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Moving with the changes

In an exclusive interview, Thailand's new Culture Minister talks about preservation, censorship, and youths with dyed hair

Published: 27/02/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Realtime

Our latest Culture Minister is Teera Slukpetch, and he admitted early in the interview that, by the unwritten hierarchy of cabinet portfolio, his is a "C-grade" ministry low on desirability level. Then he rushed to add: "A C-grade ministry with an A-grade responsibility." This came across both as a promise and a consolation, to himself, and to us.

Teera Slukpetch: ‘‘A country’s culture is the spirit of that country.’’ ANUSORN SAKSEREE

In the past year the government has become a merry-go-round of short-lived ministers, each coming and going before their ministerial seats were properly warmed. But less than two months after taking office in the Abhisit Vejjajiva's administration, Mr Teera, 51, a seasoned Democrat MP from Trat who hardly ever appeared in the media, has already signed two important papers: first the subsidiary law that will finally activate the long-hibernated film rating system, and second, the approval of a new public organisation, also long in the making, that will function as the face-lifted National Film Archive.

This shows that Mr Teera is committed to updating the score. Since 2007 he was a shadow culture minister for the opposition when the People Power party was in government. That enabled him to get to work quickly without having to wait and acclimatise once he was inducted into the Pin Klao office. Yet it's still too early to pass judgement. For a start, track records of past Culture Ministers were far from cheer-inducing; this is an agency that has acquired an image of a conservative who's out of touch with contemporary society, a paranoid "watchdog" that functions as thought police who favour controlling (songs, movies, trends, fashion) rather than understanding the changing ways of the world. Some initiatives by previous ministers drew sniggers, if not open guffaws - to name some, the banning of song lyrics suggesting love out of wedlock, or the ardent championing of traditional Thai dresses.

Or on the other extreme, there were the culture ministers who were invisible, unappreciated and unremembered by the press and the people who seemed unable to take this ministry seriously

Mr Teera, in pronouncing his "A-grade" responsibility, seems to pledge his good intention, but, again, it's never easy for a career politician to direct a real, long-term cultural policy in an environment in which "culture" still carries a hazy definition.

"To me, a country's culture is the spirit of that country," says Mr Teera, a first-time minister. "But if we go deeper, I believe that culture is a path of life. It's in every aspect of our life. When you are born you get certain things from your parents, but culture is part of growing up and learning about your society. To me, everything is has a cultural dimension.

"Take, for example, the case of the deadly [New Year] fire at Santika pub. It would say something about our culture if there had been no death, if everybody knew how to get out of there alive and if the place had had a system to prevent the disaster. This is how we should think of the word 'culture'.

"Likewise, we've had 18 constitutions in 76 years. But today we still have to think which colour to wear before going out. This is part of our culture, or how our culture works at the moment."

It sounds interesting but it's still too early to gauge if Mr Teera, who has a Masters degree in engineering, is more liberal than his predecessors. He said youth fashion is not something to be censored, but he frankly disapproves of Thai youths who dye their hair blond. He admits that his watchdog sometimes goes too far, but he insists on the necessity of their duty to "hold back before our value is distorted". He advocates the co-existence between the traditional and the provocative, the classical and the contemporary, but he stressed the need to "prevent" our children from bad influences and imported culture.

He didn't hesitate to disapprove of censorship "as it was practised before", yet he acknowledged the fact that the new Film Act contains a clause that still gives the state the power to ban films from showing in Thailand if they are considered offensive.

"In the old system, the committee could order filmmakers to cut scenes from their movies, and to me that's not the right way. It wasn't good to the creative people," said the minister. "In the new law [which was passed in December 2007], the rating system serves as a guideline, so filmmakers can apply for permission by sticking to one of the ratings. The new law also deems that the rating committee be made up of representatives from the industry, so it's not just the officers making the decision."

The new Film Act spells out seven categories: Fit for all age groups, Under 13 not allowed, Under 15 not allowed, Under 18 not allowed, Under 20 not allowed, film that should be promoted for special reason, and film that is not allowed to be screened in the country. The law has a contentious history, when a large number of well-known filmmakers in 2007 protested against the draft written by the Culture Ministry. The law was rushed past the parliament anyway, and the rating should have been applied since last July. More delays occurred due to the lack of the subsidiary regulations, but by law, the rating system must start before this June.

"The ban order is in place, yes, but there are many other steps before that," said Mr Teera. "And if the filmmaker believes the verdict is not fair, he can appeal to the national film board, chaired by the Prime Minister himself, or he can go all the way to put the case before the court. I insist that the idea is to give more freedom to artists. I followed the recent case of the Thai film [Syndrome and a Century] that had problems with the censors in Thailand even though it was famous abroad, and I don't wish to see that happen again."

It may not be easy to shake loose the popular perception that the ministry's priority is restricting and not encouraging. "Our job is not to find fault, but to monitor," he said. By endorsing the new structure of National Film Archive the minister may gain some mileage. His plan to introduce the rating system to computer games, to replace banning games with inappropriate content, should be welcome.

Mr Teera must also be fully aware that in the environment when the only justification of a good work is the economic return, the job of the Culture Ministry has extended to include the plan to cash in on cultural asset, from promoting Thai culture to tourists to the ambition of adding commercial value to our cultural products, from film to music to fashion. But even when we have an Oxford-educated PM, the debate on culture hardly goes beyond the tension between the puritanical and the challenging, the old and the new, the brave and the safe, the "appropriate" and everything else.

On this issue, Mr Teera performs that tricky - or clever - balancing act. He praises the work of the Ministry's Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, especially its projects directed at the insurgency problem in the deep South. He professed an understanding that art can be non-conformist, critical or anti-establishment. He also expresses his belief that a well-planned cultural policy (which he doesn't really explain) can solve political and social conflicts. But he talks at length about how we cannot "deviate" from our roots, how parents should be blamed if their teenagers suddenly come home with piercings or colourful hairdos, and how online prostitution, this latest vice, is intolerable.

"There's no manual on how to run a Culture Ministry," he said. "So I'm learning and I'm having fun. Earlier this month I went home to Trat province, and my nephew, who had dyed his hair bright blond, came to ask some money from me. He said he wanted to go out on Valentine's Day. He knew I don't like kids with blond hair. He said he saw me say that on TV, and he thought he wouldn't get the money he asked. But he had to try because he really wanted to go out."

So? "Well, I gave him the money anyway," he said, smiling.

That won't be enough to help Teera from becoming another invisible minister. But like his nephew, he has to try.

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