Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha said on Friday that he would approach the 20 richest Thai families to ask for their assistance in fighting the coronavirus outbreak.
“The government alone cannot answer all the questions posed by the outbreak,” he told the country.
Criticisms poured in immediately and expectedly took the internet by storm with the hashtag #รัฐบาลขอทาน [beggar government] trending most of the weekend.
Comments from public figures such as Kam Phaka criticized the government’s fiscal management and the poor optics of asking for help from the rich.
“We did not pay tax for you [the government] to be a beggar,” Kam Phaka said.
All weekend memes, essays, and tweets criticized and made fun of the government.
But while internet ire can be hilarious, the past 48 hours brings up an interesting aspect of Thai society that is not often touched upon, donations.
While ours is not the only society that solicits donations, one could argue that tipping culture is a prime example of a service industry built on donations, there is a cultural foundation for donations and public contribution in Thailand.
The religious teachings of Buddhism serve as a framework for this foundation.
Buddhism teaches you that giving some of your wealth and not being attached to worldly objects is the path to nirvana. Monks, for example, do not own possession and their very livelihoods and welfare are dependent on public contribution (giving alms).
In some modern ‘Buddhist’ interpretation, like Wat Dhammakaya or Wat Tha Mai, donations (both social and religious) will serve as securing wealth in your next incarnation.
Given the popularity of the Dhammakaya and Tha Mai, can we even say that donations or giving alms in Thai society is an altruistic venture or has it become merely a self-serving exercise?
An inherently selfish notion
The truth is, no matter how much you preach the religious pre-text of giving-alms, if you are donating to a temple or a church with the hopes of securing your place in heaving or becoming a billionaire in the next life, then that is not donating. That is investing.
It may be a laughable investment in some spiritual hereafter that may never come to fruition, but it is an investment nevertheless.
Which brings us to our next point.
Donation culture in Thailand has never been about altruism or humanitarianism.
Whether religiously or socially, the donation culture in Thailand is about satisfying the id while reinforcing the ego. It is not altruistic, not egalitarian and most certainly not about the public good.
Thais do not release fishes into the rivers, buy cows, build temples for the greater good or because they give a shit about some farm animals. It is because they need to say to themselves and to their peers, ‘hey, look how great of a person I am’ or ‘Hey, look at how much merit points I have accumulated.’
The same is true of coronavirus donations. Do you think politicians and the rich elite call newspapers or post on Instagram every time they donate because of notions of the greater good? No, it is to satisfy a PR need or to show the world what a great person they are.
How else would you explain personal or party branding on hand sanitizer bottles?
While it is true that their donations do go a long way in helping our embattled healthcare sector, let us stop pretending that they are great human beings deserving of our praise.
What have you done for me lately?
So if Prayut is really going to approach the 20 richest families in Thailand, the question he will have to ask himself before doing so is whether or not he is giving them anything in return.
It doesn’t have to be anything as overt as tax breaks or special zoning rights, it can merely be an opportunity for the super-rich to super-flaunt their super-niceness for those super-likes.
Thailand has one of the largest rich-poor gaps in the world with the top 1 per cent owning more than the bottom 90 per cent combined.
If Prayut goes bearing no gifts then he will unlikely get anything in return. That is not how donation culture in this country works.