Chalerm's right, it's a cultural thing

Few people know how Thailand works and how to work Thailand like deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung does.

So when he said it is not corruption when three policemen are caught by a security camera demanding Chinese New Year tae-ear from an Indian shop owner, we should heed his words.

The only mistake, according to the deputy prime minister, was that the policemen in question collected the tae-ear from an Indian shop owner, rather than a Chinese one. 

But put an ethnic Indian man next to an ethnic Chinese man and ask this question: Who among us can tell the difference between the two? Not me. They are like Siamese twins. After all, what’s the difference between one grey 1,000 baht bill and another 1,000 baht bill? No difference. 

When immigrants came to Thailand with their one pillow and a straw mat, they knew the deal. After all, it's the same deal in their home country. 

You escaped oppression and/or poverty to come to a land where there are fish in the water and rice in the field. You are allowed to set up your shop and do your business through the kind-heartedness, the purity and magnanimity of the local elite. 

In return, other than formal taxation, is the envelope. After all, kindness and generosity cannot be measured by a formal tax receipt. Such charitable benevolence deserves only the submission and gratitude of a big fat envelope, informal but traditional. It’s a relationship. 

Such is the way it has always been, such is the way it is, whether you own a small shop or a large business conglomerate. But then along came this western political ideal called democracy, with the concept of corruption that carries a negative connotation. And they tell us what has been done for centuries is suddenly now wrong.  

Baa-hum-bug, who are we to believe – the fathers of modern democracy or our dearest deputy prime minister? 

Of course we believe the fathers of modern democracy, otherwise we would not cry and whine about corruption. But at the same time, we also believe our dearest deputy prime minister and continue to honour the tradition. If not in practice, then certainly we condone it. 

After all, poll after poll suggests that the majority of Thais are okay with corruption, as long as we are also well taken care of. It’s a cultural mentality. 

This cultural mentality concerns not only corruption however, but also the ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights in particular and national progress in general – which we consciously champion but dubiously resist because it cramps our cultural life-style of informal relationships, bending and breaking the rules for the easy way out, rather than upholding principles come what may.  

We have the vision, but certainly no direction, no dedication and no decision, because of our cultural baggage. 

A cultural mentality isn't forged in a day, nor can it be changed in a day. Psychology 101: An alcoholic needs to hit rock bottom before he realizes that he had better switch to orange juice – and that in itself is a long journey. Thailand is a country that has not hit rock bottom, not since Ayutthaya was burned to the ground in 1767.

Following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, South Korean leaders cried and apologised to their nation, and accepted responsibility. Thai leaders refused all blame, and for the past decade have continued to sit smilingly in, or continue to do lucrative deals with, the government, whether Oxford government or Dubai government. 

But South Korea is a nation on a mission, with Japanese colonisation and the devastation of the Korean War still fresh in the cultural imprint. Japan also has been a country on a mission, after World War 2, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuked, and a new constitution written by the Americans. 

You hit rock bottom. You rise from the ashes. There’s a difference between starting with a clean slate and starting with a whole a lot of baggage. 

 The United States was a country fortunate enough to have started with a clean slate, after the indigenous populations were exterminated, or relocated and now able to own casinos as an apologetic token. 

In Europe, they hit rock bottom at least twice a century as a matter of tradition and fashion. This was where the two World Wars originated, and where they have waged wars lasting 30 or 100 years. We Thais just don't have the stamina. It's too hot in the tropics. 

Our neighbours have also hit rock bottom, quite recently in fact. Now the world looks on confidently – well,  somewhat – at places like Vietnam and Laos, perhaps kind of iffy about Cambodia, and no one is quite sure yet what's going on in Myanmar. But the world is more or less excited about them. 

What of Thailand then, a nation so fortunate as to have never been devastated in recent memory, but at the same time so incapable of true and genuine progress. 

The cultural mentality dictates which direction a country takes. The Thai cultural mentality is opening to changes, but yet very much weighed down by cultural baggage that make change little more than a marketing catchword, a PR tool.

Shall we hit rock bottom? Should we? Is that the only way to necessitate changes? Surely with all the historical lessons before us, there are other ways. Too bad we don't really teach history in this country, not even our own. Rather, we teach censored and approved propaganda, and we cannot see beyond the colours red or yellow. 

History is not an excuse, but an explanation. Necessity is the mother of all change, but the fact is, today in Thailand – in general, with exceptions of course – life is still fine and easy. The easy-going life is a predetermination for being average, and our dearest deputy prime minister will continue to be correct. 

But bear in mind the future is always uncertain and that Thai luck will one day run out, as nothing lasts forever. What then is the solution? What are the other ways?  

Well, if anyone claims to have a solution, then they should be elected God. For now, let’s help create a sense of awareness and urgency, for a start.

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About the author

Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator