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Thai Society Explained (Again)

I have a theory about Thai society.

Don’t worry.  This happens every 30 or 40 years or so and eventually I get over it.

The last Georgian Thai Social Theory (c 1980) explained why Thais are described in the guide books as an extremely polite people and yet drive like homicidal maniacs, prefer push-and-shove scrums to orderly queuing, and politically vacillate between anarchy and autocracy. 

(The pushing and shoving has since begun to fade with the introduction of new technology, i.e. queue tickets and yellow arrows on mass transit floors.)

This theory noted that Thais (as opposed to Chinese migrants and the nobility) (who often were at least partly Chinese migrants) had until recently been village dwellers.  Pasuk and Baker have noted that under the absolute monarchy, the average Thai had no reason to be caught living in Bangkok.

And in a village, everyone knew everyone and the intricate hierarchy of Thai social relations could operate, cemented into place by a language that cannot express the simple notion of first person singular without a complex multiplicity of alternatives, each carrying markers of relative status, sex, age and so on. 

Everyone knew their place down to the last pronoun, and while the system was patriarchal, discriminatory and hugely unfair, it was a system.

But if you took the Thai villager out of the village and plonked her in a city, the system no longer worked.  There was nothing to guide her way through the problem of how to share road space with, enter the same lift as, or vote for people she did not know.  Nobody knew how to apply the exquisite refinements of Thai politeness to strangers.

This was something that still had to be learned.

George’s Second Law of Thai Social Dynamics now endeavours to explain why, a generation or two on, this has still not been learned.  Yes, Thais are learning how to queue nicely, but Thai driving is still homicidally maniac and political discourse, squatting behind the new anonymity of the internet, has slithered into the gutter. 

Actually, no, it’s worse than that.  Many seem quite happy to glory in their malevolent spite and put their names where their potty mouths are.  Thai society is not just politically polarized; it oozes vindictiveness.

I blame the education system.

Not the upper reaches, which year after year produce graduates who not only fail to learn but don’t seem to know how to learn, as opposed to being force-fed facts of dubious accuracy.  No, this time the fault lies right at the other end, with what passes for pre-school education in Thailand.

For starters this excludes the bulk of the population, whose pre-school child-care options are limited to whatever grandparents might be able to contribute.  But the middle classes have been intent on bringing the worst features of the Thai education system ever further forward to the point where parents of 3-year-olds fret themselves into a frazzle over getting their munchkins into the ‘right’ nursery school.

And what do they think is ‘right’ about it?  Mummy and Daddy are forking over good money for the fast-tracking, for the premature headstart that little Wanida and Somchai will get.  When they come to take the entrance examinations to the better primary schools (I kid you not), they should already be able to read and write and do sums and recite the names of monarchs since the year dot.

It’s the academic rigour, fortified with equally rigorous testing, that they are convinced will give their already economically privileged kids an additional educational privilege.  This will keep them ahead of the pack until graduate school and in the great struggle of life beyond.

Except it won’t.  It may serve them well in the first couple of years of formal education, but, all things being equal, any advantage will have washed out well before the end of primary.  And this fleeting benefit can come at a significant cost.  For which a glimpse at German kindergartens may be illuminating. 

You don’t associate the Germans with farting about, playing games and generally doing what you feel like.  So back in the 1970s, they were thinking of changing kindergartens from ‘play-based’ to ‘direct-instruction-based’.  But German education reform is based on research and analysis, rather than ignorant middle-class prejudice, so they ran a comparison. 

Initially, the children who had undergone ‘direct-instruction-based’ instruction showed an academic advantage.  But by Grade 4, this had disappeared and even started to reverse itself.  However, in terms of social and emotional development, those whose early years were ‘play-based’ were streaks ahead, an advantage that appears to persist, according to other studies.

Now what do young children learn from play?  Getting on with their peers (and since children seem pretty oblivious to differences of race, class and sex, that includes just about every other child); negotiating your way round differences; thinking in terms of group goals and not just individual ones.  Not a bad start for learning how to treat strangers in the respectful civilized manner we so often don’t see among Thai adults. 

And what do children learn from Thai pre-school?  That the most important thing is elbowing your way to be top, and accepting the judgement of some superior authority about who is top.  Mutual respect?  Consideration?  The famed Thai politeness? 

In your dreams.

For George’s Third Theorem on Thai Society, see this column circa 2050.


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).