Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Of Kids and Compasses

After the big Sinfonietta concert last Sunday, which raised money for those affected by the Bangkok's recent violence, I was feeling very good about our kids.  I mean, here is this orchestra of 13-20 year olds, just four months old, and they're tackling really difficult music, like Beethoven 7, and sounding very believable indeed.  And doing the concert for the city of Bangkok was the kids' own idea.

Then, an odd thing happened.  One of our M.P.'s, Anik Amaranand of the democratic party, had the idea that this orchestra, assembled as it is from some of our most talented kids without any consideration of their social background, might provide be a sort of microcosm of our country -- in its best aspects -- and that the Sinfonietta might be almost a poster child for reconciliation.  

I am opposed to using the Sinfonietta as a political tool, but I agreed to let her hand out an anonymous questionaire to test her theory.  It is of course only a small sample, but there have been some fascinating results.

Are these, the most talented and creative young people (14-21) in our community, "yellow" or "red"?

It's a surprise.

42% of our kids don't sympathize AT ALL with the reds, and 35% don't sympathize AT ALL with the yellows.  15% are fairly sympathetic to the reds, while 21% are fairly sympathetic to the yellows.  NONE OF THEM is "very sympathetic" with EITHER color.

What I found even more impressive was the answer to the question: "Would you do something illegal or immoral if asked to by a beloved and respected authority figure?"  44% strongly disagreed and 36% disagreed.  This means that 80% of our kids have a problem with being asked by authority figures to do things they know are wrong.

63% strongly disagree that it is acceptable for a leader to be corrupt even if he benefits the country. The rest either disagree, or only agree "somewhat".  NO ONE AT ALL agreed totally with the premise.

This proves to me that, among the brightest and most creative young people around me, there is a far more centered moral compass, and a far more balanced view of right and wrong, than we might have imagined. 

This survey has given me an unexpected optimism about the future of this country.

What follows is the opening statement that I made at the kids' concert earlier this month.  I was thrilled to discover that what I said has been proved by the results of M.P. Anik's survey.  (I realize now that it was eccentric to be quoting Isaiah to an audience of Buddhists, but then again when I was a Buddhist monk, I preached a sermon comparing Phra Wetsandorn and Abraham and Isaac.)


When the young members of the Siam Sinfonietta, Thailand’s newest youth orchestra, told me that they wanted to do something special to help heal our wounded city, I was moved by their sincerity, their commitment, and the purity of their vision.   Reconciliation is truly a pathway of which it can be said, “A child shall lead them.”

I was moved but I should not have been surprised, because this is a very special group of musicians.  We spent an entire year finding them and they represent many segments of our society, many regions of this country, and an entire spectrum of religions and ideologies.  They are united only in their superlative musicianship and their absolute determination to perform the greatest music ever written with the greatest commitment and passion they are capable of.  In that these children have have come from such diversity towards a togetherness of purpose far greater than themselves, they are a microcosm of an entire nation.

We have all felt a special affinity with the governor’s initiative because he is a person who is clearly seen by all to be reaching out to all sides.  M.R. Sukhumbhand, you have proved yourself to be a governor not just for one segment of this city, but for all of us.  Every baht donated today will go toward your fund to help those affected by the crisis, regardless of color.  You have our absolute trust and our abiding hope.

Finally, I would like to say to our young people that the world sees what you do.  Your gesture of generosity and empathy has not only been noted by the media in Thailand.  A reporter from the Associated Press filed a story, and two days ago news of this concert was carried in the New York Times.  By yesterday morning, the news was in a dozen major newspapers around the world and by midnight last night I counted over a hundred mentions worldwide, including news organizations like NBC and Fox, and more than eighty newspapers.

From this we may learn that in the eyes of the world what these children believe, and what they have done, is as important as any pronouncement by a politician, or any act of a political entity.   These children have a voice.  The road to a peaceful future is difficult and dark, but their dedication and compassion may give us light enough to see our way.

Friday, June 18, 2010

China's NCPA

The level of attention paid to us was astonishing.  I had my own personal assistant, a very helpful young man named Zhang Ye, who told me had been on the security team for HRH Princess Sirindhorn during her recent trip to Beijing. I was escorted everywhere, my every need anticipated ... if there was a flavor of Big Brother here, it was soft-pedaled ... but let's just say I couldn't even go to the bathroom without a friendly smiling helper at my side....  Arriving desperate for a meal, I ended up going with the hotel's version of Hainanese Chicken Rice ... comfort food in an alien world.

Now, this National Center for the Performing Arts is absolutely staggering.  It doesn't have the gaudy "chinoiserie" of some late Empire art ... it goes all the way back to the purity of form and sweeping lines of the art of the Song Dynasty in my opinion.  The building itself is in the shape of a gigantic yin-yang, so it speaks to us of the balance of the cosmos. It has an opera house, concert halls, regular theatres, recital halls, and all sorts of nooks and crannies, as well as a lovely Chopin exhibit.

On the way to the NCPA I met my colleagues for the first time.  I think we were all a little disoriented (except of course for those already working with the Chinese on coproduction.)  I soon saw familiar faces, though.  Toh Weng Cheong of the Singapore Lyric Opera and Warren Mok of Hong Kong were both there, as well as one of best friends, soprano Nancy Yuen.

We were escorted to an impressive opening ceremony, where Lorin Maazel gave a speech denouncing Regietheater and the dignitaries of the NCPA, such as Chen Ping, president of it all, were present.  Then came the first entertainment of the weekend, a performance of Traviata in the new hall which certainly showed off all of its technical specs to great advantage, though some of the western opera company heads were less than enthralled about its musical aspects.  Nevertheless, this was an ambitiously designed production and gave us a great taste of what the NCPA is capable of....

I'll try to catch up on this narrative tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


So, last week I found myself in Beijing, as a guest of the Chinese ministry of culture, representing the Bangkok Opera at an international summit which featured all sorts of Big Names ... the Deutsche Opera Berlin, La Fenice, Opera Australia, den Norske Opera and so on ... celebrities like Lorin Maazel ... a big production of Traviata in a huge architectural phantasmagoria of an opera house ... and so on.

I wanted to do a day by day blog about it from Beijing, but to my amazement I discovered that blogger was blocked in China, as were Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube.  So China was truly another universe.  It was in a sense like a three-day mission to Mars.  Yet it was an alien world that had many points in common with my own world.  And shared many of our hopes, fears, dreams, and ambitions.  Despite many differences, I felt welcomed and very much at home, and left China with a powerful feeling of wanting to help, and to accept their help.   Clearly, our strengths and weaknesses complement each other well.

The Chinese have built an incredible cultural center and are investing enormous amounts of money into creating an internationally viable opera.  Thailand, on the other hand, has an ageing cultural center and have invested very little money in creating an opera company ... yet its opera company has a surprising amount of international traction, with real coverage in Opera, Opera News, the New York Times, and all those "real" media.  It does seem that we have things we can offer each other, and by the end of the conference we were figuring out what those things might be.

So, from a wild opening ceremony where Lorin Maazel gave a speech blasting Regietheater to a closing dinner featuring duck done a dozen ways, from stuffy panels to deals in hotel bars, there's a lot to tell about those three days in China.  But now that I have almost daily rehearsals for our forthcoming kids' concert this Sunday, I can only blog in bits and pieces, so I'll have to tell more tomorrow....

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My Own Private Road Map

Before I went to China last week, M.R. Usnisa of the Bangkok Post happened to ask me "Well ... if you were prime minister, what would you do?"

This is the kind of question we all ask ourselves sometimes.  And most of the time, we realize that, much as we would want to change the world, we ourselves would rather have that responsibility belong to someone else.

Nevertheless, it's true that, just as a private little fantasy, I had already drawn up a road map of my own.  When she found out, she asked me to email it her ... which forced me to dig it out and look at it.

Well ... it is impossible, and it would cost too much, and it would annoy too many people, and it would shake too many monkeys out of too many trees, but here it is.  Anyone can play at this game.

Somtow's Road Map

1. A Complete Overhaul of the Educational System.
Make high-quality education genuinely universal.  Work to end the "unquestioning rote learning" philosophy of education that pervades even the best institutions in the country.  Take a good look at revisionist textbooks.  Encourage schools to teach openmindedness in analysing the lessons of history.  Teach kids to question their teachers.  Teach teachers how to teach.

2. Work towards inclusivity by battling linguistic and ethnic prejudices and by decentralizing.
Dialects shouldn't be treated as "second class".  Speakers should be empowered and not made to feel inferior.  It should be acceptable to teach school and make official pronouncements both in standard Thai and in regional dialects.  Speakers of standard Thai should be taught the linguistic principles of these dialects in school so that they stop being able to pretend they don't understand them.  This should extend towards minorities as well.  If a country has a single center, that center is an Achilles heel.  Make regional centers more important and give them the ability to decide for themselves how local issues should be handled.  In giving up some control, the center in the end becomes stronger and more credible.

3. Prosecute all sides equally if egregious breaches of law have occurred.
Don't let anyone who performs acts of vandalism get away with it even if the government thinks their viewpoint supports their own.  If the government does decide it should deal gently with those who break the law, it should still set clear limits, boundaries that no side may cross. Such limits should include seizing airports, city centers, arson, and intimidating people with opposing viewpoints with physical threats.

4. Make corruption socially unacceptable.
But don't just keep saying it's a bad thing.  Attack the root causes.  Make sure officials have real salaries instead assuming they will eke them out with bribes.

5. Make freedom of speech a central tenet of policy.
This doesn't mean endorsing hate speech or speech that incites violence.  But when such speech occurs, it should be dealt with through legal channels or with clear, unambiguous guidelines, and there should be judicial review of any government attempt to deal with such speech before any action can be taken by the government.

I sincerely believe that if those five points are addressed, the end result would be to address most of the things that people find problematic about Thailand's society today.  Elections would become real expressions of the well-thought-out opinions of real majorities — something that has never been true in any election in the history of Thailand.  Society would understand that agreeing to disagree is already a step forward.  It's not just that parts of this country are way behind the education curve; it's also that the parts that are ahead are not always told that thinking for yourself should be education's ultimate goal.  Real education is the key to narrowing the income gap as well.

In fact, I would submit that everything may well derive from this point, so perhaps the road map should actually consist only of a single item.  Too simplistic?  Yeah....

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Truth About Thailand

As a result of certain things I've written in this blog, I was invited to a meeting at Thammasat University a couple of weeks ago.  Members of the Thai press and other media were there.  The purpose of the meeting was whether something could be done about what many people around here believe to be highly unbalanced coverage of Thailand in some of the western media.

Although the exchange of views started off in a pretty sane way, it was clear that there was a lot of anger and eventually one part of the group got into how we should all direct our energies in punishing CNN, banning it, and so on.

I got up and I explained my view, which is that this is precisely the kind of thinking that feeds into the preexisting prejudice that this country must necessarily have an evil military regime going around oppressing everyone.  I said, "What you are complaining about is that these people provide only a half-open window to the truth.  The answer to this problem is not to slam shut that window, but to open all the other windows and let in all the light.  If you do so, you have to trust that most people are smart enough to form a balanced opinion."

The combination of my plain speaking and humorously quirky Thai must have got through to some people because I suddenly found myself being nominated to lead a task force to do just that ... "open the windows".  Well, it's more of a think tank and I don't "lead" it, because I don't think there should be a leader.  It's more of a group effort.

One thing I did do was put up a website,, and invited several people who (a) could communicate well in English and (b) weren't affiliated with the government or any news station strongly identified with a political party ... to post any articles or letters to that site.  So far I've invited half a dozen people and about four have put up material.  The idea is that if all this material is in one place, it reduces the amount of time needed for a responsible journalist to round out his story.

The site is not a chat board, so comments are disabled.  There will be links to a variety of news clips as well once they are identified and made available.

While I was away in China last week, I felt quite incapacitated at times, as someone who is used to constantly blogging, leaving messages on FB, and tweeting; all three things are blocked in China as is youtube.  It was strange to be in a situation so techologically advanced, so similar to our society in some ways, yet so cut off at the same time.  The internet at the Regent was faster and less quirk-ridden than the Internet here in Bangkok, yet I couldn't reach many of the sites that are my daily bread.

It did make me appreciate the fact that Thailand is a far more open and tolerant society than most of its neighbors, despite the recent horror.  Anyway, I couldn't blog about China although my trip there may well have huge consequences for the arts in this country and the way this country can be perceived by others.  Now that I'm back, however, I'll talk about all that soon.  There is so much on my plate now that I have to snatch the time to write this blog.

While I was gone, I did receive some emails congratulating me ... but didn't know what I was being congratulated for.

I found out from Bruce Gaston on my return than many people were crediting me and my "Dan Rivers" article (which seemed to have gone viral) for the fact that CNN has in fact started to acknowledge the existence of more complex issues and that the issue of the armed militants has finally been discussed.  Even though the acknowledgement seems to have come almost "through gritted teeth" it is nevertheless real progress.

Of course, my blog was only one of probably hundreds of reactions that may have come to their attention, but it may have put the issues in terms that someone there could appreciate.  Anyway, I received an email from no less a figure than the secretary-general of ASEAN, offering an appeciation of my help ... and also reminding us all that Thailand's international perception is far from salvaged at this stage.

On my return, the kids in our youth orchestra told me they wanted to do something to help those affected by the recent tragedy (of whatever political color) and they wanted it to be the thing they do best.  So, on June 20, a Sunday afternoon so that the whole family can come, they will perform a concert at the Thailand Cultural Center ... a REAL concert, with big works like Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. All the income from this concert will be handed to the Governor of Bangkok to help his "Together we can" fund.  I've agreed that giving it directly to the Governor is okay because I saw that during the troubles, despite his political affiliation, he clearly tried to function as the Governor of all Bangkokians, not some of them.

So, you can reserve seats by calling Ratana at (02) 231-5273 or send an email to