Lots of expats in Thailand think that way … but are they right?
Let’s start by stating the obvious:
1. Constantly changing, inconsistently enforced visa regulations are irritating, and not good either for business or for relations between the Thai government and expats trying to live and/or work here legally.
2. Proposed new draconian measures aimed at restricting foreign ownership of businesses, as proposed by the interim government only to be withdrawn after howls of protest from all corners, are not good either for business or for relations between the Thai government and expats trying to live and/or work here legally.
3. Restrictions on foreign ownership of homes and land (restrictions that can be circumvented with expertise and money) are not good for relations between the Thai government and expats trying to live and/or work here legally.
4. The cost and inconvenience of complying with government regulations on resident visas and work permits may be good for the “legal advisor” business but they are not good for relations between the Thai government and expats trying to live and/or work here legally.
There not being much disagreement about the above assertions, we then proceed to the obvious question:
If it’s more-or-less self evident that the actions of the government as relates to expats’ ability to live and work legally in Thailand are annoying, inconvenient, and to a considerable extent ineffective, what could be motivating them?
There are, it would appear, three possible explanations.
1. They really don’t like us. They’d like us to leave. Preferably leaving our wallets behind.
2. They’re incompetent. They don’t mean to alienate us, but bureaucrats have to do something to fill their hours at the office so they make up regulations trying to control us because that’s, after all, what governments do.
3. There really is a problem that the government is trying to deal with. They don’t deal with it perfectly – after all, it is a government – but just because the medicine doesn’t taste good doesn’t mean the patient doesn’t need it.
Truth be told, there’s a measure of all of these explanations at work in the maneuvering of the various agencies of the Thai government. But consider the very real possibility that the government is reacting to a very real problem, one created largely by the expat community itself.
For instance, for years it was possible for expats to live in Thailand on 30-day tourist visas. A day trip over to Cambodia once a month was all it took to circumvent the quite reasonable intention of the government to differentiate its treatment of holiday-makers as opposed to retirees. What government in the world wouldn’t want to welcome shoppers and vacationers as widely as possible, but limit the ability of foreigners to take up permanent residence? The “visa run” flew in the face of that quite reasonable policy, and the response, while certainly inconvenient to the large number of expats living here illegally, was entirely appropriate. Their fate wasn’t so terrible, in any event, as most of them seem to have moved down to Sihanoukville quite happily.
For many foreigners (mostly men), Pattaya is a sexual wonderland. Even a modest pension allows many men to enjoy the services of young women from impoverished families, a lifestyle certainly not available in their home countries. They come to see the benefits of this economic imbalance as a “right”, and resent any and all attempts by the government to limit and regulate it.
But for many Thai people, the Pattaya expats’ hedonistic lifestyle is a raw sore on the nation’s body. Public drunkenness, rampant prostitution, drug abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and street crime are totally at odds with the essentially spiritual and certainly conservative Thai culture.
The government might be willing to turn a blind eye to “Sin City” in exchange for the jobs and infusion of hard currency created by vacationers’ spending. For awhile.
But when the vacationers’ decide to stay, the problems multiply and the cost-benefit analysis of the government turned from “thumbs up” to “thumbs down”. This is particularly true with the “visa run” expats who lived here as cheaply as possible, contributing as little as possible to the community, operating illegal businesses without paying taxes, using public hospitals when they get ill or injured, sending their children to publicly-funded schools, driving up the cost of housing and other goods and services with their greater “spending power”, and in general “taking” a great deal more than they “gave”.
Put another way, while we’re all perfectly happy to have a visit from relatives or old friends, we’d not like it at all if they simply moved in, ate our food, drank our beer, monopolized the TV, and paid nothing. It’s an apt analogy.
Thailand is an insular country in many ways. It resists the world-wide migration to English as the international second-language. It prefers Thai music and Thai movies to Hollywood’s offerings. It has resisted being subsumed into the wider world for hundreds of years, and continues to do so today.
One of the manifestations of that insularity is the prohibition against ownership of businesses by foreigners. Some of this comes from the paternalistic view of the government that Thai people cannot successfully compete with foreigners in business, so must be protected against competition by banning foreigners from owning businesses. Similar policies are employed by other governments in the region, probably at root aimed at limiting a Chinese takeover of the economy. It is not particularly directed against legal resident expats owning small businesses legally, but it does limit/prohibit that activity. Sort of like the baby being thrown out with the bath water. But in truth it’s not all that difficult to circumvent these restrictions with the use of company ownership with majority Thai ownership – often entailing making a wife the legal owner. It’s annoying and inconvenient, but there’s a legitimate reason for it.
The same could be said of the proposed-then-withdrawn modifications of the Foreign Business Act. This made it much more difficult to use proxy owners to mask the actual ownership of Thai businesses by foreigners. A plot to drive us out? Racism?
Not really. One of the most damning misdeeds of the Thaksin government was its connivance in the sale of the Thai national telecommunications company to Malaysian owners – a clear violation of the prohibition against foreign ownership, and all the more scandalous in that it involved a core national infrastructure company. (The US, for instance, similarly limits foreign ownership of many core industries, as do most EU countries.)
And if the sale to foreign interests wasn’t bad enough, further Thaksin maneuvers allowed the family to avoid paying taxes on their huge windfall. So the government – in typically ham-handed government style, it must be admitted – came up with an amended FBA so restrictive that they managed to alienate just about every business constituency in the county. They were forced to withdraw the new regulations – for now.
But make no mistake, there was a very large problem of proxy ownership by foreigners exposed by the Shin sale, and just because the first attempt to solve it would have injured many innocent foreign and Thai businesses doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem, or that the government shouldn’t try again to solve it (hopefully employing a scalpel rather than a meat-axe as the instrument of change).
So, “do they really not want us here?” No doubt some don’t. Probably most do. But only with better behaviour on our part, more respect for the Thai culture, more compliance with the laws of the country.
Seems reasonable to me.