Diplomatic Affairs by Urasa Por Burapacheep
The numbers speak for themselves: Germans live in the world’s fourth largest economy. Their passport lets them travel to 177 countries with no visa. Their chancellor is the most powerful woman on earth. Their conglomerate Siemens is Forbes’s World’s Top Regarded Company.
On a recent spring day in Berlin, Thailand’s ambassador to Germany, His Excellency Dr Dhiravat Bhumichitr, welcomed Elite+ for a meal at his residence. Two years into his term, the ambassador discussed where Germany stands today and how Thailand can tighten relations.
The term “Industry 4.0” originated in Germany. As Thailand heads towards Thailand 4.0, what is the situation like in Germany?
Germans define Industry 4.0 as the digital transformation of industry. To Germans, Industry 4.0 is the fourth industrial revolution: machine-to-machine communication, driverless cars, 4.0 medical equipment. Like it or not, the revolution is here to stay. The question is how do humans react? This question is often posed in Germany. I recently visited a fully automated factory of a leading German manufacturer. Work is handled by a team of robots – known as Peter, Mathilda and so on. The robots are assigned genders through colour, with sombre colours for the “men” and feminine colours for the “women”. In several nursing homes, robots distribute meals and medicine and take residents for their baths. They are even capable of chitchat. But artificial intelligence doesn’t stop there. Robots – whose cameras are much more precise than the human eye – can now perform surgeries. Could you imagine a world where artificial intelligence judges could process scores of legal precedents and deliver unbiased verdicts? What would happen to our surgeons and judges? These questions must be posed in every field.
Germany remains one of the world’s economic powerhouses with SMEs as their backbone. With this in mind, how can Thailand strengthen investment and trade ties?
The open secret behind the success of German SMEs is vocational education. Thailand’s problem is we have de-emphasized vocational training. German companies are happy with our engineers. But we can’t supply them with enough quality technicians. Every Thai parent wants their child to attend university, not a vocational school. We forget these schools supply the country with technicians who will later helm the forefront of production. Factories run on technicians, day in, day out, after the engineers are long gone. Better vocational education will lead to higher productivity, which equals stronger Thai-German bilateral investment and trade ties.
What’s the reading culture like in Germany?
Germans are big readers. Even with the popularity of e-books, bookstores are still very much in business. This morning, I went for a walk in my neighbourhood. It was a nice day out. Many of my neighbours came out to sunbathe. Ninety-nine per cent of them were reading. The love of books is in their DNA. You can trace it all the way back to the 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press. Then came the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther. Last year marked the 500th anniversary of the Ninety-five Theses, Luther’s attack on contemporary church practices. Within two years, 300,000 copies were already in circulation. It was a remarkable achievement for 1517. Fast-forward 500 years, the Frankfurt Book Fair, which takes place in October, is now the world’s largest publishing event
As a country, what is Germany doing right?
Free access to education is the basis of true democracy. Germans have a relatively high income. They lead comfortable lives and are more than capable of supporting their children through school. But for the German government, parents shouldn’t have to shoulder that burden. They put a system in place: Schools provide textbooks – available to students for the given semester – charge no tuition fees and mandate no uniforms. In Thailand, parents are hit with a litany of fees: uniforms and accessories embroidered with the school emblem, textbooks, writing supplies and school excursions. Lower-income parents must scrounge around and pawn their belongings. By the start of each semester, they are buried in debt. It has long been the case in Thailand that the poor don’t stand a chance for a proper education.
As individuals, what are Germans doing right?
Their respect for themselves and for others. Germans are disciplined from birth. Babies are fed every four hours. Their body clock adjusts to the system. You won’t hear them wailing in public. Parents don’t have to fuss over babies. Dog owners send their dogs to mandatory schools. German dogs are very well behaved. They sit and wait for the light at the intersection. They won’t bark or bring down shelves in grocery stores. They never attack anybody else’s dogs. It may seem trivial. But this translates to a respect for individual rights and, ultimately, peaceful coexistence.
Germany played a leading role in Europe’s refugee crisis. How does the average German view their country’s response?
This crisis affects everyone in Germany, Europe and beyond. For Angela Merkel – herself an East German who has lived through tough times – her attitude is, if Germany doesn’t help, who would? Germany learned its lesson from the two world wars. They are now determined to foster international relations. With Syria, Merkel stood her ground on her open-door policy. Eight hundred ninety thousand refugees arrived in Germany in 2015. Integration centres have since popped up in every town. Of course, Merkel is aware the refugee crisis must be tackled at its source. Germany played a big role in Syria and Afghanistan. Now the debate is on Africa. Whether or not they will succeed is a different story. Despite the long history of European aid to Africa, nothing has led to real stability.
What is the biggest challenge facing the Thai community in Germany?
Statistically speaking, there are over 60,000 Thais living in Germany. But the actual number may be closer to 100,000. The first generation are mainly Thais married to Germans. For these Thais, adapting to life in the country can be difficult. They often arrive without a word of German. The skills they have will not land them jobs. The embassy has been organizing information sessions and training workshops. My colleagues and I often ask ourselves: How can every Thai living in Germany stand on their own two feet and hold their head high? We want to replicate the numerous success stories, the upward mobility among Thai factory workers, restaurant owners, doctors and other professionals.
In your experience, what do Germans think of Thais?
At a more superficial level, you have the German tourists who learned a thing or two on their holiday in Thailand, mostly national stereotypes and a few clichés – Thailand received close to 900,000 German visitors last year. For German businesses, they tend to view their Thai counterparts as honest and fair. Regular Germans might think their Thai friends are fun-loving, kind and generous, always smiling and inviting people into their homes. At the most intimate level, you have the Thai-German marriages. Here couples must navigate a minefield of cultural misunderstandings. A prime example: Thai wives keep sending their husbands’ hard-earned money back to Thailand. For the wives, as long as their family is lacking, they must provide. For the husbands, the way they see it, they only said their vows to their wives, not their wives’ entire extended family. As Thais, we can sympathize, but we can’t so easily mediate such cases.
We heard you were a bit of a history buff. What are your personal views on history?
History is the writing of history. What a group of elites see as truth may not be the truth according to the ordinary people. Humans often lose perspective: The modern nations we live in only came into existence hundreds of years ago. Yet we forget that a discourse we hold as truth is specific to our time. It is not the “Truth” with a capital T; it is one among many truths. Certain countries are more open-minded. They present their side of the story along with its alternatives. This sends a clear message: You are free to make up your own mind. Other countries only serve up one side of the story. They prefer to reinforce stereotypes.
What does Berlin have to offer history buffs?
Berlin is bustling with contemporary and ancient history. Those of you walking through Berlin might notice brass plaques known as Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones”, on the sidewalk. These mark the last known homes and workplaces for victims of the Holocaust. If you want to really understand the Holocaust, I highly recommend the Jewish Museum. You can also visit the Holocaust Memorial just off Brandenburg Gate, one of Berlin’s best-known landmarks. For more on the Cold War era, the DDR Museum, right on the bank of the Spree, gives a sense of life in the German Democratic Republic (DDR). Berlin is home to some of the world’s most renowned antiquities: the bust of Nefertiti at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon and the Roman-era Market Gate of Miletus, both reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum.