Thai universities have just started their delayed academic year, but bang on cue, the articles pour in about what happens to new students at institutes of higher education.
In the English reports, the preferred term is normally ‘hazing’, but take a moment to look at the Thai term – ‘rab nong’ – which carries none of the connotations of a potentially dangerous or embarrassing rite of passage.
In fact, it’s kind of cosy and cuddly. ‘Rab’ means ‘receive’, and when the thing being received is a person, it suggests treating them with respect, goodwill, even honour. The ‘best room’ in a house (the one with the most impressive and uncomfortable furniture which no one ever uses) is called the ‘hong rab khaek’ or ‘room for receiving guests’.
What is important to note here is that the person who does the ‘rab-ing’ is the agent and the person being ‘rab-ed’ is passive and doesn’t have to take any initiative. My own experience as a first year university student (yes, there were universities all those years ago, stop sniggering there) was called ‘orientation’ which is more something you do to yourself and definitely requires initiative.
And then ‘nong’ is the word for younger sibling. In the Thai fiction that we can all consider ourselves members of the one family, the implication here is that the ‘nong’, the new students, should be treated as younger members of the family.
Now before you start thinking in terms of being nice to each other and generally taking care of the welfare of your younger relatives, think of the tyranny of age relations in Thailand. Being a younger sibling doesn’t just mean that your elders are supposed to take care of you. It means you have to obey your elders and what they say goes. It’s one strand of the all-pervasive patron-client system.
So there you have a picture of first year students at a Thai university. Passive subjects of whatever their elders decree is good for them, with no right to object, or even to speak their mind.
What lessons do their elders decide are good for them? Now we delve into a seamy streak in Thai social relations, which are often held together not by mutual respect or empathetic compassion, but by brute force and contempt. And that’s the lesson that is often taught in ‘rab nong’ programmes.
The new students must be ordered around, bullied, and humiliated so that they will learn where the power lies. On the numerous occasions when, as an erstwhile academic, I made myself extremely unpopular by trying to intercede in these exercises of mass abuse, I was normally told, often heatedly, that the crawling through the mud, or screaming into people’s ears, or removal of clothing was necessary to instil ‘discipline’.
OMG. Now indiscipline is supposedly a growing problem in Thai schools, but by and large Thai students must be among the most compliant in the world. They need to be taught discipline?
This is the discipline of the authoritarian who demands unquestioning obedience and whose favourite deterrent involves things like smashing mobile phones, questioning the nationality of any Thai who asks awkward questions and, after inviting comments, marching off to the police station a secondary student who has different ideas about ethics from the Prime Minister.
This is the discipline of dictatorship.
So while one news article reports a seminar denouncing hazing rituals as ‘embedding autocracy’, the article directly below deals with a university where last year they were caught dripping candle wax on their ‘nong’ and this year performing simulated sex. So does the deputy rector think that enough is enough? Of course not.
Despite ‘clear guidelines’ about crossing the ‘boundaries of appropriateness’, they will simply devise ‘more detailed instructions’ (and the best of luck to the teachers with the job of predicting what form the next obscenity will take) and carry on with the indoctrination.
Meanwhile the students involved will lose points from their grades (huh?) and will be sent to a military camp, paid for by 3 university administrators, for ‘attitude adjustment’.
See, this ‘rab nong’ stuff. It’s just what the military does, only in different uniforms.
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).