Sometimes uniformity is no solution

Sometimes uniformity is no solution

A dear friend of mine, who is a civil servant, posted a message on his Facebook page voicing disagreement with a suggestion by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha that civil servants wear their uniforms every Monday.

My friend said he has dismissed the suggestion which could well have sparked a "wear or not to wear" dilemma among hundred of thousands of officials, given that the prime minister is also head of the military regime, whose word is law.

This friend, who is a lecturer at a government university, said he does not think wearing a uniform has any bearing on his teaching job, nor how he performs. He has just received an award for the outstanding work of his faculty.

My friend is right. I believe many civil servants in other state agencies share his views.

Issuing a dress code for state officials is not new in this country. Some governments have come up with their own "dress code" — traditional costumes, silk attire among others. Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, who is now the Privy Council president, introduced the phra ratchathan suit for male officials during his long premiership that began in 1980. 

We have an archaic law on attire, the Civil Servants Uniform Act, which dates back to 1935. It has been amended only to accommodate state agencies established later. But basically, the uniforms look the same or nearly the same. It's khaki in colour, with a plain design. 

Gen Prayut's wish to see state officials in uniform comes as no surprise. After all, he imposed the mandatory recitation of 12 core values in schools and the use of patriotic music as a way to restore unity and nationalism, a practice that many have questioned.

Maybe the general whose military background may make him obsessed with uniforms thinks that wearing them will help bring pride and unity among people (as they wear similar clothes) in the public sector. While we should not question his good intentions regarding this idea, we cannot help but doubt if things will work that way.

Besides, we have to admit that civil servants' attitudes towards their uniforms differ from their colleagues in the military and police.

While the military have strict rules on uniforms, which forms part of their discipline, there are really no rigid rules for civil servants on this matter. And each government office has different outlooks. Interior officials may use them more often than those in teaching, health, city planning, or other work. 

But in general, there are very few occasions when civil servants need to wear the khaki outfit.

Even on Civil Servants Day which falls on April 1, we hardly see state officials wearing their uniform to work. The exceptions are the ones who have been named "outstanding civil servants" and who have to wear the outfit to attend an award ceremony at Government House.

Apart from this, I cannot think of any occasion when civil servants are obliged to don this khaki attire, especially those working in Bangkok.

Many just choose to stick to something plain and polite.

It is still unclear to me why so many civil servants don't like their uniform.

I would say the idea of wearing a uniform draws mixed reactions from civil servants. Some are proud to and post pictures of themselves on Facebook. Perhaps, the idea of the 12 core values happens to work. Others, like my friend, simply shrug it off.

More importantly, it appears that members of the public who the state bureaucracy serves could not care less.

If you ask me, what people want from civil servants has nothing to with uniforms they wear. They want service-mindedness, integrity, and efficiency and an end to the old chao khun moonnai mindset — the idea that people working in state offices are superior to the public they serve.

In fact, it's fair enough to say that the bureaucracy has improved a lot in terms of efficiency compared with what we had a few decades ago, with the help of IT technology.

But, unfortunately, many are still stuck in the old world of red tape. 

Let's see if civil servants in uniform (for those who agree to follow Gen Prayut's suggestion) can cope with the new demands that are emerging in these modern times.

Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

Ploenpote Atthakor

Editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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