While critics and apologists alike sift through the pronunciamentos of Suthep Thaugsuban, founder, leader, ideologue and sole spokesperson of the Civil Movement for Democracy, in a desperate search for something that is both practical and constitutional, there is one demand of his that deserves study.
When he sent his mobile mobs of minions to bully the free-to-air TV stations into carrying his December 1 speech, most complied, even though it contained little that was new. Except for one thing – a demand for all stations to patch into the Blue Sky network and stop carrying ‘government news’.
Now this could be explained away as the wearisome megalomaniac attention-seeking of someone with so little to say that in any free marketplace of ideas his blowhard blatherings would quickly lose listeners. But Suthep actually gave us a reason why the nation must listen to his propaganda and no one else’s.
People would otherwise get confused.
This is a very important characteristic of Thai communication, and the major practitioners are not really politicians, but teachers.
The Thai what-for-want-of-a-better-word-we-will-call education system has a horror of confusion. The job of educators, as they see it, is to inculcate ‘knowledge’. Not wisdom or understanding or even skills, you notice; just knowledge.
And this knowledge comprises ‘facts’. Correct, black-or-white facts, to be memorized, without confusion. Which is just about all you can do with facts. (Well, you could stick them in a database to be retrieved as and when needed, but how would you then write an exam testing a database? You might as well test the phonebook.)
This explains one of the great conundrums of talking to Thai students who end up on the Arts side rather than Science. They will often tell you they had to abandon maths after failing tests because they couldn’t remember the answers.
Well, yes, because maths is taught, like everything else, as a set of facts to be rote-memorized. The students who display the least confusion in regurgitating these facts at exam time are the success stories of an education system that, for all the oodles of dosh thrown at it, has just again made a miserable showing in the PISA tests.
And if educational success is a question of facts, it follows that everything, and I mean everything, can be tested by means of multiple-choice tests, which are essentially an exercise in identifying which ‘facts’ are ‘correct’.
This is ‘correct’ defined as ‘consistent with what has been taught’. Not ‘accurate with respect to the real world’. So native speakers can be left floundering by the typical Thai school test in English, while the cleverer of the little fact-munchers sail through. The native speaker knows the language. But those are not the ‘correct’ ‘facts’. The student knows what has been taught, which is what is really being tested. And so what if that bears only a passing resemblance to English as she is really spoken?
So the prestige that teachers can claim in this society (an increasingly devalued commodity, it must be admitted) is based on their omniscient command of ‘facts’ and their magnanimity in passing them on to their grateful students. Foreigners trying to teach in the Thai system quickly learn that the quickest way to trash your reputation is to admit ‘I don’t now’. Far better to invent instant ‘facts’ to cover up your ignorance.
But there is in fact a far more subversive thing that teachers might say. This is: ‘Well, it all depends’.
This strikes at the fundamental basis of what is thought to be education because it speaks of a world where facts are open to interpretation, where probabilities are sifted and weighed with discernment, where wisdom embraces uncertainty.
Thai students are not properly exposed to this world. Add to this the social instinct to avoid confrontation, and the result is that when opposing views do collide, the level of argument rarely gets above ‘Yeah, but …’.
‘Suthep was responsible for the killings at Rathchaprasong.’ ‘Yeah, but Thaksin was responsible for the killings in the war on drugs’. As if the one statement, repeated fortissimo and ad nauseam, somehow negated the other.
One of the great horrors of a Thai student’s life is when one teacher says X and another says Y and it is clear, even with a Thai student’s tenuous grasp of logic, that they can’t both be true. Suddenly, life stops being one big otherworldly but reassuring multiple choice test.
What to do?
Fortunately, another principle of Thai argumentation can be invoked to escape the dilemma. It is simply a question of deciding which teacher is the ‘good person’ and which is not, because it is an axiom of Thai thinking about society that it can be neatly, exclusively and comprehensively separated into ‘good’ people and ‘bad’. Whatever the ‘good’ teacher says, is ‘correct’.
In the dichotomies between right and wrong facts, and between good and bad persons, Thai society does not allow any shades of grey.
And certainly not fifty.
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).