The best of my letters to Postbag

Postbag, a forum for letters from the readers of the Bangkok Post, has become one of my favorite places to voice my complaints. I sent my first letter about 4 years ago, and I’ve been writing one every few months when a topic strikes a chord. Postbag generously publishes most of my letters, sometimes with editing for style and clarity. I’m grateful for the editing, which makes my letters read better without changing their substance.Here are 3 letters that I’m proud of.

The first one was a response to the Thai Army’s fake bomb detector scandal.

The Army’s decision to continue using the fake bomb detectors is simply disgraceful and it shows a remarkable lack of clear thinking. Would they have allowed defective guns to be used after finding out that they don’t work?

Why does the army still think the detectors are effective, even after being shown that they’re no better than random finger pointing? One of the reasons may be the “confirmation bias”. Simply put, the random successes tend to have a large impression and they are more easily recalled. On the other hand, failures are easily forgotten. Even if the failures are remembered, various excuses can be made as to why it didn’t work in that particular instance.

This “count the hits, forget the misses” approach leads to a false impression that these detectors are effective. This bomb detector scandal is just one example of where our feeling-based decision making fails us, and rigorous testing by the scientific method must be relied upon.

The second one was about the incredibly childish conflict between Thailand and Cambodia.

Concerning the ongoing territorial conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, I would like to present an alternative view to the mainstream nationalist wisdom. At present, the conflict is focused on a disputed 4-square kilometer piece of terrain surrounding the Phra Viharn temple. If relinquishing our claims to the territory would end the conflict, it would be in our interest to do so.

When I suggest that we give up land in the name of peace, there are counterclaims on the issue of further encroachment. As the nationalists would say, give them a square inch and they will take a rai. But on reflection, this objection seems absurd. The area in dispute is incredibly small to the point of insignificance in the larger scheme of things. The rest of the border is well demarcated, and to suggest that losing a small plot of land leads to larger losses is just fear mongering.

Other objections include claims that giving up the territory would result in massive loss of future revenue. National pride is also often mentioned. But nothing has value in a vacuum, and only comparisons can make a valuation meaningful. Is this plot of land worth the lives of ten soldiers? How about five, or even one soldier? Is it worth starting a war? People who spout nationalistic slogans, to protect the territory no matter the cost, can often be found far behind the fighting lines.

This incident reminds me of two children fighting over a toy. What will it take to stop this childish quarrel? A broken toy and a bloody nose may bring some sense back before it’s too late.

The third letter was about the discrimination of women in religion.

Your article in last Sunday’s Spectrum by Tunya Sukpanich, “Gender and religion: Where nuns fear to tread”, raised an important issue. The article quoted a monk of authority in Thailand saying that nuns are not allowed to manage temples, as if it were a simple question of right and wrong. In many religions, Buddhism included, women are effectively treated as second-class citizens.

If such discrimination were found in any other modern social institution, it would be heavily and correctly criticised. Imagine the police department saying women can’t be on the force, or a school saying women can’t be teachers or head a department.

Gender discrimination should not be permitted under the cover of religion, and there is no reason why religious organisations should be exempt from the kind of scrutiny other organisations face. Religion hides behind a wall of undeserved respect, and it’s time for this wall to be torn down. We need to be able to criticise religion, fully and unashamedly.

Some people inevitably will bring up the ”It’s traditional” defence, as if this can excuse all discrimination. But the same could be said of slavery before it became a thing of the past.
In the modern world, where gender equality is an obvious fact, all discrimination against women should be left behind.

After writing a few of these, I started to realize that writing in a letter format helps me to condense my thoughts. Letters need to be short and to the point, so I shape my arguments accordingly.  Thanks to Postbag for letting me share my ideas and practice writing at the same time.

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