Keep govt out of 'Happiness Cupboards'

Keep govt out of 'Happiness Cupboards'

A man looks inside a cupboard where the needy can take food and other necessary items without being asked questions. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
A man looks inside a cupboard where the needy can take food and other necessary items without being asked questions. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

A "drama" has been playing out on social media surrounding a well-intentioned, popularly initiated scheme to help the poor. But it could do more for Thai society than meets the eye.

I'm talking specifically about what some people call the "Pantries of Happiness", but in Thai literally translates as the "Cupboard of Shared Happiness". I'll just call them Happiness Cupboards.

The idea has been adopted from the western world where kind-hearted people put up containers filled with food and other necessary items in public spaces. Anyone can pick up an item or two with no questions asked.

It is meant to help people who have fallen on hard times temporarily get by. The Covid-19 pandemic provided a perfect setting for the idea to germinate and it was picked up by a couple of Thais to help others in need.

It also serves as a social experiment, because the people who initiated the project had been warned it was bound to fail because Thais are not used to this kind of sharing scheme and will more likely than not hoard it all for themselves. Yet, they soldiered on.

The warning came true in a number of locations where the pantries are located. Video clips have gone viral showing people scrambling to grab as many items as they could and empty the cupboards in a flash.

In Nakhon Sawan, the municipal mayor felt the need to step in and order a cupboard to be moved from its original location to the front of a fire station.

Even the government's head honcho, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, felt compelled to comment on the situation, suggesting that perhaps security cameras should be installed to monitor against hoarding.

Stop right there, I say.

State authorities should stay away. This is a people's initiative. Let the people solve whatever problems arise themselves.

The current "drama" provides a good opportunity for Thai society to learn a new culture -- a culture of sharing without expecting anything in return, a culture of taking without being greedy.

Many people feel disheartened and enraged to see people showing their base instincts and grabbing everything in sight with no regard for others.

But others take the development in stride. They kind of expected that it would happen and they don't rush to judgement.

Perhaps the people doing the grabbing take them to share with others in similar dire straits in their communities, they reason.

But while some of the people who set up the cupboards expressed dismay, others have said that once they made up their minds to give, they did so unconditionally, and would continue to do so no matter what.

And so the process of learning has started. People will learn to adjust to new norms, to cope with failed expectations, to anticipate the good as well as the bad and to withhold judgement until all the evidence is in.

If a scheme fails, new ways will have to be invented. Already, some adjustments are being made by the people themselves without the need for an official edict.

It should be noted that only a small number of cupboards were involved in the pillaging drama. The majority continue to function the way they were meant to. People who take things from the cupboards are mostly considerate of others.

At a hospital in Suphan Buri, a homeless man was spotted to taking just a small carton of milk. When asked why he didn't take more, he said: "One carton is quite enough for me. Let others have a chance to eat, too."

Fortunately, the Happiness Cupboard is not the only scheme initiated by people to help others in need.

Another scheme has gone off almost without a hitch. Some call it the "Goodwill Account". I'll call it "Kindness Coupons".

Basically, it entails drawing on a piece of paper that is then cut into coupon-like strips. Each coupon can be then used to pay for an order of prepared food at designated vendors.

Donors can pay for whatever amount fits their budget. People in need of food or drink can tear off a coupon to be given to the vendor as payment for a meal.

The scheme, interestingly enough, was started by a young activist and student at Chulalongkorn University by the name of Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal.

He and his friends pooled a small amount of money to pay for 20 drinks and made a strip of coupons for people who needed them but couldn't afford to pay. The coupons were pasted at the counter of a small drink vendor in his neighbourhood.

This is a simple idea that is effective and absent of controversy. And anyone with any spare change can chip in. It has since been adopted by many people and quickly spread far and wide.

It's possible that the two schemes could survive Covid-19 and become a part of Thailand's social development trajectory.

They could provide alternative venues for everyday people who wish to perform good deeds without going to temples.

More importantly, Thais could learn to be less judgemental, less greedy and more willing to give.

Call me naïve, but despite its destructive force, when all is said and done, there might be a silver lining to this Covid-19 storm -- a legacy of sharing.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.


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