CONSUMER AND BUSINESS CUSTOMS IN THAILAND

CONSUMER AND BUSINESS CUSTOMS IN THAILAND

Thais have traditionally been involved in farming and governing while Chinese ran commercial and industrial activities. Large sections of economy remain in the "informal sector." Markets and cottage industries have traditionally been dominated by women.

Saving is no longer as important as it once was. Spending and consuming is on the rise. In the 1990s Thais saved 37 percent of their incomes, seventh highest in the world and ahead of Japan. Saving rates are lower now. Household credit as percent of GDP (2002): 42 percent. Number of credit cards person (2002): .06.

Pho kuan is an informal money transfer system used in to transfer money from the United States and Europe to relatives in Thailand. In many cases a person in the United States or Europe give money to a representative of the transfer service there and they contact people in the home country who give the money to the relatives. It is alternative to Western Union and bank remittances.

Service industries thrive in Thailand perhaps because mixing pleasure with business is seen as the best way to get things done. Little touches are added to make customers happy. Elevators are brightened up with recorded bird songs. Hotels feature hall ways smelling of incense and bellboys that quote Shakespeare. At restaurants menus have silk covers and lists delicacies like pear soup and lavender sorbet. Receptions areas are heaped with pillows and smell of ylang ylang. Everywhere you go people make an effort to smile and be friendly and hospitable.

On the mentality that fueled the waste that created the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, the disgraced Thai financier Pin Chakkaphak told the Independent, “Thailand is a country of pure traders, not builders or people who plan. The attitude was ‘I have a piece of land, I want to be a rich man. If I can get a bank loan I will build a high rise on this land. And the banks were stupid enough to give out the money.” "There is a lot of money around Bangkok," one longtime resident said, "and people are prepared to lose it. If you are in a good family, you must have part in a good hotel.” After the Asian economic crisis in 1997 there was a strong distrust of foreigners. Many Thai business owners flashed anti-foreigner cards as they tried to keep control of their assets and bankrupt companies as foreign creditors bore down on them to pay up.

On key concepts and values in Thai Culture the Communicaid Group relates: “1) Family – As the cornerstone of Thai society, family is given great value and importance. Thai families are close and several generations may live in the same house, with the oldest male being the head of the household. The power structure of the family is mirrored in the organisational environment. Advice from elders is expected to be followed without question although this is becoming less true with time and modernisation. 2) Indirect Communication – Being subtle and indirect is a valued characteristic in Thai culture. In communication, a considerable part of the information lies in the underlying messages or in the non-verbal cues. Not to lose face, Thai people avoid direct confrontations and criticism, if given at all, is delivered indirectly. 3) Hospitality – The essence of Thai people’s nature, hospitality is visible in both social and professional contexts. Thai people will welcome guests into their houses and show their generosity by offering anything they might have. Service is highly valued and given with a sense of modesty. [Source: Communicaid Group]

Cronyism and Corruption in Thailand

Thailand’s economic development has been hampered by corruption, cronysim, collusion between business and the government and unwillingness to take action. But some say a little corruption is necessary to grease the wheels.

The Thai financier Pin Chakkaphak told the Independent, “In Thailand, the regulation for financial executives and stock trading is very loose. In the old school of Thai cronysim, inside information is everything.”

Cronysim and nepotism are also problems in Thailand. Politician routinely put their relatives in high positions. Business leaders, military leaders and politicians form relationship that have their own self interest and enrichment in mind not the public welfare. Success is often measured in terms of patronage and connections in the Old Boys network.

In some workplaces and among certain professions it seesm like everyone is related. On nepotism and cronyism, Stephane Peray, a French cartoonist and long time Bangkok resident said, “This a Thai-Chinese thing, When you are in power, you have to share it with your family and friends . Nepotism and cronyism, they make sense, You are supposed to help your family and friends.”

Nepotism and croyism were under Thaksin. Key positions in the national police force, for example, were filled with his former police academy classmates, some of whose credentials were less than stellar.

See Military

Rich and Powerful Thai-Chinese Families in Thailand

Wealth and power remains in the hands of relatively small number of people. Business in Thailand has traditionally been dominated by Thai-Chinese businessmen and families like the Wanglees, Lamsams, and Sophoinpaniches. In 1995, 11 Thais were listed as dollar billionaires. All but one were of Chinese descent. Twelve of the 15 commercial banks are owned by Chinese families.

Rich Thai families know each other well and are often related through marriage. Thais are therefore most comfortable doing business with people they know and respect. New business relationships, especially with foreigners develop slowly and do not flourish after one meeting. Establishing a good personal relationship is the key to a successful business relation in Thailand. [Source: Dutch Embassy in Bangkok]

Overseas Chinese have controlled much of the commerce in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia since the 19th century and are involved in businesses throughout the Asian-Pacific region. Ethnic Chinese tycoons were hit hard by the Asian financial crisis. Some remain technically bankrupt.

Family Style Chinese Businesses

In his book The Spirit of Chinese Capitalism, Gordon Redding wrote, "The Chinese family business...is peculiarly effective and a significant contributor to the list of causes of the East Asia miracle." Chinese-owned companies are often family run and have family members, other relatives or family friends in all the management positions. This contrasts with Western corporation which generally rely on professional managers. One Chinese businessman told the Washington Post, "We mostly hire people because he family knows them, or because they're introduced by a family member. That way you can find someone you can trust. Chinese find it not so easy to trust other people."

Many Chinese companies are run by old patriarchs backed up by Western-educated sons and daughters. The Chinese family system is much more effective in simple organizations like shipping, real estate and the production of low-market goods such as shoes and electronic but is not as effective in sophisticated organization that spend a lot on research and development and design high-tech products.

Confucian thought adapts itself very well to the hierarchical management style. One of the key components of a Chinese family-run business is trust. The Chinese have a reputation of distrusting people outside their clan or circle. The advantages of the Chinese family system of business are that it keeps management size down and allows quick decisions to be made without lengthy meetings, which in turn allows companies to move quickly into profitable markets. The disadvantages of the Chinese family system of business are that favoritism keeps talent out and family feuds can bitterly divide a company especially after a patriarch dies.

Modest Chinese businesses like noodle restaurants and small shops, are run by husband and wife teams, with children providing labor. Women often play an important role in organizing the finances. Explaining how such a business gets started one Asian businessman told Stanley Karnow in Smithsonian magazine: "Americans make big investment, hire manager, technicians.” Asians “cannot afford that, but wife and children all work hard. At first I keep old job while wife and friend take care of store; later I quit to run business full time. Until last year we are here seven days a week, sometimes until 2 in the morning. Now we are doing OK, so we take Sunday off."

There are critics of the the Chinese family business model. One Chinese businessmen said that many Chinese businessmen suffer from “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in that “they are contents with small-scale enterprises; they are happy to making a living. But Jewish people want to be the best and make a huge company.”

Tips on Doing Business in Thailand

1) Respect for the Royal family. The Thai King and Queen and other members of the Royal Family are highly is revered in Thailand. Jokes or negative comments about the members of the Thai Royal Family are never appreciated and, in certain cases can even lead to arrest or deportation. [Source: Dutch Embassy in Bangkok]

2) YES does not always mean YES. The Thai word for YES (I agree) is “Chai”’. However, the polite form “Khrap” (for men) or “Kha” (for women) is often also translation into YES. The YES in this case is best translated in a polite YES, I follow you. To avoid confusion, it is best to specifically ask for confirmation that the answer is indeed YES, I agree.

3) Initial contact. The first time contact with a Thai company is best done by formal letter. Do not use e-mail for your first contact. Plan your visit to Thailand well in advance and state in your letter that you would like to meet in person to discuss business opportunities that are of mutual benefit. Thais are reluctant to respond to sales offers.Best is to enclose your company profile and clearly state the names and positions of the persons attending the initial meeting. If the name of a senior executive is known the letter can be personally addressed to that person otherwise it is best addressed to the attention of the Managing Director. You can expect to be met by a person with a position similar to yours. For instance a sales manager would most likely be met by a purchasing manager, which in a Thai company is normally not a position with any authority. In the strict hierarchical society of Thailand, the final say for important business decisions often lies with the most senior member of the family. It is common that this person is revealed to you only when the deal is made.

4) Business meeting. The initial meeting will normally take place in the office of the person you are meeting. Be on time, or better even, a few minutes early, to show respect. Do not get straight to business, but talk about personal topics like your family, how much you like Thailand or sports. If the potential to explore further cooperation exists, you can expect to be invited for lunch or dinner, or perhaps a round of golf.

5) Business attire in Bangkok is still quite conservative. Both men and women are expected to wear dark coloured business suits. Business attire outside Bangkok (for instance when visiting a factory) is much less formal, and a long sleeved shirt should be sufficient.

6) Business cards are exchanged after the initial greeting. Present your card to the most senior person first. It is important that your business card clearly states your first name and your position in the company. Look at the business cards that you receive and place them on the table in front of you. In Thailand you can expect to be addressed by your first name, preceded by Mr, Mrs, Ms or Khun. The latter is a polite form of address for both men and women.

7) The “Wai” is the traditional Thai form of greeting by a person of lower status to a person of higher status. The “Wai” is then returned by the person of higher status, unless there is a great difference in status. Do not return the “Wai” to services personnel in hotels and restaurants or to service staff at offices or homes. For Westerners unfamiliar with the “Wai” is it best to let the initiative to the Thai host, or your Thai business partner. Westerners will often be greeted with a ‘weak’ handshake.

8) Presents. A small present will be appreciated now and then. Typical souvenir from your home country is appreciated. It is not a common practice to open presents in the presence of the giver.

9) Patience is a virtue. At times things are done at a much slower pace than in the Netherlands. It is important to remain patient and not to show irritation or other form of emotion as that may have an adverse effect.

10) Male clients may be taken to a brothel or hostess bar for entertainment.

11) When dealing with Thai employees being directly critical or sarcastic often doesn’t go down well. Rather it is better to broach a touchy subject gently, making some polite chit chat first and hinting rather than criticizing.

Business Practices in Thailand

According to the Communicaid Group: 1) Normal office hours are 8:00am to 5:00pm or 9:00am to 6:00am with lunch between 12:00 noon and 1:00pm. 2) It is acceptable to be a little late for meetings, as it is often unavoidable in Bangkok due to traffic jams, but calling to say that you are running late is appreciated. 3) April and early May are the main holiday periods and business trips to Bangkok should be avoided during this time as many staff will be on leave. 4) English is commonly used in business, especially in large companies in Bangkok, and presentations, proposals and contracts are acceptable in English. However, make sure to use fairly simple and non-idiomatic language and if language is a problem, interpreters should be offered. [Source: Communicaid Group]

On the structure and hierarchy in Thai companies: 1) Thai business reflects a society in which hierarchy and respect for seniors are very important. Understanding social status of people and the vertical structure of a company is essential for doing business with the Thais. 2) Traditionally, women were underrepresented in the business world and especially in managerial positions. However, this has changed and now women have equal rights and protection as men, although some inequalities remain in the law. An increasing number of women hold professional positions and women’s access to higher education has grown, with more than half of university graduates being women.

On working relationships in Thailand: 1) Building good relationships is an important part of business and the negotiation process. Thais place great importance in “liking” their business partners. 2) Invitations to social activities from your Thai counterparts should always be accepted as these are used as a means of getting to know each other before doing business together. 3) Informal conversations before of after a meeting are common and should not be neglected. Thais may ask you personal questions about your age, marital status and educational background, to help them understand your place in the social hierarchy and how to build familiarity with you.

Business practices: 1) Thais are generally not confident decision makers and often need to consult with several people before making a decision, leading to a lengthy process. However, impatience should be avoided as it will be seen as a sign of weakness. 2) The traditional common form of greeting is the “wai” when hands are raised with palms together, fingers pointing upwards and with a bowed head. Younger and lower-ranking people are supposed to offer the wai first to their senior counterparts. The higher one’s hands are placed, the more respect is shown. 3) In Thai business, first names are generally used, preceded by the honorific title “Khun”, used both for men and women. Note that Thais will tend to use first name as opposed to last names even when using Mr and Miss. 4) A high quality business card is an important asset in Thailand and should be exchanged when initiated by the host. Cards should be offered to the most senior person first and it is imperative that cards are given and received with the right hand.

Business Etiquette (Do’s and Don’ts): 1) DO wear business suites for meetings with trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and tie. 2) Women should normally wear skirt and blouses, covering the shoulders and upper legs. 3) DO give general praise to your Thai colleagues but avoid giving too specific praise in regards to a Thai’s possessions as he or she may feel obligated to give you the item in question. 4) DON’T plan any meetings at the beginning and end of they day, these should be avoided due to difficulties with transport to the work place.

Thai Work Ethic and Making Work Fun

A farmer’s saying goes: “Our backs are to the sky, our faces to the ground...forever.” But at the same time the Thai word ngan means both “work” and “party.” The two terms are necessarily contradictory. It has been said the best functioning offices in Bangkok are ones in which work is treated like a social activity and people are motivated by friendly competitions that makes otherwise dreary work interesting. Some managers say this strategy works better than strictly offering economic incentives.

One person wrote in a forum on thaivisa.com: “There has been some heated discusson of whether Thai people are "hard working" or not. Of course we all know that this is highly variable from person to person and that every culture has some hard working motivated people and some who enjoy life in other ways. I'm wanting to know if people think that the work ethic is part of the Thai culture. By "work ethic" I mean the idea that it is good or virtuous to work hard or diligently to obtain a goal and also that goals requiring work are more noble than those that do not. [Source: thaivisa.com +]

“Personally, I think that Thais see hard work as an indication of a sort of failure or lack of ability. I think that Thais believe that a successful or capably person does not have to work hard and is a sign of their superiourity. The higher you are in the social structure the less work you need to do. Based on my five years in Thailand and work with a Thai company as R&D Staff, I observed that many of our workers were in shape to work hard and willing to be trained and eager to learn something more but the majority were not able to handle responsibility...They prefer not to learn more because the more you learn, the more you know, the more you know then the more work in your job. They probably hate this. They just would like to work, go home and enjoy their life even if they don’t have much money in their hand. "Easy go lucky." Of course some workers are very smart: since they get a small wage they work only based on that. Our company offered free basic AUTOCAD training but only one worker eager to learn and stay without any overtime pay because the training was scheduled after work. It was an opportunity to learn and upgrade oneself but no one was interested.” +

Another person wrote in the forum on thaivisa.com: “I've had 25 years experience with Thais as employees, as friends, and as co-workers. My impression is that they do have a work ethic, and do consider working hard as a positive trait. However, the Thai work ethic unlike its western counterpart expects work to be fun and does not apply in situations where working hard equals misery. Thais are quite creative at finding ways to make work fun wherever possible, and a smart employer will understand and facilitate this. Also, Thais work best together and do not like to be alone; again, a smart employer will accept this and allow for adjustments to workplans accordingly. Lastly, the work ethic coexits with a number of other ethics of equal or greater importance to Thais...such as fitting in with the group, not losing face, and personal loyalties. As a supervisor I found it important to know the group dynamic and work with it rather than ignoring it or trying to butt up against it. It was also crucial to nurture a personal bond with staff. A sense of personal loyalty to me based on our relationship led them to work very, very hard under difficult and sometiomes dangerous conditions. Work ethic alone wouldn't have done that. Thais view their jobs in a personal manner. Its not just what you are supposed to do, but who you are doing it for and how you feel about them that determines the level of effort. +

“The responsibility thing has to do not with responsibility as we understand it but with concerns for group harmony, not antagonizing others by seeming to try to stand out, and not acting above one's station. Position in Thai society is made up of a lot more than job title...it also involves age, family, etc. To ask someone to take on a position that puts them above someone older or higher social status than they puts them in a very awkward bind. Lastly, Thai society is built around rote rules and people know exactly what they can expect when they act according to them, liek a well choreographed ballet. Asking someone to take on something unfamiliar or new -- or inconsistent with their established place in the group -- puts them in a risky position where they aren't sure what will happen. I found that if one understands all this and talks supportively and empatheticaly with Thais about how they feel, these concerns can be expressed and addressed together. Last but very important: Thai culture does not distinguish between " professional" and " personal"; it is all personal and when foreign bosses or coworkers attempt to disregard the personal element it is seen as cold and unkind. (Same in the Philippines). They expect to be seen as whole people and treated as such, and to have their personal concerns given as much weight as purely work-related concerns. Of course, like any comment on any culture, these are generalizations and individuals within the culture will vary enormously. And the " elite" of the country are a whole nother ballgame entirely. Fortunately they aren't typical of most Thais. +

Greetings, Names and Titles in Thailand

Thais often greet one another with a wai— a palms-together gesture accompanied by a bow, slight bend of knees and smile. The gesture is used in many parts of Southeast Asia and also in India. In Thailand, even Ronald McDonald holds his hands clasped together in a wai.

'Khun' is used as a prefix, instead of Mr and Ms when addressing people. It can be used for both males and females. For example, a 30 year old female, Amporn Duangchit [first name, surname], will simply be Khun Amporn. Every Thai has a nickname, and once you are more familiar with people it is usual for them to encourage you to call them by their nickname instead of their first name. Most Thai nicknames are single syllable words they are given from birth and can be Thai or English words, colours, fruits, or shortenings of their first name. To keep things a little formal, it is still acceptable to call your colleague 'Khun Chai' instead of 'Khun Somchai.' Also note that Thais will tend to translate Khun David to be Mr. David when dealing with foreigners, rather than Mr. Smith. Thais typically don't add a specific title based on the job or qualification. Dr. is really the only exception, in which case it's Dr. [First name]. Engineers are still Khun [First name]. [Source: Executive Planet

Thais don’t use “please,” “thank you” and “hello” and their Thai equivalents in the same way as Westerners. Instead of saying “thank you,” “hello” or “good bye” many Thais simply smile or offer a wai (the traditional Thai prayer-like greeting. The equivalent of “please” in Thai is complex and varies with the rank and status one is speaking to. Many Thais ask where you are going (”Where you go”) rather than saying “How are you?”

Thai Time

The six-hour clock is a traditional timekeeping system used in Thailand, and formerly in Laos and Cambodia, alongside the official 24-hour clock. Like the other common systems, it counts twenty-four hours in a day, but divides the day into four quarters, counting six hours in each. Richard Barrow wrote in Thai-Blogs.com: “It can be confusing at times about telling the time in Thailand. I remember my first conversations with local people who often had the habit of translating literally from Thai to English when they arranged a time to meet or go somewhere. If a Thai person tells you that the bus will leave at two o’clock, then don’t presume that he means 2 o’clock in the afternoon. He could mean 8 o’clock in the morning. Others might tell you that they want to meet at 1 o’clock to watch a movie. But, they could mean 7 o’clock in the evening. I was often baffled when my students used to tell me that they went to bed at 3 o’clock. Were these primary 6 students really night owls, out dancing all the night? No, they meant that they went to bed at 9 p.m. [Source: Richard Barrow,Thai-Blogs.com December 27, 2008]

“In newspapers and on television, the 24 hour system is often used in telling the time. Even big posters advertising events will show the time using the 24 hour system. But, in every day conversations, Thai people will use a system that divides the day into four blocks of six hours each. Once you get used to this idea, it does kind of make sense. Here is a list to help you better understand: The first block is “chao” which means morning. 6 a.m. – hok mong chao (6 hour morning); 7 a.m. – mong chao (hour morning); 8 a.m. – song mong chao (2 hour morning) 9 a.m. – sam mong chao (3 hour morning); 10 a.m. – see mong chao (4 hour morning) 11 a.m. – haa mong chao (5 hour morning); 12 p.m. – tiang wan (noon). [Ibid]

“The next block is “bai” which is early afternoon and “yen” which is late afternoon. The word “yen” means “cold” and Thai people often translate 4 p.m. as being in the “evening” when speaking English. So, don’t be surprised if they say “good evening” to you at that time. 1 p.m. – bai mong (afternoon hour); 2 p.m. bai song mong (afternoon 2 hour); 3 p.m. bai sam mong (afternoon 3 hour); 4 p.m. – see mong yen (4 hour late afternoon); 5 p.m. – haa mong yen (5 hour late afternoon); 6 p.m. – hok mong yen (6 hour late afternoon). [Ibid]

“The next block is “toom” which is the evening. 7 p.m. – neung toom (1 evening) 8 p.m. – song toom (2 evening); 9 p.m. – sam toom (3 evening); 10 p.m. – see toom (4 evening) 11 p.m. – haa toom (5 evening); 12 a.m. – tiang keun (midnight). The last block is “dtee” which is the Thai word for “hit”. This is probably due to the gong being beaten to mark the hour during the night. 1 a.m. – dtee neung (strike 1); 2 a.m. – dtee song (strike 2); 3 a.m. – dtee sam (strike 3); 4 a.m. – dtee see (strike 4); 5 a.m. – dtee haa (strike 5).

Hopefully you will now have a better understanding of telling the time in Thailand. However, don’t expect any Thai person to turn up on time. There is another factor that I like to call “Thai time”. When I arrange to meet someone, I always ask whether the time of the meeting will be “Thai style” or “Western style”. When I was brought up, we were always taught to be punctual for meetings. Before I came to Thailand, I would obsess about setting off at the agreed time or rushing across town to meet someone at the appointed time. Something which is not easy with Bangkok’s infamous traffic. To say “Thai time” really means we will leave when we leave. If you are stuck in a taxi in the middle of a traffic jam, there is no point in getting all steamed up like most Westerners. You need to have a more relaxed “mai ben rai” attitude of not worrying and just saying to yourself, “I will get there when I get there”. Life is too short to be worrying about making appointments on time. However, you must never forget that Western educated Thai people or even fellow Europeans will probably expect you to turn up on time!

Thailand’s Hierarchal Society

Traditional Thai society is organized along lines of hierarchy and patronage by people who know their place and power is divided among cliques and fiefdoms.” Social interactions are often hierarchal and defined by patron-client relationships or bunkun, a dept of gratitude, often a between young people and elders. Hierarchy is based on age, occupation, wealth and residence, Peasant farmers have traditionally been at the bottom of the heap, with merchant and artisans above the, and government officials above them. The Buddhist clergy is viewed as a group apart. Although society is led by a relatively small group of powerful politicians, businessmen and military personnel, social class and ranked status are largely absent. There is a great amount of social mobility in Thai society.

The stratification of upper, middle, and lower classes is mostly based on the past social hierarchy (sakdi na) and the family's financial powers. This social stratification is no longer enforced by contemporary law, but its presence is recognized by most Thais. There is also a distinction between urban and rural Thais. Constituting a majority of the Thai population, people in the rural villages of Thailand have led more-simple lives rooted in rich traditions, with less interference from international cultures or capitalism. Urban Thailand, on the other hand, has gained its cultural richness from the diverse social classes, ethnicities, and international cultures. The rural/urban division is still highly salient to most Thais, even though the differences have become gradually smaller due to the media, improved communication and transportation, and the migration of rural Thais to find work in big cities. Among other changes, gender and sexuality in rural villagers today have been greatly adulterated by the urban cultural images through the ubiquitous popular media. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai) by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s; www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/IES/thailand

Social position and the age are decisive in determining the way Thais behave towards one another. Generally the oldest or socially highest ranking person receives the most respect. Many details in way people behave depends on the social status and /or the age of the people interacting. This is reflected in the family, among friends and at work. It also explains the power of authority and how favoritism, cronyism, corruption and undemocratic structures work in Thai society. Great emphasis is placed on maintaining harmonious relations and people go through great lengths not to ruin relation which one day could become important.

Also important is avoiding conflicts. Jai yen (literally “cool heart”) is one of the highest "precepts” in Thailand. Behind it is the belief that things are unchangeable and there is no reason to get angry or excited about things you can’t change. "Mai pen rai” (“it doesn’t matter”) and and the dictum "Don’t do anything to me and I will do nothing to you.” are also keys to avoiding conflicting, keeping face, being tolerant and maintaining harmony.

Patron-Client System in Thailand

Cutting across rural and national strata is the system of patron- client relationships that ties specific households or individuals together as long as both patron and client sees benefits in the arrangement. In many respects, the dynamics of political and economic life are comprehensible only in terms of patron-client relations. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987]

The patron and client relationship is more significant in the daily life of many Thai than differences in status. This link between two specific persons requires the client to render services and other kinds of support in return for protection, the use of the patron's influence on the client's behalf, and occasional favors or financial aid. The basic pattern is old, but the relationship has evolved from a social one with economic overtones to one in which economic transactions and political support are more important.

At the village level, it is not necessary to be rich to have a client, although a wealthy family was likely to have more than one client. It is possible for an ordinary peasant (although not a landless one) to provide limited benefits to someone less fortunate in return for certain services. Often such a relationship is arranged between kin. In the modern era, however, it is the wealthy villager who can provide benefits and expect, even demand, certain services from his client.

In principle, a patron-client relationship lasts only so long as both parties gained something from it, and the relationship could be broken at the option of either. Often, however, the client has few alternatives and remains in the relationship in the hope of eliciting more benefits than had hitherto been forthcoming. To the extent, however, that prestige and power accrues to the person (or family) who can retain a large number of clients, the patron is motivated to provide benefits to those dependent on him.

The patron-client relationship also links villagers and persons at other levels of the social, political, and economic orders: leading figures in the village, themselves patrons of others in the rural community, became clients of officials, politicians, or traders at the district or provincial levels. In such cases, clientship might reinforce the status of the rich villager who can, at least occasionally, call on his patron at a higher level for benefits that he might in turn use to bind his own clients to him. Just the fact that the rich villager is known to have a powerful patron outside the village could enhance his status.

Impact of the Patron-Client System on Thai Society

Most observers agreed that the patron-client relationship is pervasive in Thai society, not only at the village level but throughout the military and the bureaucracy. There is less agreement on its links to a class system and the degree to which the relationship was typically marked by social ties of affection and concern as opposed to a clearly calculated assessment of relative economic or political advantage. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987]

Militating against solidarity, particularly at the upper and middle levels, is the continuing competition for political power and the access to economic opportunities and resources that flowed from such power. People competing for high-level positions in the military, the bureaucracy, or within the economy are engaged in a complex and shifting pattern of patron-client relationships. In this system, all but the individuals at the highest and lowest ends of a chain of such relationships are simultaneously patrons to one or more others and clients to someone above them. A developing career is likely to put a person at different places in the chain at various stages.

Given the fluctuations in the fortunes of individuals (to which the patron-client system contributes), patrons and clients, particularly at the higher levels, have to make judgments as to the benefits accruing to them from their relationship. Moreover, a client has to assess present and potential sources of power and the extent to which their support and services are reciprocated by the current or alternative patrons. It is not uncommon in this system for both patrons and clients to shift allegiances. Patrons often have several clients, but there are no real bonds between the clients of a single patron.

Suntaree Komin wrote in Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns : Many writers have tried to use the concept of patronage or “entourage”—a system which involved a tightly bonded patron-client group— to understand Thai social structure as a whole and to explain the observed phenomena of personal connections, cliques, power group, or Phak phuak (or ‘partisan entourage’ syndrome) as a factor in achieving and maintaining bureaucratic or political power, or even connections of bribery and corruptions. Thai Value Survey data indicates that the practice of the “patronage” or “entourage system is not the norm. It reveals that the majority (54 percent and 52.3 percent) of the national sample disagreed that “one should love and favour one’s Phak phuak more than other people”. Only 19.2 percent agreed to favour Phak phuak, with 26.8 percent said it depended. In fact, to love and help one’s friends is a common worldview of the rural community life, where villagers cooperate and help one another, at times of harvest, at social cultural occasions like Tham khwan ceremony or Buat naak ceremony (ordain the novice), or in extending loans of money to one another, and assisting each other in times of crisis, etc. However, on the whole, this Phak phuak orientation is not a majority. There were more who disagreed than agree, even in the rural peasant group. This seems to indicate a loose bond if it does apply. [Source: Suntaree Komin, Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns , National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), Bangkok 1991]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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