Thainess in Wonderland

 | Mon 29 Jul 2013 15:12 ICT

“I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.”

The Velvet Underground and Nico.

Earlier this month, PM Yingluck Shinawatra announced to the press that she wanted all Thais living abroad to spread the good word about Thainess to the uninitiated.

She said Thais should be “proud of Thai culture, tradition, and the country,” and she asked itinerant Thais to promote “these good things while studying abroad.”

But what story exactly is Yingluck expecting Thai people to promulgate? Are all Thais aware of what Thainess is? I would certainly have a difficult time trying to explain the fundamentals of Englishness to Thai people. Maybe I don’t need to; it seems someone got there before I had a chance to explain that culture is not definable in simple terms. I was told on many occasions while taking part in Chiang Mai University culture course interviews about my love for cricket, tea and dinner table pleasantries… and in England we don’t love our monarch (not like they loves theirs, at least).

If Thainess exists then I would guess it’s learned, rather than an essence you’re born with that starts functioning immediately after your birth certificate is signed or you’ve swallowed a blue pill.

I think, therefore, I must have been told.

A brave young Thai student called Frank has been in the media quite a lot recently after he decried what he feels is the institutionalized bad habit of teaching Thainess in school. Frank, who was recently sacked from his position as student president, went on national television and said that he was “sick of Thainess”. He feels Thainess is forced on students, and that it is constrictive to the development of students’ minds. A lot of people were outraged by Frank’s remarks. They called him nasty things, such as un-Thai. People told him to get out of Thailand if he doesn’t like Thainess.

If Frank upset the apple cart, Thongchai Winichakul, one of Thailand’s most respected historians and cultural critics, kicked off its wheels. Thongchai came out last week and announced that the Thai education system has created widespread “ignorance and [an] unjustified superiority complex.”  He believes that the education system has created a culture of ignorance, but in return for this ruinous disposition, Thais can bathe in the undertow of exceptionalism. Ignorance is bliss, right?

Thai social critic Kaewmala (she translated his speech for Pratachai) writes that Thongchai called for “a more self-reflective, critical and integrated way of learning history and building knowledge.”

“Extreme Thai-centricism,” said Thongchai, “has resulted in Thais having a narrow and limited knowledge about ourselves and others.”

At least Thongchai can now return to America, where he lives and works. Poor Frank has to take the heat here in Thailand. But Frank is not alone. Not all Thais are alike of course – we shouldn’t generalize one way or the other. Social media is revealing every day how many Thai students are disenchanted with what they are being taught, and how knowledge is dogmatically processed during their formative years.

If this affliction of Thai-centricism that Thongchai talks about partly constitutes Thainess, does Yingluck also propose to promote the negative aspects of Thainess abroad? If not, will the un-centricised believe in the fairytale where Once upon a time kicks off what is always a Happy Ending?

Ignorance can put people in a bad light.

If we think back to the recent cause célèbre that for a couple of weeks made Chulalongkorn University look rather unworldly after some of its students included Hitler in a mural alongside superheroes, we might ask if exporting Thainess is – or in this case, actually was as it was exported via the internet – a good idea? In my opinion, the outrage this caused was unnecessary and internecine (and you must always question the kernel of moral outrage), but in fact what has transpired from this innocent debacle is intelligent debate concerning the Thai education system. It’s not all bad news, is it? Thank you Chulalongkorn students and faculty members for taking the fall…

Thainess might be a kind of straightjacket that keeps ignorant delusions about the world in and that’s why Hitler teamed up with Captain America (the jury is still out on him). Tear off these constraints of Thainess and what would you have? Another kind of Thainess? Or un-Thainess? You’d have a bigger and more complex world to deal with, that’s for sure.


Being a farang (one of billions), I cannot criticse Thainess. There’s a Catch 22, I’ve been told. You can only criticise Thainess if you are Thai, because if you’re not Thai, you can’t understand Thainess. However, any Thais that criticise Thainess are not real Thais (Thongchai, Kaewmala, Frank, to name a few), they are indicted for committing what is often referred to as un-Thai behavior, and therefore also cannot understand proper Thainess.

Another remarkable piece of news this month was the badminton beat-down in which two Thai finalists playing in the Richmond open in Canada got into a nasty fight that ended with one man needing stitches after taking a few kicks and punches to the face. This was the first ever professional badders scrap it was reported, and so the global media printed the story and the video went absolutely viral. I don’t think this is what Yingluck had in mind when she was suggesting exporting Thainess abroad. It’s not representative of Thai sporting behavior, but it will certainly be a set-back to Yingluck’s challenge and anyone who tries to take it up.

I’d like to know what Thais embracing Thainess made of this event. Do they simply shrug it off as un-Thai behavior, or do they turn a blind eye to it? Do some people have such a profound lack of awareness that they fail to see glitches in Thainess?

Thai critic Kaewmala seems to believe that the great Thai narrative of lore is becoming un-spun, and many young Thais like Frank are deconstructing, or demystifying Thainess. She wrote this recently on her Facebook page:

Thai transition from an old traditionality to modernity has not been marked by any obvious interruption, the control of knowledge has continued to be very strong, and every time there’s an attempt to break from the old status quo, 1932, 1973, 1976, 1992, 2010, the traditional establishment has managed to resist and keep the status quo and the traditional/theological superstructure is kept more or less intact, though at present the forces of change are such that the resistance power has become quite wobbly. Change is inevitable.”

Will this period in Thailand’s history be later viewed as an enlightenment period? If so, as with the European Enlightenment, can we expect a very bloody epoch to come? Change won’t be a case of asking ‘if you’re happy and you know clap your hands’…there have been death threats left in comment boxes due to Frank’s apostasy. Yingluck’s endeavour is proof enough that Thainess is not ready to give up the ghost. 

Things got worse for Thainess at the end of the month when a tragic bus crash took 19 lives. That went viral too. Where do bus disasters fit into Thainess?  

Fortunately, this bleak and miserable story had a happy ending of sorts. Some people said a miracle happened on that awful day. 1000 baht notes were discovered burned everywhere except for around the face of His Majesty.

But the foreign media all asked the same question: How safe is travelling in Thailand?

People abroad are not really concerned with Thainess. They’re concerned about being trapped in a bus and burning to death.

None of us were surprised to hear Thai experts say: “Thailand’s bus operators risk passenger safety for profits.” Rather than listen to tales about Thainess, I would think that people abroad want to hear things like, “travelling in Thailand is not as dangerous as it used to be because Thailand is solving a very worrying Thai problem.” That would be money and time well spent.

Thainess is unfathomable, and I don’t think any amount of political wizardry is going to make it as simple as it once was. Kaewmala is right, times are changing. There are beautiful beaches here in Thailand, there are beautiful people, there are beautiful days, and beautiful minds. There are mesmerizing roads that wind through enchanting hills in the north, there is the best food in the world, perhaps some of the best entertainment in the world. Strangers invite you to eat with them, people are often gracious and polite, and many people want to be here because of this. This is Thailand and this, partly, is something you might call Thainess. But Thainess is protean. In Thailand there are also burned bodies in tourist buses that were not road safe due to lax regulations and possibly corruption; there are drunken killer cops murdering for the tiniest ‘face’ infraction, seemingly insatiable political instability, boundless misappropriated budgets, widespread poverty, and human rights abuses that make you want to puke or cry, and there are endless streams of propaganda that try to blow smoke over these things.

Thainess is not a mirror to the society, it’s something that obfuscates that mirror and holds the country back.

You can’t fix something you can’t behold.

With the Thai education system in such a bad state, it is feared that Thailand’s workforce may not be as competitive as its neighbours and as industries thin out, the country will become more reliant on tourism than it already is. Tourism, however, is a fickle industry and if it becomes over-burdened, over-subscribed, and terribly over-developed, it might become overly underused.

Yinbgluck’s determination to spread the gospel of Thainess around the world is partly an attempt to commoditise Thailand and Thai people – to sell the country as a packaged deal. This is hardly helpful to future generations who may not profit from these failing marketing schemes. Thainess has to be de-commoditised, unpackaged.

The well-being of future generations depends on self-awareness and a critical social conscience, without this how can we recognize others or contemplate the errors that might be the consequence of discord and inequality? This is why education has to be the mirror of nature, of society, rather than a magic wardrobe where truth resides.  

Thailand can’t afford to be a mythological creature. It needs to start keeping it real.

James Austin Farrell