A worker at Bangkok's Khlong Toei Market. Photo: Mark Fisher
A worker at Bangkok's Khlong Toei Market. Photo: Mark Fisher

Re•tention: Pravit RojanaphrukThat Thailand is one of the most unequal societies on earth should be a concerns for all Thais, from those at the top all the way to the lowest echelons.

Last month, the National and Social Development Board vehemently denied that Thailand has the world’s largest income gap as reported by Credit Suisse Bank.

Days before Christmas, Al Jazeera claimed Thailand “has the greatest wealth gap in the world” with 1 percent of the population controlling more than two-thirds of the nation’s wealth.

This is not new news. Back in mid-2016, Credit Suisse claimed that Thailand was the third most unequal country in the world, with 1 percent owning 58 percent of the kingdom’s wealth, behind only Russia and India.

After the 2018 report came out, economist Varakorn Sarmkoses argued that only 35 countries of 133 ranked have complete data for making such computations and thus the results may be inaccurate.

Let us not be too pedantic about whether Thailand is truly the most unequal society on earth. Personally I think it’s not, although the inequality is rather severe.

There are different ways to measure inequality. Here are some aspects that reminds us of the situation:

Let us start with the deserted Bangkok during the just-concluded New Year’s holidays. Bangkok’s streets were near empty as the majority of people working in the capital escaped to visit their home provinces. It means Bangkok is what sociologists call a primate city, a singularly large urban center where most functions – and jobs – are concentrated. Bangkok, which is at least 10 times larger than the next biggest city, Chiang Mai, is concrete testimony to the country’s unequal opportunities. If you were born in the province and had the benefit of a good enough education, you will mostly likely come to Bangkok to seek jobs commensurate with your abilities or try your luck in a nation with a more developed economy.

Don’t think the middle class in Bangkok are not struggling, however.

A friend told me she has to hire tutors for her 4-year-old boy because, by mid-2019, he will have to compete for a kindergarten seat at a well-known state university’s demonstration school. She said on average, there are 4,000 applicants and the school only admits 200. What’s more, 100 out of the 200 places are reserved for either big donors or children of alumni.

The school, she said, is the only way for her son to get a quality education without paying the exorbitant tuition of other schools like international schools or top private schools.

She said money will have to be saved for her boy’s piano and other private tutorials.

While the middle class in Bangkok tries hard to ensure that the next generation will at least be able to maintain the same lifestyle of a middle class.

What about the poor?

It’s tough when you are at the bottom and don’t read or speak English (or increasingly, Chinese). Many pretentious restaurants in Bangkok and other cities don’t have menus in Thai, and if you can’t read English, you simply feel out of place. This may not be a big issue as dinners at such establishments easily cost a week’s worth of minimum wages.

This is why when new political party Future Forward wanted to be as friendly to the poor as possible, it reluctantly decided to reduce annual party membership fees from 200 baht to 100 baht. A hundred baht may be loose change for the middle class, but definitely not for the poor. Thus the adjustment.

Societies that are too unequal cannot expect to be at peace or happy. The inequalities confronting us on a daily basis are a daily struggle for many, who consider winning the lottery their best hope for a truly better future. This is a reminder that we have failed to bring many on board.