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The difference between a house and a home

Shelter is recognised as one of the four basic needs for survival. But as we know, a shelter is not a home until those who dwell there feel they belong.

In prehistoric times, shelters were makeshift structures to protect against wild beasts. As humanity evolved, they became more sophisticated, with walls of wood, then finally bricks and cement for more security.

Domestic tools and appliances also grew in sophistication, bringing greater convenience for families. And recent years brought the trend for home decorations.

But however sophisticated a shelter - even one with secure walls, modern appliances and décor - it's not a home if the dwellers don't feel they belong. Harmony and peace between those under the same roof is the key ingredient, and that can only be achieved with love and mutual understanding.

Thailand was once a big home. "There's fish in water and rice in the fields" goes the old adage, describing a bountiful land of yesteryear where most people felt contentment and belonging.

That underlying happiness also fed the spontaneous hospitality that draws millions of visitors from around the world. But stripped of our famously warm welcome, the forested mountains, white-sand beaches and elegant temples would lure very few tourists. (Witness Brazil, where fear of being kidnapped is making visitors think twice about travelling to the World Cup.)

Notably, last year saw foreign visitor numbers to Thailand reach 20 million for the first time.

But the Land of Smiles has since had a change of face, with domestic strife bringing frowns. Once, we greeted even strangers on the street with a "sawasdee". That gentle greeting is heard less and less these days. So too the question "Have you eaten anything yet?" and the spontaneous concern for others it displays. Now, preoccupied with other things, we have no smiles left for our fellow Thais. We still greet foreign visitors with genuine warmth, but how long this lasts is anyone's guess.

Why the change? If it had taken place within a family, the finger might be pointed at a new, troublesome neighbour. But for us, the culprit is right here at home - in the widening inequality we can see all around us. Thailand now could be likened to the home of a lord in bygone days, full of children from several wives. The children of the second, third and fourth wives hold lower status but naturally yearn for equal care. A neighbour comes and offers these "inferior" kids sweets. Why wouldn't they take them?

According to World Bank: "Poverty in Thailand is primarily a rural phenomenon, with 88 per cent of the country's 5.4 million poor living in rural areas. Some regions - particularly the North and Northeast - and some ethnic groups lag greatly behind others, and the benefits of economic success have not been shared equally, especially between Bangkok, Thailand's largest urban area, and the rest of the country. Income inequality and lack of equal opportunities have persisted. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, has fallen in recent years, but stays consistently high above 0.45."

The Gini Index measures the deviation of distribution of income within an economy, and in 2009 ranked Thailand even worse for income gap than Cambodia. (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI)

This trend runs counter to the country's economic growth curve. Thailand's gross domestic product expanded by 9,459 per cent, from Bt133 billion in 1970 to Bt12.7 trillion in 2013, according to International Monetary Fund data.

Many Thais' income has risen accordingly. And the proportion of those living below the poverty line has reduced substantially - from 20.9 per cent (13.79 million people) in 2007, to 13.2 per cent (8.79 million) in 2011. Yet, by region, that figure is much higher in the North and the Northeast, the political stronghold of Thaksin's clan.

Thailand's rapidly expanding wealth has yet to secure a better life for all.

According to NationMaster, a global data compiler, only 35.3 per cent of Thai children pursued higher education in 2000, compared with 72.6 per cent in the US - the world's biggest economy. In Bangkok, a substantial proportion of children go on to university. That is far from being the case in rural villages.

The past decade has seen several poverty-reduction programmes introduced, including the universal healthcare scheme, village fund, pension payments for the elderly and the education loan fund. Unfortunately, all were poorly implemented, including the rice-pledging scheme. We thus need to admit that our system of monitoring for such programmes is weak. Most of us believe corruption is widespread, but how many charges of verdicts against graft have actually been landed?

In the broken family, one member is trying to restore harmony. Yet, stopping the supply of sweets from the neighbour alone won't help, as new neighbours with meaner intentions will surely surface. Redesigning the home won't help either, if all family members aren't given a say in the changes. The first wife's children should show compassion for their half-siblings, while the children of other wives should learn how to compromise.

Without this, inequality and a feeling of rejection will remain. Some of the inferior kids may be lucky enough to find prosperity elsewhere. But no people anywhere in the world really want to leave home if they can avoid it.

If we don't get to the root of our problems, misunderstandings will only flourish, and our sense of homeliness will disappear further for both the family and its visitors.






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