BUDDHIST TENETS, UNDER THE TABLE
By Andrew Biggs
The new department head greets us with a friendly smile as he invites us into his office.
He is a middle-aged man with a full head of hair and a moon face, sporting a slight paunch, and dressed in a suit despite sweltering temperatures outside.
I am in a province an hour’s plane ride away from Bangkok, where we have been undertaking a government contract to provide English training for a group of government workers. The project has been a resounding success thanks to my excellent instructors, a well-researched curriculum, and a keen desire from the students to learn.
“Please, take a seat, both of you,” says the amiable department head, and my assistant and I do just that, in front of his desk, which is cluttered with papers and books. “Now … tell me what you are doing.”
For the next ten minutes I explain our training, our approach, and what the outcome is expected to be. Throughout my explanation the new department head listens intently, nodding and smiling.
He has been in his new position for just a week. As a courtesy my assistant and I have visited to congratulate him on his new position, but more importantly, to explain the work in progress. Often in Thailand a new broom sweep clean, but since we are halfway through we need his continued support.
I am ten minutes into explaining what we are doing when he interrupts.
“It all sounds fine, and my staff say your training has been invaluable,” he says. “But I have one question for you: Do you incorporate Buddhist teachings into your curriculum?”
The question throws me.
“Buddhist teachings?” I asked, stalling for time. I shot a sideways glance at my assistant, a Thai woman of seamless ability, but she shot me back a glance that suggested on this point, even she, too, was falling apart at the seams.
“Yes,” said the head. “Teaching the five Buddhist precepts, for example.”
He leant forward at his desk. “You probably understand the state of Thai society at present. We are wracked with corruption. Our standards have fallen, and sooner or later our society will fall apart. If we don’t start teaching core Buddhist values, our country could go down the sinkhole.”
I could do nothing but nod sagely.
“We need to get back to our basics,” he continued. “We need to teach the basic values of honesty and sincerity, just as the Lord Buddha taught. Once we learn those core tenets, then and only then can Thailand return to its glory.”
He grabbed a few books from the pile on his desk. I realized they were dharma books, written by well-known monks across the country, on topics like goodness and making merit and meditation. He passed them over to me.
“You can borrow these if you like,” he said. “Incorporate the ideas of goodness and honesty and fairness into your curriculum, and I will be a happy man.”
At this point we must leave this new department head, along with my assistant and myself, who were at this stage comforted with the knowledge that, at least in one upcountry province, one government worker was clinging onto righteousness.
Last Tuesday there was a news story that sent ripples through the Thai media but barely made the English press. It was the anniversary of the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The NACC is the agency set up by the military a month after the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra from power to investigate ill-gotten wealth of government officials.
Seated at a raised table covered in pleated gold fabric, the NACC chairman held a press conference where he presented some chilling facts and figures about corruption in the Land of Smiles. His message in a nutshell: We are wallowing in a cesspit.
The NACC, for example, has handled 35,000 corruption cases over the last eight years. That averages out to one corruption case every two hours, dear reader — not even taking into account weekends and public holidays!
The majority of cases involved bribery, embezzlement and document forgery but listen to this: the NACC says in the last government fiscal year alone, corruption resulted in the loss of 330,000 million baht from the government budget.
I suspect we say that figure a little differently in English … it’s either 330 billion in the US, or one third of a billion in the UK, right? Aren’t we doing the American form of a billion these days? In the interests of keeping the peace, I’m going to continue to use the Thai way of saying it but just in case you need to see it as a number, here it is: 330,000,000,000.
In other words, over the last year, as you and I went to work, paying our taxes, sending them off to the government to use, a grand total of three hundred and thirty thousand million baht simply vanished. Disappeared. Into pockets of persons unknown.
I don’t know about you, but that seems like an awful lot of money.
It comes out to just under 5,000 baht per man, woman, transgender and child in Thailand. Did you see the picture on page one this week of the elated rice farmer, holding up 5,000 Baht, his payment from the government for not planting rice? That could have been the entire population of Thailand, measured by the amount of money that disappeared in the short space of 12 months.
I have to admit I felt a tinge of depression at these figures. Is it humanly possible to stop a tsunami-sized wave of corruption, the likes of 33 billion baht a year? Is the NACC the only way to stem the evil?
No. There is another way, and that is clean and honest government officials.
Perhaps that amiable regional department head is right. The only way to stem the quagmire of cheating. bribery and corruption is though Buddhist tenets about being honest, fair and kind.
These are not just Buddhist tenets either; they belong to any religion and perhaps this is this country’s only lifeline. The alternative? Well, I’d hate to be here when corruption cases start hitting the NACC once every hour.
An hour later and the amiable new department head is finished.
I am filled with a sense of hope for the future as I say my farewells. My assistant exchanges phone numbers with him.
I promise to pursue his suggestions, though inserting Buddhist precepts into an English curriculum will present me with challenges, but nothing I am sure I can’t do.
Fifteen minutes later, my assistant gets the phone call.
The amiable department head.
“What’s my cut?” he asks with blunt brevity. She asks for clarification.
“You know what I’m talking about. My cut. How much do I get from this contract? I have expenses, you know. I need 20 per cent but I’ll settle for 10. You better give me an answer quickly; I have another company about to present their services and I could easily switch over to them. So what is it? What’s my cut?”