music.
For Thailand to truly develop and advance, to create something that takes the world by storm, rather than make cheap copies, there needs to be a cultural enlightenment. This will only come through nurturing an environment of individualism, rationalism and free thought, as opposed to group-think, superstition and censored thought.
Once such values are accepted, the doors are opened to many opportunities, not the least of which is true democratic development, as these values pertain to the concepts of freedom and human rights.
This new environment will, of course, also encourage the young to question their elders, even talk back and argue, to perhaps become rebellious and even commit acts of foolishness as they search to find their own identities, as opposed to living up to the image their parents, schools and society expect of them.
The consequences we so fear are the very things that will stimulate minds and open up the world, laying down the path for development, advancement and enlightenment _ those much ballyhooed goals that will never be achieved as long as we only allow pieces of paper conferring university degrees through airport customs, but refuse to admit the cultural learning, thinking and attitudes that go along with the paper.
It doesn't take 2.75 trillion baht to bring change. We don't even need to give one single child a tablet computer. All we have to do is open our minds. It doesn't cost a satang, but it does require our cultural ego to be set aside.
In theoretical terms this can be done easily enough. At the family level, parents have only to encourage the young to find their own paths. At the school level, teachers have only to accept questions, even ones that test their authority. At the national level, the guardians of traditions in the various agencies, bureaucracies and ministries have only to take a pill and chill, and let the world evolve.
But, of course, in practical terms, none of this is easy because standing in the way is not tradition nor good sense, but good old, simple ego.
As that one student asked, "What's the point of sending us abroad if they don't like what we've learned?"
The answer is that they don't mind your learning, they just don't want you to think you know more than they do _ it undermines their authority. And how can they control you if they don't have authority?
Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
- Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator