A guide to the perfect Thai idiot

Source: BangkokPost May 26 2010

In 1996, three Latin Americans wrote a best-selling book in Spanish which was later translated into English as Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot. Their main contention is that Latin American problems are not caused by outside influences as Latin Americans generally believe. Rather, they result mainly from actions of Latin Americans themselves.

Correcting Latin American problems, therefore, must come from Latin Americans.

Ask Thais about the causes of last week's shameful event - or of any problems in Thailand for that matter - and they will readily point the finger somewhere else, never at themselves.

I am a Thai so I am part of this well-practised response. But I now believe that if we continue with this long-running charade of self-deception, Thailand is on its way to becoming a failed state shortly.

We present Thailand as the Land of Smiles full of gentle Buddhists. We regularly give alms to monks and often make donations to temples, believing that those are selfless acts for the welfare of others.

Deep down, however, we do that only because we wish to get something in return - to go to heaven or have a richer next life. It is a trade, pure and simple, nothing kind or selfless about it.

Few of us give for the sake of giving. We are basically very selfish.

Every time we go to the temple or attend a Buddhist ceremony, we duly accept and recite the Five Precepts as a guide to our daily lives, but we leave them there, as we always make promises without ever intending to keep them.

Actually, we understand little about Buddhism.

Even among the ranks of the monks, most do not know the teachings in-depth and lead their lives accordingly - all they know is how to conduct ceremonies from which they earn easy income.

This reflects something deeper - we are generally lazy and like to take short-cuts to the sabai (do-nothing) state. Lottery tickets, therefore, always sell out at premium prices; prostitution is rampant and young women readily marry foreign pensioners.

We love to talk but rarely listen. Even when we do, we often fail to hear, as we never learn to think critically.

We cannot put up with different points of view nor can we work cooperatively.

Many of the over 30,000 Buddhist temples were built next to one another because when we disagreed with one, we just built another.

That the cooperative movement has never been successful here is another indication of our inability to tolerate different points of view.

We readily forgive, so we believe, as our most common utterance is mai pen rai (it doesn't matter) when someone makes a mistake. But that is only a reflection of the culture of indifference and ready rationalisation.

We can always cite a well-known proverb, a famous poem or a sage's sharp utterance to justify everything we do.

We complain so much about corruption. But we do little about it.

Worse, we keep electing the same corrupt politicians because they have money and influence from which we hope to benefit.

Survey after survey shows that the majority of us do not mind corruption as long as we get something out of it.

One of the surveys last year showed that almost 85% of us believed that cheating was a normal business practice, making us practically a nation of thieves.

When I raised the matter in this column, I received the angriest responses from fellow Thais, using expressions so colourful that they should not be printed nor uttered within earshot of other humans.

This long-running self-deception has created so much moral deficit, to employ Joseph Stiglitz's terminology, that has put Thailand into a state of moral crisis for some time now. Some of the symptoms of this state are the economic crisis of 1997 and the protests culminating in last week's events.

Of course, we will never admit this, for we are perfect and will continue to be very angry when a foreigner utters something non-complementary about us.

But I do hope that the events of last week shock most of us into re-examining ourselves, our values, and start reducing the moral deficit as well as trying to generate some moral surplus: doing more genuinely voluntary work for the common good similar to the street cleaning carried out by Bangkokians last weekend, but on a regular basis.

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