“Wiens brood men eet, diens woord men spreekt”.
By Chris de Boer
I had to think about this Dutch saying (which means something like: “you always honor the person on whom you depend or expect advantages in the future”) when I planned to write a short story about patronage. In Thai language they say: “khaa khong khon kheu, khon klong khrai”. And that means: the value of a person depends on whose customer you are or who is your patron.” In this article I will try to explain that there is a system of so-called patronage and that this system contains more than just honoring a person on whom you depend.
Example 1 (real life)
One day, a rich Thai owner of several manufacturing plants in several sectors (agriculture, fashion, beauty products) parks his brand new Mercedes-Benz near the plant to attend the monthly management team meeting. At the same time, the foreign manager of the plant arrives in his Toyota Camry. He steps out and sees the new Benz (visible because of the red number plate) of the owner. That is a nice car, he says. Do you really like him, the owner asks the manager. Yes, it is really a beautiful car. I also like the grey color. The Thai owner takes the keys from his pocket, gives them to the manager and says: well, then he is yours from today on. I will call my son to pick me up after the meeting and I will buy another Benz tomorrow.
Example 2 (real life)
My former Thai colleague worked more than 30 years for the same (rich) Thai person. This man owns hotels, a hospital and several service companies like security. He worked for him as an assistant marketing manager, head HRM- department and CEO. My former colleague, however, wanted to be a full-time teacher in a university. When the chance was there, he almost begged the Thai owner (despite his salary of 150,000 Baht a month) to let him go. In the end, the Thai owner agreed under the condition that he was willing to help the owner out in matters of human resources (his specialty) when needed. The owner appointed my former colleague in the board and continued to pay him 150,000 Baht per month, although my colleague didn’t ask for that. It was not a salary (like the one from the university) but more a reward for his availability. Every time the owner called him in the office of the university, he rushed to his car and drove to his old office. He couldn’t say no.
Example 3 (real life)
The brother of my ex-girlfriend has become a successful businessman. Born in a normal family in the south of Thailand, he started working as an engineer and since 14 years he has his own company. He has 30 employees and makes a lot of profit. When my ex-GF (before we met) fell in love with a stand-alone house she asked her brother to join her, look at the state of the house and help her with negotiating a price. It was a beautiful house. The price, however, (2 million Baht) was far beyond her budget. When her brother saw that she really wanted to buy it, he took his cheque book, wrote a cheque and gave it to my ex. She looked and saw that he gave her 1 million Baht. The rest you have to pay yourself, he said with a smile. Two years later, when I got to know him a bit better, he told me that he – next to his wife – had a girlfriend with whom he spent many weekends. He told his wife that he had to go for business or play golf with his friends. I told this to my ex and gave her my opinion. I told her that I thought that her brother was not so nice to his wife cheating her with another woman. My ex had to admit that she also knew this for years but never told anything to her sister-in-law. But she refused to condemn her brother. He was a good man (when he bought a new Benz, he gave the old Toyota to my ex, and not to his wife) and his wife didn’t take care of him in the right way. She was always angry, not cooking for him and always wanted money. That is why her brother had another woman.
I choose these examples because they are real and happen every day in Thailand. In my opinion,
they illustrate the essence of patronage. The most important element in it is not the respect for a person that has more influence or power in society but the psychological influence of a person with more money and power on the other: the owner on his manager, the manager on his employees, a rich family member on his poorer family members, (grand)parents on their children. This happens and continues by structurally (e.g. every month) or incidentally giving rewards to others which value are in no way related to the actual or past performance of the receiver. It is not so much making the other person financially dependent but much more psychologically. I would not like to call this corruption but psychological slavery. This can easily develop into bribe or blackmail. The receiver does not feel free anymore to give his/her own opinion on matters that concern the patron. The manager with the new Mercedes is reluctant to criticize the new (maybe not feasible) ideas of the owner in the meeting. My former colleague immediately left his current job if the man for whom he worked 30 years called him to come and help him. My ex-gf tolerated the (cheating) behavior of her brother while she would never allow me to do the same.
External factors favor the patronage system. One of them is the fact that power AND money in Thai society are concentrated within a limited number of families, or better clan networks. In Thailand, 20 % of the clans own 70 % of all money, buildings, assets, shares and land. And despite the growing Thai economy in the last decades, this inequality did not decrease but increased. You can look at the many articles and statistics about the development of the income distribution in Thailand on the internet. The two richest persons in Thailand (according to Forbes) saw their net value rise with 13.6 Billion USD in two years (2011-2013). Only this rise is enough to give more than 1,8 million Thai people the minimum salary of 300 baht a day during those two years. The rich in Thailand are getting richer, the poor become a little bit more rich (thanks to the minimum wage and some other measures of the government) but the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger.
Example 4. (maybe real life)
The ousted prime-minster Thaksin still has a big influence on politics in Thailand. His network of companies, managers, family, political and military friends did not fall apart when he decided to leave Thailand and not wait for the verdict of the court. It seems that he has 5 or 6 mobile phones, probably one for every network. I think he knew he was guilty and that the court would send him to jail. Living in foreign countries he still contacts his networks and is active in patronage. There are rumors that he payed the members of parliament who belong to ‘his’ party an extra compensation that equals their monthly salary from the government. Politicians that are more than friendly to his interests can count on special presents. In recent years, the leaders of the red shirt movement built new, expensive houses or are the new managers or shareholder in companies that all can be linked to the former prime-minister or one of his family members (sister, brother-in-law,children). Is this corruption? No. They and mister Thaksin are doing nothing that is illegal. Is this patronage? Yes, for sure. Do you think that the people that benefit from the wealth of Thaksin will not defend him when he is convicted again in court? I am quite sure that some of them know Thaksin in the past did things that were wrong and maybe even illegal. But they already sold their soul and freedom of speech in exchange for status, money, power for themselves, their children and their friends. You need a lot of guts to deliberately cut off the (private and business) lines with such a network that limits your freedom of actions (e.g. voting) and speech and makes you a slave of greed.