Authoritarian mentality still dividing Thais

Authoritarian mentality still dividing Thais

The 'egg-tofu incident' went viral and brought criticism from every quarter on a teacher who remains stubborn that she was right, all others are wrong. (Video grab via Sanook.com)
The 'egg-tofu incident' went viral and brought criticism from every quarter on a teacher who remains stubborn that she was right, all others are wrong. (Video grab via Sanook.com)

The "egg tofu" incident that resulted in a student's humiliation and the tirade caused by the lead group of a deputy prime minister's motorcade tell of conflicting mentalities that are threatening to tear Thailand apart.

Both incidents occurred last week. Both seem small, everyday injustices that people in the country, young or old, have encountered at least once in their life and learned to file away as facts of life.

The incidents, however, are too poignant and illustrate two major views that are at odds and that are destined to keep clashing until common ground can be found.

The humiliation of a grade-six school girl by a teacher in Surin speaks of almost everything the traditional, power-oriented school of thinking stands for.

Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.

These include an emphasis on authority, constant allusion to righteousness and a need to remind people where they stand in terms of power. Those who are inferior, whether in terms of age, social status or wealth, must show total obedience. Never question authority, that is a hallmark of the mindset.

The egg tofu controversy goes like this. A primary schoolgirl ate egg tofu soup for lunch and said she developed rashes. She was taken to a hospital where she was told it was possible she was allergic to the egg tofu.

When the teacher found out, she demanded that the girl prove the allergy claim. She called up the girl's mother and asked for permission to feed the student egg tofu and have her under observation for a day.

The girl did not develop an allergic reaction. The teacher demanded the girl give a public apology for supposedly making up the allergy claim which the teacher said damaged the school's reputation.

A video clip of the incident shows the girl sitting on the floor weeping while the teacher broadcast what she insisted were the student's faults until the girl apparently had no choice but to prostrate at the teacher's feet to ask for forgiveness.

This incident alone should make us feel despair for the country's education system and for the future of our children. What is the point of promoting innovation or digitalisation when our students are subject to thoughtless subjugation?

The teacher apparently lives in an old world where top-down, centralised authoritarianism functions as a means to hold society together.

Her logic was depressingly linear. If the girl was allergic to something, she must be allergic to it forever, the teacher told students. Her feeding the girl tofu again to see if she would develop an allergic reaction revealed how poorly the teacher understands health issues and modern medicine. Still, she insisted that she was a science teacher who believes in reason and what can be proven.

It does seem the only thing the teacher wanted to prove was her authority and her perceived righteousness.

One thing she said was: "I am a teacher. My words must be sacred." Another rationale she offered to justify her conviction that the girl could not have been allergic to the egg tofu was the food was not cheap. "It costs more than 10 baht a tube," the teacher said.

When faced with a barrage of criticism, not just for how she basically bullied her young student and subjected her to hurtful treatment that could scar the girl psychologically but also how she put the student at risk by conducting the allergy "test" herself, the teacher insisted that what she did was right.

What the teacher from Surin, and many others who subscribe to the power-oriented, authority-knows-best model of the world, may not realise is the world has changed. Is milk good or bad? Would an organisation function best if leaders give subordinates freedom to think, or keep a tight leash? Where is the balance between national security and people's right to privacy?

What about the "burkini"? Should there be a complete separation between church and state, or a blurred line? Things have become complex as people demand more individual rights and more freedom.

As the egg tofu scandal died down, a post surfaced on social media which showed leaders of a deputy prime minister's motorcade pointing and shouting at motorists caught in traffic demanding they move aside. Many people slammed the insensitive conduct as they were all stuck in traffic and in a hurry.

The social media post was soon deleted but it reminded people about how unequal our society is, how authoritarianism can be so inept in coping with the increasingly complex society and how injustices, large or small, are still facts of life for us here.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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