The Conscience of Somchai
There’s a Traditional Thailand, there’s a Democratic Thailand and there’s a generation of Thais feeling the pull in both directions. In this piece, first published in Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now, Voranai Vanijaka explains how cultural conscience makes things complicated.
Take a Bangkokian. Let’s called him Somchai. He’s in his mid-thirties and is of (typical) Thai–Chinese ethnicity.
Somchai grew up in a well-to-do middle-class family. He has kind and loving parents who dote on him. He received a good education at one of the better Bangkok prep schools and then at a top local university.
As many families of his social class do, his parents sent him to the US for a master’s degree. It could have been the UK or Australia, but it’s neither here nor there, just as long as Somchai gained the coveted Western degree.
The higher learning was not necessarily to further Somchai’s enlightenment; that would be a bonus. More importantly, the degree would boost family pride and prestige. His parents can boast to friends and colleagues, ‘My son graduated from such and such.’
Back in Thailand, he becomes a company executive at a young age, placed there by his father’s connections. Or perhaps he’s an executive at his father’s company, a small enterprise. Somchai’s family is middle class, not fully fledged upper class. But again, it’s neither here nor there, as long as there’s a father and a connection involved.
Somchai thinks of himself as quite cosmopolitan and international. He sings Thai songs, dances to techno music, travels abroad when he can, enjoys fine wine and dresses in the way hipsters do.
He even pretends to like K-pop culture to please his much-younger girlfriend. But, really, he couldn’t care less for the Korean music subculture. He cares only for those pretty K-pop girls, wonders of modern plastic surgery that they are.
Somchai fancies himself an intelligent and worldly man. He reads the news. He lives in the East, but he has experienced the West. He’s comfortable in both the local and international environment.
Somchai fancies himself an intelligent and worldly man. He reads the news. He lives in the East, but he has experienced the West.
In his work, he deals with foreigners routinely. He speaks English with a Thai accent, but he’s fluent enough and is proud to use his acquired language.
But above all, Somchai is proud to be Thai, more specifically a new generation Thai who hates the corruption and cronyism that plague the country. Never mind that his career path is paved by daddy’s connections. There’s a bit of hypocrisy in everyone; it’s normal enough.
He believes freedom is the path for Thailand. He would like to see his country one day become a developed democracy where there’s equality, prosperity and sustainability for all. But he would never forget that first and foremost he’s Thai. He respects his elders. He minds his manners and what is considered appropriate for the Thai society. The word ‘appropriate’ is used abundantly in Thailand to demand conformity. (If someone points at you and says, ‘That’s inappropriate!, you’ve just been accused of being ‘un-Thai’.)
Somchai makes merits at the temple. He also consults a feng shui expert when redecorating his office. And, like most Thais, he has seen a ghost at least once in his life.
Yes, Somchai is a good Thai, one of a new generation looking to help make Thailand a better place to live. And he’s truly passionate about it.
So passionate that in May 1992 he would have been out in the streets with some two hundred thousand others protesting against the military coup-maker who overthrew the democratically elected government in the previous year. He knows he would have. Unfortunately, he was too young to fight for democracy at that time.
However, his passion saw him out in the streets in September 2006, cheering on the soldiers and tanks in the military coup against the then democratically elected government. He even posted congratulatory messages on his Facebook page to the coup-makers.
In May 2014, he again cheered for the military coup against another democratically elected government. On his Instagram, you might see pictures of him posing with soldiers, giving the thumbs up.
The question is, why Somchai? Why?
I grew up in Austin, Texas, from the age of 12 until I graduated from college at 23. My parents in Thailand sent me to live there with my uncle who was married to an American woman. My family isn’t well-to-do, just typically middle class, but lucky to have relatives abroad.
To this day, I’m still a walking contradiction between Texan arrogance and Thai humility. It’s not easy to be me.
In life, one goes through many experiences, but some are remembered more vividly. Others are locked away somewhere deep inside our consciousness, lost. I usually remember things when something happens that causes me to connect the dots to make sense of it.
One day at a petrol station, I walked into the store to pay. There was a line of four or five people and the man in front of the line was arguing with the clerk. They were yelling and cursing at each other: just an everyday social interaction in that part of the world. No big deal. It seemed the clerk had made a mistake with the bill. There was no reason for the customer to go ballistic. But even with a grown man there’s a drama queen lurking inside, looking for opportunities to take centre stage.
After about two minutes of cursing, the clerk wisely defused the situation by asking the customer to calm down. He told the customer he would fix the bill as soon as possible. The triumphant customer turned around and looked at the others in the line. He gave us all a victorious smirk and shook his head, as if to say that it was entirely the clerk’s fault.
It’s a matter of honour and respect, duty and responsibility to keep up the social order.
One lady in line responded immediately, ‘As far as I’m concerned, you’re wrong.’ The man behind her followed up, ‘And you’re holding everyone else up.’
The customer had a bewildered look in his eyes and said in disbelief, ‘This is not democracy!’ He then paid the bill and left in frustration.
I stood in the line thinking, ‘What the hell does democracy have to do with it? That doesn’t make any sense.’
But that’s the point. In the US, democracy has to do with everything. They live it. They breathe it. They manipulate it. They abuse it. They love it. They honour it. They fornicate with it. They also use it as an excuse to massacre rice-farmers and goat-herders half a world away, but that’s a story for another day.
In other words, America has a culture of democratic conscience, whether it is used for good or evil.
Watch the American police reality TV show Cops and you see that everybody knows their democratic rights. A suspected burglar runs from the police with alleged stolen goods. Finally, he’s cornered, but he refuses to give up. He resists. What does the suspect scream at the top of his lungs, as he’s wrestled to the ground and handcuffed? ‘I know my rights! God dammit!’
His rights are so important that the police have to read them to him before officially booking him. Failing to do so may mean the alleged thief will have to be released, because his rights were violated.
‘I have rights!’ Rights are so important that the US has an entire bill devoted to them. Your average American may not be able to point out Mexico on a map, but God dammit! they know they have the right to say whatever they want and carry an automatic assault rifle while saying it.
This democratic conscience also holds true in other societies, specifically the developed Western democracies. Perhaps these other societies are a little less obsessive about it. But it holds true nonetheless.
In Thai society, democratic conscience lurks here and there. There’s a wish, a yearning and a longing. The democratic conscience is like the mistress that Somchai might have after he gets married. He would come to see her when he could. But the affair must be hush-hush. They are not friends on Facebook, nor do they follow each other’s Instagram. The mistress’s mobile number is saved under ‘Office’. Somchai is a smart man. The wife he has at home checks on everything.
But if the democratic conscience is the mistress Somchai sneaks around with, the wife at home is the conscience he always comes home to. She’s his true love. She’s the foundation, the cornerstone, the tradition and the order. For a country like Thailand, the social hierarchy is what keeps society in order. It’s a matter of honour and respect, duty and responsibility to keep up the social order.
The head of this social order is the king. The three colours of the Thai flag are blue, white and red. Blue represents the king. White represents the state religion, Buddhism. Red represents the country, or the people. But at the same time, tradition tells us that the Thai king is the earthly incarnation of the Lord Buddha. He’s lord of the land and father of the people. As such, the tricolour represents but one, the king.
Ask a Thai to describe our national identity, and if they answers, ‘We are the land of smiles’ then they’re just trying to make money off tourists.
The Thai identity is our collective love and reverence for the king. We honour him by upholding the social order that has carried our country forward through the centuries. This social structure has kept us strong and united, maintaining our freedom and independence from foreign aggression. Or at least that’s the story we are told. Every country has tales of glorious pasts, embellished here and there.
This social order demands unquestioning loyalty and obedience, hence the potency of the lèse-majesté law. For society to function, everyone has a role to play. It is our duty, our responsibility.
As such, there’s the social superior and social inferior. There’s no equality. There cannot be. Our everyday vocabulary reflects this inequality. There are people who are poo-yai (the superior; literally ‘big person’) and those who are poo-noi (the inferior; literally ‘little person’).
The law can make people obey. But culture can persuade the people to conform voluntarily. Here’s a simple, convenient example.
One of my many jobs (because there are many bills to pay) is teaching part-time at Thammasat University. A teacher is the social superior, the poo-yai. The student is the social inferior, the poo-noi. When I first started teaching, students would come up to my desk after class to ask about one thing or another. As I sat in my chair, they would approach. As they reached me, they would drop to their knees and speak to me.
‘No, don’t do that,’ I would say. ‘Stand up.’
‘No, we can’t,’ they’d replied, looking bewildered.
‘You don’t need to kneel down in front of me,’ I would insist.
They would stand up nervously, looking at each other, confused and anxious, fidgeting as they towered over their teacher who sat in a chair, their heads high above mine. That’s ‘inappropriate’.
So I’d say,, ‘Okay, just pull up the chairs and sit.’
There you go, a compromise, heads at the same level, more or less, social order restored.
Not all students are so proper. There are always exceptions. These days most are quite comfortable standing and talking to me while I sit, though their body would be bent and bowed a little, still a small sign of the social order.
In the Thai culture, inequality is inherent. We live it. We breathe it. It is in our thoughts. Our manners. Our language. The way we address each other. We don’t wake up every morning thinking of our rights. We wake up with reminders of our duty.
Like ‘appropriate’, ‘duty’ is an often-used term in Thai to encourage conformity. ‘Duty’ includes a range of behaviours from never talking back to your elders, to standing to attention for the king’s anthem in the cinema before the film starts.
Feudalistic conscience governs us. It is instilled in our minds from when we are young. This is not a conspiracy to keep the people down. This is simply a tradition that has yet to change.
Feudal traditions continue to exist in many societies, and have existed at one time or another in every society, including the West. Through the sequence of history, Western societies have changed. Many others have not.
If one wonders why a nation behaves in this way or that, one only has to look at the cultural conscience. Our conscience dictates our words and deeds, from an individual level to the family, community, society and national level.
There’s a reason why an American yells, ‘I know my rights!’ There’s a reason why a Thai whispers, ‘This is my duty.’ Individualism versus collectivism in a nutshell.
In 2010, I took a job as an MC for the Transparency International annual event, held in Bangkok for the first time. (Again, many bills, many jobs.) It was a three-day event where delegates from all over the world came to Bangkok to share, discuss and forge the way forward in fighting corruption worldwide.
The fact the event was held in Bangkok may have been because the delegates wanted to see how corruption is done firsthand.
The host for this event was Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), and of course it was a luxurious extravaganza that dazzled all the delegates who never knew an anti-corruption event could have this much pomp and pageantry.
The NACC was a good host, with its president delivering wise words at the opening ceremony – and that was pretty much it. The NACC did not insert itself into the event too much. It was best to let the delegates play the featured role.
On the last day, and in the closing ceremony, the schedule was to be short and sweet. My co-MC and I had itineraries in hand, smiling at each other, easy job and easy money, almost done.
Minutes before the start, a stout little Thai woman ran up to us, nervous and out of breath. She told us that high-ranking bureaucrats of the NACC had decided to be a part of the closing ceremony. About nine of them, if I remember correctly.
It was a last-minute decision. While talking, she kept saying that heads would roll if things weren’t done properly.
The high-ranking bureaucrats are poo-yai. The stout lady and the two MCs are poo-noi.
She repeatedly said, ‘hua-kard!’, reminding me of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Literally meaning ‘heads cut off’, ‘hua-kard’ is a saying in Thailand, referring to the olden days when a peasant upset his or her social better. He or she could very well be decapitated as punishment.
The woman insisted that we must pronounce all the names correctly. Fair enough. She also insisted that we refer to each of the NACC dignitaries as ‘tan’, not ‘khun’. ‘Khun’ is the normal term of respect when addressing someone. ‘Tan’ is the term used to elevate that someone to a higher position than you. If we didn’t do it properly, again she kept muttering, ‘hua-kard, hua-kard, hua-kard!’
The high-ranking bureaucrats were the social superior, and they ought to be treated as such.
Of course, no one would have his or her head taken off literally. Definitely, it’s normal enough anywhere in the world for the boss to want something done last minute and done right, so the staff have to get it done, anxiety notwithstanding. But surely one can see that feudalism was running amok in this lady’s conscience.
So what would Somchai do if he perceives (rightly or wrong) that the foremost poo-yai in the Thai social order is threatened?
It’s a matter of priorities. Before we are citizens of a democracy, we are Thais. (Yes, I know we’re not even a democracy at the moment, but let’s just go with it.) Before we are anything, we are Thais.
It is of the utmost importance to be Thai – and if the ideals of democracy get in the way of us being Thais, then democracy better step aside.
What does it mean to be Thai? Regardless of how ‘international’ Somchai might be, he adheres to the social order. His words and deeds are dictated by what is considered appropriate. Somchai likes democracy, but he loves Thailand. And the king is Thailand.
Democracy is something that Somchai was exposed to while studying abroad and while watching CNN, something he’s dreamt of and even yearns for. But feudal etiquette has been drilled into his conscience since birth. It’s all around him. This is what he lives and breaths.
So if he perceives (rightly or wrongly) that the head of the social order is threatened, he will shove democracy aside. After all, before he’s anything else and everything else, he’s Thai. Again, the king is Thailand.
That’s why in September 2006 and May 2014 he applauded a feudalistic method to problem-solving, at the expense of democracy.
There’s a reason why an American yells, ‘I know my rights!’ There’s a reason why a Thai whispers, ‘This is my duty.’
It took Western societies centuries to cast off their feudalistic conscience and embrace democracy. The typical Bangkok middle-class person isn’t going to embrace it in just a few years. It doesn’t have to take centuries, but definitely not just a few years.
One may argue that Thai people have had eighty years of democracy. No, we haven’t. Over half of that time we have been ruled by either an outright military dictator or a ‘benevolent almost dictator’ appointed by a cowed and submissive parliament.
The feudalistic conscience is still very much alive to this day. But times are changing.
In 2010, I was invited to be one of the panellists at the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce of Thailand seminar on economic and social inequality. We gathered for a meet-and-greet session before the seminar in the VIP room full of honoured guests – and me. The most important guest was the then prime minister, present for the opening address and to provide the seminar with the pomp and prestige it required. Then there were the distinguished speakers, leading businessmen and scholars, known and respected. Meanwhile, sitting cross-legged quietly in a corner, me.
A squad of waiters came in, carrying beverage trays and dressed in traditional Thai attire. I bothered to notice because I wasn’t really paying attention to the conversations around the room and, as by far the most junior person present, there wasn’t a need for anyone to shower attention on me.
Upon entering, the waiters dropped to their knees. I uncrossed my legs automatically, feeling a touch uncomfortable. On their knees, the waiters crawled to serve the beverages to the VIP guests. I sunk a little into my seat, gripped by anxiety.
One waiter, visibly a much older man than I was, crawled towards me. Instinctively, I slid down to the edge of the sofa, making myself as small and as low to the ground as possible. Embarrassed and with an apologetic smirk, I extended both hands to receive a glass of water from the waiter, who looked like he could be my uncle.
In this scenario, the younger man was the poo-yai while the older man the poo-noi. My social status was above his.
‘Get up off your knees, uncle!’ I cried inwardly.
The scene is normal in Thai society, the set-up routine, the actions expected and the characters fulfil their roles as befitting the social order. The only one out of place, the only thing that did not fit right, was me.
But I was to be on the panel discussion about inequality. Perhaps the Lord Buddha deemed it appropriate to provide me with an anecdote to tell the audience.
So, on the panel I told a story to some four hundred representatives of the business community, the majority of whom were Thais. I pointed out that all the inequalities that exist in Thailand start with the very simple social norm that one man still has to crawl to serve another man, while everyone else views it as a normal thing.
Then I braced myself for someone to jump on the stage to take off my head.
But, instead, I received applause and approval, with many Thais coming up to me after the talk was done, congratulating me for saying what needed to be said.
In the past ten years of Thai political upheavals, the ideals of freedom, equality and democracy have been discussed and debated more than ever before. Awakening more and more is a democratic conscience.
But Thailand will never be a democracy in the mould of Western societies. To become such would erase centuries of history and tradition. Asia is Asia, and no one would confuse Asian-style democracies such as Japan, South Korea or Taiwan with the US, the UK or Australia.
The feudal past has its merits and drawbacks. The democratic future also has its merits and drawbacks.
Somchai is, of course, a fictional character. But his background, thoughts and actions are the embodiment of many of my friends – friends who are educated, liberal and want equality and democracy for Thailand. But who also applauded Thailand’s last two military coups d’état.
Today, Somchai chooses his feudalistic conscience. But rest assured, he wrestles with it. In his mind there’s an existential struggle. When all is said and done, he will find a compromise where he can be both Thai and democratic.