6. Education and competence orientation
Taken from: Suntaree Komin, Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns, National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), Bangkok 1991, ISBN 974-85744-8-2, pp. 1-2. References and tables are available in the original. Typing errors edited.
With respect to the value for education and its related values, the findings of the Thai Value studies revealed that the give give (sic!) education values and competence values a medium level or importance. Knowledge-for-knowledge sake value does not receive high value in the cognition of the Thai in general. Education has bee perceived more as a “means” of climbing up the social ladder, in terms of higher prestige and higher salary pay, than as an end value in itself. This functional value of being label educated is very clear, and indicates that the Thai people value and give importance to form more than content or substances (See discussion of intellectual values in the earlier section). This is also revealed to the low task-achievement value.
“Form” over “Content” Value
The value of “form” more than “content” seems to underlie a number of behavioural patterns, ranging from bribing to get good grades, to get degrees and honorary degrees, to the “MPs’ bogus degrees” scandals when a number of MPs organized a ceremony at the respectable Parliament House for receiving the Honorary degrees conferred by a defunct private university in the Philippines, the “Royal Decoration” scandals, including the latest fake religious certificate, etc. These blown-up cases occurred, because basically the Thai value good form and appearance—the proper respectable social “front” and all the status and prestige related symbols. Since the Thai place highest value on the “ego” self, the “face”, and social relations, these decorative external labels, degree, decorations, etc., are important, for the possession of them would identify the owner with the respected class of the society. When these are something to be sought after, under the circumstances of Thai social relations network, and flexibility over rules and law, many things can be and have been “bought”. As it is, the rich and the powerful (i.e., the rich businessmen, politicians, and military figures) would also like to possess an intellectual label of Ph.D. degree. Many were conferred Honorary doctoral degrees in whatever fields they found suitable by donating a sizable sum of money to the universities. In fact, many universities are selling the Honorary doctoral degrees nowadays at the price of a few hundred thousand Baht only, without clear academic or highly intellectual criteria, much to the sadness of some serious academicians who are fighting for quality and “content” over “form” (Matichon, February 18, 1988). And a number of these honorary doctoral degree recipients through such means, like to show-off and to be addressed as “doctor so and so” in public and in the press, without much uneasy feelings. This intellectual label fever has the same symptom as the military uniform fever in the past, when the persons who donated a sufficient amount of money to the military were allowed to wear the honorary military uniform of a general, which led to the joke of “round-belly general” or the “round-belly army” for a while. As late as the last Government, there was attempt to confer military title to the President of the Parliament Mr. Wan Chansue, and police title to the then Interior Minister Mr. Banharn Silpa-acha.
When honors and decorative symbols are fervently sought after and are obtainable through monetary donations made to the nation, the religion, or to the royal institution, the opportunity of corruption arises. This is exactly the case of the Royal Decoration scandals which covered the press for over a year, where the whole social network from the highly respected senior monks to the Deputy Secretary-General to the Cabinet in the Prime Minister’s Office, were charged with malfeasance and forgery of thousands of donation certificates submitted for requests of the Royal Honors. This large-scale scandal had bee operated for years before incidentally triggered off and followed through by the press. The point is that these empty labels are highly valued as indicators of prestige and honors, something to be possessed, with or without the suitable worth—the content.
Since values are always used in relative terms, there is no intention to mean that there are no Thai who would value content and work diligently against obstacles to achieve their ideal goals. There are people like “the slum angel” Pratheep Ungsongtham, the Magsaysay awardee, or the most revered Thai monk Phra Phutthathat, who were also bestowed the honorary doctoral degrees. But these people do not climb fast. In fact, these two special cases are recognized only after they are internationally known, not while they were battling their obstacles for their causes. The fact is, while there are Thai who are serious workers and who value competence and substances, there are also those who not only value the reverse more, but would seek to possess those decorative forms, either by hook or by crook.
This “form over content” value has also driven some superiors who over-extended their power to take advantage of their subordinates’ hard-earned credit, and claimed it their own. Such was the case of a provincial governor who transferred one senior rural teacher out of the province, on ground of obstructions to his effective administration. The truth finally turned out that the governor was acting out of personal grudge over the teacher’s refusal to put down the governor’s name as co-author on the publication of the teacher’s exciting research findings with regards to the famous Thai poet Sunthornpuu’s origin, after years of tireless research. The governor has nothing to do with the research, only as the governor of the province, which means administratively the teacher’s superior. It is the courage of that teacher who has been a serious, devoted, knowledge-for-knowledge sake type of academician, to stand up to the governor’s unashamed and unethical instruction that has stated the governor. However, the transfer order stirred up a protest from a group of that teacher’s colleagues (Matichon, October 1 and 8, 1987).
This case reflects certain behavioural patterns of typical bureaucratic government officials, where autocratic power, connections, and the form value have been crystallized to demonstrate it worst. Education does not help much against such institutionalized values. It might be borne in mind that most governors, like the one in this case, are Western educated with Master’s degrees. However, negative and ridiculous as they are, these cases serve like the tip of the iceberg, to illustrate the patterns underneath. Normally, subordinates are subservient and respond to whatever that please the superior, then everything would be easy. Those who do not, would lose the superior’s favour forever.
The “Form” and Material Possession Value
Most Thai and foreign observers of the Thai would agree that the Thai value good form and appearance, as well as material possession oriented. They are particular about appearance and dressing, in quantity and quality with designer labels, and brand names of all kinds. This is why imitated merchandises make good business, for they cater to those who really cannot afford them. The appearance conscious value is an everyday life reality. A sociolinguistic analysis of conversational topics in Thai social interaction can readily show that one of the common conversational themes, is appreciating one another’s clothing and its accessories at length.
Such “form” and “material possession” oriented behaviours are evident in all levels of social class. People bought what they do not really need, but to show that they also possess them. Frugality is not one of the high values of the Thai. “Spending beyond one’s means” is a common syndrome. One foreigner in Thailand did not understand why this Thai friend decided, much beyond his means, to buy a 3 million Baht high power Mercedes-Benz. The answer received was that he was the managing director of a company. As for the lower class, this over-spending syndrome becomes the core cause of the endless circle of poverty, now that everything can be bought on hire-purchase basis. Take a look at the spending activities of a typical low class civil servant of 2,000 Baht (USD78.4) salary, the picture is clear. Here is a family of often more than one wife to support, a large number of children to send to school, television, video, radio-transistors and various household goods to buy, motorcycle, refrigerator, over supply of clothes, bug ceremonial functions, illness, etc. Not to mention also the inevitable gambling, lottery both of the government and underground, card or chess games, horse races, and share operations or rather swindles. All add up to put him in debt, through borrowing and very high interest (some are over 100%) shares, which drive him even further in debts.
One might wonder whether such behavioural patterns would be more illustrative of the urban Thai. That might not be so. Because trends show that once development or material consumption in particular, enters the rural community, the behavioural pattern catches on instantly like forest fire. There are evidence of the rural poor in deeper debts, as well as instances of malnutrition in children as a result of rural mothers who discard their traditional breast-feeding o turn to buy and feed their children with condensed milk, as a material symbol of being urban and “modern”. The results send the traditionally healthy village to become a malnutritious village, after development reached the village.
The “Form” and Perception of “Development”
The Thai generally value material symbols, as they are seen as “form of being modern” (Thansamai) and “developed”. Even government officials are stuck with these misleading “forms”. “Development” has often been equated with roads, electricity, refrigerators, motorcycles, etc. The story of a Buddhist monk’s work in a poor village in the Northeastern region is very illustrative. The monk used to think development meant roads and electricity, etc. Determined to fight poverty and backwardness, he convinced the villagers to give up their land to build a new road that would link their homes to the city. “Development” did quickly stream in. Motorcycles started roaring into the village. Refrigerators replaced earthen jars for keeping drinking water. Electric rice cookers, television, jeans, lipsticks, shampoo, fragrant soaps and other consumer goods advertised on television became integral part of the villagers’ lives, while gambling and drinking became more widespread. And the villagers plunged deeper into debts. Disillusioned, the monk changed his views and that was when real change began to take place in this small Northeastern village of Surin Province. Through mediation and Buddhist teachings, he got the villagers to analyze and identify the chronic disease of their poverty, to understand that their gambling, drinking and unnecessary expenses have worsened their situations, and to help them think out means to ease their problems. The villagers made religious vow to decrease expenses on unnecessary products, and they revitalized their community spirits, collaborated on a series of projects from the village’s Rice Bank, Fertilizer Bank, “Friendship Farming”, etc. And now the village has retain their self-reliance (Bangkok Post, march 11, 1989). It is fortunate that this village somehow managed to pull through the dilemma. How many more of the country’s 55,000 villages are there that are trapped in the misconception and misguided road to “development”. There are reports of villages plunged deeper into debt appeared on papers almost every other week. One of the latest was about two villages in Pichit Province (Bangkok Post, October 11, 1989).
This in congruence with the series of “contests” for “model villages”, run by the Ministry of Interior, which serve to further reinforce this misperception of development. In fact, studies have shown that there is no significant difference found between ‘model’ villages and ordinary villages with comparable environments (Research Center, 1980).