Thailand: Hearing, Not Listening: A Common Practice

2002

Chintana Sandilands

In a democratic country, confrontation and verbal difference of opinion are common. In home life, schools, public debate and workplace relations, people are exposed to and involved in exchange of opinion and this necessarily impacts on the national level. Freedom of expression is accepted as a fundamental right with the result that both hearing and listening to the words of others becomes necessary for everyone in society, including leaders. Ideally, this means that rational means are used to solve the inevitable conflicts and confrontation that arise in society, both intimately between individuals and on a national level between leaders and the populace.

‘Hearing, not listening’ has recently become a very popular phrase among Thais and within the Thai media. It is used to refer specifically to current Prime Minister, Police Lieutenant Colonel Thaksin Shinawatra, widely regarded within the media as a 'new-style dictator', not in the historical military style, but authoritarian nonetheless. The media have been scolding him for not responding effectively to the needs of the people and the nation, acting with his own advisors and taking little notice of the response - 'hearing' the people, but 'not listening' to the words they say. Yet this trait in not confined to the Prime Minister: it has been a common practice of rulers in Thai society for a long time.

Thai people are known for their dislike of disagreement and confrontation. From the earliest age, through language and culture, we are taught to hear, listen and obey those who are our superiors – from within our own home, through to national leaders. We are taught to trust and rely on them, and this somehow becomes an inability to do wrong. These social habits and expectations have existed in Thai society for so long that they have created conventional behaviour patterns, both for the elite and the general populace. Thai leaders have centralised power in the past and governed the country through an insistence that the populace follows their dictates and we have done so, accepting bad governance for years before finally reacting. We created this from within our history and society, and it exists today with the statements made about the current administration. It is easy to blame our leaders for abuse of power, yet the populace too shares a responsibility for national development, a responsibility to participate fully in the destination of the country.

If we are to change the pattern of national leadership of our nation, we must begin where the ‘follow-the-leader’ mentality begins, with ourselves and our homes. With parents allowing their children to voice their opinions, with teachers allowing the same for students in schools, with employers and finally with our national leaders. When we personally confront disagreement and difference of opinion, we must prove ourselves that we are mature enough to think rationally, using debate and discussion to reach constructive and democratic resolutions. Our leaders deserve the term for which we have chosen them, to prove themselves if they will, and if not then we have the democratic right to punish them with removal from a leadership position. Then leaders within our country may learn that hearing and listening are essential.

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