Saturday, May 26, 2007

Polls keep track of happiness in Land of Smiles


Thais were happiest during King Bhumibol’s 60th anniversary celebrations, but the upturned lips have been going south since then.

IN THE week that a Thai newspaper published an article titled, “Land of the Vanishing Smile,” a smile appeared on Noppadon Kannika’s otherwise deadpan face when asked to rate his happiness level.

“Nine out of 10,” responds Noppadon, who is the director of Abac Poll Research Centre, which recently released a survey that became the basis of The Nation’s report on the continued post-coup slide in Thailand’s national happiness.

In an index measured on a 10-point scale with 10 indicating extreme happiness and one extreme unhappiness, Abac Poll found that the Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH) index of the country, which bills itself as the “Land of Smiles,” was at 5.11.

According to the poll that surveyed 4,363 people in 22 provinces between April 20 and May 12, Thais were depressed over the deadly violence in southern Thailand, where body bags containing soldiers and civilians were piling up.

The country’s uncertain political future was also worrying them. “We have so many mobs (groups) who are against the government,” says the pollster, the smile on his face vanishing.

Nonetheless, it is not all gloom and doom in Thailand. According to the survey, admiration for King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the royal family gave Thais the most happiness – at a rating of 7.19.

The royal family was also the number one source for Noppadon’s cloud nine rating of his personal happiness. “I apply the self sufficiency economics advocated by the King in my daily life and that makes me happy,” he explains.

The 40-year-old pollster’s number two source of happiness was a tie between family (his lovely wife and son) and job satisfaction, as Thais are warming up to the monthly GDH survey he launched in January last year.

Noppadon’s interest in measuring happiness started in 2002. As a survey methodology graduate at the University of Michigan, United States, he learnt that Bhutan was espousing Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In 2004, when he returned to the Abac Poll Research Centre, he thought that designing a happiness survey for Thailand would be useful for his country.

But measuring happiness was not easy, he notes, “as it is something we cannot touch or see.” He conducted in-depth interviews and focus group discussions to find out what makes Thais happy. And he came up with a list of 15 factors such as environment, government, community life, family life, economy and the education system.

The pollster then designed a 20-page questionnaire with 100 questions – among these “Please rank your ability to walk for one kilometre,” “In the last three months, how high was your electricity bill?” and “How happy are you with General Surayud Chulanont’s performance as prime minister?” – which his researchers used to interview respondents.

When Abac Poll released its first GDH survey most Thai media organisations did not take it seriously. “Probably the media was not familiar with such a survey,” Noppadon reasons.

The GDH survey, however, gained prominence five months later when the then Bhutan crown prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck visited Bangkok in June last year during celebrations honouring King Bhumibol’s 60th anniversary as King of Thailand.

Jigme and Bhutan’s GNH index were the talk of the town. And the interest in GNH rubbed off on to Noppadon’s GDH.

“In that month (June) my GDH result became one of the biggest issues in Thailand,” Noppadon recalls, happily. Now, the Thai media widely report Abac Poll’s monthly survey.

Since its launch 17 months ago, the survey has found that Thais were happiest during the king’s 60th anniversary celebrations. Despite political turmoil connected to then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the GDH index soared to 9.21 points because of the people’s adoration for the king.

Unhappiness soaked Thais during the rainy season in October, the GDH index plunging to 4.86 points, its lowest reading yet. Severe flooding and the sharp rise in prices of consumer goods (as a result of flooding in agricultural land) made Thais unhappy.

At the end of the interview, Noppadon’s face brightened up when asked whether he would be happy in the next month. Yes. The pollster is flying to Bhutan to present a paper on his GDH survey.

(Published in The Star on May 26, 2007)

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Appealing to Thailand’s lucrative pink baht market


In recent years, the metrosexual lifestyle has become a trend in cosmopolitan Bangkok. One financial institution is keen on tapping this niche group of big spenders.

IN A funky Bangkok bar, a ravishing Thai woman gazes adoringly into her hunky lover’s eyes. “Who are you?” she ponders as the Thai man looks at her, mysteriously.

Later, in a luxurious bedroom, he stands erect while observing the gorgeous sleeping woman whose naked body is covered in white sheets. Then, in a bathroom, he vainly admires himself in a mirror next to a vanity table crowded with beauty products. Afterwards, he spends some time in a male sauna occupied with chiselled men.

At the bar, as the woman leans to kiss him, she notices that he is staring lustfully at someone behind her. She slowly turns her head and sees a man seductively raising his left eyebrow at her lover.

Then a voiceover declares: “I am ... KTC Titanium MasterCard.”

The recently released TV commercial titled “Stand up ... say I am” by Krungthai Card (KTC) has aroused the attention of Bangkokians who wondered whether it was a campaign to seduce the pink baht spenders.

It is targeted at metrosexuals and gays, confirms Niwatt Chittalarn, president and chief executive officer of Krungthai Card Public Company Limited, a financial institution offering credit cards, consumer loans and small business loans.

In the past few years, explains Niwatt, a metrosexual (a heterosexual male who has a strong aesthetic sense and inordinate interest in appearance and style, similar to that of homosexual males) lifestyle has become a trend in cosmopolitan Bangkok.

When KTC studied the profile of metrosexuals and gays, it found that they were big spenders. Five months ago, the credit card company decided to tap into this market segment. It designed a sexy card with a graphic of a Michelangelo’s David – arguably the most beautiful statute of a man – with a red heart covering his manhood.

Asked how many percent of Thais males fell into the metrosexual and gay segment, Niwatt responds: “we don’t know as people keep changing their lifestyle.”

“One day you sit down with your friend and he influences you to appreciate fusion food, yoga, male cosmetics or stylish spectacles,” he says.

“Men living in big cities like Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are now adopting a more fashionable lifestyle.”

KTC, Thailand’s leading credit card company, wanted the “Stand up ... say I am” advertisement to be mysterious.

“Your interpretation depends on your frame of reference,” Niwatt says.

“If you are gay, you would think the man was lusting over the other man. But if you are conservative, you would think he was actually looking at the two beautiful girls who were passing by that man.”

The advertisement campaign for the “I am” Titanium MasterCard targets a niche market. For example, its commercial is shown late at night during television shows that attract the pink baht spenders.

“We go for market segmentation. Why target the masses?” declares the CEO, adding that since the card’s launch in mid-March it has attracted about 2,000 successful applicants.

That is also KTC’s philosophy in attracting consumers. It offers about 100 credit cards, which are co-branded with other companies, such as KTC Bangkok Hospital Group Visa Platinum, KTC Mazda Titanium MasterCard or KTC Bangkok Airways Titanium MasterCard.

In the past, according to Niwatt, there were only the “colour” credit cards: classic, gold, platinum or black.

“So we offered cards which reflect your passion. For example, my favourite card is the KTC Porsche Titanium MasterCard as I drive a Porsche,” he explains.

However, he admits that 80% of KTC’s 1.1million credit card holders still prefer generic credit cards.

At the end of the interview held in KTC’s hip and cool Bangkok headquarters where every working day is casual Friday, Niwatt presents a video clip of a television commercial which the company is fine-tuning.

A Thai woman with chic short hair accidentally drops several blouses on the floor of a posh boutique in Japan. The damsel is distressed as she is unfamiliar with the way Japanese fold their clothes. And coming to her rescue is a handsome Japanese man.

The advert is for KTC’s JCB credit card. And it targets women.

(Published in The Star on May 19, 2007)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Bangkok will rock, OK!


Bangkok is set to party again come February next year, hopefully without the armour.

TANKS rolled on the streets and rocked the Bangkok Rock Festival 2007.

That was one unreported casualty of Thailand’s bloodless coup that saw the fall of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Government on Sept 19, 2006.

As tanks rolled on the streets of Bangkok, concert promoter David McLean’s first thought was on the sponsors lined up for the rock festival scheduled in five months’ time.

“I knew as soon as the military coup happened that the head sponsor who is based in London or Hong Kong will switch on CNN and have second thoughts about writing a cheque to fund my event,” relates McLean, who is a Brit married to a Thai and lives in Bangkok.

His first act, however, was to go down to the store in his condominium to buy 10 bottles of water to make sure that he had plenty of water to drink.

A few weeks after the putsch, McLean cancelled the rock festival when the military-installed government announced it would ban alcohol advertising.

“One of our main sponsors was a big alcohol company and the announcement meant that it was not allowed to sponsor our event,” explains the co-founder of Riverman Music Group, the organiser of the Bangkok Rock Festival 2007.

Subsequently, the interim government reconsidered its plan to impose an alcohol advertising ban. But it was too late for McLean to reconsider his cancellation.

However, the rock festival will make a comeback in February 2008.

“We did it once,” said McLean, whose company booked the artists for the Bangkok 100 Rock Festival, a two-day festival which was the most ambitious international concert ever planned in Bangkok, attracting 42,000 local and international fans in February 2006.

“It was good, and we want to do it again,” he said, adding that the inaugural event featured Oasis, Franz Ferdinand, Placebo, Snow Patrol and Maximo Park, among others.

Although post-coup uncertainty still hovers in Bangkok, McLean will soldier on with his rock festival.

“Ok, there could be security issues ... there could be political issues ... there could be all sorts of issues. But it is like that in any country. I had just been to Brazil (to promote a concert) and it is not exactly an easy place to live in. And, there are even bombs in London,” says the manager of alternative rock band Placebo.

His ambition for the Bangkok Rock Festival is to build it into the biggest rock event in Asia. “I don’t say that lightly, as there’s Fuji Rock, which is a huge event,” he says, referring to the annual rock festival held in Naeba, Japan.

Bangkok rocks. It’s a fantastic city for a rock festival, according to the 51-year-old Scot, whose one dream that he has not really realised – apart from playing for Scotland in the World Cup Finals and scoring a hatrick – is organising a rock festival.

“I couldn’t believe that there hadn’t been a rock festival in Bangkok,” he adds.

“The people, the atmosphere, the vibes here are so much more superior to that in other cities I’ve been to,” declares the Scot who has promoted some of the most well respected names in music, such as Nirvana, Green Day, Foo Fighter, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine and Pearl Jam.

The other attraction of Bangkok is its location. The city can draw people from China, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Europe. “There’s a real desire for people to come here,” he notes.

For Bangkok Rock Festival 2008, McLean is talking to about 60 international artistes. These will later be pruned to eight. Among the bands he is talking a bit more seriously to are Killers, My Chemical Romance, Evanescence, Artic Monkeys and Muse.

Come February 2008, Bangkok will rock and, hopefully, no tanks will roll.

(Published in The Star on May 12, 2007)

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Fishing in the spotlight

His bid for English Premier League club Manchester City and election as Professional Golf Association of Thailand president ensure Thaksin remains on centrestage.


IN a wooden boat, a man with a square face is fishing using a worm covered with a Manchester City football club emblem as bait. Surrounding the worm, which is wearing a football boot, is a school of salivating fish wearing press tags and equipped with tape recorders, pens and a cameras.

“C’mon! Talk about me! Talk about me! Me! Me! Me!!!” the fisherman, who resembles former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, yells at the fish, which are individually marked Thai Rath, Matichon, Daily News, The Nation and Bangkok Post – the names of Thailand's leading newspapers.

That’s The Nation’s editorial cartoonist Stephff’s take on the report of Thaksin’s £100mil (RM680mil) bid for English football club Manchester City.

Whether Stephff, a French cartoonist whose real name is Stephane Peray, is correct in his interpretation of the billionaire businessman’s motive, he is as spot on as a Liverpool football club penalty taker that the bid has hooked the Thai media.

On Wednesday, The Nation’s front-page headline screamed: “Thaksin ‘in box seat’ for football club.” It reported that the former Prime Minister, who was deposed last September in a coup, had emerged as the frontrunner in the takeover bid after being given Manchester City’s accounts on Monday.

That Wednesday night, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand clubhouse in Bangkok, among the topics of discussion was Thaksin’s foray into sports.

“Do you think that Thaksin’s bid for Manchester City is similar to his bid for Liverpool?” I asked a historian who had told me that Thaksin’s failed effort three years ago to buy Liverpool for £65mil (RM442mil) was to divert attention from his political woes.

The historian nodded, indicating that the Maine Road bid was a publicity stunt to put Thaksin back in the Thai centre spot. And he whispered: “I don’t know whether he has the money for it.”
“Why not?” I asked, as financial magazine Forbes has estimated Thaksin's worth at US$2.2bil (RM7.5bil).

“I believe most of his money is at home (in Thailand),” he responded, referring to the request by Thaksin's wife to the Thai government to take 400 million baht (RM41mil) abroad to finance the purchase of a property in England.

The other sport the billionaire is using as bait to get the media’s attention is golf. On Monday, Thaksin, who is living in exile in London, was elected president of the Professional Golf Association of Thailand (PGAT).

“Golf is the sport of executives who are now not happy with the way this government is running the country; while most Thais are crazy about English soccer,” advertising expert and political campaigner Seri Wongmonta said.

“By running both sports, he will have both local and international media exposure,” he said. “Thaksin is doing everything he can to take up media space to ensure the spotlight stays on him.”

Popular Campaign for Democracy secretary-general Suriyasai Katasila notes that “politicians and golf courses can’t be divided”.

“When Thaksin was PM, he made decisions about many projects on the golf course,” he said. “Golf or football, it's all linked to a network of politically influential groups.”

General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, the army chief who spear-headed the coup against Thaksin, is not amused with the former Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party leader’s election as PGAT president.

“It’s ridiculous. I think Thais are in a confused condition. Some may not be able to separate what is good from what is bad. Perhaps we should ask a psychiatrist to help them,” Gen Sonthi said.

The general added that the appointment must have a hidden agenda and might be a fighting call to gain popularity.

Jatuporn Prompan, a former TRT deputy spokesman, replied Thaksin became the association’s president through an election, not by seizing power, in an obvious dig at Gen Sonthi.

Noppadon Pattama, Thaksin’s legal adviser, insists the billionaire has hung up his “politics boots” and is now concentrating on sports and social matters.

Tonight, as Thais watch the Manchester City versus Manchester United English Premiership derby live on television, they can ponder what game Thaksin is playing.

(Published in The Star on May 5, 2007)