Wednesday, October 9, 2013

National bad habits that keep us "under-developed"

Somebody posted a message on Facebook the other day, suggesting that Thailand had lagged behind because of some “bad habits” that served to keep Thailand “underdeveloped.”

He listed 8 “Thai habits” that he considered to be the main obstacles to turning Thailand into a “developed country.”

On top of the list is the prevalent “patronage system” which dictates that junior people must always obey their elders. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. If you want to get ahead in your career, you will always have to kowtow to the guy above you.

I raised this issue with a friend to find out whether he considered the “patronage” system a problem or not. He immediately shot back, saying that whoever had posted that message was either very na├»ve or utterly ignorant of the nature of Thai society.

“What he calls patronage system is in fact the traditional networking culture of Thai society. What’s wrong with that? Thailand wouldn’t have come so far without the close ties among family members, relatives, friends and, yes, patrons.”

He vehemently argued that what critics call “patronage” was in fact “mutual support” that had pulled Thailand out of one crisis after another.

I walked across the road to ask another man on the street. He didn’t wait for me to finish my question.

“Thai people are addicted to the patronage system. That’s the source of all our problems. Patronage means corruption. Patronage means inequality. Patronage means you can’t progress without good connections. Patronage means it’s not your ability that counts. It’s who you know, not how good you are. No doubt, we have been thrown into this mess.”

I was too scared to ask the third person I met. He might think I was trying to pull his leg. So, I asked him about the second “habit” that the Facebook post identified as a bad thing for national progress.

“Do you believe that Thai people have been lagging behind some other countries because of our fun-loving nature?” I asked the stranger.

He looked at me as if I had asked him why he had beaten up his wife. He stared at me, trying to make sure I was serious about the question.

Then, he said: “Fun? What fun are you talking about? Do we still have fun as a nation? Everybody is trying to hate everybody else. No, we are not a fun-loving people anymore. We are a nation of haters…”

I tried to put up a smile. But he refused to reciprocate. Before walking away, he looked me in the eyes once again and declared: “Are you trying to make me hate you?”

I didn’t manage to stop him long enough to tell him that I was only trying to find out why Thais weren’t being nice to one another anymore.

There were many other “bad habits” in the Facebook post but I was afraid to continue with my personal public opinion survey. I wasn’t ready to be hit on the head by people angry at being told the truth about their daily practices that contributed to national decline.

What if I told you that Thais are lazy, and afraid of changes, and that we are never punctual? What if someone tells you that Thailand could never hope to climb to the top if we continue to spend more than we can afford and that we tend to rely on others to do things for us instead of trying to work things out ourselves?

These “8 National Bad Habits” Facebook post hasn’t attracted much attention so far. But I hope someone will post another message to extol the “10 National Good Habits” that will drown out the “8 Bad Habits” – those good things we Thais do everyday that will one day make us a super-power.

Don’t ask me, though, what those “good habits” are. I am racking my brain to come up with the first few “good habits” we can really be proud of.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Oct 8: Much ado about nothing

Despite speculation to the contrary, Oct 8 will just be another day

Nobody really takes it seriously, except Premier Yingluck Shinawatra perhaps. But again, she might have heard it from her elder brother, Thaksin.

But once he told Thai Rath online that anti-government forces have set Oct 8 as the deadline to topple the Yingluck government, Thaksin set off a series of speculation, mostly by his own people.

Political observers were naturally puzzled that this prediction by one astrologer has been picked up and given credence by Thaksin despite the fact that nobody else had considered it anything more than just a juicy gossip.

One Pheu Thai MP went so far as to say that an astrologer had said the Yingluck government’s stars will be thrown into a crisis during Oct 7-9.

“The astrologer says that during that period, the government will be at its weakest point. Any attempt to topple it will have to be carried out then,” said MP Vorachai Hema of Samut Prakarn province.

He also claimed to have gathered his own “intelligence” pointing to the link between the current political problems with the rallies being held by rubber planters in the South.

He also the”plot” to use the southern protestors to undermine the government apparently failed. Therefore, the next move to subvert the government would be taken up by independent agencies.

By that he meant that the Anti-Corruption Commission will be handing down its decision on the validity of the petition by the opposition to rule against the government’s controversial rice-pledging scheme – which is also expected to fall between Oct 7-8.

According to this conspiracy theory, if the ACC finds the government guilty one way or the other, the red-shirts will launch street protests, prompting the military to move in to quell unrest. He predicted that the subsequent chaos will end in a military coup.

Thaksin only had to drop a hint. It would then be very easy for his followers to add colour to complete the story. There will always be those ready to believe that the plot is real. And there will always be people who think it’s too far-fetched to believe that another coup could take place.

But if one read his interview with Thai Rath carefully, the former premier who was ousted in a coup exactly 7 years ago, was in fact adopting a “talk-talk-fight-fight” strategy.

On the one hand, he was pointing an accusing finger at those he believes are intent upon ousting his sister’s government. On the other, he was handing out an olive branch, insisting once again that he was ready to give up politics if he could return home safely and without guilt.

Thaksin repeated his stand of not taking revenge – “I am ready to forgive everybody,” he declared. But, as usual, he didn’t admit any wrongdoing, raising doubts as to how he could come home under his conditions without creating a new round of turmoil in the country.

The ruling Pheu Thai Party has targeted independent agencies such as the ACC and Constitutional Court which would have to be removed from the new amended charter – or if they remain, would be rendered powerless. Under the scenario painted by the pro-government MPs, the rewritten charter will have to get rid of “independent agencies” that could interfere with the power of the executive branch.

In effect, that would mean that the checks and balances considered crucial in a vibrant democracy would be removed once and for all.

That has sent a wave of protests from those who see this as an ominous sign of a relentless attempt to allow the ruling party to gain full control of the country’s three pillars of political influence.

But despite all the wild speculation, part of which might have been a pre-emptive move, Oct 8 will be just another day on the Thai political calendar. It has long been established that Thai governments usually crumble from within. External factors are mostly a nuisance, never a real threat

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The '108 Forums' nobody has heard of

‘108 forums’ around the nation that nobody has heard of

It must have come as a surprise to many. A Cabinet release last week said the government had acknowledged an official report to the effect that a nationwide campaign of public hearings for national reconciliation at 108 forums had been completed.

Has anyone heard anything about this supposed “public forums” that were supposed to have been held around the country between June 10 to July 28, this year?

These sessions, funded by tax-payers’ money, were also supposed to have been organized by “representatives of faculty members from various universities.” We have yet to be told who these academics were and how they had been picked in the first place.

What was more puzzling was that according to the official report, this campaign had gathered a total of 101,683 people to join the forums. Besides, a total of 58,183 people were said to have responded to questionnaires.

In case you, like most of the rest of the country, haven’t heard about this particular project, let me cite the statement given out by deputy government spokesperson, Lt Sunisa Lerdpakawat, who said the campaign was officially labeled: “108 Forums of Conversations to Find a Way Out for Thailand.”

No, they weren’t held in secret. In fact, the sessions were to be public gatherings of people from all walks of life to exchange ideas of how the country could overcome the current political stalemate. If you have never met anyone who has taken part in the debate, you are in the majority.

To prove that the discussions actually took place, the report cited the findings of the project. The six-week exercise identified ten major obstacles that have been blocking Thai society from going forwards:

1. Different understandings about democracy.

2. Doubt over the country’s rule of law.

3. The so-called “judicial reform” has interfered with independent agencies.

4. Military coups and the military establishment’s role in conflict management.

5. Economic and social gaps.

6. Media bias.

7. Reference to the monarchy for political interests.

8. Lack of knowledge to resolve conflicts through peaceful means in society.

9. High stakes in political conflicts and related interests.

10. Corruption.

You could be excused to cast suspicion on the timing of the wrapping-up of the report. At the national level, the government’s sponsored Reform Commission, now being coordinated by coalition partner Banharn Silpa-archa, is due to hold the second meeting soon.

You should, therefore, not be taken aback at all if the “findings” from these forums were suddenly submitted to the Commission. But whether they will be accepted in full or not remains a big question.

Even Banharn himself has admitted that the process will take time and that so far the job could be considered 10% done. “The prime minister has said even if we could accomplish 1% of the task, she would be satisfied. As I see it, 10% is better than 1%,” Banharn told reporters. If he didn’t sound very optimistic, it was only because the veteran politician himself doesn’t really know what’s in store in the next meetings on the subject.

The first much-trumpeted meeting at the Government House didn’t offer any concrete idea on how the project would proceed, except that more meetings will be held. It’s not clear what Banharn is supposed to do, except that he will be visiting leading personalities from various circles “to listen to their opinions.”

Prime Minister Yingluck has said she won’t offer any suggestions on how national reconciliation could be achieved, the official reason being that the government didn’t want to influence the outcome of the discussions. But without the premier’s making the first step towards reconciliation, the whole exercise will just be another “political event” – a political stunt, no more no less.

And the tax-payers have yet to be briefed on what really went on in those 108 forums around the country

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Serious discussions between sisters

Premier Yingluck Shinawatra is seen here conversing with her sister, Yaowapa Wongsasasdi, in Parliament yesterday -- just as things were going wrong, once again, in Parliament.

It was the latest in a series of unfortunate incidents in the House when about 26 Pheu Thai MPs were found to be absent -- the parliamentary session was therefore forced to end because of the lack of a quorum.

It was supposed to be another day of a heated debate on the Senate's constitutional amendment. Yesterday's session was to discuss Section 7 covering the process of senators' election.

Yaowapa, who is in charge of imposing discipline among Pheu Thai MPs, was said to have been quite irritated by the mishap. She was quoted by a close aide as threatening to punish the absent MPs by not fielding them in the next election.

It wasn't clear what the sisters were exchanging in this picture. But whatever the topics, they couldn't be very pleasant.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

After a 3rd-class train ride, Transport Minister should fly economy

Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt has taken a rough bus ride and discovered that City bus No 8 is the worst.

He has also taken an 8-hour train ride to the northeastern province of Surin and found that toilets on the lowest-class train carriage were dirty and lacking in running tap water.

He also wrote in his Facebook that Train 135, a third-class route, also saw a 30-minute delay and the carriage was not in good condition.

Now, he should take the cheapest seat on the national airline to determine how it can get out of its financial trouble.

The minister’s staff had earlier set up a Facebook page to seek reactions from bus passengers about bus services during Aug 6-14. It didn’t take long before complaints started pouring in and City Bus No 8 got the highest number of negative comments.

Passengers complained about drivers and conductors having bad manners and speeding past waiting passengers. Some let passengers off in the middle of roads. Black fumes and engine problems added to the list of “unbearable services.”

If you remember, the minister had earlier taken a bus trip to work in Bangkok but had to get off and jump on a motor-cycle taxi because of the long delays on the route.

Minister Chadchart’s ride on the slow train to Surin wasn’t disclosed until he had finished the ride, he wrote, so that he could find out for himself how the State Railways of Thailand’s service was like before reacting to the request to raise fees for third-class train service by 10%.

What he found talking to train drivers and police confirmed his suspicion that the service was far below standards. They told him about old locomotives, worn-out or used train parts, lack of qualified personnel and uneven distribution of assignments among the staff.

Now, that THAI has reported a net loss of 8.4 billion baht in the second quarter, the transport minister should disguise himself as an ordinary passenger on all the airlines that compete directly with the national carrier – as well as take the lowest seat on one of the THAI flights to find out just how to get the airline out of trouble – and, as he told reporters, to determine whether it’s the result of management problems.

The minister might find that the country’s bus, train and airline services suffer from a similar setback: They are tied to politics and bureaucracy and nobody, not even the country’s best manager, can turn them around under the current management structures.

Attempts to “privatize” the train and bus services have been made on a regular basis, to no avail. Moves to improve efficiency have at best been no more than lip service. Reasons for the failure of these transport services to seriously serve the public are no secrets. Management objectives have never been about improving the bottom lines by giving top priority to customer service.

It’s all about politicians, once in power, demanding the rights to put their own people at the top posts to promote their own influence and benefits.

The national airline is supposed to be a publicly-listed company but the finance ministry remains the major shareholder and the Royal Thai Air Force insists upon its say in the management. In other words, the airline remains officially a “public company” that is controlled by political and bureaucratic interests. Paying passengers do not come first, as they should in a real business concern, in the overall scheme of things. This despite the fact that the national carrier has to compete head-on with all the other international carriers that have to be run professionally to survive in the increasingly challenging airline business.

If Minister Chadchart takes a really long airline flight after his adventures on the bus and train, he might find that there is a common solution to all the problems plaguing our transportation services: Get the politicians out and let the professionals in

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The China Dream: What does it really mean?

A Chinese reporter asked me the other day for my views on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.” It was a rude awakening. I was lost for words.

I asked the reporter what he thought was his president’s definition of the “China Dream” which has become a highly popular slogan spread in the form of a propaganda blitz. “Dream walls” have sprung up in schools and universities. Students have been told to write their own “dreams” on the wall.

The Chinese reporter told me he was also trying to understand what Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” was about. He did say though that he thought whatever the phrase means, “it is a very popular concept at the moment.”

So, I went in search of the meaning of the dream. In the process, I might be able to stumble into something I could call “Thai Dream.” That would be a great challenge for I know that anything that is described as “Thai Dream” would be even more nebulous than the Chinese version.

In his own words, Xi Jingping explained his China Dream this way in his first address to the nation as head of state on March 17, this year:

“We must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese Dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

What it all means is far from clear. Neither has he come up with specifics on how to put the “dream” into practice.

I tried to find some clues in his following remarks in the same statement:

“To realize the Chinese road, we must spread the Chinese spirit, which combines the spirit of the nation with patriotism as the core and the spirit of the time with reform and innovation as the core.”

That doesn’t offer me more clues.

So, I went in search of explanations from Chinese experts quoted by news agencies and western scholars.

A BBC report quoted Liu Mingfu, a retired Chinese colonel, as proclaiming that he was very clear about the real meaning of the China dream. He published a best-selling book entitled: “The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-America Era” in 2010. He believes that the Chinese leader shares his dream and that is to make China the world’s dominant power.

Liu was quoted as saying: “Since the 19th Century, China has been lagging on the world stage. President Xi’s dream is of a stronger nation with a strong military.”

A well-known Chinese scholar, Yu Jiangrong, writing in micro-blog Weibo compared the China Dream with the American Dream this way:

“The American Dream refers to the dream of the American people, of which the protection of individual rights is the basis. The Chinese Dream is the dream of the country, of which the strengthening of the country’s rights is the premise.”

More enlightening was the effort to search Weibo for the Chinese people’s reactions to this phenomenon by Chris Marquis and Zoe Yang, associate professor and research assosicate of the Harvard Business School.

They quoted a popular post reblogged over 9,000 times as saying:

“The precise meaning of the Chinese Dream: 1. The UN relocates to Beijing. 2. Premier Li Keqiang inspects Taipei with the assistance of Provincial governor Ma Ying-jeou. 3. The Chinese National Footabll Team wins the FIFA World Cup and gains possession of the World Cup trophy for the first time ever. 4. Beijing accidentally bombs the Pentagon and expresses regret. 5. Aircraft carrier Liaoning returns to Hawaii to replenish supplies. 6. The stock index surpasses the million-point mark this week. 7. RMB becomes the sole international currency. 8. Increasing cases of Americans illegally immigrating to China in recent days!”

The authors said the most significant finding is that the most prevalent posts by far are those that express an interpretation of the China Dream based firmly in bettering Chinese society as a whole: correcting inequality, ensuring free education for all, improving the quality of food, air, and water.

“In this sense,” the writers concluded the Chinese Dream is truly both individual and collectivist.

To me, the most enlightening interpretation came in this microblog quoted by the authors who used the Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight social media listening tool to analyze Weibo posts:

“The commoner’s China Dream: 1. Education without tuiton; 2. Employment without guanxi; 3. Doctors that don’t sell medicine; 4. Food without poison; 5: News without lies; 6. Professors with wisdom; 7. Government officials without bribery; 8. Police that do not abuse citizens; 9. Those who strip naked do not gain celebrity; 10. Those who brag do not become famous; 11. Homes that don’t get demolished; 12. The people don’t fear authority; 13. Environment without pollution; 14. Leadership without special treatment.”

Have I discovered the Thai Dream along the way?