Education in Thailand: A weapon of mass assimilation?

Photo: Government of Thailand/Wikimedia Commons
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By Jolene Yeo

“In Thai schools, a drill sergeant’s dream of regimentation rooted in the military dictatorship of the past, discipline and enforced deference prevail.”

In 2013, the New York Times published an article on how Thai students had begun to challenge the state-imposed confirmative ways, including that of restricting the hair length of both boys, and girls, as well as inspecting students for dirty fingernails, colored socks or any other violation of the school dress code.

New Democracy Movement

Disruptions to the planned 2014 elections gave way to a state of emergency, the subsequent imposition of martial law, and a coup which installed a military junta to power. As part of what seems to be a global surge of student movements to voice prevailing social grievances, even opposing specific laws to protest larger political issues, the New Democracy Movement (NDM), a youth pro-democracy activist group in Thailand, has demanded societal change and democratic freedoms, under non-democratic and autocratic governments.

The University World News reported that the NDM has bravely come forward to fill the void amid awash of youth apathy, freed from the baggage of the “colour politics” that had torn Thailand apart throughout the last decade. Instructed by the junta to “cooperate” with the military, student activists have been summoned and warned against political activities, prompting many academics and students to flee the country or go into hiding.

Lèse majesté

While student protests against the state oppression has shown glimmers of hope, the atmosphere remains chilling, even for academics. Vocal critics – often scholars – of Thailand’s lèse majesté laws that prevent criticism of the monarchy were summoned to the military. Back in 2013, a group of Thai high school students started a group called the Thailand Educational Revolution Alliance (TERA), calling for the abolition of the “mechanistic” education system. Four years on, little of the TERA in heard about in today’s global consciousness.

A weapon of mass assimilation

The Thai education system has long been characterised as a “weapon of mass assimilation” and linked to asymmetric development and decreased levels of human and social capital, according to UNICEF.

However, Thailand has most recently tried to fix the centralised top-down leadership approach, and a fragmented education ministry, by decentralising the grip over school curriculum towards the provinces. This decentralisation exercise will provide respective provinces the autonomy to implement their own educational visions, tailored to the needs of learners in the region rather than the outmoded one-size-fits-all approach.

An obsession with the social conformity of views remains reflected in the Thai education system today, at the expense of critical thinking. This is because despite policy breakthroughs – such as the decentralisation of control over schools, and of Thailand’s US-trained education minister allowing Thai school children to let their hair down, literally – many social and cultural barriers remain to hinder improvements to the education system.

Atop this list of obstacles is the ingrained belief in the majority of school going children that it is better to follow orders than to think for themselves. There is also a question of whether the preached reforms will be successfully implemented on the ground, as the educators themselves may remain guided by their outmoded views of absolute deference from students and the incapacitation of any form of individuality.

Unless there is a robust government infrastructure in place to ensure that the policies generated by the “brain” of the state will be successfully carried out by the “body”, the benefits of such policies may never see the light of day.

Abandoning the ship: surge in demand for international schooling

Thailand‘s lacklusture performance in education and individual autonomy has resulted in what may turn out to be a prolonged brain drain.

A 2015 poll by the National Institute of Development Administration concluded that education was the top issue the public wanted to see reformed. The Asian Correspondent reported that the poll further indicated that Thai parents are keenly aware of the country’s inadequate education system, and its inability to meaningfully prepare leaders for the challenges of the 21st Century.

The surge in demand from Thailand and all around the world, due to the rising reliance on the Asian Economic Community for economic survival. has made Asia the largest market for international education with 2.4 million students and 4,181 international schools. This makes up 55% of the global international school market.

However, of greater and more immediate government concern lies not with the students of well-to-do families who can afford the option of an overseas haven, but rather that of how to provide quality education to the masses, and retain them in school.

To date, Thailand remains a country of high illiteracy, relative to other more developed Asian counterparts. With nearly 300,000 students dropping out of primary school education, educational reforms should focus on increasing access to public education in order to set a strong bedrock for social stability, as well as fuel Thailand’s economic development.