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  1. A hungry Slovenian politician has stepped down from parliament after admitting he stole a sandwich because he had been ignored by staff at the checkout counter for several minutes. Darij Krajcic, 54, said he went to a shop to purchase some food but became annoyed after being ignored by the staff. Krajcic said he was in a hurry, and decided to test the store's security by walking out and shoplifting the sandwich. He said that no employee appeared to notice. Krajcic later told fellow parliament members about the sandwich incident and other politicians said his actions were "unacceptable" and condemned them. He took responsibility and resigned. Krajic, who was elected in September, admitted he “made a mistake” and would make different decisions if he had a second chance. "I would't do it again if I could go back in time."
  2. British police rushed to a canal after residents reported sighting a detached bloody hand floating there. Officers were relieved to discover the hand was just a plastic prop. Wednesfield Police tweeted a photo showing the object officers recovered Wednesday from the canal behind Wednesfield High Street. "After some delicate fishing out we were relieved to find it was a plastic mannequin hand," police wrote. One policeman made the comment on Twitter: “Looks pretty ‘armless to me.”
  3. An Indian man is suing his parents for bringing him into the world. Raphael Samuel, 27, announced he would sue his parents because he didn’t give his consent to be born. Because he didn’t give consent, his parents should thus pay for his life. “If we are born without our consent, we should be maintained for our life,” he said. “Parents should pay us to live.” Despite his intention to sue, the man says his parents have no hard feelings towards him, and he actually loves them. “I love my parents, and we have a great relationship, but they had me for their joy and their pleasure,” he said. It will be difficult for Raphael to win his lawsuit. Both his parents are lawyers.
  4. A Pennsylvania man who is depressed says he has found a cure for his ailment – a 2-metre long alligator. Joey Henney, 65, of York Haven, says Wally the alligator helps him deal with his depression. He got the alligator when it was just half a metre long. He got approval from his doctor to use Wally as an emotional support because he didn’t want to go on medication for depression. Wally eats chicken wings and shares an indoor plastic pond with a smaller alligator named Scrappy. Henney knows that Wally is still a dangerous wild animal and could probably bite his arm off, but says he’s never been afraid of him.
  5. THREE DECADES By Andrew Biggs How was your Valentine’s Day? Mine was really, really special. This had nothing to do with love in any of its myriad forms, running the spectrum from unconditional at one end to Nana Plaza at the other. I just clocked up 30 years in Thailand. This milestone won’t garner as much national interest as, say, dangerous air pollution or politicians plotting ingenious methods to return to Thailand. However it was quite jarring for your columnist, who remains a teenager trapped in the body of a somewhat middle-aged man. My first year in Thailand was one of the most exciting, head-spinning times of my life. And part of that had something to do with my picking up a pen two weeks into the Thai experience and writing GOR GAI. That’s the first letter of the Thai alphabet. I have no idea what possessed me to decide to learn the Thai alphabet. After all, I only came here for a short backpacking trip on the way to London where I had work lined up. I had memorized all the Thai I needed to get by — namely “hello”, “thank you”, “how much”, “expensive” and that all-important question: “Quick. Where is the bathroom?” I’d been backpacking through Isaan on my way back to Bangkok to continue my journey to London. Thais have a disparaging word for backpackers — they call us farang khee nok, which translates as “bird shit foreigners”, the idea that dirty, straggly-haired westerners drop themselves off in remote places not dissimilar to bird droppings, spending as little money as possible. I was intrigued by the Thai language, so utterly unrelated to my native Australian tongue, that I decided I had to learn it. Most of the books around back then taught Thai via the English alphabet. Any “karaoke” transliteration dispenses with the tone attached to that word, as integral to Thai as tenses are to English. How do you pronounce >>song<< when it can mean number two (rising tone), envelope (middle), send (low) — or even a seedy brothel (falling)? (What if I wanted to say: “Send these two envelopes to the brothel!” It’d be written like this: “Song song song song pai song.”) Some clever educators get around this by adding little bumps and squiggles on the transliterated words. If you’re going to invest time in learning bumps and squiggles– why not just sit down and learn the real Thai letters for god’s sake? That was my thinking 30 years ago when I wandered into a Khon Kaen bookshop and asked: “Have you got a book that teaches me Thai letters?” I came out of that bookshop with a Primary School Grade 1 exercise book. If my life were a Hallmark movie you’d next see me seated by an open bedroom window, happily tracing Thai letters, the sounds of traditional Thai music tinkling out of my transistor radio. No. What transpired was a nightmare. The very first letter in the Thai alphabet is that GOR GAI, or the sound of G as in the first letter of the Thai word for “cock” … as in “cock-a-doodle-doo”, dear reader. This is a family newspaper. I traced GOR GAI over and over on page one of that textbook designed for primary school students. Once finished I had a tremendous sense of elation. I had come out of the linguistic closet — I was bilingual and proud! I crashed back down to earth when I snuck a look ahead and saw there were 43 more letters to learn. Even at three a day, it would take me a little over two weeks to learn them all – which means I’d complete the list sometime in London. I employed a Thai teacher to help me. I heard from a mutual friend she became a Buddhist nun in 2002. My only surprise was it took so long between teaching me and donning the white cloth. “Your language has too many letters. I’m only learning the first half,” I pronounced the first time we met. I hit the roof when I learned there were three ways of writing a “T”; imagine how my teacher must have dreaded revealing there were FIVE ways to write an “S”. When I got to the end of the 44, my ajarn dropped another bombshell. “Now for the vowels.” “Wait a minute,” I said, throwing down my pen. “In the English alphabet we incorporate the vowels into the alphabet. We don’t separate them!” “You’re not learning English,” she replied crisply. That shut me up. Well look on the bright side, I thought. English has five letters that act as vowels. At least there wouldn’t be so many to learn. Thirty-two of them. My teacher tried to smooth over things by explaining there were actually “only” 18 along with compounds and such. Oh well that makes life easier, doesn’t it? Excuse me while I go rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. I had extended my stay in Thailand. I was three months into my Thai experience, and quickly becoming a finalist in the Mr Boring Farang pageant of 1989. While all my western friends were out gallivanting around Silom, calling me from the phone box outside Pussy Galore, I stayed at home and learnt yet another letter that sounded like an “S”. I finally memorized all 76 sounds and letters. “And now,” my teacher said with foreboding: “… the tones.” We had to return to those 44 consonants. In Thai, some of those consonants are high class. Some are the hapless middle class, but the vast majority are dirty low class consonants. These classes govern the tones. Spotting the class differences in consonants was nowhere near as easy as spotting them in the Thais themselves. There is no khunying hairsyle or “Na Ayutthaya” tacked onto the end of the letter to make it high class. Nor is there an elongated fingernail on the right pinky finger to clearly designate the lower classes. I had to go back and learn ‘em all over again. The more I delved into Thai, the more I realized I was out of my depth. I knew absolutely nothing. You would think that this overload of information would build until I exploded like some Khaosan Road backpacker trying to get directions from a tuk-tuk driver. No. The opposite happened. It started to gel. I began being able to reading Thai words. I could hear the nuances in the tones as people spoke. Sentences started to poke out of the cacophony of sound. After six months there was an epiphany, and my hard work started to pay dividends. I may not have ever made it to that job in London, but the pay-off was more than enough. I got fluent. It is now 30 years later, and to this day, I still learn a new Thai word every day. I make mistakes and mix up the tones, especially if it’s the morning after a particularly long session chewing the fat with dear Uncle Smirnoff. Who would have thought a mere 44 consonants, 32 vowels and five tones would open up a new world that I remain in to this day? I got through with a little perseverance, plus the knowledge that if 68 million Thais could speak the language, why couldn’t I? If I were more of an ethereal, spiritual type of writer I would point out that I arrived in this country on Valentine’s Day and embarked on a 30-year love affair with Thailand, beginning with the language. But I’m not ethereal. I’m just a hack writer who in a fit of youthful exuberance took an unexpected life turn three decades ago. I’m able to say that last sentence in perfect Thai. That’s the best anniversary gift I can give myself. /Andrew
  6. admin

    Failed Again

    (from 2016) FAILED AGAIN By Andrew Biggs The nation’s Year 12 examination results are out. In short … the nation failed. Again. This column is not going to be a damning condemnation of the Thai education system (as opposed to a non-damning condemnation, Andrew? Be careful. You’re about to be critical. You wouldn’t want to kick things off in tautological territory, wouldn’t you?). First of all, things aren’t all bad in Thai education. Actually there are positive things happening, such as teacher-training programs, a new national App, and an attempt by the prime minister at restructuring the administration of the plodding dinosaur we call the Ministry of Education. If ever there have been times of change, they are now. If ever there has been an acute necessity for change, it is now as well, as evidenced by test results that came out this week. Thai final-year school students must do three big exams. They are called GAT, O-Net and 9 Wicha Saman or Nine Subjects. The National Institute of Educational Testing Service, or NIETS, administers all three of these tests. The exams perform different functions, but they boil down to university admission and how well a school fares compared to others. O-Net caters to the latter category. My little Thai niece has done all three. At 18 years of age she is no longer that little; she is very academic and last year spent a year in Italy on an AFS exchange student program, thus making her fluent in Italian, English and Thai. She just finished Matthayom 6, or Year 12, and when I saw her last week she was looking very glum. “I have some bad news to tell you,” she said. “I got a terrible grade for English on O-Net. I’m so mad at myself … and NIETS!” The NIETS part I understand; what student wouldn’t dislike the government arm that sets tests? Further questioning revealed her bad grade was 69 per cent, which to me isn’t such a “terrible grade”, but it did strike me as odd that someone so academic and fluent would not at least hit the late 70s. My niece was one of 422,625 Year 12 Thai students who sat O-Net. The test covers the five core subjects of Thai, English, Science, Mathematics, and a fifth entitled “Social Studies, Religion and Culture.” There used to be eight subjects but it was reduced to five to lessen the study load. NIETS announced the results for O-Net last Monday, and the results weren’t good. We’re not talking about my niece; we’re talking the whole country. The Thai language subject, always the one that garners the highest average, received an average score of 49.36 per cent. The average grade for Social Studies Et Al was 39.70 per cent, while Science was worse at 33.40 per cent. We are saving the very worst for last. The average score for Mathematics for those 400,000-plus students was 26.59 per cent. The greatest revelation of all — for anybody who has spent the last few years under a mushroom — is that English was right at the bottom. The average score was 24.98 per cent; my niece is positively Mensa. It is said that statistically a monkey can score 25 per cent on a four-choice multiple-choice exam, which worried me intensely until my niece explained there were five choices this year, not four. The monkey’s score must therefore drop to 20 per cent, which means Thai students as a whole beat the monkey … thank god. The O-Net statistics were revealing in other ways. The highest score in the country for English by a single student was 99, meaning the test was doable; either that or one question was unanswerable. On the other hand at least one poor soul scored 0.00 on the English test. He didn’t even fluke a single point? Somewhere there is a monkey celebrating that news. More worrisome is Social Science; the highest score in Thailand by a single student was a meager 81.00; put another way, one in every five questions on that test was unanswerable. These results are not a good direction for the country’s education to be heading. At least when the Nine Subjects results came out early this year, students passed one in five of the subjects. That subject was Thai, barely scraping past 50 per cent. Such dismal results are the result of what? There can only be one of two conclusions drawn: 1. Thai students are stupid. Or: 2. The system needs to be upgraded and overhauled, not just the examination system, but instruction. Currently there are no specific guidelines as to what is going to come up on these national tests. The average Thai teacher has the unenviable task of shoving knowledge into their students, after which they must rush to the school’s spirit houses, light joss sticks and pray that this knowledge will come up in the national exams. On top of this there is the ongoing love affair Thais have with rote learning at the expense of other learning methods. Plus these national tests need an extra level of quality control placed on them in order to flush out the ambiguous or unanswerable questions found in subjects like English and, apparently more so, Social Science. I certainly know which choice I am heading towards. I don’t envy the role of NIETS. Writing exams is stressful, difficult and one cannot please all the people all the time. Test papers are scrutinized and pored over for errors. And so they should be; ambiguity leads to low grades. Take a look at the very first question in the English GAT test from not so long ago: Having read the question and the choices, I ask you, dear reader: Which one is correct? Here’s my take: Choice 1: Correct. B is A’s best friend. She gladly points to her pencil, which happens to be on the desk. Choice 2: Correct. B has never liked A; A smells, and belongs to a lower social class. Nevertheless B is forced to sit next to A, who continually bugs her for things to borrow and invariably doesn’t return them. But she cannot turn her down; it would be uncharitable. Upon A asking to borrow her pencil, B rolls her eyes, emits a long sigh and an exasperated, droll “Really”, all the while pointing to the pencil on the desk. Choice 3: Correct. A’s English is terrible, and B is constantly correcting her. When will A ever get to a level as good as B’s? Today, however, A uses correct sentence structure in asking her question — though technically, “May” would have been better than the “Can” since A is requesting permission rather than asking about ability. But B is not one to split hairs. She congratulates her friend by saying “Well done” with a smile then moves to the subject of the pencil. Choice 4: Correct. See explanation for Choice 2. Perfection may not be always accomplished, but it is imperative that we always strive for it. I don’t think I could write a perfect test, but I sure could contribute to one. How easy it is to criticize and not do anything. I have never contacted NIETS to offer my services — primarily because I would fear writing bad questions such as the one above — but perhaps I needed to put my money where my mouth was. With this in mind, I went to the NIETS website and was heartened to read, on their excellent English home page, news that “test writers are urgently needed.” Here was my chance to give something back to Thai society. I clicked on the link. A 404 came up. “Page Not found. Back to NIETS home?” Sigh. Not today. /Andrew
  7. admin

    Early Christmas

    EARLY CHRISTMAS By Andrew Biggs I spotted it for the first time at exactly 9.47 pm last Monday, November 2, 2014, as I drove past the car park of Tesco Lotus on Rama 4 Road. Lit up in neon blue, it spiraled up into the night sky and caught me completely unaware to the point of nearly ramming into the dilapidated green and yellow taxi directly in front of me. A Christmas tree. Yes, it was pretty, dear reader, much prettier than the spiky aluminium one they used to heave up in front of Sunnybank K Mart Plaza when I was a kid, around which Salvation Army volunteers would prowl with their bells, buckets and leering smiles. And yet this Tesco Lotus one wasn’t just pretty … it was pretty unnerving, too. What on earth is a Christmas tree doing in these early days of November? Were we waiting for Halloween to be over and done with? We have a host of other festivals and public holidays between Halloween and December 25 -- what gives Christmas the right to supersede them all? There’s Loy Krathong … Father’s Day … we’ve even got Constitution Day to get through on December 10 and we don’t even have a constitution! I have to admit the sight of that humongous neon Christmas tree put a damper on my Monday night. This is not the time to be getting all warm and fuzzy over Christmas. The baby Jesus is still eight weeks off coming into this world; Mother Mary is not even halfway through her final trimester. And yet here in the proudly Buddhist kingdom of Thailand, inner city malls and department stores are beginning to drag out the trees way before any genuinely Christian country would ever think to do so. Isn’t this against the law? I could have sworn Father John, in my distant past, had something to say about that. I was brought up in the Church of England, which when I was a child changed its name to the Anglican Church of Australia. That change was sometime in the 1970s, I remember, when England was constantly beating us in the Ashes cricket tests and Prince Charles was morphing from youthful geek into middle-aged wackiness. We Australians were trying to distance ourselves from the UK and part of that was changing the popular church’s name. My local reverend was Father John, a youthful geek as well but very personable and always imparting to those Sunnybank youth forced to attend Sunday School unimportant but fascinating tidbits about Christianity. Being a problem child with parents desperately wanting at least one afternoon’s respite from me, I was dumped in Sunday School and thus developed a close relationship with Father John though not creepy Vatican close, I hasten to add. There are two very vivid memories I have of Sunday School. One is of a pudgy buck-toothed man in his late teens who played guitar for us. Despite his religious loyalty God had seen no reason to be benevolent to him in the gene pool, yet his friendliness and willingness to spread the word was bestowed upon everybody – with the exception of myself. He never liked me thanks to my big mouth. “You know how everybody says ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayer? Well I say ‘A-Lady’,” I, aged 10, informed him one Sunday afternoon as he completed a joyous, if not flat, rendition of This Little Light Of Mine. My comment went over like a lead balloon. “That’s not very funny, Andrew,” he replied, creasing his brow and flashing those ivory cathedral doors that occupied his mouth. His reaction led me to believe for years hence that if this flabby Jose Feliciano wannabe really was a messenger of God, then God didn’t possess a sense of humor, not to mention a fitness club. (In hindsight I was right, judging from those first few Ten Commandments, where God comes right out and admits he is jealous and intolerant of fools. I do worry that my innocent joke is going to be thrown in my face when I hit the Pearly Gates, and could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.) The second vivid memory of Sunday School was Father John’s appearance towards the end of each year, rubbing his hands together and announcing that “Advent is upon us, so it’s time to drag out the Christmas decorations!” I may have been an obnoxious kid with a repertoire of pathetic jokes but you know what, dear reader? Who was the ONLY kid in that room to have the Christmas baubles to put his hand up at that moment and say: “What’s advent?” At least Father John’s reply wasn’t like that of the musical party pooper. He meticulously explained Advent Sunday, though the decades of my life have erased all memory of that explanation, except that to this day I am sure the Christmas decorations come out early December and not before. After seeing that neon monster last Monday night I checked. Advent Sunday falls on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. That puts it towards the end of November or the very beginning of December. Advent is the acceptable time to bring out the tinsel and fake snow cans for another year – and Christmas trees. Such are the cultures and traditions of Christian countries. So why does an overwhelming Buddhist country like Thailand pre-empt the entire western world by putting up its trees a week shy of two months before the event? Could it be that, since we are intent on returning happiness to the people, the powers that be want Thailand to become a Christmas hub? This word – hub – is a relatively new English word in Thailand that gets bandied about in all top-level economic meetings and press conferences, probably because it’s so easy to pronounce. A lot less difficult than, say, words like “checks and balances” or “culpability”. In the last year alone I have counted eight different announcements of Thailand becoming a “hub” for something, such as a rubber hub (difficult when the price is at an all-time low), a dental hub, a book reading hub, a medical supplies hub, and a ship construction hub. They have all failed, though we are trying our best to become a tourist murder hub over the last few months, haven’t we? I don’t think Thailand wants to be a Christmas hub; the country is 90 per cent Buddhist for a start, and while Bangkok over the next month will start draping itself in more tinsel and Happy Snow than any European city could ever aspire to, there is nothing Christian about the celebration. Christmas is not a religious celebration here. It is all about having fun and bright colors and Father Christmas, without the slightest nod to Mother Mary and the religion she would ultimately give birth to. So if it’s not about religion, what is it about? It is something far less ethereal. It’s about competition. You see, Tesco Lotus is smack bang across the road from Big C on Rama 4 Road, and Big C always puts up an impressive Christmas tree. Tesco Lotus has beaten its rival to the punch. It has even pre-empted the glamorous high-society trees that will soon sprout outside Emporium and Paragon which require a quarter of Isan’s labor market to construct. This isn’t Christmas we are witnessing; it’s just healthy, godless capitalism at work. With a lot of flashing fairy lights. “That’s not very funny, Andrew,” I hear you repeating not unlike whatshisname with the guitar. Maybe not … but neither is a Christmas tree in Loy Krathong Week. /Andrew
  8. admin

    Uneasy Pass

    UNEASY PASS By Andrew Biggs Life in Thailand is full of surprises, like last Saturday when I topped up my Easy Pass. “Don’t use it for four hours,” the helpful toll booth attendant told me. “I know,” I said. “I’ve topped it up before. But I appreciate your help.” “Kha,” she said, helpfully. And with that, I sped off down the freeway without a care in the world. Just writing that — “without a care in the world” and all those “helpfuls” — belies what is going to happen next. Four hours later, as I passed through my very first 50 Baht toll, I glanced contentedly at the digital display at the Easy Pass tollgate which reveals my balance, anticipating the 1,950 Baht figure that would pop up instantly. It didn’t. Up came 1,680 Baht. My whole world crashed around me. My head started swimming faster than any early morning wake-up call after a night of intense debate with my Bombay relatives. Had I just seen correctly? Maybe it was an optical illusion, like a Rorschach Test where one person sees one thing and another sees something else. Was reality starting to become vague and indeterminable, as that volunteer at the Anonymous Clinic told me it might with prolonged usage? I needed more evidence. Here in Bangkok we have toll gates every kilometre or so on our freeways, cancelling out the value of taking the freeway in the first place, since each line to pay cash stretches back to the last tollgate. This proliferation of toll gates is the result of successive governments doling out freeway extension contracts to any family member with a business and concrete. It would have been so much easier just to have the one company build the whole damned system, but think of all the other family members with time on their hands if they’d done that. At the next toll gate I was vindicated. Another 50 Baht. My new balance was 1,630. So it was true. Three hundred baht had simply disappeared off the face of the earth that sunny Saturday. Gone. In the twinkling of an eye, if indeed four hours can be considered a twinkle. I am not a stingy person, irrespective of what the restaurant staff on the floor below my language school may whisper to you. A sum like 300 Baht is not worthy of a Letter To The Editor. Nevertheless I was intrigued, and not a little put out. You see, I was dragged kicking and screaming to purchase my Easy Pass in the first place, and I have my friend Neil to thank for that. You may remember Neil from the early days of this column. He is a kid in a candy store when it comes to technology. IBM, Iridium, Alta Vista … he’s embraced ‘em all. He always has the latest electronic thing in his pocket before anybody else. Just the battery power from all his gadgets in his suitcase would light up Impact Arena for a good hour and a half. “What? You haven’t got your Easy Pass yet?” Neil once sputtered from the front passenger seat of my car, or the Death Seat as it is known, which is the look I gave him immediately he said it. It was a month after Easy Pass had come in, and I didn’t like the insinuation that I was out of date. “Listen I’ve been in Thailand longer than you,” I shot back. “I’m not going to hurry into these things. I’ll wait until they iron out all the glitches before I go near it.” “Why do you have to be so skeptical about everything?” Neil asked. “I’m not! And if I am, which I’m not, it’s healthy to be skeptical.” “What you just said made no sense.” “I’m flattered you heard what I said, given the attention you’re giving that thing in your hands.” For Neil it is important to be up to date. For me it is too, but I don’t equate new models of telephones as a yardstick of modernity. So no, I didn’t go diving into Easy Pass like some people I knew because I anticipated all sorts of problems with the system. Neil was right. Those three words are as hard for me to say as I’m sure it is for women to give birth, but he was. There were no glitches in the outset. It was only after I purchased mine that the problems began. I decided on a whim one day on the Kanchanapisek Highway, where the line-up to pay the toll outweighs any extra time you may have saved taking the road in the first place. Well this week I was burned to the tune of 300 Baht, and so I started doing some investigations. The Easy Pass people at Bangna were very friendly when I dropped in. They did express surprise at my ignorance of the entire controversy which erupted last month with the Transport Minister having to apologize. It appears the whole computer program written for the system is stuffed, thanks to it being hopelessly unprepared for Bangkok traffic. “The original Easy Pass program was designed for a maximum of 500,000 vehicles to use,” an Easy Pass staffer explained to me. That sentence in itself perhaps reveals the excruciating lack of brain cells on the part of the Expressway Authority of Thailand, or Exat as it is known. Here is an organization that knows more than you and I do about how much traffic there is in this congested city. So who thought that in a city of 10 million people, where even unborn fetuses own vehicles, there would only be a need for only 500,000 Easy Passes? I don’t work for the expressway authority but it didn’t take me long to discover there are 7.5 million registered vehicles in Bangkok, or one per every man, woman, child and family pet. Last year 1,225 new vehicles went onto Bangkok roads every day. That’s a lot of cars for a city with a total of 4,200 kilometres of road. With 7.5 million vehicles, that averages out to exactly 56 centimetres of road per vehicle – how on earth does that work? When this government was elected to power mid-2011, it must have seen these disturbing figures. Faced with a traffic problem of nightmarish proportions, what did it do as a priority? Odd-even license plates? An upgrade in mass transit systems? Er, no. It announced tax refunds for first car buyers! Was this the only incident in history where a government actively encouraged crippling traffic congestion in the face of crippling traffic congestion? But let us return to Exat, an authority that thinks a system for 500,000 vehicles is more than adequate for a city where every car claims 56 centimetres of road. The inevitable happened. The system got overloaded. Exat rewrote its computer program to accommodate one million users. And that’s where we are at present, because as of now there are 1.2 million Easy Pass users. Crash goes the system. It turns out Easy Pass hasn’t cheated me as much as it has been slow in deducting payments in its burgeoning, antiquated system. Isn’t that a relief? I can return to my contented daily life in a city of 10 million people, with 7.5 million vehicles on a mere 4,200 kilometres of road. “You didn’t know about the Easy Pass mess?” my friend Neil sputtered when I told him about it this week. “You not very up to date, are you?” /Andrew
  9. HIRING IN THE MODERN ERA By Andrew Biggs I have a problem which is making me tear my hair out … metaphorically of course. I am in the process of hiring new staff but it just doesn’t seem to be getting off the ground. In fact it has been a dismal, utter failure. “We need more front counter staff and sales girls,” I announced at a recent staff meeting, a meeting dubbed the Anti-Think-Tank by some less loyal staff, since they allege it consists of my barking orders, everybody silently jotting down those orders, then at the close of the meeting getting back to the real business of the day, which is counting likes on Facebook. My announcement elicited an embarrassed cough from my second in charge. “We don’t call them that any more,” she said. “What do you mean?” “Sales girls,” she said, smiling apologetically. “Oh, of course. I forgot. We are an equal opportunity employer. Sales staff.” “No, that’s not correct either,” she continued. She explained that offices no longer have front counter and sales staff. For the front counter, they have Customer Service Representatives. Sales girls, both female and male, are now Business Development Representatives. Good lord. Did our collective heads just disappear up our collective best-not-named orifices just then? Call them what you like. What I failed to account for is that I am trying to employ millennials. Earlier this year Bloomberg came out with an index of nations that put Thailand at the very bottom. It would be an interesting experiment to go out and ask people what they thought that index was ranking. We’d have gotten all sorts of answers, wouldn’t we, such as corruption, traffic jams, ability to forge a relationship based on love as opposed to material possessions, etc. Those answers are all wrong. That Bloomberg index was what they call their annual “misery index.” It measures the happiness of countries based on economic indicators. Thailand is at the very bottom of the misery index. It means we’re the happiest place on earth! According to Bloomberg, Thailand and Switzerland are the places to be if you seek happiness, albeit from an economic standpoint. We beat the Europeans, the Americans, and even the Oceaniacs if there is such a word. Martial law is apparently of little consequence to a nation that wants to get off on being happy. Bloomberg is defining “happiness” as anywhere with low inflation and unemployment. Thailand has an unemployment rate of less than one per cent. Despite the economy being sluggish, despite martial law, and despite rock-bottom prices in commodities such as rubber, everybody has a job. I dare to challenge Bloomberg. There’s nothing joyous about near-zero unemployment. As an employer it means nothing but misery. In my language school I have written my own textbooks. There are chapters devoted to applying for jobs, such as how to write a CV, how to dress for a job interview, and tips such as coming on time and not answering your mobile phone if it goes off during the interview. One special area is salary. Sometimes negotiation is required, and sometimes there are fixed pay scales. This is a sensitive domain and traditionally it is the last thing to be covered in a job interview. Not any more. The millennials have seen to that. Here is a transcript, word for word, of one applicant (using the term loosely) who telephoned this week: “I’m calling about the job at your school.” “Which one?” “Customer Service. I need to know the salary.” “I’m sorry?” “Just tell me the salary, please. What do I start on? And is there any commission? If so, what percentage is it?” Here is another who called on the same day: “I’m interested in the Customer Service position.” “When would you like to come in for an interview?” “Well, I’d like to know the hours first.” “The hours?” “Yes, because I can’t work weekends. I need that time to help my parents with their business. Plus I can’t work nights because my mother won’t let me. And I can’t start before 9 am because your school is too far from my house.” “The position requires you work either Saturday or Sunday.” “Then I can’t do it. Sorry.” click In the first instance, the caller has circumnavigated the entire interview process. None of this trivial business about what the job entails. She just wants to know if I am able to support her millennial lifestyle. As for the second caller, she too has cut to the chase, ensuring the job fits in to her plans, as opposed to the other way around. They were just two of perhaps a dozen phone calls along the same lines. My textbooks are hopelessly outdated. I yearn for the olden days when potential candidates explained their talents and abilities, as well as asking about the scope and responsibilities of the vacant position. Such are the perils of living in a country with next-to-zero unemployment. No wonder we turn a blind eye to the Cambodians and Burmese who filter into the country looking for manual labor. If they weren’t doing such filtering, Thailand would literally implode. Could it be millennials are just doing what we older folk have done but in a less blatant way; seeking out the best deal for oneself? I still think it’s an offshoot of near-zero unemployment. There was a bit of a controversy last month when a major Thai bank advertised vacancies, and in the ad they publicly announced they would only accept applicants from certain allegedly “better” universities. Why would a bank do such an un-PC thing? The answer — because they can. Last Wednesday I had an extraordinary walk-in at my school. He was a well-dressed young man in his twenties who appeared at the front counter asking if there was any work available. Anything. Security guard, driver? He was perhaps not as handsome as I am but he was certainly very presentable. He wore a white shirt and tie and black slacks, an outfit traditionally required for a job interview, and spoke impeccable English albeit with a strong accent. In his hand he held a one-page CV with no spelling mistakes whatsoever. I would have given him a job on the spot if it weren’t for one thing. He was Filipino, a nationality I am unable to hire as office staff for legal reasons. As I send this column to my editors, an email has just dropped into my inbox. I kid you not; one of my sales girls is quitting. That means I have another job vacancy here in Bangkok that needs to be filled. I can’t get depressed over this. I cannot. There is no more hair to tear out. And, as Bloomberg claims, this is as happy as I’m gonna get on this earth. /Andrew
  10. BANGKOK, ALL GROWN UP AND TRENDY By Andrew Biggs It has been a while since I donned designer clothes and made my presence apparent at an inner-city PurchaseSpace, but that is exactly what I did earlier this week when I met a close acquaintance for savoury delicacies and wistful repartee at EmQuartier. Oh god did you manage to get through that lead paragraph? I nearly didn’t. Writing it felt like wading through quicksand; it’s as if I’d given birth to a thesaurus mid-sentence. And yet apparently this is de rigueur for modern-day Bangkok and don’t blame me for quoting French; blame EmQuartier. What on earth has happened to the nerdy, pimple-faced Bangkok I knew and loved for a quarter of a century? Sometime over the last five years I blinked, and in that millisecond entire blocks of clunky shophouses and seedy cinemas were obliterated. It is the fault of the BTS. When that strip of train stations opened in 1999, this gridlocked city suddenly opened up. No longer did we have to sit in a car for five hours to get to and from a single appointment. No longer did we have to endure 2 Unlimited and Technotronic Featuring Felly on car stereos for two hours to reach our favorite discotheque. Sorry, I meant nightclub. The BTS came, and the wrecking ball followed. There used to be a really lovely hotel called Siam Intercontinental next to the double-mall of Siam Discovery and Siam Centre. In 2002 the hotel got knocked down for Siam Paragon, because shopping malls, like death, come in threes. The rest of Sukhumvit toppled like dominos. There will be a time soon when you will be able to walk from Siam BTS all the way to Onnuj without your feet ever touching Sukhumvit Road. Make sure you have your French phrasebook on hand when you get to Phromphong. I used to know the Emporium inside out. I used to work there when I was with Channel 3. I look back nostalgically on those days. Imagine having an office above a mall that sold everything from Cartier to Vegemite. This was back in the days we had bookshops and music stores, and both those were almost next to each other, separated by a travel agent called TV Air where three young ladies sat churning out travel itineraries with brisk efficiency. In the 15 years I frequented The Emporium those three ladies never, ever changed positions. There was something reassuring about walking out of Kinokuniya with the latest Dean Koontz and seeing them tapping away at their computers. The Emporium was elegant, with its nose slightly towards the sky but not to the point of being pretentious. It spawned a sibling, namely Paragon, that dwarfed it in size but as we keep being told, size isn’t everything. It’s what you do with it that counts. Paragon also took a lot of the Emporium’s customers which was why, early in 2015, Emporium started getting boarded up. It purchased the other side of Phromphong BTS. It appeared as though the Emporium was doing an Alec Baldwin, namely, doubling in size. Well this week I finally got to see the place after the facelift and oh my goodness. The Emporium has gone from guarded sophisticate to ostentatiously slick. There are now three stark-white complexes and a food hall — probably called something like LeGastronomique — which requires you to walk uphill in a circular motion for half a kilometer. The views are spectacular, or should I say, spectaculaire. I received an invitation to the grand opening of the new Emporium two months ago, only it didn’t say grand opening. It said WORLD EXTRAORDINAIRE which led me to think, for an instant, that Marcel Marceau was coming to town. I was wrong. The new place has a French theme. It’s not the Emporium Quarter as I was led to believe … it is EmQuartier. In these modern times it is no longer fashionable to have spaces between words. The original side has gone so far upmarket, the three TV Air girls have vanished and the security guards at the Cartier store now wear white gloves – how do they eat their somtam and kai yang on lunch break? As for the French name, I dare not pronounce it for fear of being humiliated; am I supposed to render it in bastardized English (“quart” sounding like, well, a quart of vodka, for example) or am I to act like the French and say “cart”, followed by a sound as if I am to spit phlegm onto Sukhumvit Road? I have saved that invitation as a souvenir. I reproduce the evening events exactly as they were printed: QUARTIER AVENUE FEST – BALLOON AERIAL ACROBATIC MAGNIFIQUE QUARTIER WATERFALL MAGIQUE D’AMOURS AT MIRROR ATRIUM THE ENCHANTED QUARTIER WATER GARDEN THE HELIX EXTRAVAGANT RAINFOREST CHANDELIER SHOW GLOBAL FASHION VIBRATION QUARTIER CINEART RED CARPET EMPRIVE CINECLUB GOLD CARPET You know what? I’m a fairly well-educated person. I may appear to be a buffoon but that’s just my Australian exterior. I ask you; do you have any idea what any of that list means? Even sober I have none. What, for instance, is a “Quartier Waterfall”? One quarter of a waterfall? How do they stop the water mid-air — did they hire David Copperfield? I am confused as to how a rainforest can be extravagant; perhaps they dangled gold chains from the trees. As for the “Global Fashion Vibration”, I can’t think what could vibrate owing to fashion, other than a substandard makeshift center stage. But on a global level? I did smirk at the carpets, though. It’s like the old Don Meuang Airport where there was a waiting room for VIPs and a separate one for VVIPs. In Thailand it’s not enough just to be elite. A red carpet is plebian if you’re super-rich; we now require a gold carpet. You watch; we’ll have platinum carpets soon. I don’t mind them separating the elite; this is French, after all. But this is also Bangkok, a city that has always balanced its age-old traditions with modernity. And while spirituality runs deep, it is clear consumerism is now neck-and-neck. So my old familiar Emporium has gone, replaced by a sprawling white PurchaseSpace featuring more French letters than a Saphan Khwai brothel. Add EmQuartier to the line of malls all the way down Sukhumvit – the CentralWorld, Central Chidlom, Central Embassy, Terminal 21, Gateway … just how many more do we need? Not only that, but how much more of Bangkok’s personality do we want to chip away at for the sake of more malls? Pratunam used to be a joyous excursion through rabbit warrens of small shop owners, until they knocked half of it down to build Pratunam Plaza, populated with more ghosts than there ever were customers. Meanwhile areas of Chatuchak Market, famous for its unique collection of small outdoor shops, are being torn apart and replaced by multi-level malls such as the faceless JJ Mall and empty JJ Outlet. Who will fly in to visit those? I drive past the Bangna intersection every day, which is almost at the end of the BTS line. Guess what they are building on a 100-rai tract of land there. A park? A museum? A complex to enhance spiritual development regardless of one’s religion? Come on. This is Bangkok. It’s going to be THE BANGKOK MALL, priding itself on being the “Best Ideal Strategic Location.” This project surprises me, and not just because I had no idea one could have degrees of “ideal”. The Bangkok Mall is going to be, according to the sign, the largest retail space in South-East Asia. Yes, of course. Because that’s what Bangkok sorely lacks. Retail space. And the theme? French? Non. Just non. S’il vous plait. /Andrew
  11. ESCALATOR INCIDENT By Andrew Biggs Two young Thai ladies are about to crash into a foreigner twice their size. The accident is going to knock a cell phone out of the hands of one of them, resulting in scowls and an apology from the wrong party. That surprising incident will happen at the very end of this column, a good 20 paragraphs away, so let’s pick up on their conversation just prior to the event. These two girls are dressed in Bangkok suburban chic; flip-flops and oversized t-shirts with giant English lettering, one of which that reads CUTE GIRL. I am reminded of the 1980s when Frankie Goes To Hollywood was all the rage, and we wore overpriced t-shirts with such pearls of wisdom as FRANKIE SAY WAR IS BAD and FRANKIE SAY BIG SHOULDER PADS ARE HIP. I made that second one up. These girls clutch smart phones and their gazes flit between those phones and the other friend. “He’s gorgeous!” the one with the round face and lack of chin is announcing, while her friend shoots her a look of dismay. “Gorgeous? You know he’s a bad guy in real life!” she replies. She is skinny and the prettier of the two with a pink hair band that complements her gums when she scowls, as she is about to do in a minute. “He ditched his girlfriend in real life, you know, and is now seeing someone else … you know?” She uses the Thai roo mai at the beginning and end of every sentence, much the same way we Queenslanders say “y’know?”. The formless friend is aghast. “No!” “Yes! They were seen out together at RCA two weeks ago. And he didn’t tell his girlfriend, who was in the States at the time. Here. I’ve got a copy of the picture taken at RCA somewhere here. I’ll find it for you.” What soap opera are they discussing? I haven’t a clue. Besides I don’t want to get into the conversation. I just want to get past. The two girls and I are standing together on the mother of all escalators, at the Big C superstore on Rama 4 Road not far from Channel 3, which was probably broadcasting that soap opera. I host a radio show in the TV station building so I do have a good introduction if I wanted to enter their conversation. (“Excuse me, ladies, but I couldn’t help but overhear what you were talking about, and I just wanted to let you know I’m heading to the building that is broadcasting the very drama you are talking about!” I don’t know which is worse; being perceived as a sexual predator or a nerd.) But back to the Big C Rama 4 escalator. It goes up the equivalent of three stories. If Thailand wants to ever be the hub of escalators, then the AGMs should take place right here. It is an escalator that resembles a Thai soap opera itself; long and slow. You’d think with such a distance to cover it would travel quickly. On the contrary. I can’t think how long it would take just to stand on that thing and allow it to haul you up, with the strength and speed of a slow loris. Well yes I can think. Because I am forced to do so every time I visit. What compels seemingly normal people to stand still, blocking the traffic behind them, like these two girls are doing? Is it the demographic here on Rama 4? I mean, this is not the area to set up a card table to accept applications for Mensa; the neighborhood is made up of slum residents and TV folk. I go there regularly thanks to its food hall, especially the somtam shop and the lady who makes fruit shakes. But between those fruit shakes and my car there is that mega-escalator, and try as I might, I always end up behind people in a giant hurry to nowhere. I had an American friend who would get furious about this. “Th-tand to the right!” he would bark at a volume that would jolt otherwise stalwart women and children. (My friend had an unfortunate lisp and spoke with a nasally shrill voice when he was peeved about something, which was all the time when he was in Thailand. Other than that, plus the fact he got antagonistic when drunk, he was a really lovely guy.) I could never be so brazen. I could never bark “Stand to the right!” anymore than I could bark “Stand in line!” or “Stop picking your nose!” First of all, isn’t it left? This is not another example of my ignorance. It turns out the whole world knows that you stand to the right. With the exception of one country. Australia. Are we then singularly responsible for the global confusion, thanks to our propensity to spread our wings and travel? Certainly in Thailand they are confused. Some people stand to the right. Some stand to the left. The vast majority stand smack bang in the middle, two or three abreast, and talk about soap operas. The Big C escalators are more insidious because they are not step escalators. They are those smooth ones to accommodate shopping trolleys. Those trolleys when positioned to the far right still allow enough space for customers to hurry past. But does anybody position them to the far right? I believe in the law of attraction, because when I approach those escalators I attract every time families of four with overflowing trolleys getting on seconds before I do. I did a quick internet search before writing this article, and guess what? It’s not just Thailand. This is a global problem! All around the world people are barking “Th-tand to the right!” at others who block the way. The BBC ran an article about “escalator etiquette” which should be translated and sent to the ICT Ministry for immediate dispersal. Recently I have taken a leaf out of my strident American friend’s book, thanks to him sending me a Readers Digest article about being more assertive. I have started saying “Excuse me” to people who block my way. When I do, half are unaware of the crime against humanity they are committing. There is a look of bewilderment on their faces. I almost feel I need to apologize for upsetting them. The other half tug even more at my heartstrings. They express remorse. They are truly sorry for standing in the way, and apologize, which makes me respond with a mai pen rai. Thus I am in a no-win situation. By allowing people to block the way, I end up angry and resentful. If I barge through, I end up apologetic and looking like a bully. “Don’t be tho wishy-washy!” my American friend would say if he heard me express that thought. So why didn’t I say anything to the two girls? I notice that in front of them there is a family of four splayed across the escalator. Further up is a shopping trolley. A group of schoolkids in front of that. God help me if World War Three breaks out while I’m on this escalator. I’m dead before the evacuation sirens even start. So I lapse into my own little world, instead casting my full attention towards the giant green and red Big C billboards depicting happy shoppers as I glide upwards. “Here. I’ll send that pic over to you on Line,” says Prettier Of The Two. “Great, thanks,” says Moon Face. And they stop. At the very top of the escalator. Oblivious to anything behind them. They concentrate on the all-important task of locating a picture in their smart phone’s camera roll and – crash /Andrew
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