Thai boy

4. Flexibility and adjustment 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.



While being flexible, as indicated by the Instrumental value of Responsive to situations and opportunities, is an important element in the whole groups of “social smoothing” values, the value itself deservers a separate mention in its own right. It is one of the most important values found for the Thai Value Study, not only because it did not emerge as a value in the American value scale, but also because this value consistently scores high in the cognition of Thai people, regardless of different backgrounds and groups. It is interesting to find that this value is even significantly higher for government officials than for peasants as a group (see 1981 value patterns between government officials and peasants). In situations like government officials where chances of violating “ego” and power are greater, it is understandable that this flexible, ever-adaptive characteristic is even more highly needed. It is the ability of balancing ego, power, and situations that counts, not ideology, nor even law and order. Evidently, besides ego and smooth interpersonal relations values, the Thai are flexible and situation-oriented.

This value has been invariably and consistently scored high across groups and over time. Table 7.4 shows composite rank orders of this “flexibility-adaptability” value from the two national samples of various backgrounds. Mostly, the difference are not significant, with the exception of those with law background who were found to have the lowest score for this value. In other words, persons with law training are the most rigid group. In general, this characteristic high value of Responsive to situations and opportunities, has perhaps accounted for the various interpretations of the Thai being “unpredictable”, “non-committing”, “irresponsible”, or even “selfish” and “opportunistic”. Such descriptions stemmed from a rather static view based on specific situations, and therefore losing the dynamic underlying predictable factor, leaving such attributes meaningless and/or inaccurate.



To which extent the projection of this value characteristic is supported by the attitudinal and behavioural data? It was found that this value was substantiated, when the samples were asked in a choice statement requiring to describe oneself as “truly honest” rather than “ever-flexible and adaptive to the environment and situations”. More than half (59.6%) of the national samples preferred to describe themselves as “ever-flexible” than “truly honest” (Table 7.10 and 7.11). This is more so for Bangkokians, for government officials and for higher educated groups. Relatively less for the rural sample and the less educated. An inspection of the 1981 national rural sample reveals the same pattern, with government officials consistently showing higher preference for being “flexible” than the peasants who also consistently showing higher preference for being “truly honest”. The finding of the behavioural responses is in congruence with the value of Responsive to situations and opportunities. The data indicate that while most Thai favour “sincere” interactions, they also value the flexible (Alum aluay) characteristic in a person.

In general, for the Thai, there is nothing so serious as to be unbendable or unchangeable. When confronted with some breaching or deviation from rules, the common reaction is “Ca aow aria kan nak naa” (meaning, “Don’t be too strict or rigid, it’s absurd”). The general attitude towards problems is: “Pen rueng lek” (It’s a small matter); “Mai chai rueng kho khaad baad tai” (It’s not a matter of dead-or-alive); or “Tuk yangkai kae khai kan dai” (Everything can be adjusted). Such flexible and ever-adjustable attitude is particularly true to describe government officials, especially those in the Ministry of Interior who have to dutifully serve and please their superiors. The popular phrase “Kling wai korn, pho sorn wai” (meaning, “Do whatever is called for at the moment, to survive”), adequately depicts the flexible characteristic of the Thai people. This flexibility value orientation is somehow correlated with the laxness in principle, and consequently reflected in certain behavioural patterns like, “decision-shifting” behavioural patterns and corruptions.



Fexibility over Principle and Ideology

This flexibility value in response to situations and opportunities manifests itself as a core value regulating a number of conspicuous values and behavioural patterns. Because of this value, it is not surprising to find “decision-shifting” behavioural pattern quite common for the Thai, such as vote-switching, position-switching, or even switching of principles. Those who have observed the political behaviours of the Thai Members of the Parliament (MPs) years after years, would understand why many MPs switched their votes at the crucial time, switching their positions, or even switching one’s political party, for no reasons of ideology or principle. Most of the reasons for switching have to do with personal conflicts and/or conflicts or benefits, not principles nor ideology. Not even one’s party’ previous consensus decision and position, if one happens to dislike the particular decision and/or the leader at the moment.

Basic to these “switching” behaviours is always the personal conflicts based on the “self”, the “ingroup”, and the situation, that are the main motivating forces. It is always the “person” and the “situation” over principles and system. Hundreds of political reports appeared in the media can be retrieved to illustrate this statement. For example, the April 22 vote-switching behaviour in 1987, whereby 15 Opposition MPs made a last minute turn-about-face action in withdrawing their signatures from the Opposition’s no-confidence motion bid against the government, causing the no-confidence debate to flop, and as a result, immediately escalating the political situation of the country to a deadlock (Bangkok Post, 1987, May 13).

The basic reason behind this “vote-switching” behaviour is, that since “vote-buying” in the General Election is a known fact, most MPs are said to have “bought” their way into the Parliament, and they are naturally susceptible to be “bought” into or “out of” any position, if situation seems fit. Furthermore, many even paid out big sums to be included in the Cabinet, so that they can have chance to recoup the money they spent during the campaign. The most striking statement was made by the secretary-general of a certain political party, who said that his party had been “out” of the government (by serving as the Opposition) for so long it has become so destitute and must now recoup for lost time (Bangkok Post, 1987, May 27). Making money through using position power is an open secret. These politicians want to hold ministerial positions, not to execute their position power for the public good, but rather for personal financial gains and those of their cliques and party. The latest scandal has endorsed this ‘open secret’ of such corrupt practices among politicians holding ministerial positions, when Deputy Interior Minister Santi Chaivirattana, charged for taking bribes in exchange for amending a ministerial regulation to ease safety controls on liquefied petroleum gas stations. When he was pressured to resign, he exposed that his party (Social Action Party) had instructed the few MPs holding ministerial posts to solicit funds amount to 500 million Baht for the party (as appeared in the media in July-August 1990). He even disclosed that he was taught by the party’s secretary-general how to solicit money without leaving evidence, by writing the figure on a slip of paper (which was to be destroyed afterwards), and show it to the person asking for favour, for fear of being taped. His exposure of such systematic corruption in offices led to a sudden change in the SAP party leader, and a reshuffle of the coalition government a week later (Bangkok Post, August 27, 1990), not to solve the problem but to save the government’s image.

There are countless incidents of decision-switching behaviours. For example, when the Prime Minister finally resigned to prove way for forming a new coalition government to include one of the Opposition party, those Opposition MPs who previously declared and swore in public repeatedly that they would “never” join the government with General Chatchai as Prime Minister, found themselves grabbing those ministerial posts in no time (Media, December, 1990).

This is the masking and the aspiration of the majority MPs. It is therefore not surprising when certain military Commander-in-Chief critically compared Thai political parties to “trading companies” and Thai MPs to “merchants” who can situationally be “bought” to betray their respective company in response to their own needs. This is because their voting behaviour is in response to situations and opportunities which are further dictated by the “self” interest and the temporary “ingroup” interest, rather than ideology or principles.

The “January 10” dissident group of the Democrat Party, which was the most publicized dissident groups three years ago, is another case in point. It started as a dissident group in 1987, broke away to form a new party in 1988, merged into the Opposition coalition Aekaphaap or Solidarity Party in 1989, joined the coalition government in December 1990 until the coup d’etat in February 19991, and latest round the New Aspiration Party of General Chavalit Yongjaiyudh. It is another example of certain Democrat MPs, who went sour with their party leader over his failure to include them in the Cabinet portfolio in the Coalition Government, roused up a group after the Party Council meeting on January 10, to take disruptive actions against their party leader, the party council, demanding even the Coalition Government to reshuffle the Cabinet portfolios to make rooms for their group. And in the process of pressuring the party and the coalition government, they aimed to cause troubles and rock the boat by voting in various important issues of the country mainly just to go against the party policies and positions of those of the government, acting in concert with the Opposition parties, ultimately drove the Parliament to a state of political deadlock, and as a result, crystallized the state of Thai democracy as still in “the twilight zone” as described by one prominent political scientist (Bangkok Post, 1987, Nov. 30). It is sad and pitiful that all the political turbulence roused up, was for nothing other then the greed to have a share of the Cabinet posts.



Over half a century of democracy in Thailand, this is the performance of MPs from the oldest political party of the country. The point to be made here is that although it is natural for political parties to have factions (i.e. left-wing or right-wing), the factions in Thai political parties are not based on ideological or policy differences, rather they are based on personal conflicts and “ingroup” interests. Even the emergence of a political party, more often than not, is not based on ideological platforms, but rather on the person (the potential new leader) who broke away from the original party because of personal conflicts and/or conflict of “ingroup” interests. In fact, it is quite difficult to keep track with the number of parties each MP has switched. At every turn of a political event, politicians switched their party to the one they perceived to be the next winning party. Old parties broke away or merged, and new parties created to pave way for new powerful figures. The latest Samakkhee Tham Party is said to be created for the present Army Commander-in-Chief Genral Suchinda Kraprayoon, with members switched from Solidarity Party, Chart Thai Party and Rassadorn Party (Matichon, August 2, 1991). At present, Thailand has about two dozens political parties, whose policies or ideological differences can hardly be differentiated. It is evident that the very reason for Thailand to have so many undifferentiated parties is basically due to the very nature of Thai people who, besides caring less for principles and ideology, have a tendency to want to be important and to avoid being subservient to others if at all possible, particularly when there is personal conflicts involved, the “ego” self is at stake.

Besides examples from Thai politicians’ behavioural patterns which are clearly ovservable to illustrate this “person” and “situation” over “principles” orientation, examples of such behavioural patterns can also be found in the highly educated academic circles who are themselves teaching democracy, ideology, and principle and system orientation. In such highly educated institutions, where the most liberal democratic system of voting a rector has been adopted, and where one might expect merits, performance, lawful fairness, principles geared to the progress of the organization, would be valued over personal relations. In actuality, this has not been what happened. Principles, rules, policies, and even agreements might not be upheld when weighed against personal relations. Instead, they are dispensable and can be overruled by self and ingroup interests.

The case in point (see Vayavananda, 1988, for the case study of “person” over “system”) involved the separation of a new graduate degree program from a research unit, in a respectable higher educational institution of the country, which houses educators holding Masters’ degrees and up. It is a very rational policy and principle to be implemented, for the growth of the university as well as for the foreseeing improved quality of the two units. Actions had been taken. Decisions had been made in the Board of the deans, orders issued, new directors for the two units elected, and office moved. However, within the original research unit, resistance was roused up by an “ingroup” which consisted of an influential lecturer and his followers, mostly researchers, who perceived their personal interests derived from the ambiguity of the original unit, were at stake. Relying on the relationship between the “ingroup” leader and the university rector, this group of researchers, although unqualified for the specific graduate teaching program, stubbornly refused to move to the research unit where they are more qualified and appropriately fitted—leaving the research unit with the elected director an only one research staff, unable to function. Although with unprintable justifications, the rector eventually gave order in favour of the “ingroup”, all at the expense of the research unit without sufficient staff to operate, and the teaching unit with excess of unqualified researchers who were inappropriately assigned to teach. Previous decisions in meetings were changed. The principle of open competition for new specified posts was dropped. Positions were filled by “ingroup”, rather than by highly qualified Ph.D. holders of specific fields, if recruitment were open for public application. As a result, the quality of the graduate degree program was unnecessarily affected. A smaller number of independent experienced lecturers who disagreed, was shunned away and demotivated. The goal of academic excellence which is supposed to be the top priority of educational institution was subjected to “self” interest, and interest of the clique. And through siding with the bigger “ingroup” at all expenses, there was this illusion of harmony—the end result is, successful administration “Thai style”.

It boils down to the fact that the motivational behavioural patterns of this “ingroup” is no different from those of the “January 10” dissident MPs, in defying all rules and principles, to get what they want at all costs and by all means—by hook or by crook. The behavioural pattern of this type is most appropriately analysed by Mulder’s “Power” theoretical frame of the Thai (Mulder, 1978). As for the rector as an administrator, he exemplifies a typical successful managerial style of top-level government administrator. Basically, he values his “self” interest , in being an administrator of no conflicts—maintaining an illusion of harmony—which can be easily done through siding with the more influential “ingroup” and suppressing the less influential party. Siding with the “winning” is the key criteria, not any ideal principle. If such value orientation prevails in the cognitive makeup of the supposedly liberal intellectual elites of the country, let alone the rest of the countrymen. To reiterate, it is always the “self”, the “ingroup”, and situation, that are the main motivating forces, not ideology, principles, or system.

When such is the underlying cognitive make-up of those vying for positions, it is understandable how those practices of irregularities occurred and why. Take for example, it helps to understand why the last and most democratic (in the sense ‘fully elected’) government approved 5 huge multi-billions-Baht infrastructure projects, evidently without feasibility studies, and without detailed plans. These projects are for example, the Hopewell Holding’s elevated train and overhead expressway project; the Lavalin’s 60,000 million Baht Skytrain project, the Don Muang Tollway’s elevated highway project; and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s skytrain project, etc. How can the former Government approve these projects of diverse technological systems yet criss-crossing on top of one another, without coordinated planning and detailed careful studies. “It is almost impossible to implement these projects”, said the present Minister of the PM’s Office and former World Bank Top Executive, Dr. Paichitr Uathaweekul (Bangkok Post, July 24, 1991). And the Government cannot even stop these projects, because the former government has already signed the contracts. Not only that they are technically impossible, there is indication that the public would not really benefit from these projects (expressed by Dr. Paichitr in a TV interview). Was the former Government really that “ignorant”? Truth revealed by the Asset Examination Committee was self explanatory. The committee found 13 over-million-Baht ministers of the last government “unusually rich”. Among the evidences were several hundreds “gift” cheques, some were of 30, 50, and 70 million Baht (Matichon, 22 Sept., 1991). Clearly and ironically, it is not the public interest that the past “fully elected” Government was concerned with, but rather “personal” and “clique’s” interest at the expense of the public interest and the country as a whole. It takes the present “interim government” (mostly highly respected competent technocrats) to do their best to remedy and correct some of these problems.


Flexibility and Corruption

Since the Thai are not principle oriented, and with the high value for personal relationship, they also appear not to be strictly law-oriented. In practice, principles and laws are ever-adjustable to fit persons and situation. In other words, laws are rules laid out in papers, but what is wrong or right depends not on rules, but on who the person is or whom the person knows. As described by one prominent Thai businessman in a seminar, “We Thai are not a society of law; we are a society of relationship… It is not what a person has done that’s wrong; it’s who he is… If he is your cousin, or your friend, then what he has done is not wrong…” (Bangkok Post, 1988, March 18). This is the reason why law enforcement in Thailand hardly works. If it does, it is selectively enforced on those who are either nobody or do not know anybody, or who have no money to ease their wrong-doings or buy their way out of problems. Countless examples can be cited for the government officials to go lenient on wrong doers. As a society of relationship, it is easy and common for an officer, upon request from even friends of friends, to pull out, cross out or destroy a traffic citation issued. For the sake of smooth relationship, officers would overlook, turn a blind eye, or keep silent, of any low infringement, even large-scale corruptions of their friends and those businessmen who regularly offer them money for “cup of tea”, or worse still, the wrong-doings of their superiors.

This apparent flexibility to law stems from the high value for the ‘law of relationship’ which in turn gives rise to the Amnaat muud or “Dark influence”—those with money and power, who tend to build up a web of social networks that extend to those in positions of power and authority. Corruptions occur easily under such structure, particularly in the structure of government organizations where seniority means “someone to be respected and not be challenged”. Therefore, when special requests from higher-up government officials for “leniency”, “convenience”, “kind consideration” or “cooperation” which mean “to go easy on someone”, “to let go an issue”, or “to drop a case”, one often obliges with the request in consideration or Kreng jai for those with higher status or seniority. Not to do so would create enemies for oneself, whereas granting the request would ensure the goodwill of the person with high status, which might prove useful in the future in what the Thai call Bunkhun (gratitude) or the repaying of favour with favour. Even those who would not care much for favour nor fear of creating enemies, would not want troubles, and would make themselves non-committing, uninvolved, and stay silent. What if one does not go along with the request? If the corruption is a large-scale and well-orchestrated one, more often than not, the person who did not keep silent or obstructed in certain ways, was reportedly either kicked out, transferred, or killed. This is the base structure for all kinds of corruptions.

One only needs to go to any District Office to witness such process in operation. Although standing in line according to what the sign said, but without the “tea money”, one will find that his paper being by-passed all the time by those with “tea money”. Not to mention when one’s car was bumped by a “Tuk tuk” (motored tricycle), and found that the policeman was biased with the “Tuk tuk” driver, because the policemen took “protection fees” from the owner of those “Tuk tuk” in the area. Even major unlawful activities are protected by policemen. A police major admitted to the media, that it is an “open secret” that police accept bribes from gambling, smuggling and prostitution (Bangkok Post, October 28, 1990). It is a fact that these corruption activities have connections at various levels. This is why major gambling dens for example, have been raided by policemen so many times when occasionally urged by the Government, but they continue to operate.

Just a glance through a number of newspapers few years ago when General Prem’s Government declared to take action on corruption, is enough to illustrate this point. There were numerous cases; ranging from the “Royal decorations” scandals which involved about three dozens of officials up to the top officials in the Office of the prime Minister as well as respected senior monks; the “Lottery Bureau wheel-rigging” scandals which involved up to the deputy director; the “Mercedes-Benz vans tax evasion” scandals which involved high level officials of Police department and Customs department; to the “illegal immigration racketeers” of Vietnamese refugees in Trat Province, etc. Latest on papers is the one over the Golden Valley Golf course encroaching on the Khao Yai National Forest. Documents revealed that the original 50 rai legally owned by the villagers, was changed to a Nor Sor 3 document but for 60 rai, to a Nor Sor 3 Kor document for 97 rai, and on the same day changed to a normal land title deed—but for 223 rai (Post, June 30, 1991). These are only the few examples of the well-publicized ones, not to mention the uncountable number of others. Given the Thai value structure, eradication of corruption in bureaucracy is not an easy task. To do so would mean Loop naa pa chamook (stroking one’s face would inevitably touch one’s nose) to come upon unexpectedly the involvement of some important persons. And typically, cases would be stopped or faded out.

Such “tea money” is so widely practiced that it is to the point of being institutionalized now. At present, it is a known fact among construction project managers that they need to pay about 2 million Baht “tea money” to officers at the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) Office, just for the normal process of getting one project approved. With less money not enough to lubricate about 20 desks, or worse still no money, the project can be stacked there for years. The point here is that, while the basic Thai value system should not be blamed as the major factor for corruption, it definitely does not help to inhibit corruption either, unless the higher-ups sincerely intend to change.

In general, this characteristic “flexibility adjustment” value orientation has perhaps accounted for the varieties of behavioural patterns, ranging from the facilitation of ethnic assimilation process, to the tendency of corruption prone. In addition, it provides a deeper understanding to the various existing interpretations of the Thai being “unpredictable”, “non-committing”, “irresponsible” or even “selfish” and “opportunistic”, by foreigners.


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