Bubble milk tea, with pearls, is a favourite among Thais. You can find them on almost every street. One day I ordered a bubble milk tea, requesting no syrups or sugar. I then took a sip and learned the bland truth: bubble tea without syrup/sugar/sweetener loses its magic. It is simply black tea plus milk powder in ice. Nothing more to it. The sugar drives the taste, without which the drink is rather awful.
So why do we enjoy bubble milk tea so much? Because we are addicted to sugar. To sweeteners. To sweet-talk.
Local elections nationwide have just ended. Curious, I ask my local Thai friend whom he voted for. Knowing I had been running for local office, there was a pause in his answer. He then said “I voted for no one. I ticked the box at the bottom right corner.” I knew he lied. For he had a favourite party in mind which wasn’t mine, but didn’t want to hurt my feelings. In other words, I was fed ‘Thai bubble milk tea’ – with plenty of syrup. Sugar equals white lies, ladies and gentlemen.
Social harmony is crucial in Thailand. Thais will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation and social friction to preserve social harmony. Inconvenient truths get swept under the carpet, thrown out the window, buried six feet under. All to preserve the illusion of social relationship. The power structure, too, is left unchallenged.
Related to sweet-talk is ‘kreng jai’ (being considerate of others’ feelings). It is actually charming to be kreng jai , being polite to others. “You hungry?” “No thanks I have already eaten”– your tummy rumbling. Used too often, however, it leaves us clueless to the reality. We end up living inside a milk tea bubble. Any criticism or slight will pop that bubble. Crucially, it impedes us from progress and development. Imagine you are a junior staff in a meeting at the office. Your boss is offering an idea you know will be a big mistake. Yet, feeling kreng jai, you don’t want to call your boss out publicly on his mistake, while others are yes-men feeding the boss with loads of bubble milk tea. “You are awesome boss!” “Totally with you.” “Genius!” “This will increase our bottom-line 10x.” The boss, too, is addicted to sugar. He will not tolerate dissenting views. His fragile ego is made up of corn syrup and fructose. After all, he grew up in the bubble milk tea culture, went to bubble milk tea school and graduated from Bubble Milk Tea University. Meanwhile, sweet-talkers get promotion to management level. The productive but straight talkers are relegated to low-level jobs, toiling away for years with no career progression in sight. Because they never make it to the management level, the company is worse off, as is the society.
“For Thailand to progress and evolve we need to practice straight talking”
The people of northern Thailand are one of the friendliest you will come across, far from the brash Wall Street bankers or the fast-paced Shanghainese. Yet, northern Thailand happens to be the poorest region, after Northeastern Isaan. Their GDP per capita are US $230 and $220 per month, respectively. Is it possible that sweet-talk plays a role in poverty? Seduced by sweet-talking politicians giving ‘handouts’, the poorest gratefully voted for them, being fooled yet again, resulting in their perpetual poverty. What would happen if the poor stopped kreg jai in election? Money influence would surely diminish.
According to the WHO, Thailand’s obesity rate was 8.6% in 1975. It increased to 33% in 2016. Sugar and sweeteners contribute to type II diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. Equally damaging, if quantifiable, are the bubble milk tea sweet lies Thais are accustomed to. For Thailand to progress and evolve we need to practice straight talking. We can respectfully say black is black; a spade is a spade; 2 + 2 = 4. If your boss insists that 2 + 2 = 5, then you must ask the hard question: Is the company there to please the boss or to add value to customers? If the answer is the former, then find a new boss who values objectivity and performance over corn syrup.
Thais need to think really hard. Do we want to be globally competitive? Or, similar to bubble milk tea, continue to be fat, ill, and living inside the bubble believing we are the most blessed people on the planet?