Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Don't We All Love Bureaucrats!

There's much to admire about the Thai bureaucracies. In the remotest village every house is registered with a number and this is often displayed on a sign outside like the one in the picture. In Bangkok, street numbering is chaotic, often reflecting the order in which buildings were put up, but in the countryside the postman on his motorbike has a much easier time.

Our house in the village far out in the rice fields is number 123 in village number 7. Our address then has a sub-district and a district in Surin province and with this efficient system, letters from England can sometimes reach us within three days.

The house registration system is essential also for personal identification as every Thai has to be registered as residing at a particular address and the house registration book is produced when anything formal has to be done.

If you want to go and get married, you take it and your ID card to the local district office which is an elegant modern building with a cool interior where they open the computer and find your details on-line.

It's a competent and pervasive bureaucratic system owing something to the old Chinese imperial civil service, with shades of the Napoleonic mairie, and it seems to function well. The staff are invariably civil but with high status and power, they're rarely servile. Nonetheless, the aim is good administration and generally I'm impressed by what I've seen.

Certainly there are great legions of Thai civil servants in post and I'm reminded of British India where bureaucratic procedures were made as elaborate as possible to guard against corruption and theft. Inefficiency was not an issue however, as the wages of a clerk were low; indeed expanding employment was seen as an end in itself.

As Thailand modernises, I can see bureaucratic over-manning and inefficiency becoming more of an issue. The style of the bureaucracy, depite good data processing looks to be half a century out of date. As an example, The Immigration Department can pull up a print-out of all my entrances and exits over the past few years, which is impressive. Yet when I go to their lair in Suan Plu to apply for an extension of my visa, everything is kept in vast paper files and they seem to keep as many photocopies as possible. The place must be groaning, but it's all stashed away and added to the paper mountain.

The best thing for Thailand would be if some tough politician decided to cut the civil service by half... and it'd still be overmanned. He'd probably get gunned down for his audacity too as Thailand is substantially run by the big bureaucracies which are very powerful and no doubt look after their own. When there are constant changes of government through crisis and military coup, what remains in place but the bureaucrats who always retain a firm grip at the epicentre of power.

Yes, you can certainly admire a bureaucrat who runs a tight ship but when he gives you the run around because he says your papers aren't in order, you can't always bring yourself to love him that much!

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