Commentary: Changing consumer values in young Thais
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 2, 2012 - In the summer of 2010, I was in the center of Bangkok at a Siam Sky Train Station looking down at the busy streets and the crowds surrounding the shopping malls. A very long line of people was at the ground floor of the biggest luxury mall in the country. This queue extended from inside the building well down the pathway outside. I learned, to my surprise, that the line was for Krispy Kreme pastries.
Krispy Kreme is one of the 15 companies that US News columnist Rick Newman predicted might not survive 2009. However, it did survive, largely with the help of rising sales in foreign locations such as Australia and Hong Kong, and new markets such as Thailand. The Economist predicted later that thanks to sales in places like these, failing companies like Krispy Kreme may become economically viable once again.
Thai people have come to favor the products of this new imported doughnut chain. Indeed, they have taken on the role of saving it from business failure. But this is not the only such case. We have helped out other foreign businesses by boosting their sales in our country. In general, we have opened ourselves wide to accept Western culture.
Many things are changing in today’s Thailand. High-end, luxury fashion is popular among college students and children as young as eighth graders, who often use an iPhone or a Blackberry smart phone. There are fewer weekend cartoons than American reality shows for children and family on cable TV. It would be an exaggeration to say that media are solely to blame for all these developments.
Everyone should have the freedom to consume whatever they want in Thailand, given that it is a democratic country. The media also have the right to promote goods. But has Thai society prepared its people, especially the young generation, to filter information and recognize what could be the negative outcome of their patterns of consumption?
Even though Thailand has not had many trade deficits over the past decade, the growing practice of consuming expensive imports could change that and have a negative long=term impact on the economy, as well as on the society and culture of the country. A Thai newspaper article a few years ago reported that the small group of young adults who wanted luxurious expensive items rented them from a business that offers the temporary use of brand-name goods. This may be a trap that can lead to extreme consumption. Nonetheless, some young Thais will do just about anything, including going into prostitution or committing crime to get enough money to afford the expensive items required for a luxury lifestyle.
Something that seems to be missing in the teaching of Thai families and educational institutions is King Bhumibol’s “Philosophy of Sufficient Economy.” The essence of “sufficiency” in this view is “to lead a reasonably comfortable life, without excess, or overindulgence in luxury, but enough.” This can be applied at the levels of individual, family and society. In today’s world it is possible to harness forces of globalization and materialism in a balanced way for adequate income and consumption. This involves not consuming more than one’s capacity for generating income. If done properly, it is possible for people to save and shield themselves against unexpected expenses.
In an era of global media and technology with few boundaries and limitations, young people can take in all kinds of information that can affect spending and consumption. In the absence of societal or individual filtering, the information can be overwhelming, and excess spending and consumption can result. These inevitably come with the attendant negative consequences of crime, drug use and other social problems that will eventually have an impact on the country’s development.
Education needs to turn its focus on Philosophy of Sufficient Economy, especially at the individual and family levels. This can provide the basis for the more appropriate use of information from media and technology. It is entirely possible for the young generation to learn how to balance saving and spending while also preserving Thai culture and being open-minded about other cultures.
Thailand is not the only country whose culture and products are neglected by young people. Nor is it the only country where people favor luxury goods to the extent that they may be a risk to their personal budget. Whereas information cannot simply be blocked by a society, the Philosophy of Sufficient Economy can be taught and used as a guide to intelligent balance. A good outcome of this would be that imported brands such as Krispy Kreme and Luis Vitton are available to people who have sufficient financial resources, but local snacks and fashions will still be available and appreciated in a way that helps stabilize the country’s economy.
Molly Wimonmat Srichamroen was in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University, where she earned a master of social work in 2011 from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, Department of Public Administration, Policy and Planning in 2009, from Chulalongkorn University – Bangkok, Thailand.