CIVIL SERVICE, COLORLESS
By Andrew BIggs
Our event is over. It has been a resounding success.
Months of planning all came to a head when we staged an English seminar and camp for high-ranking civil servants of a government ministry.
The participants, all 200 of them, gave us above-average positive feedback. We even wrote and published a well-received 200-page manual full of tips and tricks to help them with their English.
There is nothing else for us to do but to get paid. My accountant’s task this week was to call and arrange a time to pick up the check from the ministry’s finance department.
“They won’t pay us,” my accountant told me last Monday. “They can only see two colors.”
What does that mean? It’s the kind of conversation you might find in a William S. Burroughs essay. Or a statement made while tripping on acid with Andy Warhol at the Factory. But I am neither reading nor tripping, although what I am about to hear next makes me wish I was engaged in the latter.
“The Finance Department says it can only see two colors,” she said.
“I don’t care if they can see twenty-two colors. Where’s the check?”
“That’s the thing. They won’t pay us.” In her hand she had a copy of our manual. She pointed to the cover.
“See? There are only two colors.”
“The contract stipulates four colors on the cover. They can only see two.”
For a brief moment I wonder if this is the universe playing tricks on me. For years I have said that one of the reasons Thailand is such an enjoyable place to work is because there is never a dull moment. There is always something that happens that is unexpected, and I like that … BUT NOT THIS, UNIVERSE! I MEANT GOOD THINGS! NOT THIS!
I don’t need to get upset. It’s just a misunderstanding.
In the printing world you have three main types of publications; black and white, spot color and full color. The last one, full color printing, uses the CMYK color model – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – from which all colors can be created. In Thai it is called see see or “four colors,” referring to those four inks.
I assumed the ministry’s finance officials would understand this basic printing knowledge. My absent-mindedness has gotten the better of me again; I have forgotten that the road to hell is paved with over-estimating the intelligence of those in positions of authority, especially financial ones.
So l called the department personally.
“Kha,” said the government officer, in a very non-Land Of Smiles tone, when I asked for the name of the woman examining our account.
“Hello, I’m calling about the check we were supposed to pick up.”
Silence. Clearly she is not bedazzled by farangs who can speak Thai. So I press on.
“My staff tells me there is a question about the manual,” I said in a fatherly tone.
“We cannot issue that check. You didn’t fulfill the contract,” she shot back, hitting me right between the eyes.
“Yes, well, I’m sure you know that ‘four colors’ refers to a printing system using four separate inks. It doesn’t actually refer to four different colors.”
“Nevertheless, there are only two colors on the cover.”
Nevertheless? I take a deep breath and remember to act like the pho tree that shielded the Lord Buddha during heavy windstorms; I would bend, but I would not break.
“Those two colors you see are dark blue and red,” I said. “They are created by using the four inks of cyan, magenta, yellow and black, which are in fact the four inks that are referred to in ‘four colors’.”
“How am I supposed to know such details? All I know is if you add up dark blue and red, that makes two. The contract stipulated four.”
“I don’t think you understand what I just said.”
“What I do or do not understand does not matter. You didn’t fulfill the contract.”
“Can I call you back?” I asked, oh-so-wanting to add: “I need to find a feral cat to kick violently whilst chanting your name.”
When I put down the phone I stared at my accountant.
Foiled. In the final straight. By a stubborn financial officer with a lean and hungry look.
What an extraordinary system this is in Thailand.
To win a government contract, you must show a detailed breakdown of costs, at the same time concealing the 10 to 30 per cent kickback required to the person who signs off on it.
That kickback is crucial to the system, because it is disseminated to everyone down the line of authority. It’s when a single person is overlooked that the troubles begin.
Three years ago I presented an invoice to a government ministry after another successful contract. The invoice was eight pages long.
The officer took one look at the first page and announced the wording was wrong; we would need to write it in a more civil servant-ish style, i.e., unreadable.
My staff went back and made the changes she suggested, and returned the following week.
The officer went to page two. Ah, this word needed to be underlined, and there needed to be a rewrite on a sentence on page two as well. Go back and make the changes and come back in a week, she said.
You know what happened next. Next week page three required minor, insignificant changes too. “Could you perhaps go through the entire document and tell me what needs to be changed?” my staff asked the government officer sweetly, prostrating herself at her feet and licking her toes, one by one, as a sign of deference.
Eight times, dear reader. Eight times my staff had to return to that department until there were no more pages to find mistakes upon. Keep in mind that the contract had already been approved and the invoice was a mere formality.
There is a new law coming into effect that hopes to stamp out such government officers, or at least stem the corruption payments required for contracts to pass.
It’s called the Convenience Act of 2015. It aims to streamline government business and reduce the potential for corruption. A civil servant can send an invoice such as mine back to correct only once; after that it must be accepted.
Unfortunately that law is not going to help me with the two-color problem.
I am beginning to get cold feet. I can put on the Greatest Show On Earth for five days with unanimous praise, but if she can only count two colors on our cover, then I’m not going to see a single baht for that show.
There was a glimmer of light last Wednesday.
“I spoke to her again,” said my accountant. “She says she will reconsider if we can furnish her with a letter from a printing press explaining the system.”
A lifeline! Oh, thank you, Great Tsar Of The Finance Fiefdom Over Which You Rule! Thank you for your benevolence! I immediately call Khun Kiat my trusty printer.
“Sure, I can do that,” he says. “How long does the explanation have to be?”
“One page,” I reply.
“And how much detail should I go into?”
“Write it so that a Year One primary school student would understand.”
“It’s for a child to read?”