I have lived in Thailand
the better part of 30 years and hardly a year has passed without an article,
opinion piece, or letter to the editor about the dual-pricing practice. Entrance
fees to national parks, temples, museums and the like have two prices. The
non-Thai price can be as much as ten fold the price charged for Thais. I’ve
heard all of the arguments against this practice.
Stephff (used with permission)
The Usual attack on the
dual-price system falls in several categories: (1) fairness; (2) discriminatory;
(3) harmful and a public relations disaster; (4) inconsistency—foreigners pay
the same auto tax and VAT for example; (5) arbitrary application or
enforcement—at some venues, on some days, with some staff a Thai driver’s
license or work permit is enough to allow the foreigner to receive the Thai
price; (6) mutuality—Thais going to public venues in other countries are charged
the same price as everyone else.
None of the above
arguments have moved the authorities for all of these years to change the
policy, and are met with a number of counter arguments to justify the different
price structure: (1) Thais pay taxes, foreigners don’t; (2) Thais are poor and
foreigners are rich; (3) Thais go to places to make merit, while foreigners go
for other reasons; (4) most countries impose higher prices for a number of
services on foreigners such as university fees.
The deeper question is why
does the dual pricing system prevail given the amount of bad feeling and
ill-will it generates, not to mention the negative publicity that circulates
each time this practice finds its way into the press or on social
I have a couple of ideas
to explore. Dual pricing is an effect. It emerges from a psychological attitude,
a social construct of long-standing. One that is durable, immune from rational
argument, and like Teflon, isn’t scratched no matter how many logical bullets
Dual practicing doesn’t
exist in isolation. Foreigners in general are seen as an outside group. They
work as slaves on fishing boats, on rubber plantations. History books in the
schools demonize the Burmese and Khmer. You start to understand a pattern, which
arises from a strong In-group Bias. This bias teaches that one should
always prefer a certain racial, ethnic or social group; and that membership of
the group defines identity. That identification leads to excluding others from
the circle of being in the in-group.
In Thailand, the in-group
bias is coiled inside the DNA of ‘Thainess’—definitions to which are a work in
progress. Of course there are Thais who see the bias for what it is—an effective
way to control a population by appealing to their identity as group based. The
bias is hardwired in all of us. History is overflown with examples of
xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism. Geography or ethnic background plays
no difference. The precise expression draws from local traditions, customs,
language, myths—the usual machinery to construct communal and individual
identity. In times of crises, sizable populations in many countries retreat to
this core myth of tribal identity by default. But we are no longer bands of a
couple of dozen people. When millions of people chant their in-group truths like
mantras, like a weather report of a major storm heading your way, you should
notice the strength of how these emotions cascade.
For the Americans (and
sadly Canadians, too) this irrationality caused the government to relocate
ethnic Japanese to detention camps during World War II. These Japanese-Canadians
and Japanese-Americans lost their citizenship rights based solely on their
ethnicity. Americans had no trouble slaughtering native Indians at genocide
levels or enslaving blacks. South Africa used apartheid laws to separate blacks
and whites into different communities with different rights and opportunities.
In-group bias has cut a bloody and ignoble path throughout the history of most
cultures. In recent times the ethnic cleansing based on ethnic, religious, or
ideological in-groups left a trail of carnage from Bosnia to Cambodia to Rwanda.
More recently across the border in Burma the Rohingyas have been persecuted for
their religion and skin color. There is no end in sight.
What makes the in-group
bias invidious is how it operates without outward expressions of intention or an
awareness that the person is acting automatically. It would be the rare person
who stops and considers that what he or she is thinking is an act of irrational
prejudice. I suspect most Thais would be highly offended if they felt a
foreigner considered the dual pricing system based on racial prejudice. But
racial prejudice is part of the manifestation. If you happen to be an ethnic
Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, Japanese and can speak good Thai the chances are good
that you can slip through the Thai line and pay the ‘Thai’ price. As I said at
the start, dual pricing is only a minor irritant. The danger of in-group bias is
the way officials can use it to manipulate the emotions required to ramp up
xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism.
Group Think is
the second feature that accompanies and sustains in-group basis. When a
foreigner questions discriminatory pricing he or she is criticizing not a bug
but a feature of group identity enterprise. That places him on dangerous
grounds. The arguments are irrelevant. The emotions are stirred by and outsider’
who is perceived to have attacked a basis of communal membership. There are
plenty of Thais who are uncomfortable with and seek to overcome this bias. But
they are the exception rather than the rule. Agreement and consensus forms the
basis of esprit de corps.
Groups which value
consensus discourage its members from questioning its official doctrines,
assumptions, and myths. Those in the group are taught that conformity is highly
prized and those who seek out contradictory evidence to show flaws or ways of
improving an idea or process are possible troublemakers to be discouraged. Facts
or evidence are monitored for inconsistency or contrary positions, and those who
transmit them punished. Disagreement and evidence of inconsistency or hypocrisy
are ignored. The challenge is to ensure all communications go through a single
pipeline in order to allow access for monitoring, evaluation and disposition.
It’s not just people who are marginalized, it is their access to information
that may adversely influence the official consensus.
Philip E. Tetlock author
of Superforcasting: The Art and Science of Prediction,
“Groupthink is a danger. Be
cooperative but not deferential. Consensus is not always good; disagreement not
always bad. If you do happen to agree, don’t take that agreement—in itself—as
proof that you are right. Never stop doubting.”
A high value is given to
consensus in Thailand. Consensus, harmony and happiness are actively promoted.
Those who disagree are viewed with suspicion if not hostility. Questioning the
wisdom of the group is a kind of betrayal or disloyalty. When groupthink weds
in-group bias the children of ideas coming out of that union will likely be
inward thinking and emotionally attuned to the need to quell the noise of
outsiders. One way to accomplish such a goal is the creation of a single-gateway
for all Internet traffic into the country. As a way to protect groupthink and
patrol the boundaries separating in-group and out-group, such a system becomes
attractive much like the idea of building the Great Wall of China.
Dual pricing is the tip of
the cognitive iceberg shimmering in the tropical monsoon season. Isolate it at
your peril. It is a symptom of something far more important to understand about
a culture and political system inside that culture. When a culture sanctions
in-group bias and groupthink, and makes policies with strengthening these
cognitive defects, it is not cost free. A price is paid. How do we measure that
price? This is for the experts to examine. I would wager that the cost on the
‘whom’ is much higher than the cost on the ‘who’ and below you will see there is
an important divide between the two.
The cost is not so much
the much higher amount that a foreigner pays to gain entrance to a national
park. Price based on ethnicity is a crude (and emotionally damaging) way to
express the difference between in-group and outsiders. The political price is
another matter. Setting a higher admission price because the person doesn’t look
like us is repugnant to many people. It is in the same category as a price of
admission based on height, weight, shoe size or color of eyes. There is a
feeling such features should be sanctioned by government as a basis for price
discrimination. We don’t accept the argument that making tall people pay more
than short people and justifying it on the basis that tall people have a better
view. By opening the group to other ideas and encouraging an exchange of
conflicting ideas, and learning to question not just the other person’s idea but
the strength and weakness of your own, ideas can be improved, repaired where
flawed, discarded as no longer workable, or merged with other ideas gives such a
group an edge. The goals is to search for truths that have a broad general
consensus and not to be distracted by the myths to spin a spider web of
comfortable illusions to sustain in-group bias.
A problem yet to be
resolved in Thai culture is the fear of disagreement. In the Thai way of
thinking it is often assumed that disagreeing is a form of violence, the sign of
a troublemaker, rather than a healthy curiosity. Most of life is a puzzle and
the pieces never fit and new pieces crop up. Life is confusing given the amount
of noise we are subjected to. The main lesson is that the search for perfection,
certainty and predictability is a search for a unicorn. The incompleteness of
evidence is normal. Cognitive biases teach us that our thinking process must be
nudged to discover errors and mistakes in our theories, ideologies and ideas.
The heart and soul of modern science is the recognition our most cherished
theories never rise above the beta level.Inevitably the theories will change.
The aversion to change is creates a strong negative feeling. Add groupthink and
in-group bias and you ask whether a cage constructed from such constructs are
the highest and best way to preserve cultural identity.
Tetlock has a catchy
definition of politics: “Who does what to whom?” Our definition of the ‘who’ and
the ‘whom’ is never settled. Factions of the ‘whom’ will be unhappy with a
particular ‘who’ no matter what is the basis of their legitimacy to act. The
interaction between the two indicates that the ball is always in play. When the
rules of that game are expanded to allow and encourage questioning, debate and
different points of view, the ‘who’ find themselves accounting for their
policies to the ‘whom’. To stigmatize disagreement guarantees tyranny. In the
larger scheme, being a perpetual ‘whom’ in this equation, and a foreign ‘whom’
to boot, I acknowledge my bias—the ‘who’ doesn’t have my best interest in mind
and I am powerless, like all outsiders where in-group bias prevails, to change
the order of things.