Crab Culture and Tall Poppy Syndrome

By | Tue 4 Oct 2022

            Have you been to a seafood market?

            If so, you will come across crabs inside a bucket. You’ll notice that just as the crabs at the top are about to climb out, the bottom ones will pull them down, because they, too, want to get out. In this way, no crabs ever get out.

            Thai culture is no different from the crab culture. Thais love seeing successful and important people fall, with their wings clipped off.

“If I can’t have it, neither can you!” say Thais

They would laugh and step all over them metaphorically on social media.

Why does this happen?


            Allow me to furnish examples.

The former head of Tourist police Surachet Hakparn (nickname ‘Big Joke’) was once a shining star in the force. He made lots of arrests on scam callers and international crime syndicates. Indeed, even his boss the then Commissioner-General was very humble in his presence, folding his hands between his groin.

Even though Big Joke was outranked, he seemed to enjoy as much, if not more, power and prestige than his superiors.

Then one day, after an incident, he was removed from the police force as fast as a lightning strike, with all his rankings confiscated.

The social media storm hit hard, with “keyboard wolf warriors” mocking him. He became a “Joke.” The press too had a field day.

Or take Pimry Pie. She has made a 100,000,000 THB sale on Facebook Live in under one hour, selling cosmetics and accessories. Prone to foul language, Pimry sometimes cursed at her fans and inevitably made mistakes. The social media storm hit her for a few days. (Fortunately, her reputation recovered.)

The thing is being critical of successful people reveals more about us than them.


Feudalism Made in Thailand

You see, deep down in the Thai psyche, we’re a bunch of insecure, status-conscious, and envious lot. Yes, partly the Thai soap operas are to blame. Most crucially, however, is that Thais still live in a feudalistic-like society. It might not be exactly the 16th century Britain with knights, lords, and priests, and the 99% illiterate and god-fearing peasants. But psychologically, that is the case, especially in the civil sector and businesses run by older generations.

At home Thai kids obey their parents. The parents are always right.

In school, Thai students never call their teachers out. The teachers are always right.

At work, Thai workers obey their superiors. The bosses are always right.

In the army, police, and civil servant sectors, the superiors MUST be right, no matter what.

Even in political parties, members of parliament must obey the wishes of the party’s ‘owners.’ That’s why in one party, the party leader walks behind the party owner’s daughter. As it were, he is merely a salaried worker.

Social mobility isn’t as fluid here in Thailand as in the US (though the latter is increasingly becoming harder). Which is why we don’t see a street food vendor marrying CP’s daughter.

When a Deputy Minister joins a religious ceremony, he/she gets a front seat, even though that person may have an IQ of 50 and can speak only 3 English words: “Yes, Ok, Coca-Cola.” But due to his higher social ranking, most people accord him respect. Whether it is earned or not is irrelevant.

We are fundamentally pecking-order animals. It’s in our cultural DNA.

Of note is Thailand’s collectivistic culture (as opposed to the individualistic West championing personal freedom.) This means any person who stands out is immediately dealt with. To be sure, that person might get his/her 15 minutes of fame and fortune. But eventually when he falls, a pack of social media coyotes will rip him to pieces. No one then dares to poke his/her head out for a long time.

In Australia where I used to live, this is called Tall Poppy Syndrome. People will sabotage and criticize you if you have achieved notable success. The tall poppy gets cut down, as the saying goes. To the extent that the Aussies have this, Thais have this syndrome 10X as much!

Time to cut out the tallest poppy. (Photo credit:

            And I’m here to tell you this syndrome is unhealthy for us individually and collectively. It’s eating us alive.

What if a ‘Thai crab’ could show us a way out of this economic mess, but he is undermined?

We have young Thai crabs that want to see change. Pity that they are being sabotaged daily from making real changes from the old (crab) guards. Metaphorically speaking, with powerful claws, the old crab guards are comfortable with the status quo, and very much benefit from it.

One thing I admire about American culture is their celebration of success. The talented and the smart ones get fame, fortune, and glory. Instead of undermining them, Americans emulate them and find out their ‘secret sauce.’ This encourages others to rise and punch above their weight, taking the country forward.

The reality is that the crab culture doesn’t fare well in the modern competitive global economy. With today’s capital that can flow to anywhere in the world, capital will go to the nation that furnishes the greatest returns. Capital hates political conflicts. For it spells uncertainty.

(Photo credit:

Crab’s Culture of Mediocrity

Thais have been fighting each other for the last 20 years, going in loops. As one crab almost gets out of the bucket, he is dragged down into mediocrity. This happens again and again. That’s why Thailand doesn’t have its own car brand, mobile brand, or PC brand.

“We’ve the greatest agricultural land producing abundant food!” You say smugly.

Guess what, Vietnam is planting and exporting its own durians, as is the Philippines. The Chinese are growing their own GMO rice, increasing their yields by 40%. With FoodTech, our competitors will rely on our agricultural produce less and less.

Here is something to ponder: unlike Thai crabs, Chinese crabs lift each other out of the bucket, turning 300 million Chinese peasants into middle-class in a generation. No other country has accomplished such a feat.  

A departing thought: It’s easy to build bridges and roads, but much harder to reprogram our minds and our society for cooperation.

Will Thais ever get themselves out of the bucket?

Edward Shinapat Kitlertsirivatana is a regular contributor to CityNews. He is running for Chiang Mai MP in Building Thailand’s Future Party. His ideas in this piece do not reflect his party’s policies.