Twenty years after the economy fainted, Museum Siam offers a fresh diagnosis
TWENTY YEARS have passed since the “tom yum kung crisis” – the financial meltdown that began in Thailand and swept across Asia. The fallout is still with us as economies struggle to regain lost ground – and so too does the bitterness linger.
Now there’s an exhibition at Museum Siam looking back at the economic firestorm and seeking to extract morals from it.
Continuing through July 2, “Tom Yum Kung Studies: Lessons (Un)Learned” owes its title in part to the classroom-like set-up, in which different aspects of the financial crisis are examined in turn.
The boot of a Mercedes Benz stocked with luxury goods is bound to bring back memories of the dark days of the “Tom Yum Kung crisis”. The memories will be gloomiest of all for the rich Thais to had to sell off their possessions to earn badly needed cash.
“Although the 1997 economic crisis was a major event in Thailand’s history and affected all sectors of society, it taught Thais to find new ways to survive,” says Museum Siam director Rames Promyen. “It led to a rise in freelancing, small and medium-sized enterprises, green businesses and a knowledge-based economy.”
In the first “classroom”, the subject of study is “Have we really broken free of the debt problem?” It’s pointed out that the post-crisis Thaksin Shinawatra government’s payment of Bt60 billion to the International Monetary Fund, an instalment towards Thailand’s total debt of Bt510 billion, was a long way from bailing the country out. The national debt currently stands at Bt930 million – equivalent to Bt15,000 per citizen.
The original architect’s sketch of the Sathorn Unique Tower shows what might have been had the baht not keeled over. The high-rise was never completed and is now just a famous skeleton.
Bangkok’s most famous “ghost tower” haunts the exhibition in the form of the original sketch of the Sathorn Unique Tower by Rangsan Architect. When government policy went awry and triggered the crisis, the stock market lost three-quarters of its value in a matter of days. A chain of financial firms went bankrupt, thousands of jobs were lost, and major real-estate projects were halted, including the high-rise on Sathorn Road, which has been nothing more than a skeleton ever since.
People now over 45 will well remember other flotsam of a drowning economy. There was the yellow container that held “Sirivat Sandwiches”, bearing symbols of the floating baht and the IMF. The sandwich was named for stockbroker Sirivat Voravetvuthikun, who lost millions in the crisis, yet refused to give up.
Sirivat had been earning Bt10 million a day, but was not only bankrupted by the market collapse – he ended up Bt1 billion in debt. He started climbing out of that debt by selling Bt25 sandwiches on the street. Though still owing, Sirivat is today running coffee shops and a sushi catering service and selling canned herbal drinks.
Stockbroker Sirivat Voravetvuthikun lost a fortune when the stock market crashed, began the long road back by selling sandwiches on the street, and now runs several businesses.
The boot of a Mercedes Benz in the exhibition is stocked with luxury goods, mementoes of the good times before the bubbles started popping. The wealthy scrambled to sell off assets in order to survive, and Benz dealer Wasant Pothipimpanon was there to help with his “Market of the Formerly Rich” on Bangkok’s Soi Thonglor. Someone even came in with the necessary papers for selling his private plane.
“The country had been relying heavily on foreign capital inflow and external markets,” Wasant notes. “No one was shy about spending. But they ended up embarrassed when they had to sell off their luxury items.”
Luxury items represent the economic bubbles that burst.
Being mortified might at least have awakened some rich people to the wisdom of the “sufficiency economy” espoused by His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Wasant says. The erstwhile spendthrifts learned instead to live according to their basic needs.
A portrait of the late monarch and a summary of this philosophy are displayed along with a copy of his 1998 New Year’s greeting card, in which he encouraged people to persevere in those gloomy times.
Museum Siam curator Taweesak Woraritrueang-urai believes there was indeed a bright side to the nightmare.
“A lot of the white-collar workers who lost their jobs starting holding car-boot sales to sell their possessions, and that induced in them an entrepreneurial spirit. The result was a surge in small and medium-sized businesses and to the start-ups we see today.
“Plus, a lot of people returned to their family farms upcountry and followed the King’s advice on integrated and sustainable agriculture.”
Replicas of bank savings books speak of financial collapse and crude capitalism.
The adage that suffering makes you stronger proved true for countless people. In one room you can watch videotape interviews of seven familiar figures who overcame severe difficulties. Among them are writer Ploy Chariyaves, designer Saranont Limpanont, filmmaker Prempapat Plittapolkranpim and Saichon Payaownoi, founder of the Ban Rai Cafe.
Prempapat was eight years old when the 1997 meltdown occurred and his well-to-do family was hit hard. No more would he be playing with toys costing thousands of baht. Instead, every single baht the family owned had to be spent carefully, as is clear from his grandfather’s daily debt ledger, also on view.
“I remember being so tired one day that I took a public mini-van home instead of the bus as usual, and it cost Bt8,” Prempapat says. “When my mum found out, she scolded me and hit me hard for wasting money.
“But the crisis taught me to be a faster learner than other kids. I learned about finances and taxation when I was still a child and understood the realities of life. The difficulty we went through forced me to find other ways to make money, and one way was making short films, still a very new idea a decade ago, and I started winning cash prizes.”
Several full-length movies have been made with their roots in the economic crisis. These include “Concrete Cloud”, directed by Lee Chatametikool, “Sixty Nine” by Pen-ek Ratanaruang and “102 Bangkok Robbery” by Tanit Jitnukul. The harsh realities of modern life also turned filmmakers – and viewers – back to classical times, with Nonzee Nimibutr’s “Nang Nak” and “Dang Bireley’s and Young Gangsters” and Wisit Sasanatieng’s “Tears of the Black Tiger” becoming hits.
These are all remembered in the exhibition in the form of movie posters and brief video interviews with the directors.
“People probably wanted to disengage from reality after the crisis,” Nonzee surmises. “They wanted to escape and get caught in a different kind of happiness.”
Thailand, Asia’s anticipated “fifth tiger”, lost all of its economic momentum and now lags far behind several neighbouring countries.
Before the storm, Thailand was widely expected to become the fifth “Asian tiger” economically, following Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. There’s an infographic showing the jagged path the baht has taken since 1995. Overall, the Thai economy has grown by just 32 per cent, far behind those of Vietnam at 70, Indonesia at 66 and the Philippines at 60 per cent.
What’s gone wrong here when neighbouring countries are rebounding so well? Have a look at the red bicycle near the museum’s exit. It’s meant to signify that we need policymakers who can pedal national development carefully and impartially.
You might still need this coin bank printed with the reminder “Debt”.
The souvenirs on sale are amusing. You can buy a cap with the word “Creditor” on the front – or “Debtor” if you’re still rebounding too. There’s a coin bank that says “Debt” and, for the eternally optimistic, a board-game in which you roll the dice for millions.
DEEP IN THE SOUP
The free-admission exhibition “Tom Yum Kung Studies: Lessons (Un)Learned” continues through July 2.
Museum Siam on Bangkok’s Sanam Chai Road near Tha Tien is open daily except Monday from 10 to 6.
Get more details at (02) 225 2777 or www.MuseumSiam.com.