Thais love comedy shows and vaudeville. True, they love their soap opera, but comedy – always the slapstick kind – has got to be number two. I’m not really into that kind of humour. Not only because it’s broadcast in Thai without subtitles, but also because I prefer a more subtle kind of humour. Luckily for me, following the news in Thailand can be as rewarding as watching comedy shows. The daily news is often dominated by a motley collection of characters that act unconsciously as comedy actors and are even funnier, especially to foreigners. I would define the humour they bring as the absurd kind. Here are a few of last month’s stories; I’ve added some comments. By the way, my main source for local news is the Bangkok Post, both paper and Internet version. I occasionally read The Nation and also watch the TV news in English on Channel 11, every weekday around 9.30 p.m.
Rising student illiteracy prompts special student exams
The Office of the Basic Education Commission apparently has plans to revive the National Test to gauge illiteracy of Prathom 3, Prathom 6 and Mathayom 3 students. The test hasn’t been given since 2003 but there has been a flood of complaints claiming that students graduating from Prathom 6 (last year of primary school) are illiterate.
It appears that even for some Thais the farce of graduating without proper grades has been going on for too long. They claim that if Thailand needs to take action immediately to remedy the abysmal situation in many schools. The article in the Bangkok Post mentioned however, in true Thai style, that even if the test was reinstated, results would not be taken into account as criteria for admission for Mathayom 1 and 4. I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s a given that saving face by letting utter morons graduate is more important than making sure that students are at least able to read and write before entering secondary school. Who cares anyway if students can write and write? They surely don’t need those skills to take exams, as all students receive passing grades anyway, no matter how poorly they score on the tests.
Surely this plan will be shelved, because the new Education Minister called admission exams for Mathayom unequal, stating it would violate student rights during their nine years of mandatory education. He claimed admission at the basic education level should be open to everyone who wants to learn. Now who can deny the logic of this man’s statements? It is obvious to me that all Thai students, especially those with extremely poor grades, are willing to learn, even if they aren’t even able to read and write at the age of twelve. Let’s focus on the positive aspects of these underachievers. Although some are illiterate, most are able to speak and have basic conversations, albeit using a vocabulary of no more than three dozen words.
The Education Ministry is also preparing to ask the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to build more secondary schools to meet the growing number of students in the capital. Some schools had tried to solve the problem by extending class sizes, but this didn’t work. The minister said that classes of up to 60 students adversely affected teachers and would eventually downgrade education quality. Come on, give me a break. What’s wrong with putting 60 students in a classroom? Even if they’re not learning anything, they’ll still graduate and – just to put the dots on the i’s – that’s all that matters, isn’t it? I’d put 100 or more in a classroom if I was in charge. It might bring down the energy bills.
I wonder why policymakers are making this U-turn concerning the improvement of education now; after all, this is a situation that’s been going on for decades. I suspect some of the staff of the Ministry of Education must have known this for a long time, given the presumably high literacy level and excellent critical thinking capabilities of all the officials in charge. As to why nobody spoke up before and exposed these flaws, the answer is clear. Never make constructive criticism nor offer suggestions to one’s superiors are still some of the ultimate commandments carved in stone on the work floor. And rightly so. We can’t have subordinates thinking for themselves and offer their wisdom to improve a situation, can we now?
Deputy PM says airport is embarrassing
The new deputy PM claimed the new Suvarnabhum airport was an embarrassment for the country. He blamed the rush to open the airport for its poor services and stressed the need to rebuild its reputation. He said that although the airport and its hardware are considered world class, its facilities are not.
It is a fact that the rush to open to airport had everything to do with ousted PM Thaksin desperately wanting to gain lots of face and subsequently exploit this in order to win the then upcoming elections. After the Sep. 19 coup, the coup leaders gave the airport authorities the go-ahead, probably because the scheduled opening was only a week away.
The new government now seems to face facts and acknowledge the airport isn’t the best in the world after all. Where did they get that idea? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this fantastic airport. It’s definitely the best in the world, no matter what critics say. All the criticism about teething problems and not being fully prepared are simply false.
Let’s just have a look at what the new deputy PM wants to be done ASAP. He ordered 200-odd extra toilets to be built inside and outside the airport. This is preposterous. The multi-billion dollar airport, which can handle up to 45 million passengers a year, already has no less then 12 toilets. This is surely enough. After all, there are toilets aboard every plane. Instead of criticising the possible foul smell and the negative image this would cast on Thailand, the deputy PM should welcome this aroma as it gives all newcomers an idea of what narrow back alleys smell like in the Orient. There’s surely nothing wrong with that.
The Transport Minister on the other hand promised to make sure the planned rail link would be completed as soon as possible. Okay, I see his point, but let’s not forget the airport already has some bus lines and taxis taking passengers to the city centre and vice versa. Who cares that the rail link won’t be finished before the end of the decade if there are buses and taxis? The fact that some buses are rather decrepit and that many taxi drivers tend to overcharge just adds to the experience. At one point during their journey through Thailand, tourists will likely get crammed in an ancient bus anyway. As for being scammed just minutes after setting foot in the land of Smiles, this will only improve people’s awareness of some characters’ ill intentions towards Western millionaires.
By the way, the overcharging taxi drivers are just a minor pain in the backside for newbies. There are after all a lot more dangerous scams that have been going on for years such as the 20-baht tuk-tuk rides (aka Lucky Buddha Day rides), the gem scams and the overcharging travel agencies around Hualampong train station, just to name a few. The Tourism Authority of Thailand must have received thousands of complaints about these scams by now, but nobody seems willing to weed out these malpractices. I’m not really surprised. I mean, if you were a high-ranking official or policymaker, would you want to take action against these scams if this could put half of your extended family out of business?
The latest development in the airport saga is that a few taxiways and a number of parking bays are closed for repairs due to uneven surface and cracks in the tarmac. This is of course nothing out of the ordinary. The airport has been open for almost a month after all.
Cabinet proposal concerning alcohol advertising and sales put on hold
In an effort to make himself remembered forever after, the new Health Minister launched a proposal concerning alcohol. He must have had a good look at some statistics which made him conclude that alcohol is a major cause of unwanted trouble such as road accidents, family problems, financial misery, juvenile crime, unwanted pregnancies and a number of serious diseases which could adversely affect Thailand’s health care budget (e.g. heart failure, stroke) and tourism income (e.g. liver cirrhosis, erectile dysfunction).
His solution to the alcohol problem was simple: ban all alcohol advertising and raise the age at which people can legally buy alcohol from 18 to 25. There has been a lot of discussion in the media about the viability of these plans and many have criticised the possible backlash they might have on the country as a whole. The most commonly mentioned negative effects were related to advertising income, employment, law enforcement and tourism. Let’s have a closer look at these.
Economically speaking, advertising agencies will probably lose billions of baht in yearly revenue if this ban comes into effect; by the time you read this, it might already have come that far because the ban is likely to be approved. There have been international studies linking alcohol consumption to advertising and I’m sure there is some truth in them. Less advertising should lead to less drinking. It sounds somewhat plausible.
However, will this work in Thailand? It might backfire if the Minister of Finance doesn’t kick some sense into his officials in charge of excise taxes. Believe it or not, Thailand has a system that taxes beverages with a low alcohol percentage higher than the ones with a high one. Beer – and most imported liquor I suppose – gets slapped with a high excise tax and becomes subsequently rather expensive, whereas locally produced firewater escapes with a very low excise tax. This local ‘lao khao’, or rice whisky as it is called, is the main staple of people wishing to drink themselves into a stupor at low cost before driving their car or motorbike home. There is of course no advertising at all for this type of alcohol. It’s easy to predict – unless you’re an alcoholic with diminished brain power - that the ban won’t have any effect here,
On the employment side, some analysts estimated that as many as 30,000 beer girls could lose their job when the advertising ban comes into effect. Beer girls are the sexily dressed eye candy that hovers around in pubs and restaurants making sure customers drink the right kind of beer. They usually wear skimpy outfits emblazoned with the logo of the company they are promoting. This job loss would of course be a real shame, for drinkers and non-drinkers alike. What are we supposed to do in bars or restaurants when there’s nothing left to stare at? What can we do when these goddesses are no longer there? Look at each other and talk? Come on!
By the way, some people have been confusing beer girls with bar girls when expressing their grieves by means of letters to the editor. The latter girls are a different breed altogether. Beer girls just promote one particular brand of beer; promoting their brand and refilling customers’ glasses is all they do. Bar girls on the other hand, even though they may stimulate the intake of alcohol into customers, don’t care which brand you drink, as long as you drink. They don’t sport any advertising on their clothes. Contrary to the beer girls, the main merchandise bar girls sell isn’t alcohol, it’s themselves. I suppose they’ll be immune to the new regulations, unless the new Health Minister plans to ban tobacco as well once he learns that most of these girls ‘smoke’.
Let’s have a look at the plan that will likely be shelved: the ban to sell alcohol to people under the age of 25. A week or so after the announcement of the plan, some cabinet members including the PM started having doubts. They wondered about the enforcement of it and some saw trouble lying ahead with the constitutional court. After all, the age of adulthood in Thailand is 18. From then on, people can drive a car, get married, vote, and so on. Wouldn’t the alcohol ban constitute a violation of their rights? I was surprised. Since when are Thai citizens’ constitutional rights taken seriously?
Anyway, it’s a fact that many of the so-called adults behave very irresponsibly. I wonder why the government didn’t just plan to raise the age of adulthood, given the fact that scores of adults act very immaturely. I’m not really sure if 25 would be the right age to become adult; it might still prove way too early for some. Maybe there should be some kind of test to determine if someone is mature enough to become an adult. But then again, what’s the use of exams if no one can fail? And while we’re at it, why not impose a blanket ban on the sale of fast food, cigarettes, petroleum products, chocolate, computer games and mobile phones, all of which can have disastrous effects on both individual health and the environment.
Let’s move on to law enforcement. It should be clear to everyone by now that Thailand has a number of laws which – if enforced – will make the Kingdom a safer place to live in. Drink driving laws, laws regulating the sales of alcohol to minors and the access to entertainment venues, even absurd laws regarding the times when alcohol can be purchased; they are all in place. The big problem probably lies in the lax enforcement of said laws. Therefore, local authorities are now going to take what is to them the most logical step in order to curb alcohol abuse and the related misery: make more laws. As a long-term guest in the Kingdom, this sounds logical to me. After all, who cares if laws are enforced or not? If we can have more laws, by all means, let’s have them. This can only be regarded as excellent news for the people involved in law enforcement; more tea money is surely coming their way.
Finally, a word about tourism. Contrary to what most observers think, I claim that this proposed law could have had a positive effect on tourist numbers. Just think of all those worried parents who oppose their offspring’s plans to see the world and discover new cultures. They surely wouldn’t have to worry anymore about their young sons and daughters becoming alcoholics in the Land of Smiles. I admit that there could have been a backlash concerning the young visitors whose primary concern when travelling is getting drunk as quickly as possible, but if we look at the bright side, they surely would have saved lots of cash on Alka Seltzer and have had more time to do some sightseeing instead of staring at the inside of a toilet bowl.
Just to end on a positive note: the plan to ban alcohol sales to people under 25 would at least have earned Thailand a mention in the Guinness Book of Records, if nothing else.
Latest news before this article goes online: the government will agree to compromise and raise the age for buying alcohol to 20, instead of the planned 25. Cheers!