Friday, March 23, 2007

Deconstrucing Thanong: Is Thai anti-foreigner sentiment a fallacy or the truth?


'Tribune' reporter's fallacy: Thai anti-foreigner sentiment

The Nation

During an interview yesterday, a German executive working in Bangkok told me he was rather concerned about a front-page article on Thailand published the other day by The International Herald Tribune.

The article, "Famed Thai hospitality showing signs of strain: Foreigner-driven growth is re-evaluated" (March 21, 2007), painted a rather gloomy picture on what it perceived to be a shifting sentiment inside Thailand. It portrayed a changing Thailand, which was not only embracing economic nationalism but was also expressing its suspicions toward foreigners.

Thomas Fuller, the correspondent who wrote the article, interviewed several Thais and his subjects all expressed their doubts toward foreigners in one way or another. I am quite amazed by the thrust of this article, which claims that the Thai people have become anti-foreigner only seven months after the coup. This is rather funny. How can the interim government and military leadership persuade the general Thai public to change their feelings toward foreigners in such a short time?

However, the German executive said that when this kind of article is published and read internationally, the people who read it no longer feel confident enough to visit or do business in Thailand. Now Thailand is not only competing against neighbouring countries for investment and tourism, it also has to be aware that countries in the Middle East - Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates - are opening up their countries and attracting visitors from Europe and elsewhere. It also takes less time to fly from Europe to the Middle East than it does to the Far East.

Thailand needs to do a lot of explaining. The German executive told me that contrary to the prevailing negative perception, it is still easy to do business in Thailand.

Let me say this. Thais in general welcome foreigners. They welcomed foreigners in the past, they welcome them now and they will continue to welcome them in the future. Foreigners have contributed to Thailand's economic growth, though some of them have tried to take advantage of us - child sexual abuse or unfair labour treatment, for instance. This should not be unexpected.

Unfortunately, I must say that it is far more convenient for foreigners to visit Thailand and do business here than it is for Thais to travel abroad and do business in other countries. It is not easy for the average Thai citizen to get a visa to the United States, Europe or Japan, but we can't complain because nobody is listening to us. Our voice is not loud enough.

Even now, it is definitely easier to do business in Thailand than it is in China. But I guess China knows what it is doing and writes its own rules, so no foreigner would dare complain. Besides, they dare not bash China because they know how the Chinese can respond in kind.

Probably, it is convenient for them to bash Thailand. The Thais do have a high level of tolerance toward foreigners.

I have never read an article in any foreign media outlet calling for Vietnam or China to set a timetable for a return to democracy. Most foreign articles now praise the economic opportunities in Vietnam and China. Is Singapore now enjoying more democracy than Thailand? Several foreign articles have been attacking the process to draft the new constitution in Thailand, but they have hardly reported on China's charter. Has anybody cared to read the Chinese or the Singaporean constitutions?

It is difficult to compare the different political systems of the countries in this region. Yes, Thailand is in a big transitional mess, but over the medium term, it should emerge all right. But in the meantime, can we fully claim that countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Brunei, Hong Kong, China are enjoying more democracy than Thailand?

The Surayud government and the military leadership might have shot themselves in the foot by introducing a series of bad policies or by giving some stupid interviews. However, I don't think they have been able to influence the average Thai to become anti-foreigner like the International Herald Tribune tried to suggest. And I don't think they are deliberately drawing up policies to go after foreigners. They are just incompetent. And they have an agenda to go after the remnants of the Thaksin regime. That's all.

The Bank of Thailand erred on the 30 per cent capital controls, but this technical measure has nothing to do with the Surayud government. Yet this measure was the start of the downfall in its confidence index. The Commerce Ministry has to revise the Foreign Business Act because of the political ramifications of the Temasek-Shin Corp deal. One of the reasons that the Thaksin government was toppled was because the Shinawatra family sold off Shin Corp to Singapore. Shin Corp also held sensitive assets such as iTV and Shin Satellite. To prove that Thaksin Shinawatra was wrong in selling off iTV or Shin Satellite to Singapore, the military leadership, for political reasons, has to build up a case against it.

When Singapore learnt that the Surayud government might move against the Shin Corp deal, its authorities sent out a message that Singapore should not be singled out. They also signalled that there should be a level playing field in Thai business law.

This led the Commerce Ministry to work on the amendments of the Foreign Business Act to create this level playing field, although the amendments were not a priority policy in the first place. When the Cabinet approved the draft amendments, foreign investors and foreign businessmen were scared off. And they characterised the 30-per cent reserve requirement and the amendments to the foreign business law as being Thailand's attempt to turn inward.

If Temasek had announced that it would dispose of iTV and Shin Satellite from the outset, it would have helped reduce the pressure on the Surayud government since Temasek had made it known that its original intention was to acquire Advanced Info Services.

The last four paragraphs are disturbing. Read them closely. Basically, Thanong is saying that Singapore is being punished for doing business with Thaksin, but because it can't look as though Singapore is being singled out for punishment, the rest of the foreign investor community must be punished also as they capriciously re-write the law in order to get Shin back.

So please, bear with us while we nationalize a multibillion dollar company and punish the parties involved because of their politics. Also, he is saying if Singapore had given back the companies gratis then the government would have not pursued this road of action. This is some sick shit. But I give Thanong some credit for actually laying the conspiracy out for us.

I am writing this column because I feel sick and tired of the growing Thailand bashing. Yes, we are in a mess. Yes, we are living in the aftermath of a coup. Yes, we make lots of mistakes. Yes, we need time to resolve our problems. But we don't deserve this bashing because the country has yet to overcome the political divide, which is the root of all the uncertainty.

The irony of this piece is that Thanong is the most hostile to foreigners out of all the columnists at The Nation. I have pointed this out for the last eight weeks or so since I have started my blog.

I think he has a point that the foreign community holds a higher standard for Thailand than it does for other Asian countries. But is that such a bad thing?

In typical Thai fashion, Thanong is saying, please don't criticize Thailand, leave us in peace so that we can pretend that we are a democracy when we are not, pretend that we have an open economy when we don't, act as if we are hospitable to foreigners when we only want their money. He wants Thailand's critics to be silent, so that Thailand can continue to treat foreigners like crap and self-destruct from its own political absurdities and contradictions.

Regardless, I think the frustration foreigners have with Thailand is that it continually pretends to be something that it is not.

I've said this a million times here. Stop pretending. Embrace the truth.

If Thais are hostile to foreigners, so what? If Thais want to close off their economy to investment, say so. If Thais only want to exploit foreigners for their money, don't pretend that Thailand is a hospitable country.

But Thais want to have their cake and eat it too. They want the benefits of liberalization without the actual liberalization. They want the tourism money without the tourists. They want to be known as being friendly and hospitable without being friendly and hospitable. They want Thailand to be known as a liberal, progressive democracy without the democracy or political freedom.

On the flip side, I think many foreigners are realizing that there is quite a disconnect between the fantasy of what Thailand ought to be and what Thailand is, and most Thais can't stand it when people actually point out this discrepancy.

Of course, when people's expectations are being unfulfilled, there is disappointment. That is the nature of life in all circumstances. I don't have children, but I can understand parents who have kids who screw up. They may get angry, they may get frustrated, but they only feel those things because they care enough to be concerned.

I don't think that is bashing. It depends on how you frame it. It could also be called love when you are concerned enough to act when something that you cherish and care about is descending into a spiral of self-destruction.

One could either become resigned, accept the status quo and mai pen rai everything away or speak out and take a stand for its potential and greatness.

To me, there is more to loving Thailand than just wearing a yellow shirt on Monday and slapping a "I love Nai Luang" bumper sticker on the back of my car and bowing and scraping before the puuyai like a brainless robot.

Last thing, Thanong has yet to learn a valuable lesson: No country has ever transcended its problems by attacking its critics.


- said...

Excellent points! You are a master of the keyboard.

anon said...

Those four paragraphs were indeed disgusting. Basically, he's saying that since Temasek didn't do anything illegal, the junta has to enact a law making what they did illegal - retroactively.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, we are in a mess. Yes, we are living in the aftermath of a coup. Yes, we make lots of mistakes. Yes, we need time to resolve our problems."

And as always, the Thais fall over themselves to blame others. When did a Thai ever accept responsibility for his/her actions?

In this case the 30% witholding tax wasnt decided by the Govt? Pridyathorn stood by and watched as someone outside of his control brought about the most disastrous stock market crash since the dance of death in 1997? Seems pretty incompetent to me, one of a series of incompetences by that clown.

Noitice how foreigners take advantage of the Thais to abuse their children. ignoring that sex-tourism is something the Thais actively encourage. Anyone seen the police down on patpong collecting their tea-money lately?

Notice how the blame for the review of the FBA gets put on Singapore.

Notice how they complain that the USA and others are reluctant to give them visas? Unrelated I suppose to the fake marriages market? 2 of my own step-family have done just that in the last 3 years.

And notice how once again it is nothing the Thais have done which is stupid, incompetent or racist, it is just Johnny foreigner bashing the Thais.

And finally, this gem: "But we don't deserve this bashing"

I beg to differ but yes - you do.

Where do you go to buy journalists this bad?