AEC spells another English conundrum

In two years, the Asean Economic Community will be up and running, and we will be looking towards borders than are not only limited to our immediate neighbours - Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, but further out as far as the Philippines to the east and Indonesia to the south.

Apart from all the economic and trade opportunities that will open up, there will be a free flow of seven key professions, namely doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers, architects, accountants and surveyors.

Tourism professionals will also benefit from the AEC, with those who have passed the Asean Competency Standard (a test that is still in the formulation stage) being able to work in other Asean countries as well.

How does this bode for Thailand? Not being in the business sector, I'm only just beginning to look into this, and with my limited perspective I'm not convinced Thailand is going to emerge as a winner.

Thailand has a wealth of well-qualified professionals in every field mentioned above. Our universities are second to none, and our overseas graduates have returned to fill up the resource pool in Thailand. Yet are they looking forward to moving to other Asean countries to make a living?

Knowing the Thai characteristic for "sabai sabai", it's highly unlikely they would be happy subjecting themselves to the work ethics of Singapore, for example. I don't think it's a matter of being lazy. Don't get me wrong. Thais can be as dedicated as the best of them, but they will do this of their own accord, because they are passionate about their work, because they enjoy the environment and fraternity of their fellow colleagues, not because they are being compelled to from external forces.

It is a characteristic that has been ingrained through the generations, by a sense of national pride that has been reinforced by history books written by patriotic academics, to make ourselves look like the victims of aggression from others, to create a band of legendary heroes that become the stuff of cinema productions, stage presentations and light and sound spectacles. We are proud of being the only country in Southeast Asia to never have been colonised, and sometimes, just sometimes, you can sense just the slightest tinge of scorn towards those who once had to kowtow to the British, the French or the Dutch as the case may be.

And then there's the culture of patronage and respect for those higher up in the pecking order of things, doctors being among the most respected professions of all time. They are smart, they are rich, they touch you and heal you, they are gods! Do you think they are going to work in a strange country, and answer to some foreign hospital director who had parents who once kowtowed to the Dutch?

My cynicism may be a bit exaggerated, I realise, but you get where I'm going with this.

What I suggest is that the traffic for the free flow of professionals is more likely going to be one-way _ inbound. You also have to admit that Thailand has a lot going for it in terms of standard of living, choice of food and leisure activities, a free and open society, nice, hospitable people (generally) and great shopping to boot. It's going to draw a lot of interest from members of those professions who have an advantage over Thais in their English-speaking abilities.

The tourism industry is definitely going to find a growing pool of resources looking to find work in Thailand. The Filipinos, for instance, do not only speak English fluently, they are great singers and entertainers. Talk about multi-tasking!

Thais, meanwhile, are finding that the English they have been learning since kindergarten means absolutely nothing. The fact that they know that a gerund must be used when a verb comes after a preposition doesn't really help when they are suddenly faced with a real life tall blond Scandinavian asking whether durian can be carried on the BTS.

And yet today, even before the AEC comes into being, there is already an influx of foreign waiters in Bangkok restaurants. Hotelier Kamala Sukosol was rather distressed to find there was hardly anyone who could speak Thai at a restaurant she visited recently. The entire establishment was run by Filipinos whose language skills admittedly far exceed the general Thai worker.

She is even thinking of being the first hotel group to impose a rule of Thai staff only. "No one can beat the Thais when it comes to hospitality and friendliness, and that's Thailand's strength!" she insisted. Nice thought, but better check whether there are going to be any laws regarding racial discrimination in the workplace.

So Thais had better start getting their act together if we're going to compete with our neighbours in two years. Apart from revamping the entire English language curriculum, why not see whether we can get the 3G going, sooner rather than later?

Usnisa Sukhsvasti is the features editor of the Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Usnisa Sukhsvasti
Position: Features Editor