In an attempt to encourage greater creativity among its students, an elite all-boys private school in Bangkok decided earlier this year to experiment with its uniform rules, permitting pupils to display their individuality by dressing in casual clothes once a week. The teenagers at Bangkok Christian College responded enthusiastically, relishing the break from uniformity offered by the "casual Tuesdays" policy. One even showed up in an animal costume.
But the innovation quickly hit a cultural wall. Officials condemned the move, suggesting that any relaxation of the dress code for schools could threaten the foundations of Thai society. Chalam Attham, secretary-general of the Office of the Private Education Commission, a government agency that regulates private schools, said the college was violating the 2008 Student Uniform Act. The Education Ministry warned public schools against following suit, threatening students with penalties for what it sees as a breach of order and discipline.
The controversy, which gave rise to newspaper headlines such as "The great uniform debate," reinforced social priorities in this semi-feudal country, where uniforms have an elevated status that gives them greater importance than their largely functional role in most other countries.
The outward appearance of unity provided by uniforms is highly prized -- a view that applies to factory and office workers as well as the military, police and firefighters. It is fairly common to see bureaucrats in military-style uniforms. Teachers have to follow suit. And Thais are frequently urged by the government to wear yellow, a color associated with Thai royalty, to display loyalty to the monarchy.
Not surprisingly, Thailand's education system is expected to reinforce this dress code, which is aimed at centralizing national identity and culture. The education ministry played a key part in expanding the current notion of Thai identity, coined in the 1950s.
But Thailand also stands apart for ordering university students to wear uniforms. For me, this was an early lessons in Thai culture, learnt shortly after I was assigned to Bangkok in late 2001. Stepping into one of the city's prestigious universities for the first time, I found myself surrounded by young men and women in white shirts worn with black trousers or skirts -- the student uniform in campuses across the country. I wondered briefly whether I had mistakenly turned into a high school.
Little has changed since then. And Thailand has limited company on this front, since the only other countries in Asia that share the Thai taste for uniformed university students are its Southeast Asian neighbors Cambodia and Laos. Even uniform-obsessed Japan, where conformity in attire is seen as underpinning social harmony, does not go so far.
A 2018 study co-authored by Sasanun Bunyawanich, a Thai academic, concluded that the imposition of uniforms at Thai universities reflects a cultural bias toward hierarchy and conformity. The top-down order within the education system "has played an important role in cultivating Thai nationalistic conservativeness," Sasanun noted in "The influence of uniform in establishing unity, hierarchy and conformity at Thai universities."
Thailand's focus on form over substance is taking a toll, however. Thai schools are struggling to produce students skilled in problem solving, mathematics and engineering at a time when the country's economy is eyeing an upgrade.
The military-led government has unveiled a so-called "Thailand 4.0" plan to attract investment in the digital and high-technology sectors to add value to the largely manufacturing-based economy. Yet World Bank studies show that nearly a third of Thai students are "functionally illiterate," which means they can read but cannot "locate information or identify the main message in a text."
Thai officials would do well to study nearby Vietnam, an emerging Southeast Asian economic rival. Most Vietnamese schools require students to wear uniforms, but Hanoi has made academic outcomes a much higher priority than Bangkok. In international education rankings such as the Program for International Student Assessment, conducted every three years for 15-year-olds by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of industrialized countries, communist-ruled Vietnam outperforms Thailand by wide margins in math, science and reading.
In a country where losing face matters, such poor rankings are a cause for national humiliation. But not much will change unless Thais can elevate educational outcomes above cosmetic unity. If they cannot, Thailand will fail to embrace the potential of the digital age, which encourages individuality and enables creativity and freedom to thrive.
Bangkok Christian College tried hard to adjust to the times. But the strong pushback from officials suggests that conservative social values are safe from creative thinkers. Uniforms are probably here to stay, leaving Thailand's prospects in the new global economy hanging by a thread.
Marwaan Macan-Markar is a Nikkei Asian Review Asia regional correspondent.