Culture of apathy must be rooted out

Culture of apathy must be rooted out

A motorcyclist weaves between pedestrians on a pavement in the bustling Saphan Khwai area. Bangkok Post photo
A motorcyclist weaves between pedestrians on a pavement in the bustling Saphan Khwai area. Bangkok Post photo

Earlier this week, a one-minute video clip widely shared on Facebook showed a woman in university student uniform standing at a bus stop blocking the path of two motorcycles while waving them off the pavement.

Social media users heaped praise on the action, though some said they would not have been able to do what she did for fear of being assaulted -- a point on which many people agreed. Bangkok's streets are not places to display courage and come away unscathed.

However, some have said it's time for people to shake off their fears and follow the woman's example so that discipline can begin to take root in Thai society.

It seems Bangkokians have found a new heroine they can rally behind to show that civil behaviour also means having the courage to do the right thing.

There's a little twist to the story, though. The woman in question turned out to be a middle-aged Japanese studying at a Thai university.

Known to her Thai friends as Mali San, Megumi Morimoto was quoted as saying she had taken similar action many times before and that the results were not always pretty. Sometimes, she has been assaulted. Nevertheless, she said she would continue to put herself in harm's way because it's the right thing to do.

Ms Morimoto's bravery validates Thai perceptions that Japanese people have discipline and respect for the rules. In general, Thais have great admiration for Japan. A nation crushed and humiliated in World War II, Japan rose like a phoenix in a short period to become an economic and technological powerhouse.

Maybe it's true that we often value what we don't have. Discipline, to put it mildly, is a quality in short supply in Thai culture. What we do have is plenty of the opposite, known in Thai as mug ngai.

Mug ngai can be roughly defined as a tendency to take the easy way out with little concern for the inconvenience caused to others.

Taking shortcuts by driving the wrong way or riding on footpaths is just one example.

Paying bribes to traffic policemen, throwing trash on the ground, and performing shoddy work are all other examples of our mug ngai culture.

But it's not just mundane matters where we see mug ngai in action. It's such an ingrained trait that we can find it in every nook and cranny of society -- in business, official work, legal circles, and in politics.

Why do you think Thailand has had so many coups d'etat since its transition from absolute monarchy 87 years ago?

On the face of it, the reason is power-grabbing by a bunch of greedy generals. However, that's only because it's too darn hard to consolidate power through democratic means.

Things came full circle when it was proved that generals holding dictatorial power was unacceptable in the long term. Perhaps, they thought that putting up a democratic facade would make it more palatable.

So they went out to lure politicians, mostly of ill-repute, from existing parties and used all the tricks of the trade to win elections. This method sure beats forming a political party from scratch and trying to win elections fair and square.

Once in office, politicians of all stripes often resort to draining the state's coffers through populist programmes as a shortcut to popularity. Venezuela serves as a good example.

Devising creative and productive policies is hard work. So, when you can't fight ideas with ideas, you create red herrings to arouse a popular frenzy by accusing political opponents of disloyalty to the monarchy and being unpatriotic.

Moreover, reciting an oath of office should be easy; you just read the passage according to the constitution and all is well. But for inexplicable reasons, the current prime minister found that difficult and so he dropped a certain part of the oath as an easy fix.

Come to think of it, it's not entirely fair to say being mug ngai is always a cultural flaw. At some point in the past, it may have simply been a way of life and the reason why Thais were such laid-back people always ready with a smile.

It may also be the reason why Thais like to say mai pen rai, as it has a way of releasing tension in a difficult or awkward situation.

But times have changed. The Thai penchant for mug ngai and mai pen rai may not be as useful or quaint as it once was. Indeed, these days it tends to exacerbate whatever problem there is.

So, for Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to dismiss his misspeaking of the oath of office as insignificant is to assume a mug ngai attitude. Moreover, saying mai pen rai as a way to make amends is simply inadequate. If he persists, there must be consequences.

Wasant Techawongtham is former news editor, Bangkok Post.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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