During the commemoration of Asean Day earlier last month at the newly inaugurated Asean Secretariat (Asec) building in Jakarta, Indonesia, a poster displaying eye-popping statistics of the organisation's current staff composition shows that there are only four Thais working there. This figure is minuscule compared to those from the other four founding members states of Asean, and even latecomer Vietnam.
Why? Are the average Thais less qualified than those from other Asean nations, or are there any other reasons? A closer analysis of the distribution of staff according to rank would reveal an even starker reality for the Thai contingent at what former Thai Asean secretary-general, the late Surin Pitsuwan, often called the nerve centre of Asean.
Laos may have the lowest number of staff with only one person, but if measured in relation each country's population, it is higher than Thailand, which has the smallest ratio of staff to population, and is equivalent to Myanmar with its three staff. Like Thailand, Cambodia also has four staff, but they occupy comparatively higher positions, while those from Thailand hold much lower-level posts.
In effect, Thailand is punching way below its weight. While Thailand is currently chairing Asean and has performed relatively well in orchestrating the numerous events and activities, what is happening over at ASEC shows a rather grim picture of the Thai representation, which is falling way behind and is at an all-time low.
When I first joined the then-newly restructured Asec back in 1993, there were also only four Thai staff, but they were out of a total of around 25 openly recruited staff (ORS). Today, there are 132 ORS, which is more than a five-time increase since 1993. That means that the Thai staff ratio has recently plummeted to a markedly and alarmingly low level. Moreover, no Thai has occupied any of the dozen director-level posts since 2013. The most senior post presently held by a Thai is at the assistant director level, of which there are 38 positions. Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia each have just one, and are at the bottom of the list.
Asean has long practised providing equal contributions from each of the 10 member states to the annual operating budget of ASEC, that is now around US$20 million, which translates to roughly US$2 million per country. So, if each member country is to maintain parity in its staff representation based on budget provision, then the point of breaking even is 10%. In Thailand's case, it has fallen way short for quite a number of years already, which also implies that Thai money is subsidising other nationals to work for Asec. I have no problem with this if there are no qualified Thais at all, but is this really the situation?
So why are so few Thais interested in joining ASEC? Is it the organisation itself that is unattractive, or is it its remuneration? While it must be admitted that this might be so in some cases, the Thai staff cohorts who started in the 1990s mostly managed to perform and live relatively well during their stints there.
Plus, they all had families with young children then, some of whom were even born in Indonesia and attended one of the best international schools in Southeast Asia, and with most of the school fees paid by Asec, on top of having housing, medical and gratuity allowances. While it may not match the pay packages of other international organisations, it is in my view, quite sufficient for a regional organisation like Asean where some of the member states' officials are far from commanding such remuneration.
I asked some people what they think the reasons are for the low rates of Thai-Asec presence are, when richer and more developed countries in the region like Singapore and Malaysia could send many more of their nationals to Asec.
Some say Thais don't like to move out of their comfort zones or cocoons, and are perhaps also reluctant to live in an earthquake-, volcanic eruption-, or tsunami-prone place. But my response is that if everyone else can do it, why can't we?
Another common comment was that Thais are not good with English. But again, why can't we improve our language skills like the others? Another possibility is the lack of knowledge or awareness of Asean, or what opportunities exist at Asec.
It is my observation, which has also been shown in some recent surveys of university students, that in general, young Thais are not so keen or aware of what's going on in the surrounding countries, while on the contrary, our neighbours are much more interested in us, while many even work and live here.
They learn about our culture and pick up our language quickly, and more often than we learn their languages and cultures. Is it any surprise that many of them are rising and galloping further ahead than we are?
Another observation is Thailand's lack of a clear strategy for placing suitable people in international organisations. An effective strategy has a lot to do with having good coaching and preparations beforehand, including matching employer-employee expectations.
The government should do a few things to reverse this trend. First, job vacancies at Asec should be more broadly disseminated and modern technology is available to help do this, so it is simply a matter of determination. There should be an increase in sentinel information on such employment opportunities with more concerted attempts to publicise them widely.
Maybe an objective assessment on why the numbers and ranks of Thais at Asec are so low needs to be undertaken and then followed by an affirmative programme to actively scout and encourage suitably qualified Thais to apply whenever such opportunities arise, as part of promoting people-to-people diplomacy. But the government must take the lead since Asean is, after all, still very much considered a top-down or state-centric entity.
Meanwhile, the existing Thai employees there should be appropriately nurtured and supported to prevent further attrition while active efforts are being made to beef up staff numbers. Some key performance indicators ought to be put in place to measure progress on this critical matter. Otherwise, the Thai flavour or sense at the so-called nerve centre of Asean would likely be even more diluted or muted over time, and like an endangered species, may eventually become extinct. Hopefully we can correct the situation before it is too late.
Apichai Sunchindah is an independent development specialist with an interest in Southeast Asia.