A television ad aired a couple of years ago showed a youth whose back, when tapped, resounded with a loud boinggg. This was supposed to be funny, and there was even a bit of canned laughter after every boinggg to make sure the viewer understood that. The intended message was that the lad’s back was so stiff he could not assume a correct pose of stooping deference. The ad was made by the Ministry of Culture.
The Ministry has recently reissued a booklet entitled “Thai Social Etiquette.” The booklet is written in English and offers visiting foreigners the usual tips about making a proper wai, not pointing with the feet, and not patting the head. But it is much more wide-ranging than most such guides. It tells its readers how to sit, eat, lie down, walk, speak, dress, make a phone call, queue for the loo, drink, use a spoon, give a speech, pay a visit, and perform at a seminar.
It is really a handbook on what foreigners should not do in Thailand, but rather a manual on how Thais should behave in their own country. It sums it all up like this:
“In Thai society, where seniority is given much importance and politeness to everyone is stressed, in order to be a person with good manners, one must be aware and careful of almost every gesture or movement, and also of almost every word or sentence one utters.”
Let’s imagine a newly arrived foreigner toting this book along to some of the common everyday spaces in Thai society. At the open-air restaurant, she would find that most of the booklet’s rules (not reaching across, always using a serving spoon, making sure to wipe lipstick off your glass) were being broken at almost every table. The lively atmosphere would make her doubt that all the people present were being careful with their every gesture and their every word.
In a business office or factory, the foreigner would find people interacting without any attention to the booklet’s rules about social behaviour. In a village, all the booklet’s procedures about how to pay a social call would make no sense at all. In the shopping mall, bus, or Skytrain, the visitor would be forced to conclude that almost none of the people were Thai since they did not seem to walk, talk, sit, or dress in the prescribed manner. The booklet warns, “Refrain from holding hands in public as it may have undesirable implication,” and declares that “Men do not roll up their sleeves as if getting ready for a fight,” but the visitor would find even such desperately stern injunctions being transgressed in full public view.
By now the visitor might conclude that the booklet is a work of complete fantasy on the level of Star Wars. But that would be wrong. The society described and idealized in the booklet does exist, but is not “Thai society,” either past or present. Rather it is one rarefied segment of the society, occupied by senior bureaucrats of the sort that work in or with the Ministry of Culture.
They have some defining characteristics. They have a good surname proving they come from a good family—or else they wish they did. They have a private income because it is difficult to maintain the proper public display on the standard bureaucratic pittance—or at least they wish they did. They belong to a profession which used to be very influential but which is being rapidly marginalized as the society becomes richer, more commercial, and more open—and they have nostalgia for an idealized past.
If you remove from the etiquette booklet all the advice which is really universal (e.g., don’t eat with your mouth open), it has one clear message: hierarchy is everything, and deference is always due.
Since its reincarnation in the early 2000s, the Ministry of Culture has had two main roles. First, it administers a small budget to preserve and promote valuable creative work, past and present. This is Culture with a capital C, and is a very valid and necessary role.
But the Ministry of Culture also wants to be the Ministry of culture with a small c. This is dangerous because “culture” is such a slippery word. Does it mean how people actually live? Or how some people think other people ought to live?
In the early years after its rebirth, the Ministry spent a lot of effort compiling a Masterplan defining its role. The first part of this plan goes out of its way to emphasise how varied Thai society is (in ethnicity, region, urban/rural, occupation), and how dynamic it is as part of the modern globe. This part is descriptive—describing how things are in all their messy variety. But moving to the second part which frames what the Ministry is going to do, the plan slips into another mode altogether. This part is prescriptive— prescribing how things ought to be. And this part junks the enthusiasm for messy variety in favour of a much narrower view.
The results have been both hilarious and tragic. The Ministry has tried to outlaw risqué songs on the grounds that they are “against Thai culture” when in fact these songs belong to a great tradition of boisterous counterpoint singing which is the historical culture of far more Thais than the courtly arts. The Ministry rages against “un-Thai” forms of dress which are rather similar to the way most ordinary people dressed around a century ago. Much more tragically, the Ministry has obstructed some highly creative contemporary work in theatre, cinema, and the plastic arts.
In these obstructive actions, as in the boingg-back ad and the etiquette booklet, the Ministry claims a right and duty to impose the values of a declining minority on the society as a whole. Perhaps the Ministry should obey one of the rules from its own etiquette booklet: “Do not scratch here and scratch there.”