The One-legged Security Guard
Looking at some of the recent comments on racism on this site, I would like to offer my own definition of the word as part of this piece: Racism is where one person from one race treats someone from another race differently because of their ethnicity. The treatment doesn’t have to be intentionally malicious, but it can have that unintended effect. For example there are a few bars in BKK (I am told), where the only customers they want to see are Japanese salarymen on detachment from head office.
If you use that as a definition, you will see that racism is all around us. One of the most racist groups in Thailand using this definition, must surely be the bargirls that target Farangs. I have often enjoyed a beer, while I watch the world go by in one soi or another, and frequently, alongside me have a sat a group Thai ladies trying to tout potential customers into the bar. These are always Farangs that they are calling too, just to make my point.
Every few minutes a street hawker will approach me trying to sell me something that I didn’t even know had been invented, never mind that I don’t need. Once he fails in his sales pitch, he moves on without making any effort to target the nearby ladies who outnumber me.
As well as the street peddlers, there are the beggars. When you see many of these, it is hard not to feel pity, sympathy or even empathy for them. I like to think of myself as a kind man, but for some time now, I have met most of these people with a blank stare. I have come to the conclusion that if I give money to them, I do more harm than good.
Back in the 1980’s, Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia) gained its independence from Britain. For those of you who don’t know much of the history of this country, before it was granted independence, it actually declared itself independent of Britain in 1965. Normally, I would take a view that there was nothing wrong with this, except that the government was run along apartheid lines by a small group of white farmers, who were reluctant to give any powers to the indigenous black population. There followed a guerrilla war, and eventually the white farmers saw the writing on the wall, and negotiated peace terms. Call me racist if you like regarding this next comment, but the country was then run by the sort of de facto dictator that only Africa can produce, and does with alarming regularity: Robert Mugabe.
At the time, Zimbabwe was one of the richest countries in Africa, due to great natural resources including Gold, Diamonds, Platinum and most famously, Tobacco. It also had the most developed and modern textiles industry on the continent.
I am sure that some of you will have heard the phrase, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Most of you will also probably know that due to Mugabe, Zimbabwe is now an economic basket case. On the way to ruining the economy, he was helped by the good intentions of the well meaning, but ultimately, misguided Christian charities as they started to collect used clothing to be sent to Zimbabwe for distribution to the local black population.
The effect of this was that those people who owned clothing shops, very quickly went out of business as there was no need to buy clothing. In turn, the textile factories shut down, and consequently tens of thousands of Zimbabweans lost their jobs. I am pretty sure that Mugabe would have wrecked the economy regardless of our intervention, but I am also sure that it would have been a slower process, if we had not sent all those unwanted clothes to them.
There is a saying, “Charity begins at home”, and I have family members who are appalled that their government will give money to Foreign Aid, when Britain has all its own economic problems. They will happily give money for Cancer research, but not to Ethiopia. I won’t criticise them for this, because I won’t give money to animal charities, with the exception of the Guide Dogs for the Blind. But someone pointed out to me a long time ago, and the point has stuck, that the problem with charity is that it allows governments to evade their duties to the disadvantaged in society.
In Britain, one of the most successful fundraisers is The Hospital For Sick Children in Great Ormond Street. It is considered to be a world leader in Paediatrics. In the 1980’s, they launched “The Wishing Well” appeal to raise £20,000,000. They were so successful, that by the time the appeal closed, they had £50,000,000 which is a tribute to the generosity of the people who supported it. However, I have to ask why, when we have a National Health Service, should a world leading hospital have to go round with the begging bowl?
I was very strongly opposed to the war in Iraq, but nevertheless, soldiers were sent to Iraq in my name, and some were killed, or suffered appalling injuries. In response to this, a charity was set up called “Help For Heroes”. What does that say about Britain, that soldiers, who have endured this for us, have to rely on a charity for their rehabilitation?
As I deal with the constant stream of beggars that I meet on a daily basis in Thailand, I have come to a similar conclusion, that to help does more harm than good. There is one particular man, who is well dressed, and far from underweight. His technique is to come up to you, stand to attention, then salute you military style, before holding out his hands to shake yours. Once you shake hands with him, he then presents a card telling you that he is deaf and collecting for a deaf people’s charity. I am sure some of the readers will know him from Soi 7/8 in Pattaya.
On one occasion when he accosted me I was on the link road between Soi 7 and 8 when I noticed that there was a one-legged Security Guard keeping guard over a hotel car park. Unlike the deaf man, he was skinny, and looked frail. I pointed the deaf man towards him, but he didn’t get the point I was trying to make. The guard was probably working for peanuts, but if he could get a job, then why couldn’t the deaf man.
Another of the people that regular visitors to Pattaya will know is the very pretty lady photographer who is also missing one leg. If I see her, and I am with someone photogenic, I will ask her to take a photo. She takes a good picture, and she charges me exactly the same price as an able-bodied snapper. More to the point, I have seen her all over Pattaya, from Soi 7 to Walking Street. Like most Thais, she is not afraid of hard work.
The only people that I now give money (as charity) to in Thailand are the blind musicians and educational charities. The first group, unlike the deaf man, have a job, which is to entertain people with their singing. They might not do it very well, but another point, is that they can’t tell if I am a Farang, and you will see that most of the people who donate to them are themselves Thai.
While I was in Chiang Mai recently, I was taken to one of the Karen villages that are dotted around that part of Northern Thailand. I have to say that there was a misunderstanding with my cab driver, and I had not actually wanted to go there, but before I knew it, I found myself parting with the 500 baht admission fee, and was looking around at the longneck villagers. I felt very uncomfortable at seeing what was to me, a circus freak show. I don’t mean the longnecks themselves, but this was like being in a zoo watching an endangered species, except that these were human beings who made their living by being objects of curiosity. Where was the dignity?
I mentioned educational charities a little earlier in this piece, and this brings me to the thing I hate most about Thailand: the children of the street who will try to sell you chewing gum. It is not unusual to see them wandering around unaccompanied at 3:00 AM. It is difficult to discern if they have any social skills whatsoever, as my interactions with them usually consists of the shouting very aggressively “Twenty Baht” while they offer me a packet of gum. I recall being in Chiang Mai with my girlfriend when an elephant mahout turned up outside the bar, selling sugar cane for his animal. When the elephant had been fed, he had been trained to give a short blare as a ‘thank you’. I think that elephant may have better social skills that these kids.
History has a habit of repeating itself, and I would think that 90% of these children, will have their own children working on the streets when they have family of their own. This is the great tragedy. Thais are no more stupid, and every bit as intelligent as we Farangs are. The only thing that separates them from us is lack of education. Personally, I would like to see all their parents arrested for child abuse, and would like to see it made a criminal offence punishable with a 10,000 baht fine for a Farang to buy from these street kids.
This brings me to the conclusion that like Zimbabwe, most of what we do in the name of charity, does more harm than good. In a country where you can have a one-legged security guard (and yes, I do know that security guards rank slightly higher than lizards on the social scale), many beggars have to be considered workshy. More to the point though, there are those who genuinely can’t work, or can do very little. This is a problem for the government, and while we give money to these people, we allow the government to shirk their own responsibilities towards them.
Unfortunately there is a prevalent attitude in Thailand that one can make a better living by doing things with foreign visitors than by doing what could be considered a decent days' work. Some of the beggars in the tourist hot spots have been "in business" since before I came here!