When the ‘good people’ cannot preach morality

Three new government campaigns have started over the past week. A police campaign demands motorists stop at zebra crossings in an effort to curb the rising road toll. The Transport Ministry has ordered public vans pick up no more than 13 passengers per trip. And the Social Development Ministry is cracking down on government officers, asking them to stop the practice of procuring underage prostitutes as gifts for their departmental heads.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but did one of those three campaigns seem to just jump out and bite you on the balls of your feet?

Government campaigns come and go with the tides and usually don’t elicit such a stark reaction. I’m not a spoilsport; the police should be praised in their efforts to make motorists stop at zebra crossings, though getting a driver to stop is akin to standing on the beach at Rayong and shouting at those aforesaid tides to stop going in and out.

So cross campaign number one off the list. It didn’t bite my feet. Throw it into the too-hard basket. And while you’re at it, cross number two off because of its sheer dullness.

That leaves us with number three — and the best evidence ever in my ongoing theory that the youth of this country are the very last demographic that needs to be educated.

It’s been three years to the day since my midweek holiday in a five-star Hua Hin resort was thwarted by the coup d’etat. My plans for a night out rubbing shoulders with Hua Hin’s local Scandinavian population morphed into an evening in front of the TV as military tunes churned over and over on all Thai channels.

Over the next few months we got to know our new leader, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who in between administering the country managed to write a song about “returning happiness to the Thai people”. Only in Thailand can the leader of military junta find time to write a hit single.

Another of the prime minister’s works was a list of 12 Core Values for Thai Youth. I touched on these values last week when I argued for Thailand’s need for critical and analytical thinking among its youth. And yes, one of the core values is the ability of students to think critically, so the PM and myself are on the same frequency over that issue.

Overall, the values are neither sinister nor particularly unique. They are universal values that can be applied to any culture, and include such things as being kind and moral, preserving traditions, being honest, pursuing knowledge, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

This list was sent to every school in the country. Youngsters were then forced to learn them off by heart, to recite them, to sing them, to make posters about them, to write essays about them and, on rare occasions, to follow them.

And this being the land of military hit songs, there were a few months where the media blasted us with songs — yes, more hit singles — with local fresh-faced stars singing the 12 core values. There was even a Thai luk thung version with kids dancing in rice fields while reciting the core values. It felt a little North Korea-esque for a while there, but we got through it.

The prime minister may have had good intentions but he was preaching to the wrong crowd. He only needs to seek out his social development minister for the reason why.

There has been a sex scandal brewing in the far northern province of Mae Hong Son involving child prostitution. The details are as harrowing as they are heartbreaking for the original mother who discovered her daughter was a part of it. Her efforts to bring Mae Hong Son’s upper echelon to justice will make a good movie one day, as she is David against a Goliath comprising the police force, top civil service men and Thai culture.

Whether that Goliath will crash to the ground is something the embattled Thai media will have to keep its eye on, but for the moment we should take solace in the knowledge that the wheels of justice are turning, albeit with a creak.

In a nutshell, civil servants were currying favour with their bosses via underage prostitutes. A policeman had procured 20 girls, including the mother’s daughter, to service some local bigwigs.

It is a shadowy corner of Thai culture that normally doesn’t see the light of day. This may come as a surprise to you, dear reader, but the male civil service has not been dedicating itself to serving only you. It also likes to serve its superiors. We call it sucking up to the boss; in Thai it’s “licking the boss’s shins and legs” but clearly, as Mae Hong Son has revealed, the licking doesn’t stop there.

The Mae Hong Son governor has been moved to one of those fabled inactive positions. He is claiming innocence, saying his misfortune is the result of sins from a past life. Police and civil servants have been arrested too.

What the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security did by announcing its new campaign is tantamount to admitting this aspect of Thai culture is widespread and systematic.

Minister Adul Sangsingkeo said he was working closely with agencies to find ways to stop government subordinates buying sex services for their bosses to celebrate special occasions. The ministry describes the practice as an “inappropriate norm” and kicked off its campaign to educate state officials about the inappropriate nature of this culture.

State officials need to be educated on that? You mean … they don’t know that already?

It is a little eerie to contemplate. If what the ministry says is true, then the civil service is being run by men who still think having sex with a 16-year-old is a good way to celebrate. Whatever happened to birthday cakes and bottles of Johnny Walker Red?

These are men who wear uniforms decorated in all manner of medals and baubles, who stand when the national anthem is played at 8am and 6pm, who profess their loyalty to the country and crown. They are the very models of respectability with secure lives in the civil service. They have families, wives and children, including teenage daughters.

And to get where they are, they had to pass stringent and difficult tests. A good portion is about culture, ethics and morality, and clearly their education on culture in the workplace didn’t stop at the test.

It is a sad situation and a good reason why the core values are probably wasted on the young. Youngsters should be spending their time doing homework or kicking a football somewhere. Besides, kids kind of get what’s right and wrong already. They haven’t been polluted by the system yet; their primary tasks are to study and to respect their elders.

Yes, respect their elders. It’s one of the core values. And it’s something every Mae Hong Son student has at some stage over the last three years recited off by heart.

Well, you can stop now, kids. As for the grown-ups … start reciting.