Saving Face by Not Losing It


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Recently the New York Times could not be printed in Bangkok, for the printer was afraid to leave himself open to prosecution under the country’s Lese Majeste statues, which are frequently invoked to protect the reputation of the Crown. This particular edition of the Times contained an article that mentioned the King was in ill-health, and there were concerns about which of his children might assume the throne. So rather than risk it, he declined to print the paper.

I hadn’t had much contact with Asia before moving to Thailand, though I had certainly tried to read the instruction manuals that came with appliances made in China, and was always amazed by the fact that they had not bothered to consult a native English speaker before printing them. Why not just run it by someone who speaks English and ask “Does this make sense?  Is the meaning clear?”

Here in Thailand, they are very worried about foreigners taking jobs away from Thais, and so the Ministry of Labour issues guidelines concerning the rules. A document issued by that Ministry reads:

Career aliens do not. Not alien to the professional set of career. Professional and not an alien to do. Set in professional video and tea alien life that do not.”

Now this is an edict from a government Ministry, housed in a huge building, with a staff of hundreds, maybe thousands of clerical workers.  Out of all those, why couldn’t they find someone who spoke English, or knew someone who did?

The answer lies in the cult of saving face. Thailand is all about hierarchies. Being quick-witted or original isn’t thought of as a virtue, but knowing your place is. The big boss cannot look bad, and heaven help help the person who puts him in a position to do so.  So if Mr. Important said that his daughter studied English at the University, and when he showed her the document she said it looked fine, it’s fine.

A few years ago, a person in the Thai Defense Ministry  approved the purchase of a million dollars worth of hand-held bomb detectors, to help the Army screen people at the strife-ridden southern border with Malaysia. They were manufactured and sold by a British company. Trouble was, they didn’t work. There was nothing inside the handle but a battery that made an LED light glow intermittently. This British company made a killing selling these to hot spots around the globe, but then the truth came out and people started complaining.

The British government became aware of the problem and legal action ensued.  The British courts started refunding money when possible. But the Thais never asked for their money back. In order to make a claim, they would have had to admit that a high-ranking person had made a mistake.  So they just let it go. The bomb-detectors work fine. No need for a refund.

By the way, people with good government jobs here are never fired. They are “transferred to an inactive post.” That way they still keep their salary and benefits, including a chauffeur, membership in private golf courses and a personal attendant/dresser while there. The big loss of face comes from loss of power and status, for they are now no longer able to accept bribes, which was where the real income came from.

From what I’ve seen and heard, Thailand is a typical Asian country. Young Chinese people love coming to Thailand, for it’s so wide open here, so nutty and exotic. There’s a popular Chinese comedy film, Lost in Thailand, which is sort of like our Hangover series of movies, and Chiang Mai is prominently featured in that film. Every day you can see Chinese tourists taking selfies in front of the locations used.

I once met a Chinese woman in her twenties who was on vacation in Chiang Mai and I asked if she and her friends (they travel in big groups) had gone out to listen to music at a nightclub or gone dancing. “Oh no,” she responded, “I haven’t taken a class in that yet at University.”

I don’t think the next revolutionary change based on risk-taking or entrepreneurship will come from Asia. Nobody here will invent the next home computer in their garage.

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