THE SOCIETY OF SIAM
On the auspicious occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Siam Society, I am very grateful to the Council for having granted me the opportunity to submit on the society of Siam to this distinguished assembly. Coming from a social scientist, the presentation tonight could be expected by my audience to be essentially subjective in content. And ladies and gentlemen, you would be absolutely right in this expectation. Coming from one who is not in the habit of telling lies - at least not too often - and whose finesse in the choice of words is sometimes unintentionally, at other time deliberately, non-existent, this presentation runs the risk of appearing to be unduly critical. I would, however, plead that since this society of Siam is the one to which I have belonged for all my fifty-eight years, I hope to belong for several years yet, and my children and grandchildren will belong in the future decades and centuries, I owe to the society of Siam no other sentiments than love, loyalty, and devotion. True love, loyalty, and devotion, we all know, must not be blind, or be allowed to blind us to the possible defects of our beloved.
Therefore, in the short time at my disposal, I propose to critically examine various aspects of our Thai nation: ethnic, social, cultural, economic, and political.
In the course of our national history, we Thai people have been generous in welcoming as immigrants from neighbouring countries the Chinese, Mons, Burmans, Khmers, Annamese, Singhalese, and Indians. Our northerners and northeasterners have close ties with people in the Kingdom of Laos; our Southerners with Malaysians. Ancestors of the vast Bunnag family, whose members were most prominent in the government in the nineteenth century, originated from the Middle East. Roles played by a Greek and a group of Japanese in our Ayutthaya period are well known, and even nowadays, some Thai names can be traced to Portuguese and other European origins. I submit that this ethnic variety enriches our national heritage and enables each of us to adopt a wider and wiser outlook on life, under one condition: that there should be harmony and cohesion among us. Harmony and cohesion have been present in our society of Siam thanks to two important factors: the good fortune that our nation has never succumbed to colonial conquest by Western powers, and wisdom of our kings and rulers in successfully encouraging and fostering assimilation and cross-breeding among various ethnic groups.
However, this happy state of affairs began to deteriorate in the 1930s with the advent of militarism, nationalism, and chauvinism. People of Chinese or Vietnamese origin began to be viewed with suspicion and apprehension because it was believed, with some justification, that they were allowed too much control of the national economy and trade. It has been thought, especially since the 1950s, that people of the Malayan race, professing the Islamic religion, should be forced into line with the majority in religious, cultural, and educational fields. More recently, various peoples known by the generic name of hill tribes were forcefully interfered with in their habitats and ways of life. The emphasis has been wrongly placed on discord instead of national unity, or national cohesion as in the good old days. The result is that in current grave insurgency problems, a big proportion of those who fight against government troops and police are not really Communist fanatics, but minority groups fighting for the freedom to be left alone in their ways of life.
In my mind, national unity is imperative in this country at this critical time in international affairs. Every effort must be made to bring it about through negotiation and reconciliation. The task will not be easy, and different approaches must be adopted in different cases. One thing is certain: the use of force for repression will not be successful; it is wasteful of human lives and property. Discrimination against Thai citizens of foreign parentage in the matter of electoral and civic rights drafted in the new Constitution will make the situation worse, not better.
Mr. Chairman, my appeal for national unity and reconciliation must not be taken as advocacy for national uniformity or unanimity. Far from it. Unfortunately, the society of Siam is in many respects excessively conformist, superficial, and contemptuous of ideals.
Our own upbringing and educational system foster conformity which, beyond a point, becomes obsessive. Many of the nonsensical events in our life happen in the name of custom and few dare challenge them. Births, marriages, and deaths are occasions when someone or other will be ruined because ostentatious customs are blindly observed. The dead ruin the living, as we are able to reflect in our wiser moods. Our wedding ceremonies look charming and full of meaning and purpose in their original, simple form, an intimate affair for family and close friends. Nowadays this ceremony has got out of hand and become more and more grandiose. If you cannot invite the whole cabinet, the whole bureaucracy, the whole Bangkok business community and diplomatic corps to your son’s or daughter’s wedding, then you will die of shame. It does not matter whether cabinet ministers, privy counsellors, bank directors, millionaires, businessmen and their wives have ever heard of the young couple or their parents; nor if some of your guests are notorious crooks; nor how much, and for how long, bride and bridegroom and queuing guests are subjected to the utmost inconvenience and discomfort; nor if the superb wedding causes traffic jams for half the streets of Bangkok, this is the custom and one must conform. Worse still, Thai couples are only allowed to get married in certain months of the year. The rest are taboo. And during those allowable months, only certain days are superbly auspicious, others mildly auspicious, still others inauspicious. Of course all must plump for superbly auspicious dates and times. Result: guests, or all Bangkok elites, must jump like monkeys from one wedding to five others, and traffic jams spread over the great metropolis.
Now, if a young man or woman or his or her parents, for that matter, wishes to depart from custom in the slightest degree, like getting quietly wed when and how the couple feel like it or find it convenient, the nonconformist will be ridiculed, attacked, disinherited, or deemed a Communist, which is thought to be the worst imaginable insult.
The wedding ceremony is only one example of abuse of good customs and the urge for conformity. I leave you to imagine other instances: housing, clothing, drinking and eating habits, and golfing. Talking about clothing, I wish, Mr. President, that you had not told me to come here wearing a lounge suit. While parking my car tonight outside the hotel, I discovered that I had lost my top shirt button. If my necktie now sways to the left or right, I can assure you that this in no way reflects my personal political affiliation. To my way of thinking, conformism tends to impoverish society materially, intellectually, and spiritually. By tolerating non-conformity, society gives itself a chance for fresh ideas and inventiveness. But then, the non-conformist must not only have initiative and intelligence; what he needs most is courage.
Our society is superficial in character. We are unable to distinguish between substance and form. A young man with long hair is deemed to be a baddie merely because his hair is long, irrespective of his moral and intellectual worth. The aim of education is to obtain a certificate, not necessarily knowledge or wisdom. A marriage certificate and pompous party are required, not necessarily a harmonious and affectionate family life. To give alms and offerings to a priest in full public view is much more important than to serve society. Truth, justice, kindness, and honesty are not as useful as your neighbour’s opinion of you.
In our society of Siam, pragmatism reigns supreme. Ideal is synonymous with foolishness. Look at some proverbs which are seriously and religiously observed in daily behaviour:
น้ำเชี่ยวอย่าขวางเรือ Do not place your boat in the way of fast currents.
รู้รักษาตัวรอดเป็นยอดดี The most profound wisdom is to save oneself.
อย่าเอามือไปซุกหีบ Who is going to bell the cat?
In this convenient way, oppression, tyranny, corruptive practices, and injustices are often tolerated in the guise of wisdom. And when young men and women are fired with enthusiasm to improve society with new ideas, to change society to suit present and future circumstances, they are discouraged by ridicule, calumnies, and insults.
In the field of economics and commerce, there is a large gap between rich and poor, and this gap tends to widen more and more. In Bangkok and other cities, more and more luxurious buildings, expensive eating and spending habits are conspicuously developing every day and everywhere. In nearby slums, more and more people and their children go to bed every night feeling hungry. In spite of success in overall growth of income and wealth, rural people are not perceptibly better off. Their livelihoods and health are at the mercy of vagaries of weather and fluctuation in farm prices. Money flows one way, from the country to towns, most of the year. Inferior healthcare, lack of nutritional and educational services in rural areas perpetuate and aggravate the disparity.
Long years of dictatorship, albeit benign dictatorship, have left us with two deep scars in our society. We have almost lost our love for freedom, in spite of the profound meaning of our name: Thai. Civic and political freedoms are delicate plants to be cultivated, preserved and tended with loving care and strong determination. We must begin to learn that discipline means self-discipline, not rules and regulations or decrees imposed by people in power. We must get into the salutary habit of challenging authority whenever the latter is arbitrary or lacking in justice and decency.
The other political scar in our society is excessive centralization of administrative power in the Cabinet and bureaucracy, civilian as well as military. When everything depends on a small group of people, however wise and public-minded, the rest of society cannot adequately be cared for. Every effort should be made to open the way for each member and group of members of our society to play a part in his own way in the conduct and care of our society. Every man and woman should be respected as human beings, endowed with personal dignity, not debased or discarded by another human being, however “superior” the latter might be.
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, in my ideal society of Siam, there should be unity without forced uniformity; there should be room for the non-conformist, the unique, the idealist, even the crank. Members of society should be able to discern truth, beauty, and goodness and cherish them, discarding superficial and false values; material and spiritual welfare should be available for all, not the few; human dignity and freedom are each individual’s sacred due, however humble he may be. Let us all work towards this end and transform the ideal into a reality.
Long live such a society of Siam, and
Long live the Siam Society.
Address marking the 70th anniversary of The Siam Society,
27 February 1974.