East, Economy & Religion: Thailand's Top 10 Leadership Insights (Part I)


Part I of IV


JOMTIEN, THAILAND - How do you rebrand a country synonymous with sex tourism and AIDS? Why are there so many Russians in Thailand? Why is religion in your face everywhere? Where is the entrepreneurial spirit? Is Thailand the Greece of the East? 

What can a business leader learn from today’s Thailand? Turns out, plenty. My wife and I recently spent two weeks in Jomtien, just south of Pattaya, Thailand. Here are ten observations that may be of interest to business leaders.


1 - East & West

One reason I like to travel to and within Asia is that it is a different cultural context than “the West.” It’s “the East.” The differences are rooted in thousands of years of history and they are manifested in simple and complex ways. (Some of the more complex differences, like religion, are discussed separately.)

A simple example is driving habits. When driving, it seems to be quite fluid and everybody bobs and weaves—like organized chaos. The lines and signs are mere suggestions. Yes, all drivers realize that they are collectively trying to get somewhere. I don’t think the concept of “road rage” exists. I haven’t heard anyone honk their horn even though I have been in vehicles that cut off others or were the recipient of abrupt moves and drivers simply move. Drivers don’t take offence. It’s only in Western countries that people are hypersensitive about asserting their “road rights.”

Another interesting feature is the acceptance of class differentiation. Wherever they're at, it’s their karma and they may be at a different level in the next go-around. So, people recognize the power and economic imbalance. On a larger scale, Thailand recognizes it has a two-tier economy—there is a gap between the buying power of tourists and the local population. A practical manifestation is that a Muay Thai kickboxing ticket costs C$60 each for foreigners—locals can get in for free. The Elephant Village costs C$80 per person—locals can get in for free. Try that at Whistler. Canadian passport holders ski for free!

Another manifestation of the differences between East and West relates to the treatment of animals. Zoos in the West seem to be falling out of favour. In Thailand, Westerners complain about the treatment of animals at tourist attractions. At the Tiger Park, tourists may say the tigers are excessively drugged and the animal cages stink. Or at the Crocodile Farm, the crocodiles are mistreated. Often, TripAdvisor reviews are not about the quality of the experience, but rather the treatment expected from a Western perspective. In other words, our standards in the West are at this level and they should do the same (even though these are all local species). Some might call this “cultural imperialism.” 


2 - Economy

Thailand has around 70 million people and about 12 million live in Bangkok. Thailand’s top exports are office machine parts, gold, integrated circuits, cars, and motor vehicles; parts and accessories, exported mostly to the United States, China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. Thailand is the world’s largest natural rubber exporter in the world (the harvesting process reminds me of maple syrup farms in Quebec).

In addition, however, tourism accounts for a staggering 10 percent of Thailand's GDP. For reference, in Canada, tourism’s GDP contribution is generally 1-2%. The challenge is that Thailand has taken a COVID-19 beat-down. Prior to the Covid 19 pandemic, Thailand received a record number of visitors, 40 million in 2019. In 2019. In 2021, that number of total visitors fell to 427,000! That’s a drop-down to 1% of the previous total!  

Thailand's vital tourism sector has been decimated but is now making a comeback (the role of the sex trade is discussed in subsequent blog posts). Thailand's economy is expected to grow by 3 - 4 % in 2023. This would be aided if it gets a boost from China's reopening plans. In pre-pandemic 2019, Chinese tourists accounted for about 28% of foreign tourist arrivals. Thailand had received 11 million foreign tourists so far in 2022 and the number should rise to some 21 million in 2023, or even further if Chinese tourists return. The bottom line: tourism is a very significant contributor to Thai economy. 


3 - Religion

The official religion in Thailand is Theravada Buddhism, practiced by more than 95% of the population. There are some minorities such as Muslims (3%) and Christians (1%). For Thai people, being Buddhist is part of being Thai.

There are prominent temples throughout cities. More commonly observed, however, are the ubiquitous “spirit houses.” These are small structures, like shrines in front of most business establishments and government buildings. There are big shrines in front of tourist attractions, such as the Elephant Village. Religion is everywhere – it’s in your face.

It highlights the difference in the West where the emphasis is on the privatization of faith. That notion doesn’t exist in Thailand or most of Asia. The West stands out as unique in the world. It is the only part of the world where formal religion is in decline. Everywhere else in the world the growth of religion is outstripping population growth.

To understand the separation of the West from the rest of the world, a handy analysis comes from the differences between left-brain and right-brain approaches. Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and His Emissary, details the West’s increasing focus on the left brain, a scientific, mechanistic view of the world. This denies the very way in which the brain is designed and in which people act with the right brain features of spirituality, intuition, and creativity. Despite the best efforts of Western secularists, the world is more spiritual than ever as has been documented endlessly by Rodney Stark and others.