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Interview with Parit Wacharasindhu (Full)

Back in 2020, we sat down with Parit Wacharasindhu to discuss youth voices in Thailand. He is best known for co-founding the "New-Dem" group within the Democrat party in 2018 and later leaving the Democrat party in protest when the party joined Palang Pracharath's coalition. As of 2022, he has joined the Move Forward Party, a leading opposition party in the National Assembly. Wacharasindhu is often known by his nickname 'Itim'.

You've talked about the culture of seniority in the past and how it causes younger generations to feel that their voices aren't heard. What would be the three most important points you'd say to anyone of the younger generations to convince them that their voices do actually make an impact?

The number one thing I want to say is that your voice does matter. When you look at changes that happen around the world, whether it's political changes or changes at a company organizational level, you'll realize that a lot of times the ideas actually come from the younger generations. So in the progressive society that we want Thailand to be, I think it's very important that we get a diverse set of viewpoints of people across different age groups, different genders, different professions, different provinces. So I think the number one thing is just to give reassurance that your voice matters, no matter who you are.

The second thing I would say is that young voices are needed now more than ever. This is coming from the fact that everything is changing at a much faster rate - we see technological advances coming into almost every area of our lives. There are a lot of areas where actually the youth is expected to take a leading role. A good analogy I always use is: imagine that you are living in a house with your family. Suddenly someone says the internet isn't working. Who do the people in the house turn to? They always turn to the grandchildren, right. They always turn to younger generations. So because of this new technology coming in at a faster rate, there are actually a lot of areas where the youth are almost the experts in those fields. I think if you extrapolate that analogy to the wider picture, a lot of the changes we want to see in society is driven by technology, right? So whether it's using technology to democratize education, whether it's using technology to improve healthcare, whether it's using technology to increase financial inclusion, a lot of the solutions that we want to see from a policy point of view require knowledge and expertise in technology. So in that sense, the voice of the youth is even more important than before.

The third thing I want to say is, don't forget how you want to be heard today, and make sure you listen to the youth when you're no longer part of it. Because at the end of the day, we've talked about this problem of the youth not being heard for several years, around several generations, which means that logically, there must've been some youth who felt their voices were not heard, and then after they grew up, and they became the older generations of the population, they ended up not hearing the youth of the next generation. So in that sense, whatever frustration you feel today about your voice not being heard, make sure that when you are no longer young and you are one of the older generations, you do listen to what the youth of that day have to say.

I think one of the biggest arguments is how ingrained this hierarchical culture is in our society. What do you think would be the best way to fix it, what solutions do you think we should all focus on? Do you think it'd be a really long process?

I don't think it's going to happen overnight. I think as you correctly mentioned, the idea of seniority is embedded. It's embedded up to a certain extent, you know, culture. I think there's a very fine line between respecting your elders and doing exactly what they tell you to do. So I think getting that balance right is not something that's going to be easy. I think if you talk about the starting point in terms of creating change, I always feel that education is always a good starting point for any change. I believe that if you want to understand the culture of a certain country, you can understand it quite well by looking at the culture in the classroom of that country.

If you go into a classroom and it is set up in a way that you know, the teacher is raised on a platform, and they speak downwards to the students who are packed in the middle of the room, listening to the teacher. And then if you sit down for one hour the teacher speaks for about 55 minutes, and any time a student wants to ask a question, they're shut down, or they're told not to interrupt, then you will get a society that basically has the same culture of accepting differences of opinion as that classroom.

But on the other hand, if you go into a classroom and you see that the teacher is actually sat on the same level as the students, and the students are, let's say, organized around in a circle where everyone can express their opinions freely. The teacher doesn't do a lot of speaking, but does a lot of listening and guiding group discussions by the students. Then you'll get a different sort of culture once you step outside of the classroom. So I think you can see exactly where Thailand fits between those two extreme examples. But I think the quicker we can shift our classrooms to a more inclusive environment, the quicker we can shift our education system to be more responsive and more accepting of the students' opinions, and the quicker our overall culture can shift towards one where the youth voices can be heard.

So do you think that means more money should be put into the education system? I was talking to a teacher the other day and they were saying how a lot of teachers actually can't even focus on planning the lessons properly and learning the proper techniques because they have to do all of the school’s administrative tasks as well. Whereas in other countries most teachers don't have to deal with this extra stuff.

Yeah. So I think two points on that. Number one is that I think there should be more investment in education, but that doesn't necessarily mean more money, because actually a lot of the challenges and problems with education in Thailand at the moment can be solved without the need for any additional money. Reducing the paperwork of teachers to allow for more time to plan the lesson, to reduce that administrative workload doesn't require any money, changing the curriculum to be more progressive, to allow for more free exchange of opinions, to be more focused on improving skills rather than testing children's ability to memorize - that doesn't require any money. So I think all the investment in terms of thinking, and in terms of planning needs to be put into the education system, some of which may require a budget, some of which may not.

But I think secondly, you touched on an important point, which is how the budget of the country is allocated. It depends a lot on whether the youth are heard or not - because at the end of the day, if you set the minimum age for voting to be 18, that means that actually, formally, the voices of people younger than 18 are not heard. So I think it's no surprise that if you don't listen to the voices of the younger generation, then a lot of the issues that the younger generation feel are important might be neglected. One of which could be education. The other of which could be things like environment, which heavily impacts younger generations because they have to live with the current climate for longer than the older generations. So my two points: One is yes, more investment should be put into education, but that doesn't necessarily mean more money, or a bigger budget. The second one is that how resources are allocated should be reflective of what people of different age groups want as well.

You just mentioned how the minimum voting age of 18 causes the views of people under 18 to not be reflected in government policy. So are you someone who thinks that the voting age should be lower or do you just think teenagers should be learning to speak out from a much younger age?

Yeah. I mean, when we talk about changing the voting age, I think it's a tricky issue because it's a question of where you draw the line, if it's not 18 then what age, right? Is 17 low enough, is 16 low enough. I think two things. One is, if you are talking about the minimum age for certain activities, I think the more important age limit we should change is the age at which you can run for MP or the age at which you can be considered in the executive branch of government. So at the moment you have to be 18 to vote, but you have to be 25, to run for MP, and you have to be 35 to be considered for a ministerial or a government position at local governments. So I think if you want to change the legal and illegal age issue, I think it's more about reducing those ages to be equal to 18. So that if you can vote, you can run for MP, then you can be considered for executive positions. But I think secondly, my second point is that voting is only one form of political participation and expression of opinion. So I think, for example – social media gives a good platform for citizens to voice their opinions. I think encouraging the youth to speak out more freely, encouraging them to assemble and engage in constructive activities is equally important as the first point. You don't need to be able to vote to actually take part in society.

So for example these platforms like Thai Youth Express - they're a big help for this?

Yep, yep.

Do you think there are other factors as well, apart from this culture of seniority and the education, that has contributed to the deficiency of youth expression in our country?

I think that the answer to this question may be wider than just youth expression, but freedom of expression in general, I think there are legitimate concerns about whether Thai citizens can really have the freedom to express their opinions. I think what we've seen, especially in the past, is that even though our freedom of expression is actually enshrined or written in the constitution, in practice, we see a lot of infringements on this basic liberty. We saw, for example, some, even some academics or professors being prevented or filed lawsuits for expressing certain political viewpoints. And then when you can't even have freedom of expression at an academic level, then there's a very dangerous territory in terms of limiting people's freedom of expression. So I think in that sense, it's not just youth expression that's at risk there. It's the freedom of expression for people of all age groups in Thailand, which I don't think is a hundred percent protected at the moment.

When was the moment that you realized that the cultural seniority was a problem? Have you always known that, or was a moment when you were suddenly like, Hey, I haven't thought about how I should actually be working against this.

I have to say, I have been quite fortunate. In most of my working experience, I've always found myself in an organization where the younger generations of the people in the organization can fully express their opinions. So for example, after I graduated, I went to work in management consulting firm, called Mckinsey's. Their model is based around getting fresh graduates in to basically drive certain areas of work, which actually at other organisations might require an older/more senior person to take responsibility. So in one aspect, I think, from not having to encounter this obstacle of seniority at my first company, it also shines a spotlight on how this could be a problem at other organisations.

But I think one funny personal anecdote I can share is that when I was working at Mckinsey's, even though the culture in our own organisation was quite open to allowing younger members of the company to express their viewpoints and to take on certain areas of responsibility, when we served clients, sometimes the culture of that client company was not the same, and very quickly I found myself having to adjust. So for example, on the first day of working with certain clients, which was the time when they would see the makeup of our team, they would realise that a lot of us were quite young. And a lot of time we were suddenly asked the question of like, how old are you? Like, what would you know, to come give advice to us. And I found myself always using the answer "I'm in my twenties," to hide the fact that I was 21. So I think subconsciously, even though it wasn't a big obstacle, I did feel it was a bit of a barrier that I had to find myself not being fully confident in revealing my age in the worry that my abilities would be judged, not on what I can do, but based on how old I am.

And facing this, what made you decide to leave that and go down the political career path?

I mean, ever since I was young, I always felt that the quickest and most sustainable way to create change is through politics. So even though I initially started working in a consulting company, I always had this dream at the back of my mind of pursuing a career in politics, but I didn't think that I would enter it so soon. *laughs* So, one of the reasons I actually ended up entering it quite early on in my career is precisely because I felt that last year, Thailand was at an inflection point, where actually there is a real space for younger generations to come in and drive certain areas, or certain changes. I felt that the country was at a state where people were becoming quite frustrated with how politics has played out in the past, and were becoming more perceptive of new ideas and new faces. So I think that's why I decided to enter politics at a young age. And some of the key areas that I tried to drive as a younger generation of the party I was a member of, were things like pushing for same sex marriage, abolishing conscription, making overall policy more environmentally conscious, which I think are areas which resonate quite a lot with younger generations in Thailand. So I think in that sense, there was an opening for the younger generation to come in at that point and create change and drive a certain agenda which may have been neglected in the past by people from older generations.

Just one last question. Do you think the compulsory voting in Thailand helps with the younger generations getting involved and making it a real democracy? Or do you think it actually makes it less of a democracy because people are either even less bothered to vote or don't fully look at all the policies and just vote randomly if they are forced to?

So I think the key result that we want to achieve is two things. One is, how do we get the youth to be interested and engaged in the decision making process? And then number two is how do we ensure that their engagements are heard and listened to. So I think in that sense, forcing people to vote, personally I don't feel that that's the right way to deliver those two results. Because at the end of the day, you don't want to just see nice statistics, which say that, oh X percent of the younger generation came out to vote, right? You actually want to see the real story, which is that actually, the younger generation in the country are genuinely interested in coming out to vote, genuinely interested in getting their voices heard, and genuinely have a chance in creating change and influencing change through the country. So I think forcing younger people to come out and vote will only help the statistics, but it wouldn't actually increase the real level of engagement, the level of impact that younger generations can have in our country.

Also, one more thing on that last point. I think forcing only the younger generation to come and vote could be seen as looking down at the younger generation and saying to them like, Hey, you guys are young, so most likely you're not interested in voting. So we have to force you to come out. But if you actually look at younger generations on an equal footing with other generations, you'll probably realize that they are equally as interested in creating a better future for themselves as other generations. So I don't think that there's a special, mandatory measure that needs to be taken to achieve that.


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