Knock knock. Is common sense home in Thailand?

There isn’t much common about sense, we’ve always said.

By | Mon 27 Sep 2021

A month ago I went into a Swensons ice-cream store. Upon sitting down, I waited for the menu to arrive. It didn’t arrive. I called the inattentive young waitress for the menu and ordered. Moments later, she brought me a wrong order. Then she made the trip back to fetch a jar of water and another trip for the spoon and napkin. Finally the ‘mini-Bezos’ in me emerged. “Are you new? I said to her. Why don’t you economise your work by bringing water and spoon on a tray to save yourself multiple trips?” Confused expression was on her face. Then another staff came to apologize.

Compared that to another occasion where a more experienced waitress at the same store gave me the menu plus showed me the promotion, took my order, brought the water, and finally returned with my correct order with spoon and napkin. She was very professional and friendly. (Please take note Minor Food Group executives, which owns Swensons.)

I once was overcharged by Kerry Express. My receipt had another company’s name on it. So I dropped by at another Kerry Express store close to home. After I explained my situation, I was pleasantly surprised. She called the branch in question, got the staff over there to make the change, and then transferred the overcharged portion to my bank account. “Thank you for taking the initiative. I really appreciated it.” I said to her, impressed. For, the moment I walked in I had expected her to say “You need to return to that store to sort it out.” Basically, evading responsibility and passing the buck onto someone else.

Last example. My expat friend in Chiang Mai is a huge bicycle fan. He was ready to purchase a high-priced mountain bike worth 150,000 baht. After several ill attempts explaining his needs to the bike store owner, he got me to help. I explained to the store owner the bike specifications. “Not available” She said. “Can you call the Taiwanese company to see if they can ship it?” I asked. She agreed. 48 hours passed by but there was no reply from her. I called her again to check; she said she hadn’t contacted. With my patience running thin, I said “Listen, my friend is willing to buy a 150,000 baht bike from you. We’re not buying a 40 baht fried rice. It would have taken you less than five minutes to call the mother company. Don’t you want the sales?” In the end, with her son’s help, they managed to get the bike to my friend.

Two cases of the four from the above reveal a lack of commonsense. To many Thais, “commonsense” is a strange and alien term. What is common sense? It is using sound judgment to make practical decisions right away. Say you want to go to the park. You see the sky cloudy so you bring your umbrella along. That’s common sense. You see a grandma looking for something on the floor next to the BTS ticketing machine. You go help her find her coins or ticket. How do I know that? Commonsense. To be sure, commonsense can be wrong. She may have been looking for her lost contact lens that slipped off. But it serves as a useful rule-of-thumb in navigating your life and work.

There is a larger sociological point here. The reason many foreigners and foreign firms find Thais inefficient or irrational is because commonsense wasn’t taught to them at school or at home. Remember that in the feudal-Sakdina system in Thailand, obedience is prized above all else. To have commonsense and act upon it, you need to take initiatives, which many Thai schools, especially state schools, don’t encourage. Taking initiative requires ‘free will’ or volition to make judgement. If Thai children are taught to suppress making independent thoughts, this will greatly affect Thailand’s productivity and competitiveness. To stay globally competitive, the minimum requirement in the workforce is common sense. They need to be able to make rational decisions like that female staff at Kerry Express store.

Photo taken at On The Way Café in CNX, Nimman branch, where a flavourful cappuccino is yours for only 35 baht. Please support local coffee.

I have experienced on multiple occasions where store staff said “Up to the manager.” Even in temples, junior monks said to me “Up to the abbot.” The police, too, said “Up to my boss.” Likewise, politicians say “Up to my superior.” This is especially true with bureaucrats “Whatever my boss says.” In a feudal system, all decisions are made by the head of the food chain. There is no decentralisation in decision making and independent judgements. Every decision must go through superiors for approval. Any wonder why Thais don’t know how to make optimum decisions for and by themselves?

Decisions are like muscles. The more you make decisions, big or small, the stronger your “decision muscles’ become. Many junior Thais unfortunately have weak decision muscles, from years of obedience and conformity. A course in logic and decision-making is far more important in the 21st century economy than a course on nationalism.

You know why Thais – even the elderly – are afraid of making their own decisions? Or Why General Prayuth seem indecisive? Because it’ll affect their relationships with those affected. Choosing ‘kreng jai’ or avoiding relationship disharmony at all cost will mean Thailand forever staying in the developing country status. It’s not just the middle-income trap, it’s also the middle-income mindset which will chain us.

I once played chess against an under-12 national chess champion. Chess is all about skill, not age. Clearly the odds were stacked against me. Yet, in the first round, the boy made a crucial mistake and panicked, leading to his defeat. He burst into tears and ran to his mother. After a break and a bubble milk tea, he got his composure back and beat me easily. Chess requires strategy, logic, and planning – all essential skills in life. In the future, when that boy learns to control his emotions, he would grow up to be a very productive member of society. What concerns me is that he wouldn’t be crushed to death beforehand by the feudal-pyramid educational system – the size of an Asian elephant weighing four tonnes, stifling his creativity and inner talent.

No matter who the person is – a janitor, Former Prime Minister, or a security guard, I like to ask them this question: “What do you think?” Partly this is because I have only been through the Thai educational system until second grade before moving abroad. Partly, I always believe everyone has an opinion if given the freedom to express them openly, without reprisal.

The bottom-line is that kids, and indeed all people irrespective of social status, need to be allowed to exercise independent judgment and express opinions. This will, in turn, help them acquire and hone common sense. They need not ask their parents or boss for permission to think, act, or make decision. When the culture gives them permission for volition, watch them problem-solve, innovate, and decide their own destiny. Unfortunately for the traditional establishment, it means forgoing some power. Will they give it up?

Knock, knock. Will common sense be home in 2030?