Saturday, June 09, 2007

Good morning ... Thailand!

Thai Takes

IT IS 8.07am and for an expatriate clicking through Thailand’s television channels, it is refreshing to see a French woman with blonde hair talking about all things Thai in English.

The woman is Dr Valerie McKenzie, who is the anchor and lead presenter of Morning Talk, which is the only English-language talk show in the kingdom where almost all local television programmes are in Thai.

In early 1992, McKenzie, a former journalist with British dailies The Times and the Financial Times, was headhunted to be a co-presenter in the programme, which is shown on state-run Channel 11. She subsequently took over the programme in January 2000.

When Morning Talk was launched 15 years ago, it was shown twice a week. The producer wanted it to go on air every weekday but, at that time, there were not many potential Thai guests who could speak English.

For example, McKenzie recalls, in 1992, when she rang up a ministry to request an interview with the minister, she was told that he did not speak English.

“Then when we tried to get the deputy minister, we were told that he, too, did not speak English. And when we asked if the head of department spoke English, they answered nit noi (Thai for a little bit),” says the woman who looks nit noi like Barbara Walters.

“If the top officials of a ministry could not speak English, basically we could not cover a particular story (related to the ministry) because they (the officials) were not happy to have an interpreter as that would not make them look good.”

On why English was not widely spoken at that time, McKenzie explains that Thailand did not have a second language as it was never colonised, unlike Malaysia, Singapore or Hong Kong. And Thais thought that speaking their mother tongue was sufficient.

In 1998, Morning Talk was finally shown every weekday. McKenzie partially attributes this to the East Asian financial crisis, which led to Thais “loosening” their tongue to English.

After the economic crisis in 1997, Thais realised that if they wanted to be part of the big picture (globalisation) they needed to speak the global language, McKenzie explains, adding that during that time more English-speaking Thais graduates were returning from overseas, too.

Morning Talk, which attracts 2.8 million viewers per show, remains the only English-language talk show on Thai televisions because advertisers would rather advertise in a Thai-language programme with mass appeal.

McKenzie’s dream guest besides the obvious choice of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej is his majesty’s second daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. She admires the princess for following in her father’s footsteps, by giving herself to Thailand.

According to the anchor, Morning Talk is popular with viewers because it answers the unanswered questions in Thailand. In the last month, based on viewers’ phone calls and e-mails, the most popular unanswered questions were on Thai politics.

Questions such as “Do you think that Thailand will have another recession as a result of the difficulties we are facing now with the government?” and “What do you think about the fact that the Democrats have been cleared (of election fraud) while the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) has been dissolved?”

One unanswered question that McKenzie cannot answer is who the next Prime Minister of Thailand will be, because the country’s political situation is volatile.

“We do not know what will happen to the 111 TRT executives (who include deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) who have been banned from politics for five years,” she points out.

For the coming Thai elections, Morning Talk plans to give its viewers balanced coverage. “We will invite politicians from all political parties,” she says, “as long as they speak English.”

(Published in The Star on June 9, 2007)