The shadow on Toon’s glory

opinion December 28, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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A cloud followed Artiwara across the country, glimpsed in displays of opportunism and hypocrisy

Artiwara “Toon Bodyslam” Kongmalai, now firmly ensconced in our pantheon of national heroes, has completed his mission to raise funds for state 

hospitals, on Monday winding up his marathon run from the country’s southernmost district, Betong, to its northernmost, Mae Sai.

The dramatic cross-country effort raised more than Bt1.1 billion in donations, well beyond his target of Bt700 million. It has to be said, though, that the event, for all the publicity it generated, failed to address the issue underlying the run – that the government fails in its duty to adequately finance public health services.

An inspiration to Thais to pay more attention to the less fortunate and help where they can, Toon has at the same time raised his own profile. The rock star became an outstanding citizen. One Buddhist monk even commented that he has the spirit of a bodhisattva, one motivated by deep compassion for his fellow man.

Toon was previously only known among a segment of youth as the lead singer of the rock band Bodyslam. The marathon run – a stunning escalation of a smaller-scale run he undertook last year for Bang Saphan Hospital – has made him famous to all Thais. He has proved valuable not only for the funds raised but also to the news media, the maker of the athletic shoes he wore, and a prominent duty-free operator. The television networks, both private and state-run, owe him a debt of gratitude for boosting their ratings. Businesspeople could only feel shame if their companies’ “corporate social responsibility” programmes didn’t somehow entail a nod to Toon.

Ironically, the Public Health Ministry and several state hospitals were among the donors to the cause, just to get a share of the magic. It begs the question, of course, as to why the ministry didn’t simply give the money to the hospitals, and why the hospitals didn’t use their money to improve their own facilities.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha secured a photo opportunity with Toon at Government House. Soldiers were assigned to assist on the route, and this week he was offered a lift back to Bangkok on a military aircraft. All of this was shameful. The military government should have already been addressing shortcomings in public healthcare. Instead, it ended up riding on the hero’s coattails, hoping some of his popularity might rub off. And meanwhile there’s been plenty of government money to purchase unneeded military hardware. 

The Bt1.1 billion that Toon raised represents just 0.33 per cent of the total annual budget for all state hospitals. Most of the 11 hospitals he suffered to help are relatively large and as such are supposed to be sufficiently funded by the government, yet they tend to operate in the red because of the tremendous number of patients seeking care. One of them, Saraburi Hospital, was more than Bt321 million in debt at the end of 2016. Many other state hospitals, big and small, are in the same dire situation, thanks wholly to the government’s poor budget management.

Toon completed his mission, but he failed to raise public awareness about what’s wrong with our public heath service and the shortfall in government funding. He did, however, expose two truths – that the government is not poor, and that many wealthy Thais are willing to donate millions to charity if it raises their celebrity status.