Values face off
If you experience sexual urges, what should you do? A) Play soccer with your friends. B) Seek advice from your family. C) Try to sleep. D) Go out with a friend of the opposite sex. E) Invite a buddy for a movie.
By a show of hands, how many of you went to your parents and said, ''Mom, dad, I have this strange ...''? OK, no one.
How many just grabbed a magazine and locked the door? OK, I'll need to grab a calculator.
Feb 18 and 19 were big dates for Mathayom 6 students (high school seniors), but not because K-pop sensation Girls Generation was playing in Bangkok. No, that was the weekend before. Last weekend was the college entrance exam (O-Net).
After the exam, Twitter feeds and web forums went crazy due to a frenzy of postings by students. They weren't expressing elation or dismay about how they fared on the exams. Rather they were expressing disgust and incredulity at the exam questions.
Here's another fine example: Which boyfriend/girlfriend behaviour is appropriate in Thai culture? A) Shopping arm in arm. B) Going for a meal and a movie together. C) Lying on the other's lap at the park. D) Taking an overnight trip to the sea together. E) Spoon-feeding each other at a restaurant.
These questions were under the subject of ''health education'', and if one were to wonder where the crisis in Thai education resides, here's a good place to look.
There are many ways to look at these exam questions, but here's one I'd like to consider. These questions exemplify the obsession with what is appropriate and proper for Thai culture _ an obsession over image and appearance. This is not to say that Thai culture does not value substance, only that it values appearances a lot more. Appearances are valued in every culture, but in Thai culture it is a matter of obsession.
''Face'' is the term used to describe this cultural trait. Whether it's sexual urges or boyfriend/girlfriend relationships, as demonstrated by the ''health education'' exam questions, the emphasis is put on proper behaviour and appropriate appearances _ the value of face.
After the political violence of April and May 2010, at the top of the government's agenda was reconciliation, rehabilitation and repairing image. During last year's flood crisis and this year's terrorism crisis, at the top of the government's agenda were denial, prevention, protection and to spread ''correct information'' to repair the Kingdom's image and ensure the inflow of tourist dollars. In every national crisis, repairing the country's image or saving face is always at the top of the government's agenda.
One of the biggest news stories of the year so far was chief of passenger inspection at Suvarnabhumi airport Sombat Chartchaiwaiyawit smacking airport security officer Sirichai Maichum upside the head. He did it because of the young man's impertinence in insisting on scanning him. This caused him to lose face.
The biggest fallout from the Four Seasons hotel rendezvous scandal was that it caused Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to lose face. The Democrats are doing whatever they can to hammer the issue, in order for her to lose even more face. More than a week after the incident Deputy Prime Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong came out to say he was also there; this was to help his boss save face. Also driven by the same motivation were the defamation lawsuits against Democrat MPs. It's a political game based on face.
In November 2010, I co-hosted the 14th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Bangkok. It was a joint conference between Germany-based Transparency International and Thailand's National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). Some 1,500 delegates came from 135 countries all over the world.
Many delegates came up to me to utter their complete astonishment at the wondrous extravaganza that was held at Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre. The lights, the sounds, the effects, the music, the performances and the four days of five-star treatment _ they had never seen or experienced anything remotely this ''hi-so'' in the 13 previous conferences.
My reply: ''This is Thailand, we always throw an expensive party.'' After all, it's a matter of face.
None of the bigwigs of the NACC attended any of the workshops or seminars, but a whole troop of them made sure they were at the opening and closing ceremonies to receive credit for the costly shindig thrown by Thai taxpayers. The two hosts had to be reminded over and over again to pronounce their names in a certain way and always refer to them as ''tan'', not merely ''khun'', otherwise all the ''tan'' would throw a hissy-fit. This is all a matter of giving face.
Some vocabulary: To give face, hai na; get face, dai na; secure face, whai na; maintain face rak sa na; and lose face, sia na, na taak and khai na. To be two-faced, song na and na wai lhang lhog; thick-faced na darn; and thin-faced, na bang. To congratulate someone for having a wonderful face, mee na mee ta; and to mock someone for having lost face, som nam na. The list goes on and on.
During the Songkran festival in April 2011, three girls jumped onto the back of a truck and danced topless in the middle of Silom Road in front of hundreds of cheering, drunken partiers, and the video made it onto the internet. It wouldn't have been a big deal if they were European backpackers, in fact such behaviour would have been expected in that case. But they were Thais. Oh no.
Their sin was being so na darn as to cause the very na bang patriarchs and matriarchs of society to sia na in the eyes of the world. Therefore, because of this na taak situation, the Cultural Ministry forced the girls to apologise to society, while the patriarchs and matriarch looked on, spitting som-nam-na at the girls as their indiscretion did not rak sa na and gave no consideration to whai na Thai society.
But then a week later a couple of those same girls _ being na wai lhang lhog _ were again found dancing topless somewhere in the province, so the joke was pretty much on everyone.
The value of face permeates every aspect of the Thai culture, including the foundation of society that is education. As such, we have an education system that is more concerned with what is proper and appropriate than with what is open and critical, hence college entrance exam questions such as those causing the most recent scandal.
To show respect and consideration is a good thing. It's a cultural value that Thailand should always keep and foster. But to be obsessive with image to the point of losing sense is not only dangerous, it is downright stupid _ the stupidity that begets the symptoms of superficiality and materialism that we see every day.
We see the hour-long speech before a boxing match to wear the foreign opponent down with boredom to give the Thai boxer an advantage. We see legislation that relentlessly protects image and appearance at the expense of democratic values. We see skin-whitening cream and beauty clinics have become a multi-billion-baht industry. If you see a beautiful girl, compliment her plastic surgeon for a job well done.
We see surgically-manipulated starlets and effeminate male stars in too tight pants and too much make-up, causing impressionable youths to be ever more superficial, materialistic and gender-confused.
We see an obsession over the appropriate school uniform and proper behaviour at the expense of individuality and originality.
So if Thai adults lament that the young today are simply too superficial and entirely too materialistic, lacking in substance, it is only because that's what we have unwittingly taught them.
Thailand today is but a product of our own cultural obsession and faces a cultural dilemma. For example, given all the na-bang politicians bemoaning the Kingdom's image, while at the same time shamelessly displaying greed and narrow-mindedness, the dilemma is being song-na.
Face appears hollow when it's not supported by substance, and as such it exposes the frail condition of being song-na _ a condition suffered also by those who believe an article such as this one is khai-na rather than an honest cultural assessment for the betterment of society. There is no betterment of society because as long as there is song-na, there is only perpetual na-taak.
For a person or society to truly mee-na-mee-ta, the substance must shine through the surface.
So cut the face by half and double the substance; it's just a matter of value adjustment.
Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at email@example.com
Bangkok Post columnist
Voranai Vanijaka is a columnist, Bangkok Post.