Saturday, August 25, 2007

The boss shows the way


AT THE height of speculation on whether Thai coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin would jump into politics, I clicked on The Nation’s new online offering – a video blog – to get an insight.

And there was the head shot of Suthichai Yoon, bald with round glasses, talking – amidst the sound of chirping birds – about Gen Sonthi’s ambiguous political ambition.

The video blog, which was uploaded to The Nation’s website on July 11, was some sort of a historical take for Suthichai, the group editor-in-chief of The Nation newspaper, as it was his first in English.

The homemade 7.5-minute video shot at his Bangkok home by his driver (who is now, according to his boss, “a solid camera man”) was a trademark Suthichai presentation.

“I have my own way. What you see – especially when I am emphasising a point – is only my eyes and lips, so that the audience will take note and think, ‘what the hell does he want to say?’'' explained the man who has a distinctive voice that Thai comedians love to imitate.

The newspaper man, who founded The Nation 36 years ago at the age of 25, produced the video blog “because I am a TV man and I know that compared with print and audio, video is the most effective in drawing people to what I have to say.”

Five days later, Suthichai, who has hosted television news programmes for 15 years, uploaded another video blog to The Nation Blog TV.

Why does the top man in The Nation have to blog in his newspaper’s weblog ( Suthichai explained that with the revolution in newspaper coverage, he had to turn the whole mentality of his newsroom inside out.

Even The New York Times, he said, is finding it difficult to convince its journalists to use the new information technology.

“The top guy needs to show the way. That is why I have decided I would show everybody in The Nation that with a video camera you can produce your own show,” he said.

The Nation’s digital push is a must, said Suthichai, as its younger and middle-age readers are migrating to the Internet.

The newspaper’s circulation (50,000) has been flat for the last two years.

Thus, the man who is for some the Buddha of Thai journalism is trailblazing his newspaper’s digital embrace.

On Sept 1, the group editor-in-chief will sort of officially launch his digital revolution at an editorial gathering. So far, 60% of his staff are into multimedia journalism, as compared with 5% two years ago. And Suthichai is aiming for 99% in the next few months.

“I have pushed them, harassed them,” he said.

“For example, when I meet my journalists along the corridor, I will ask, ‘Have you blogged today?’ or ‘Did you update the website last night?',” he added.

And, with a big smile on his face, the 61-year-old journalist, who is from the typewriter generation, relates how his revolution is bearing digital fruit.

On July 22, his photographer, who now also carries a video camera, captured a clip of the violent mob protesting outside the residence of General Prem Tinsulanonda, the top adviser to the Thai King.

“On that day, it showed the newsroom that when you have a great shot, it is possible for it to go out on our website immediately,” he explained.

“Nearly 50,000 viewers clicked on that video clip,” he said.

There’s also unintended consequence for the digital revolution in The Nation.

On July 21, The Nation’s editor Tulsathit Taptim posted in his blog about missing his chance to meet the legendary Indian actress Hema Malini, whose movie dialogue was dubbed by his mother.

“I almost cried when I read that his parents worked as dubbers. We’ve been working together for more than 10 years but I didn’t know that the Thai voice of John Wayne was his father’s,” said the hard-nosed journalist.

The blogging phenomenon in The Nation is fast catching on. Just as I was about to finish this article, its Life editor Veena Thoopkrajae excitedly showed me a video of her learning to cook Malaysian food, which will appear in her blog.

Published in The Star on August 25, 2007. Photograph courtesty of The Nation)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

D-Day for Thai constitution

Thai Takes

LAST week, seen plastered on a windscreen of a Bangkok taxi was a sticker with the message written in Thai: “We take passengers but not the draft constitution.”

And I wondered whether the taxi driver would pick up the startling Martian-looking promoters who are the government’s mascot in its campaign to encourage about 45 millions Thais to vote in tomorrow’s national referendum on the draft constitution.

If a majority of Thais vote ‘yes’ then the proposed charter would be Thailand’s 18th since the 1932 revolution which saw the overthrow of the absolute monarchy.

If the draft is rejected, the military junta would then consider and revise one of Thailand’s 17 previous constitutions.

Tomorrow’s democratic process is a consequence of an undemocratic act. On Sept 19 last year, the Thai military toppled the democratically elected government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and ripped up the 1997 constitution.

And on June 28, a military-appointed commission finished drafting a new constitution. Like James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, only a small minority of Thais have actually read entirely the complicated 309-article charter. For those with the attention span of Homer Simpson, the government came out with a cartoon version.

Among the highlights of the draft charter, which needs a simple majority to pass, is the prime minister - who must be an elected member of parliament - is limited to two terms and no more than eight years in office.

It also makes it easier for opposition parties to file censure motions against the prime minister. And it grants amnesty for the coup leaders.

Early this month, The Nation reported that proponents and opponents of the draft charter heatedly debated half a dozen issues for three hours on television.

The proponents argued that a ‘yes’ vote would ensure that democracy returned to the people as in case of a ‘no’ vote junta would continue to exist.

They also claimed that Thais would have more rights under the new charter as it promised to make it easier for the public to recall politicians, amend the constitution and propose new legislation.

While the opponents reasoned that supporting the charter was tantamount to endorsing the illegitimate action of the coup. They also maintained that the senate appointments amounted to betrayal of the people’s right to choose their representatives.

For some of Thaksin’s die-hard supporters, they will vote with their heart. Adisorn Piangket, a leading member a group from Thaksin’s disbanded political party, Thai Rak Thai, urged supporters, “if you love Thaksin, you must vote against the 2007 draft charter.”

“I would like everybody to think of the person who is in exile because if the draft is approved, Thaksin will not be able to return to the country,” Adisorn said.

However, tomorrow’s referendum’s result will probably break Adisorn’s heart. It is likely to be approved.

A recent national survey by Chulalongkorn University found that 78 percent of respondents indicated they would vote ‘yes’ to the charter, even though only 47 percent were satisfied with it.

The survey results is a reflection of the general sentiment in Thailand where most Thais just want the new constitution to be approved so that it would pave the way for elections.

Tomorrow, the focus will be on the margin of victory and voter turnout.

The referendum outcome, says Surapong Suebwonglee, a close aide of Thaksin, should represent a majority vote of more than 50 per cent of the electorate otherwise the result would be inconclusive.

“If fewer than 50 per cent of voters cast ballots, then we don’t feel this is the charter for the entire population,” he said.

While the army-installed interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said that his Cabinet targeted at least 23 million votes from about 45 million eligible voters, Surayud prefers a high voter turn out, as it would indicate that the people approved the coup.

To achieve that, the army-installed government has declared a three-day weekend and convinced bus and train operators to reduce their fares so that millions of Thais could return to their hometowns to vote.

As for the taxi driver, probably he has taken off the anti-charter sticker as the government has warned that it might be against the referendum law.

(Published in The Star on August 18, 2007. Photograph courtesy of Reuters)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

It’s not a Hotel, it’s Home


A TAIWANESE interior designer and I were chatting in the opulent living room of his colonial-style home in Bangkok when a quintet of French tourists walked in.

Ignoring the strangers, Eugene Yu-Ching Yeh continued his explanation on why a stuffed peacock was perched in the room.

The house owner was not curious about the new arrivals as on any given day strangers – who can be trendsetters, tycoons or tourists – would be swimming in his pool, reading in his library, eating in his dinning room or sleeping in his bedroom.

“I make a living as a host,” says Yeh, the owner of The Eugenia, a 12-suite boutique hotel with the tagline It’s not a Hotel, it’s a Home!

Hoteliers have told Yeh that he was crazy, that he could not possibly make money from a hotel with only a dozen rooms.

“I think I understand (the hoteliers’ point of view) as my hotel does not have economies of scale. But I don’t plan to make a fortune from this hotel,” he says. “This is my hobby.”

Asked whether he could get returns from his investment, the host, who prefers hotels where guests can nonchalantly walk barefooted, responds with a smile. “I don’t think so.”

In explaining his business philosophy, Yeh relates an experience at a weekend party at his home in Taipei. “My guests got drunk and then slept in my house, when they woke up the next morning they took a shower and asked for breakfast,” he recalls.

“Now I still throw a ‘party’, but when you open a bottle of wine or order food or go upstairs to sleep, I will charge you.”

But Yeh’s home is not an ordinary home. It costs a ballpark figure of 100 million baht (RM11mil). And Relais & Chateaux, a leading French travel guide, has recognised it as a charming luxury property because its owner is always around to greet his guests.

The Eugenia ( is the interior designer’s long-time dream to showcase his hotel design philosophy which is ‘not everything must be new, new, new.’

Yeh, who has been a Bangkok resident since 1988, however, could not find any client so he decided to build his own hotel.

About five years ago, to get an idea of the hotel he wanted, the 46-year-old Taiwanese travelled to Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City and Rangoon to photograph such beautiful buildings as Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang and the colonial bungalows in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur – all older than him.

On a piece of land in Soi Sukhumvit 31 that he purchased three years ago, he put up a three-storey building that is a combination of late 19th century British and French colonial architecture. It was completed in early 2006.

Some guests, however, have insisted that the hotel was not new, pointing for instance at the chipped tiles in the reception area, which has a zebra skin thrown on the floor. “The tiles were obtained from an old building to give my hotel an old look,” explains Yeh.

To go with the 100- to 200-year-old feel to the hotel, the building is also a repository for Yeh’s antiques that had been languishing in his Taipei warehouse. Other personal items are also part of the decor.

The hotel is named after a beautiful 80-something Vietnamese woman with whom Yeh had a non-verbal exchange of ideas on colonial buildings.

“We did not speak the same language so I never got to know her name. But in my heart I called her Eugenia,” he relates of his encounter with the woman in December 2004 in Ho Chi Minh City.

(Published in The Star on August 11, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Cili Padi satisfies authentic craving


WHAT would you do when you can’t find your favourite food in a city you visit frequently? If you were Azizan Ibrahim, a 48-year-old Malaysian, you would launch a Malay restaurant in Bangkok.

One difficulty Azizan faced when visiting his brother-in-law who works in the Thai capital was finding halal food to his liking. Yes, halal food can be found in the Lebanese, Egyptian and Indian restaurants in Bangkok’s famous Arab Street, which is around Soi Nana along Sukhumvit Road.

But Azizan’s taste buds are not used to non-Malaysian halal food. What he craves is typical Malay food – nasi lemak, roti canai and teh tarik.

I pointed out that nasi lemak, roti canai and teh tarik are available at a Malaysian/Thai restaurant called Kopitiam at Thonglor, which is a hip area in Bangkok. But Fahmi Sabri, Azizan’s 25-year-old nephew who lives in Bangkok, quickly remarked that the restaurant might not be 100% halal.

How about the restaurants owned by Thai Muslims? I asked.

I was curious as the hunt for halal food by my Malaysian/Muslim friends who are tourists in this city, where the most popular dishes are som tam (papaya salad) and moo yahng (grilled strip of pork), would usually end up in a fast food restaurant which provides food for thought as they question its “halal-ness”.

Azizan is not a fan of restaurants owned by Muslim Thais.

“Thai Muslim food is different from Malay food. It tastes like Thai food – sweet and spicy. The only similarity is it is halal,” he explains.

Last December, Azizan, Fahmi and their Malaysian and Thai partners decided to open a Malay restaurant. And three weeks ago, they launched Cili Padi – an authentic Malaysian restaurant serving affordable Malay dishes such as rendang daging (60 baht or RM6.90), kari ikan (50 baht or RM5.80) and sambal tumis udang (70 baht or RM8.10).

Cili Padi, which is the second restaurant in Bangkok serving Malaysian dishes, is tucked away on the ground floor of ITF Building, which is along the busy Silom-Narathiwas Road. The location was picked because of its proximity to two major roads – Sathorn, where several embassies including Malaysia’s are located, and Silom, where the world famous tourist destination Patpong is located.

One of the most important elements, according to Azizan, in operating an authentic Malaysian restaurant is the cook.

“We must have a Malaysian who can cook Malay food. If not it won’t be authentic,” he insists. And the cook, Noriza Mohd Tahir, who used to operate a cafe in Shah Alam, Selangor, is Azizan’s wife and Fahmi’s aunt.

“How do you make your food taste like the one back home?” I asked while scooping the nasi lemak (50 baht or RM5.80) that tasted like the one I usually buy on Sunday morning in USJ, Subang Jaya.

It was a valid question as Havinder Kaur – a Malaysian who owns Mrs Balbir, a popular north Indian restaurant in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 11 – had told me that in Thailand she could not cook nasi lemak as tastily as when she prepared it in Malaysia.

“The ikan bilis and cili padi sold in Bangkok taste different from those in Kuala Lumpur,” reasoned the 51-year-old television presenter who is a well-known personality in Bangkok, adding, “it has something to do with Mother Nature.”

Azizan agrees, saying “somehow Malaysian-made curry and Thai-made curry taste different.”

So what he does is board a train from Alor Star to travel for 20 hours to Bangkok to transport ingredients such as belacan (shrimp paste), asam jawa (tamarind) and curry powder.

Authentic or not, Fahmi acknowledges that Malay food is not popular with Thais.

“They find our food too spicy and tasteless,” he says. “For example, my wife who is a Thai hardly eats Malay food as she is used to food that is sweet.”

Cili Padi does not expect walk-in customers who are Thais. The bulk of its clientele will be Malaysians living in Bangkok and also busloads of Malaysian tourists brought in by in-bound tour operators.

So far the restaurant’s loyal customers include personnel from the Malaysian Embassy including the ambassador and a man called Peter, a 70-year-old Malaysian who lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife.

Since finding the restaurant, Peter, who claimed he has not eaten Malaysian food for 20 years, has patronised Cili Padi for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a single day.

(Published in The Star on August 4, 2007)