Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries



Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia which has never been under imperialistic Western power, and has been a nation with its own unique language and culture for more than 700 years. Thus, until recently the problem of national-culturral identity, which has been found among decolonized Third World countries in Asia and Africa, was not its principal concern. Thai consciousness of its national identity has been recently awakened as a result of being threatened by the increasingly pervasive and intrusive materialistic (technological) values brought about by modern mass media, by modernization, which the Thai government has enthusiastically undertaken, and by the introduction of Western technical and economic organization into Thai traditional society. * In the West, traditional and cultural values are, paradoxically, less vulnerable to the materialism of contemporary economic organization, partly because of the very gradual emergence of the modern economic system from the matrix of the cultures of Western society. There has been time for an adaptment and an accommodation of traditional cultures within the modern framework. On the contrary, in developing countries like Thailand, traditional cultures have existed in continuity with modern economic values and the associated behavior patterns, and they are, in consequence, more vulnerable. The spread of social change renders an adjustment of traditional cultures even more precarious. Thus, at the present time in Thailand there is an urgency to cultivate amore acute awareness of our distinctive cultural values as a counterbalance to the undesirable result of the materialistic values which have emerged as a consequence of economic development.

For Thailand, national-cultural identity is neither cultural uniformity nor the affirmation of the culture of the majority over that of the minority. Individual cultures are considered as belonging to a definable collectivity or the nation. Thus, in the Thai context, to be concerned with national identity means to be concerned with the pluralistic indigenous cultures of different groups within Thai society. The knowledge of these cultures is necessary to foster a sense of national identity as well as to facilitate modernization in the country. After a period of trial and error it is now recognized that the traditional cultures of a people have an important bearings on social development, individual motivation and economic attitudes and performance. They condition people's receptivity to new ideas, to social planning, to medical programs and civic and public behavior. An understanding of the traditional cultures of economic planning, for the implementation of projects in medicine and public health, and for the maintenance and improvement of public welfare. There is little point in making large expenditures on social and medical planning intended to produce social welfare, if, in the process, people become distressed by the disruption caused to the way of life by the planners who are insensitive to the cultural aspects of everyday life.

As a result of this awareness, more emphasis is now being placed on study and research of the traditional cultures of different groups, particularly those in the rural areas.

At this time, Thailand is deeply concerned to tap its own cultural resources to domesticate modernization and to nurture national resilience. In this connection the humanities are called upon to help. The turn to the humanities seems inarguably necessary. After all, which among all the professions is more directly concerned with the human cultural heritage than the humanities? Though the study of these humanistic disciplines, students are made aware of the existence of cultural pluralism and can appreciate and identify themselves with their own unique cultural heritage. Thai universities have been the highest transmitters of Western culture in Thai society. In order for the universities to produce valuable graduates who are not entirely intellectual imitators and disciples of the West, alienated from their own cultural heritage, Thai universities, which were based on one or more Western models, must reexamine their humanities programs, the contents of their courses, and permit indigenous cultures in Thai society to penetrate more into the universities curricula. Only in this way can the humanities be the preservers and transmittors of national culture. The emphasis on indigenous cultures, however, does not mean that Western cultures should be completely disregarded. Western culture and other civilizations (eg. Chinese, Indian and Islamic) are to be studied as one part of the total human heritage. We can learn much more from these pluralistic cultures. In a sense, every culture can be, in some degree, an illuminating critique of our own life, and lead to greater and more creative self-understanding. However, in keeping Western culture as an ingredient of the humanities, every effort must be made not to create a kind of cultural dependency at the universities as well as to prevent the students from being uncritical, imitative and passive consumers of Western knowledge.

As preservers and transmitters of national culture, many colleges and universities in Thailand have been including Thai pluralistic indigenous cultures in their programs of study and research with the belief that this systematic, objective and ethnically neutral study of these cultures will enable one to acquire a serious understanding of one's own culture. Folk cultures and folk crafts have become an important part of the humanities curricula. At the same time, Thai dance and music are given a new legitimacy in many colleges. This adds a new richness to Thai aesthetic experience. In addition, cultural exhibitions and the sending of local dancing troupes to promote interest in local indigenous cultures are usual activities of many colleges in the province. This endeavor helps to deepen the life experience of folk communities in rural areas. The promotion of traditional arts and crafts, and the folkways of different groups, enhances the worth and identity of local indigenous cultures, the best of Thai national culture. To enable students to make use of the vital resources of the past for the clarification of the present, the teaching of national history is now being reemphasized in the humanities program at all colleges. The students are encouraged to be proud of their ancestors and to be aware of their own traditional and national characteristics. The study of the past helps one to realize the capacity of the people to survive even in a rapidly changing world. Some colleges have begun the teaching of oral literature. Further progress can be made including more effective utilization of the oral literature, duly transcribed as an introduction to the pre-literary creativity of Thai society.

Since language is one of the main cultural factors that fosters a sense of national identity, the humanities will not properly preserve and transmit national culture unless it is concerned with the study and research in the national languages. In Thailand the chief national language is Thai. This language has been the primary medium of instruction at all schools, colleges and universities. In spite of this fact, many Thai university graduates are not quite competent in using their native language to make effective communication. It is now thought that Thai should be studied at an advanced level by all undergraduates ---regardless of the field -- so that they are able to use this language to cope with a wide range of intellectual discourse. It is also recognized that as a part of Thai culture, the language of Thai Muslims should also receive acknowledgement in the educational syllabi of schools, colleges and universities alongside the Thai language.

All these linguistic and cultural studies help to promote considerably more interest in Thai indigenous cultures by devoting themselves to the promotion of Thai culture. The colleges cease to be the high priests of Western civilization and instead become the transmitters of the wealth of the past and the focus of the regeneration of the traditional values. This helps to balance the weight of the impact of Western values on Thai culture, and therefore fosters a greater sense of national-cultural identity. The emphasis on the study of the indigenous cultures allows the particular creativity of these groups to find expression and appreciation with in the context national culture.

Apart from preserving and transmitting national cultures, the humanities in Thailand are involved with the formation of personal character and values in accordance with national ideals. Morality and ethics have always been the concern of the humanities. Hence in the period of the reconstruction of the nation, the humanities are essential in fostering national ideals and aspiration. Desired Thai national characteristics such as tolerance, freedom, flexibility, receptivity, integrity, loyalty to communal goals and commitment to national purposes are exalted, while rugged individualism and irresponsibility in personal behavior are condemned.

In Thailand, the humanities are not only important in the preservation of cultural heritage but also play a significant role in the re-interpretation and criticism of the national culture. These two functions of the humanities are necessary if we want the humanities to be more than a mere reservoir of the cultural past. There are many ways in which the humanities can make themselves vital and creative resources for coping with the new challenges of modernity. A culture is dynamic and needs re-interpretation whenever a new historical situation arises. The humanities should therefore re-interpret cultural resources in the light of new situations. Only by this way can we make creative use of traditional cultures and can these cultures survive in the face of new challenges and the stress and strain that accompany them.

It is now well recognized in Thailand that the interaction of culture and a new situation engenders a need for new interpretation of that culture. This is in the case of the tension between religion and modernization. In Thailand, for example, there is an apparent conflict between Buddhist values, which are the badge of national-cultural identity of the country, and the secular values, which have accompanied modernization. For example, detachment and other-worldliness as opposed to engagement and this-worldliness, contentment (non-acquisition or satisfaction with what one possesses or obtains) and the enjoyment of non-compulsive or non-acquisitive life as opposed to the materialism of aggressive restless (and never satisfied) acquisitiveness. In order for Buddhism to remain a powerful and cultural force in the formation of Thai national identity, the tradition must re-fashion itself but in ways which are characteristically Buddhist. This is happening in present-day Thailand. Buddhist scholars are placing emphasis on the this-worldly concern of the tradition. The Buddhist ideal of detachment is translated into disinterestedness (unselfish public concern and services) and a dispassionate mode of action that will provide unemotional but not indifferent solutions to political and social problems. Non-violence is reinterpreted to imply less exploitation and destructiveness as far as the environment and natural resources are concerned as well as non-aggressiveness and tolerance in personal relations. All these re-interpretations are efforts to enable traditional cultures to give meaning to man in a new situation.

The critical function of the humanities distinguishes them from other disciplines. Unlike other fields, the humanities are self-critical. They can help to cultivate a critical habit of thought in the students. In regard to the very concept of national-cultural identity, the humanities can bring clarification and therefore be able to select what from the past is essential and viable to preserve and transmit to the future. Thanks to the critical spirit of the humanities, Thai traditional cultural values are now being re-examined and assessed much more than in the past. For example, Thai individualism is not the rugged individualism that is found in many societies, for it is not completely divorced from a sense of collective responsibility. Many studies of this characteristic have shown that it is combined with the pattern of cooperation in the necessary task of the village life which is pragmatic, workable and reliable.

Similarly, the content of the humanities in developing countries cannot exclude entirely the cultural values of the West. But the humanities can assimilate them through their critical function, in a selective and constructive manner. This selective assimilation of Western cultural values in keeping with the central core of belief and precept of a country will do more to protect against the uncritical massive appropriation of them than will the complete rejection that had been tried in some Third World countries. Here a distinction must be made between the value of the modernization and the Western context in which many of them first originated. We do not want to have a Westernized Thai who keeps up with the latest fashion and other superficial aspects of Western life, parroting his Western peers but picking up not the best from the West but its trash. We want to have a Thai who can live with personal integrity and unalienated from his cultural roots but in the world where the forces of modernity and communication between people are more and more creating an international community and culture. The clock cannot be turned back: science, technology, industrialization, economic interdependence and cultural exchange cannot be stopped.

Despite their importance, the significance of the humanities are often unappreciated by many of the young people in Thailand. Many of these people choose the sciences and related subjects over the humanities. This preference rests on the fact that this choice will provide access to more prestigious and well-paying occupations. This habit of mind which shrinks from the humanities is in conformity with a general attitude that has long prevailed in the West, the impact of an uncritical acceptance of scientific reason and technological values. Apart from this, one may also argue that the question of relevance of the humanities to young people arises today because so many professors of humanities do not really believe in the value of the humanities they are teaching. They do not believe that they are teaching an absolutely important subject. If one really believes that the humanities are significant, it is easy to show young people that the humanities are indeed so. The students then will have little problem in understanding and accepting the humanities as such. One should not be much concerned with the number of the students who study the humanities. History has shown that it only takes a small group to have an enormous effect on social and cultural change. If we could have a certain number of good teachers and students who are the true believers in the humanities, these disciplines could once again reclaimed their prestigious place in the academic world. Where can these truly dedicated teachers of high calibre and good concerned students be found? That is the problem to be solved only by the academic world today.


*The impact of technological values on Thai culture has been considerable. In a land where non-killing had been one of the highest values, the use of pesticides is increasing in agriculture for economic advantages. Mass education using Western model system is widespread. It has introduced the idea that education is primarily for the purpose of employment which immediately follows schooling. The list of areas in which Western cultural values have effected Thai culture is extensive. In addition to these lists it includes housing, methods of transport, communication, administration, food patterns, games, clothing, music, agriculture and the family.