Saturday, June 27, 2009

Absent Thaksin strikes polls blow to ruling coalition

Thai Takes

LAST Sunday, Thais in a province about 647km north-east of Bangkok voted in a by-election. And what boomed out of the ballot boxes is that Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former Thai Prime Minister, is back, politically.

The opposition Puea Thai Party, which is loyal to Thaksin, thumped Bhum Jai Thai Party, a member of the ruling coalition, by 83,348 votes to 47,235 in the Sakon Nakhon by-election that was called after a Supreme Court ruling disqualified the incumbent Puea Thai MP.

The by-election result is a nightmare for the Democrat-led coalition government and the power behind the government, noted Pitch Pongsawat, who teaches political science in Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“It shows that post-Thaksin politics is still very contingent. I’m not saying that Thaksin has an (absolute) influence on the people,” he opined.

“But it is a nightmare because Thaksin – when he really works on something – is able to get the support of the people.”

The Sakon Nakhon by-election was supposed to be a shoo-in for Bhum Jai Thai Party.

“Bhum Jai Thai appeared to have the advantage in that the party controls local officials who include the tambon (Thai for “subdistrict”) and village headmen through its control of the Interior Ministry,” Veera Prateepchaikul wrote in the Bangkok Post on Monday.

While Bhun Jai Thai has control of the interior ministry, Puea Thai Party has Thaksin, the darling of Thailand’s northeasterners who had benefited from his populist policies when he was in power from 2001 to 2006.

Self-exiled (probably in Dubai), the billionaire politician personally telephoned tambon and village headmen, pleading with them to support his party.

“Thaksin used his charismatic asset (to win over the voters),” said Pitch.

A big message from the by-election, according to the political lecturer, is that the people voted for the opposition.

“In Thailand, we are made to believe that you better vote for the government if you want (your constituency) to receive government projects,” he explains. “So it is a big deal when the people voted for the opposition.

“The voters had enough guts to vote for the opposition because they felt that the Red Shirts and the Isaan people (northeasterners) were unfairly treated during the Bangkok protests in April.”

The Sakon Nakhon by-election was also seen as a Thaksin vs Newin Chidchob fight.

Newin? He is a Thaksin loyalist who betrayed his boss. Newin and about two dozen MPs from People’s Power Party (PPP, the dissolved ruling party which is the predecessor of Puea Thai Party) formed Bhum Jai Thai Party to enable Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat leader, to put together a seven-party coalition government in December last year.

Puea Thai Party distributed leaflets with photographs of Newin hugging Thaksin (taken three years ago when the then prime minister Thaksin announced he was taking a temporary break from politics) as well as Newin hugging Abhisit (taken in December 2008 when they embraced to show that Newin supported Abhisit’s push to be prime minister).

The leaflets carried the headline: “Sakon Nakhon residents: Oppose this disgraceful man (Newin).”

Pitch noted: “This is another version of moral politics in Thailand – the voters gave Newin a lesson – you can’t be disloyal to your patron.”

The Sakon Nakhon result also put a speed bump on Newin’s ambition to replace Thaksin as a major force in the northeast and north of Thailand.

On Tuesday, The Nation wrote: “This result might put a smile on Abhisit’s face, because even though Newin helped him form the government, he and his Bhum Jai Thai have been clashing with the Democrats over some government projects.

“Maybe this time Newin will be less aggressive and tone down his power-bargaining tactics and ambition.”

Pitch thinks otherwise. “I don’t think they want Bhum Jai Thai to lose as when its coalition partner loses, the Democrat Party also loses,” he said, adding that the Democrats hope Newin will extinguish Thaksin’s influence in the northeast.

Now all eyes are on tomorrow’s by-election in Si Sa Ket, a northeast province along the disputed Thai/Cambodian border.

The fight this time is between Puea Thai Party and Chart Thai Pattana Party, a member of the Democrat-led ruling coalition.

Who will win?

“It depends on the Thaksin factor – whether he personally calls the voters,” says Pitch. “And that’s going to be a big challenge to the (political foundation of the coalition government).”

(Published in The Star on June 27, 2009)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

All hot and bothered about A(H1N1)

ON TUESDAY afternoon, in a private hospital in Bangkok, I took a pop quiz that I knew I would ace. Nevertheless, I had hoped not to flunk it as I feared I would be quarantined.

“Do you have fever?” the receptionist asked when I told her in a hoarse voice that I wanted to see the doctor.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you have sore throat?” she said.


“Runny nose?”

Before I could say “no” my wife, who was also seeing the doctor because she was feeling unwell and suspected our eight-month baby was sick too, said “yes”.

“Did you just come from another country?”

“Yes,” I said, as I had just returned from Malaysia and Singapore.

The receptionist wrote something in Thai on an official-looking paper. And I told myself, now we’ve become suspected A (H1N1) cases.

True enough, a polite Thai nurse led us to a special counter – a desk manned by two nurses wearing face masks. A nurse checked our weight and temperature. Interestingly, she did not pay any medical attention to my baby.

If I had fever I would be dispatched to the emergency room to undergo an 8,000 baht (about RM800) test for A (H1N1). And if I tested positive, I would be quarantined.

My wife and I did not have fever so we were allowed to consult our regular doctor. I was diagnosed with throat infection, my wife with common cold. My baby was given the all clear.

False alarm. I’m free of A (H1N1) which I suspected I had contracted.

My suspicion was justified in view of the alarming spike in reported A (H1N1) cases in Thailand the past week. On Sunday, there were 44 reported infections, bringing the total number of A (H1N1) cases to 150. On Monday the number was 201.

And the figures kept on rising – 310 cases on Tuesday, 405 on Wednesday, 518 on Thursday and 589 yesterday.

On Thursday, curious to know why there was an average of 100 confirmed cases a day in Thailand, I sought out Dr Kumnuan Ungchusak, senior expert in preventive medicine in Thailand’s public health ministry.

The country’s first 20 patients were imported cases of A (H1N1), according to Dr Kumnuan. But Thailand could not contain its spread locally and was now facing an outbreak.

For example, two weeks ago 10 students aged 10 from a Bangkok school were absent in one day. One of them tested positive for A (H1N1). Subsequently, about 100 students from the same school tested positive.

“We really don’t know the starting point (of the cases in that particular school). And we detected the problem a little bit late because those infected were not only in one particular class but spread across many,” said Dr Kumnuan.

He added that a school was a conducive place for flu to spread because of the crowded conditions and because students shared common equipment such as computers and telephones.

“Our hypothesis is someone (a student, a parent or a teacher) arriving from a foreign country could have passed through a thermal scan (in the airport) undetected, having mild symptoms. And this person spread it to a student in this particular school.”

Dr Kumnuan said the Thai media’s coverage of A (H1N1) focused on the rising numbers. “Their reports have alarmed the public. But (the increase) is not the key message,” he said.

The key message is that A (H1N1) is similar to the seasonal flu (Thailand has 900,000 cases annually, where 30,000 patients are hospitalised, and 300 die).

Like the seasonal influenza, a patient with A (H1N1) has a 0.4% probability of fatality. Meaning, out of 1,000 infected patients, four (usually five years old and below, 65 years old and above and those with underlying health problems) might die.

“But people are panicking, as they have this image (coming from Mexico) that A (H1N1) is very dangerous,” he added.

There had been no deaths so far in Thailand. As of Wednesday, 393 of the 405 cases recovered.

I asked Dr Kumnuan why he (like most Bangkokians) did not wear a face mask.

“I had observed you, and if you had a runny nose, and you were sneezing and coughing, I would certainly be careful.”

During the 30-minute interview, I tried my best not to cough.

(Published in The Star on June 20, 2009)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Oriental Hotel legend calls it a day and will be missed


“LET me go back 62 years,” said Ankana Kalantananda when I asked the 87-year-old guest relations consultant who was the first famous person she met in the Oriental Bangkok, a world-renowned luxury hotel.

“I met – not met, but welcomed – the then prime minister of Australia Robert Gordon Menzies (the country’s longest serving premier) probably around 1950.”

Ankana is the first Thai woman to enter the hotel business. In 1943, she worked in Ratanakosin Hotel, where the then Thai government billeted foreign dignitaries.

“At that time a hotel was not the proper place for a woman to work in, as Thais associated it with a place where lovers’ met,” she regaled.

Her parents, however, allowed her to work in the government-owned Ratanakosin Hotel (now Royal Hotel Bangkok) as it was a job with the ci­­vil service.

Three years later, Ankana was head­­hunted by Germaine Krull (the then co-partner of the Oriental). The French photojournalist befriended the Thai when she stayed at Ratanakosin Hotel while on a photo assignment.

“Probably Krull wanted to hire me as I know how to handle people. And she liked my personality – active, ener­­getic, gregarious and hardworking,” she surmised.

Ankana asked for “the salary of the Thai minister of finance” (about 1,500 baht or RM150).

Krull told her: “That is too much. I have to ask my partners (who included Jim Thompson, the American who revitalised the Thai silk industry).”

Ankana joined the Oriental in ear­ly 1947, when luxury was defined by the thickness of the kapok mattress and the quality of the mosquito net.

She worked as receptionist, secretary, telephone operator, cashier and menu writer.

Since then she has pressed flesh with the rich and famous who checked into the legendary hotel.

Among them were Elizabeth Tay­lor, John D. Rockefeller Junior, Eleanor Roosevelt, Princess Diana, John Stein­beck and Nancy Kwan.

Ankana retired from the Oriental last month.

In the 1950s, when she was in her 20s, there were times when Ankana could not recognise some of the hotel’s world famous guests.

“A man checked in one morning and registered as a band leader. And around 11am a big limousine with an American flag arrived to pick him up,” she recalled.

“I told Krull, ‘you know the Ameri­can ambassador sent his car to fetch this gentleman called Toscanini’.

“Krull said, ‘Don’t you know who Toscanini is?’ I said, ‘No, who is he’?”

He was Arturo Toscanini, one of the world’s greatest conductors.

“How can you know? World War II had just ended and during the war we (in Thailand) lost contact with the western world, and we did not receive any foreign news,” related the elegant woman.

For her ignorance, she was introduced to the book Who‘s Who.

Ankana’s favourite hotel guest is Barbara Cartland, the English author known as the Queen of Romance.

In the 1980s when Cartland stayed in the Oriental, she served as her personal assistant.

“Cartland would ask about my family and educational background. We always had a very nice conversation,” she revealed.

“On her third visit (to the Oriental), Cartland said, ‘Ankana, I’m writing a book and I would like to use your name as the leading lady’.

“I replied, ‘sure that will be a great honour’.”

Cartland published Sapphires in Siam in 1988.

“The character of the leading lady, Ankana Brook, was more or less like me – very stubborn and very forward,” Ankana said.

Asked whether she had ever dealt with difficult guests, Ankana said: “I don’t know whether I find anyone difficult. I have the ability to soothe people.

“Do you know why people complain? The core of their complaint is they are disappointed that they did not get enough attention.”

What Ankana will miss most in re­­tirement is “the wonderful guests of the Oriental, many of whom have become personal friends”.

And, for hotel regulars, it will probably be the Grand Dame of the Oriental Bangkok.

(Published in The Star on June 13, 2009)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Dedicated to the true food lover


LOOKING for the perfect dining experience in the Thai capital? Then grab a copy of Thailand’s Best Restaurants 2009, a restaurant guide book published by Thailand Tatler.

The book lists 150 – in the words of Thailand Tatler editor-in-chief Naphalai Areesorn – top restaurants in Bangkok.

As a Liverpool football club fan, I was quite sceptical of its selection criteria though because it included Manchester United Restaurant & Bar.

“Why is it on the list?” I queried Naphalai, giving her a bulldog glare that Wayne Rooney would have been proud of.

She laughed and half-jokingly said: “You ask the Manchester United fans who nominated it.”
Turning serious, she said: “Because it has an unusual concept (the restaurant and bar is adorned with United memorabilia and photos of players past and present).

“We do that (include restaurants with an unusual concept) once in a while.”
Manchester United Restaurant & Bar or not, Thailand Tatler’s restaurant guide is popular with Bangkok’s foodie crowd (including tourists).

It is so popular that some restaurants in Bangkok have resorted to creative methods to get themselves featured. For example, a restaurant (which shall remain unnamed) nominated itself 20 times as Bangkok’s best dining establishment.

Thailand Tatler received 20 nomination forms with the same handwriting but signed with different names proposing a particular restaurant.

Why would some restaurants be so desperate to be listed? “If it was something that was constantly referred to by restaurant goers, wouldn’t you want to be in it?” asked Naphalai.

Klyduan Sukhahuta, the co-owner of Minibar Royale, which was launched late last year, was so ecstatic to be featured in Thailand’s Best Restaurants 2009 because “it is one of the best guide books in Bangkok”.

“It would give us exposure not only to local customers but also foreigners,” she gushed.
Thailand Tatler’s review of the restaurant – which it described as “everything reminiscent of a New York bistro, from the aroma of brewing coffee to the compulsive people-watching” – was brutally honest.

The incognito reviewers wrote: “Service remains the biggest drawback. Staff appears stressed and unable to grasp what decent service should be. However, the owners are attentive and amiable.”

But Klyduan was not too stressed with the appraisal.

“We like direct opinion. When we opened the restaurant, family and friends gave (positive) opinions but we did not know whether they were sincere,” she said.

“It is good to get an honest comment from an outsider.”

She added that Minibar Royale would strive to provide “decent service”.

I asked Philippe Saunier, the manager of New York Steakhouse, a JW Marriot restaurant which has been listed nine times in a row since the guide book was first published, how he would feel if the steakhouse was not listed in Thailand’s Best Restaurants 2010.

“It would be a great deception for all of us in New York Steakhouse as it would not be reflecting our reputation as the finest steakhouse in Bangkok,” he said.

A quick look into the guide book confirmed Saunier’s boast about his steakhouse.

The book glowingly acclaimed: “When it comes to great steak meals, the New York steakhouse can lay a pretty credible claim to being the best in town.”

There were times, however, that Thailand Tatler got it wrong.

I named a restaurant I patronised solely because of its glowing recommendation, and told Naphalai the dining experience was disappointing.

And she agreed it was a mistake to include that establishment.

“Eating out is a personal experience,” she explained. “Everyone has his own perception. To be honest, nobody (including Thailand Tatler’s reviewers) gets it right all the time.

“There have been times we included a restaurant – which we have already rated on the low side – and a diner goes there and then writes back to us saying ‘you said this and this and it wasn’t so ’,” Naphalai added.

Thailand Tatler’s reviewers would then dine at the establishment to verify the feedback received.

“If it is true, we will drop the restaurant from our list the next year,” she said.

(Published in The Star on June 7, 2009)