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Hierarchy And Patronage

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Thailand - Hierarchy And Patronage


Even countries that trot out the old lie about all men being born equal know it isn't the truth. Sure, anyone born in the United States can become President, theoretically, but the reality of the situation is that only the mega-rich can run for office and it helps if you are a very rich businessman or if your father is an ex-President.

In Thailand no one is equal. Everyone knows their own status in the social hierarchy, as well as the status of those around them. So, how unequal is Thai society?? Is it divided into working class, middle class and upper class? If only it were that simple ....

The old Sakdina system had a numbering system where everyone was given a number dependent on their social standing. It went up to 10,000. At the very top of Thai society is the monarchy. Then come politicians, civil servants, military officers, and so on.

Buddhist monks have a special standing in Thai society and monkhood is one way a person from a low social background can elevate his position in society. This isn't applicable to Thai females.

It is a complex subject but basically no one is equal in Thailand. When two Thais meet there is a subtle system of 'weighing up' each other to decide who is the more important person. This includes, but is not limited to, age (older people are considered more important), job, wealth, car, education. Thais will question each other to get the answers they are looking for. In Thailand it is quite common to be asked your age by a new acquaintance when this might be an unusual question in the West.

In recent years a lot more emphasis has been placed on education and academic qualifications. From Mulder's 'Thai Images: The Culture Or The Public World':

"The deeper image that emerges is that of a society driven by the quest for rank and prestige, in which the old idea of titled position has given way to the preoccupation with diplomas and profession. University education, and a degree, are the marks of accomplishment, graded according to the prestige of the institutions and faculties concerned.

Holding a western degree in medicine is to be at the apex, while a diploma in sociology from one of the local open universities is only moderately honourable."

Mulder goes on to note that students have no real interest in the subject, that they just cram without having any real knowledge, and that there is a thriving thesis-writing industry in Thailand in which a Master's degree can be obtained for a fee.

In the UK I met very few PhDs and when I did they were exceptionally clever people. In Thailand, every other person seems to have the title 'Dr' and many of the Thai PhDs exhibit only a very modest intellect. The purpose of studying for a doctorate isn't to increase knowledge or to be able to do a specific job or carry out reasearch; it is purely to elevate a person's position in the social hierarchy. For some time there has been a directive that all university lecturers must have, or be studying for, a PhD.

This type of obsession causes lots of problems. Firstly, it means that competent people without the necessary pieces of paper will be completely ignored. It also creates social stigma amongst those who are unable to study at university.

One of the things Bangkok is notorious for is the street battles between rival technical colleges. These are fierce and many people - both student participants and innocent bystanders - have been killed in the fighting.

Channel News Asia made an interesting documentary on the subject and asked various people to comment. A big part of the problem is low self-esteem. Technical college students - even though they learn highly valuable skills - are looked down upon compared to university students and they develop inferiority complexes.

To counter their feelings of low self-esteem they organise battles against rival colleges and winning a battle gives their self-esteem a boost.

Status symbols are important for Thais for the same reasons and a Thai of limited means will buy an iPhone that is equivalent in price to three months' wages. Thais with apparently no interest in cars will know the prices of different models of car, who drives what car, and which cars carry a higher status.

A good friend of mine who was very eligible in her single days because of her job and family connections (status again) was being courted by a guy in Bangkok who wanted to give her the money to buy a car. He drove a BMW, which - along with Mercedes Benz - carries a lot of weight in Thailand. He was horrified that she was considering buying a Toyota because Toyotas are too common. She ended up buying a Honda, which he approved of.

Thais love to pimp up and decorate their cars and this is also related with trying to attain an elevated status. I see many vehicles that have 'VIP' or 'Very Important Person' stickers. Thais try to give the appearance of having a high status and in case there is any doubt some will actually tell the world that they are very important people.


Thais like to think of themselves as very important people

Thais like to think of themselves as very important people


If ever you see a car with a 'VIP' sticker attached in Thailand, the one thing you can be certain of is that the occupant of the car is not important. Genuinely important people in the Thai social hierarchy don't need to display VIP stickers. There are other ways to make people aware of their status.


The Songkhla governor's car (no need for a VIP sticker)

The Songkhla governor's car (no need for a VIP sticker)


Once the relative level has been established the lower status person will defer to the other person who is perceived as having a higher status. You will then start hearing Thais address each other as 'pee' and 'nong'.

I don't particularly like this aspect of Thai culture. My view is that respect is earned and I refuse to be deferential to another person just because they are older than me or have a more expensive car than I do. It is different for Thais and they can't relate to each other until they have worked out who is higher in the hierarchy

I found some information about the old method of Thai social hierarchy in a book titled Making Revolution by Tom Marks. At the start of the Ayuthayan period of Thai history (a time of mass migration), it was important to control and organise the population for production and also for purposes of war between rival kingdoms.

King Borommatrailokanat (otherwise known as King Trailok) introduced the sakdi na system - a complex hierarchical system - in order to achieve this end. The new laws gave everyone a number of units of sakdi na.

"Buddhist monks, housewives, and Chinese merchants were assigned a sakdi na of 25, slaves were ranked 5, craftsmen employed in government service, 50, and petty officials, from 50 to 400. At the sakdi na rank of 400 began the bureaucratic nobility, the khunnang, whose members ranged from the heads of minor departments at a [sakdi] na of 400 to the highest ministers of state, who enjoyed a rank of 10,000.

The upper levels of the nobility ranked with the junior members of the royal family, and most princes ranked above them, up to the heir-apparent, whose rank was 100,000. In the exhaustive laws of Trailok's reign, which read like a directory of the entire society, every possible position and status is ranked and assigned a designation of sakdi na, this specifying everyone's relative position."

The system of sakdi na was abolished eventually but the old ways live on and this extremely complex hierarchical social order is still deeply ingrained in the Thai psyche.

I found another interesting comment in a book titled 'Thailand Profile 1975'.

"The grading of status of persons involved in social interactions is necessary because without such knowledge as to who is superior and who is inferior, it is difficult to carry on meaningful social interactions."

This may sound incredible to Westerners, but it is perfectly normal and natural to Thais. I see it with my wife, the way she weighs different people up and acts deferntially to people who are of a higher status.

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เคารพ (kaorop)

My Thai to English dictionary simply translates this word as: to respect, to observe, to obey. However, as with all aspects of Thai cultural behaviour, it goes beyond simply a dictionary definition.

John Laird describes it as follows:

... the attitude of deference (submission, compliance, or reverence) or paying respect to one's superiors. It is an unquestioning respect, a respect which is due because it conforms to "the natural order of things" - not necessarily because a person has achievements or talent, but because a person has position, power, or wealth. Thai society's unquestioning adulation of the wealthy - whether their wealth is gained by legal or illegal means, or whether it is inherited - has been criticised by many knowledgeable Thais as a major deficiency of Thai society. It is deeply ingrained.

Laird continues by giving examples of how Thais have told him, "You cannot educate the Thai elite," and "You can't tell high-status Thais what to do." Big people (poo yai) in Thailand are never wrong and are never punished for doing wrong.

This kind of attitude isn't much different to members of street gangs who kill people and try to justify it by saying that the other people didn't give them any respect.

I have always believed that the only way to get respect is to earn it. No one is deserving of respect just by having power, status or wealth. It always needs to be earned. That isn't the case in Thailand. This, together with the notion of greng jai means that if people with power, status or wealth do wrong they cannot be challenged.

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In his analysis of the Asian financial crisis and its effect on Thailand, John Laird lays a lot of the blame on Thai cultural behaviour and the general deficiencies that exist in Thai society.

There is one aspect of Thai cultural behaviour in particular that he references throughout the book and which he devotes an entire chapter to - Patronage (Client/Patron Relationships). It's a very insightful book and if you wish to learn more it is one that I recommend. I will just try to summarise it here briefly.

Thai society is very much centred around people. People matter, especially important and influential people. Anything that isn't a person, such as law, rules, regulations, political policy, the environment, doing what is right, etc, is just a faceless concept without any important individuals involved.

As Laird suggests, this is a throwback to the era of feudal systems in Asia and also, as he says, "Among the rural majority of Thailand, passive and feudal-style attitudes still largely hold sway."

There is also a pragmatic reason, in that Thailand is a very unjust and inequitable country. People low down in the social hierarchy can't achieve much by merit alone. The only way of achieving certain things is by having contact with someone who has influence and has the ability to get things done. I have even encountered this myself when dealing with bureaucracy. There are many brick walls, but if you know the right people you will find that doors start to open.


Thank you for your patronage

Thank you for your patronage


Laird continues by saying, "In the modern context, patronage is most often linked to money-making through the attainment of political power." If an already rich businessman wants to become even richer he can do so by attaining political power. This can be achieved by enlisting clients who, through the ballot box, have the power to elect politicians. The incentive for the clients is that when their patron has the political power he wants, he can then reward them for their patronage.

In some ways it is simply human nature and similar to that which happens in Western countries, where people vote for politicians who they believe will benefit them most. The difference is that the benefit is indirect in Western countries, whereas in a patronage system it will be direct.

Westerners assess politicians based on their political policies and manifestos and vote for candidates who they believe will do the best things for the country. When the country becomes more successful, they should benefit personally but so does the whole country.

In a patronage system, policies are implemented in order to return benefits to the clients for their loyalty, not necessarily because these policies are for the greater good of the country and every citizen within the country. Here's another quote from Laird:

"Patronage fails and becomes destructive to society where it becomes systematised into a network, becomes a law unto itself, and recognises no other goals but its own expansion and the advancemnent of its members."

It fits in with Thai attitudes regarding the way Thais exist within communities and society at large. Thais are very loyal to their families, friends, colleagues and other inner circles. Beyond that, there is no interest.

It shocks me to see how Thais will take care of their own houses, yet think nothing of discarding litter in public areas they regard as being outside their own environment. People and places within their own little circles matter, but nothing matters outside.

I think this is another reason for the sick behaviour on Thai roads. Thais will be very polite and courteous to people in their inner circles, but other drivers are outside of these inner circles and treated with contempt.

When you start becoming familiar with Thai society you start to notice lots of groups within society. People within each group will support and reward members of the group, but there can be rivalry and antagonism between groups.

Rival technical college students regularly go to war on the streets of Bangkok and people get killed. After Thaksin and the various Thaksin-influenced governments that followed in Thailand, the political problems in Thailand became so intense that eventually the army decided it was necessary to invoke yet another coup just to stop Thais fighting among each other.

Thais need to get beyond just thinking about their own groups and work together for the benefit of the entire country, but this works against the powerful system of patronage.

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