Cheaters in Thailand

I posted this article just over a year ago on another website. I was still teaching here in Thailand at the time. The subject is something that comes up again and again on Thai related blogs. I just thought that I’d share this story here.

Thai students like to cheat. They will do it during class time, and they will do it during exams. If you give them homework you can be sure that quite a large percentage of what you will get back will be exact copies of someone else’s work. Cheating is more tolerated in Thailand than it would be in say Ireland or the UK. There seems to be this belief in Thai society that the important thing is the piece of paper; the means of getting this qualification is hardly ever questioned.

I seem to remember that there was a research study conducted on the Thai public’s opinions about cheating. This study found that the vast majority of respondents claimed that they saw nothing wrong with cheating to achieve a goal. I can easily believe this study; everything I see in Thailand seems to support this conclusion.

This is not to say that everyone in Thailand cheats. I’m not saying that at all. What I would say though is that there is far more acceptance of it then elsewhere. The Thai national attitude of tolerance and ‘mai pen rai’ (nevermind) also applies here. Many students, who might otherwise do poorly in education, benefit because of this lax attitude. Is that always a bad thing? I’m not sure. But I do feel sorry for students who work hard all term and come out with the same result as somebody who has done nothing all year.

When I first arrived in Thailand some of the old-timers warned me about the amount of cheating that went on in schools. I scoffed and saw such stories as tall tales. My view soon changed though when I witnessed the full extent of this phenomenon.

I remember when we first moved to my wife’s village a few years ago. I had already a bit of experience of teaching in Bangkok, and I had decided to help out in the local school. Because of this offer of help I was pleased one afternoon when a group of students arrived at my door. They were led by my niece, and they all clutched pieces of paper. My niece explained that they had an exam, and they needed my help with the English paper. I thought it odd that they would be allowed to take their tests away from the school to elicit the help of others, but I decided to do what I could.

I sat my niece down while her friends gathered around, and tried to explain the questions to her in the hope that this would help her arrive at the answer. She looked at me in a very confused manner, and just pushed the paper towards me. She did not want to know how to answer the questions; she just wanted me to answer them so that she could share them with her friends. I tried to explain that there was little benefit in me doing her exams, but this seemed to only add to her confusion.

My reluctance to help these students cheat would likely seem a bit odd to many Thais. This is a culture based around doing favours for people and getting favours back in return. If a teacher leaves an apple for a teacher it is usually accompanied by the student’s conviction that they will later get some type of pay-back for this gift.

Of course I had seen cheating occur in my own school, and to be honest I probably would have had no problem doing it myself if I thought that I would get away with it. The thing was though that the only people who did cheat were the brave or the reckless. When I was at school the chances were that if you cheated you would be caught. It’s a different story here in Thailand. Students usually make little effort to hide their cheating and when caught they have this attitude of ‘hey, why are you making such a big deal about this’. When I cross out the copied work or deduct marks they will act as it is me who is in the wrong.

The thing that I find most strange is that even when I spoon-feed the students the answers there will still be people copying off their friends. This occurs even when I highlight the correct answer on the board. It seems like that it is their instinct to copy even when there is no need.

When I receive homework the copied answers could not be more obvious then if the student’s had actually written in red pen ‘ this work is not mine’. They copy everything word for word with no attempt at disguise. The saddest thing though is that this work is usually copied from someone who is equally as hopeless at the task at hand as they are. Not only is the work a copy, but it is a copy of something that is wrong.

The internet has become a great tool for the Thai cheater. Students have no shame in copying and pasting large chunks of someone else’s work and trying to pass it off as their own – mind you, I saw one of the teachers do much the same thing for a course he was doing. They students think that nobody will question why suddenly they are so competent in English when they usually struggle to answer the most basic question in the language. To add insult to injury they will sometimes forget to remove the telltale signs that it is taken from the internet. I will begin to read a students work and realise that it is full of Google ads and jarring messages saying ‘click here for link’.

The truth is though that cheating is rarely punished in Thailand. There is a lot of pressure in schools to ensure that students pass, and if they don’t pass it is the teacher who is seen as failing and not the students. Failing someone is a big deal, and can be a real uphill struggle with school administration putting pressure on to change a failing mark to a pass.

Despite whatever view the foreign teacher in Thailand might have it would seem that cheating is endemic in the culture. I don’t think that it is our place to try and change this, but instead to work within the system as best we can. If change is to come it will come from the Thai people themselves, and not due to what they would see as interfering outsiders.

I try to minimise cheating as much as possible, but have turned my focus towards just doing my best for the students in the hope that they will gain some knowledge and maybe even develop a love of learning. In the end this is what is really important; at least in my opinion. Here is a poignant blog post written by a Thai university student about the same subject – click here. It will be people like her that will slowly change people’s attitudes.

Over a year has passed since I posted this article. I no longer teach in Thailand but I do worry about my son’s future. He will be starting school next year and I want him to have a good education. Even if I send him to the best school in the land there is probably no way to avoid the culture of cheating. I will be able to explain the drawbacks of this practice to him and maybe that will make a difference.

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33 thoughts on “Cheaters in Thailand

  1. Paul I have read a fair bit about cheating in Thai schools, Mike has mentioned it before in his old blog My Thai Friend. I do wonder if the Thai mentality questions if cheating is cheating if everybody is doing it.

    I think the reason it is allowed and not clamped down on by authorities who must surely know it’s a very bad practice, is because of that old thing again called face. To fail in front of others would not be seen as the Thai way of doing things. I think cheating in Thailand is allowed simply to save face. Failure is not an option.

  2. Face does have a lot to do with it Martyn. Everyone knows that it is going on but Thai people tend to get uncomfortable when the subject is brought up. A lot of teachers just completely ignore what is going on because making an issue of it doesn’t change anything. I would give students a failing mark for cheating in the exam but the school administration would just tell me to change the mark – If I refused they would change it. We were a bilingual programme and parents weren’t going to pay money unless their kids were getting top marks.

  3. Paul an excellent post and as Martyn mentioned something that I was talking about a while ago. My experiences as a volunteer at the local community college were similar to yours.

    One example springs to mind. A government inspector was due to arrive the following week and I was expected to doctor a “test” to show all the learners passed. A farce since most couldn’t speak two words of English let alone write a coherent sentence.

    I still have an issue with the Thai way, I see it at Doy’s school. She clearly cheats and copies. Trouble is she understands English, speaks quite a bit but still copies stuff that is wrong.

    I also find cheating in the community is rife. It seems everyone wants to cheat each other. If you are a foreigner then you are even more prone to this.

    Recently a new arrival from Norway has been subject to this in a big way regarding the house he is buying. Fortunately I was able to help, but at the risk of upsetting some of my neighbours in the process, who no doubt would say I caused them to lose face.
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    1. Hi Mike, please send me the link for your blog article on this and I’ll put it at the end of my post.

      I think that it is going to take something huge for this culture of cheating to change – maybe it will never change. There is so much that I admire about Thai way of life but there are some negatives as well. It is hard to imagine how cheating could be eradicated without the whole culture being effected – it runs so deep.

  4. The big problem comes with those completing higher education and then feeding into the Thai workforce.

    Some students in uni are passing around the same incorrect answers from years ago. They get into the workforce and their bosses are dishing out incorrect judgements because they’ve been schooled improperly too. So around and around it goes. And mistakes are costly.

    Students working hard at research on their subject in uni will go into a company and be told to change their results to agree with the boss, who is wrong. Can you imagine how frustrating that is?

    And this is what frustrates the expats working in Thailand too. They are hired for their expertise, but their advice is ignored by bosses who went through the Thai cheating system. The expats work is ignored, costing megga bucks.

    The junior Thais who did get a proper education are frustrated because their bosses are wrong, but due to Thai culture, they cannot say anything. And if they do, they are threatened with demotion or being sidelined. They eventually give in under the pressure. Mai bpen rai.

    There are courses available, but due to loss of face a boss won’t take one to upgrade skills: Again, loss of face. Loss of face for a boss needs to be avoided at all costs.

    And while Thais are used to the culture, highly trained/educated expats are not. Expats will complain, with most eventually quitting out of the insanity of it all.

    Thailand needs to change. No doubts there. And the Thais certainly have the brains to do it right, so that’s not the problem. The system is.
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    1. Hi Cat, I agree with you. This is a huge problem. I have had quite a few experiences with Thai hospitals since my son was born. I have a lot of respect for the doctors and nurses but the culture means that some hospitals are unsafe. I worked as a qualified nurse and know that doctors make mistakes all the time – they are human. Nurses constantly prevent mistakes by questioning doctor’s orders; I would do this at least once a day and there were some near misses that could have easily led to serious consequences. I don’t believe this questioning of superior’s happens in Thailand because of the fear of causing loss of face. This is an Asian problem and not just Thailand. A few years a Korean plane crashed because one of the pilots was too afraid to speak up to the captain even though he knew the plane was going crash – a lot of people died and could have easily been prevented if it wasn’t for fear of causing loss of face. The problem is a lot bigger than just cheating on exams. The thing is though I really don’t believe foreigners can do much about it; this is a Thai problem and they need to sort it out themselves. Many Thai people seem to understand the problem but they get defensive when it is mentioned by non-Thais.

  5. We have the same problem in North Africa, but to a lesser degree than you describe.

    After reading Catherine’s comments above, I wonder what the implications for Thailand are in the world economy. Now that jobs are mostly being ousourced, I wonder if cultures like India’s are more successful because of less cheating than cultures like Thailand?

    I also wonder how Thai culture stacks up in this regard compared to other Southeast Asian cultures which have industrialized such as South Korea.
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    1. Hi Mary, Thailand is a lot more advanced than most of the nearby countries. There is a lot of money here and a lot of people are getting rich. Bangkok is an impressive modern city with facilities that are probably better than a lot of western cities. I would imagine it is behind South Korea, but I’m not sure if it by much. I could be wrong though.

  6. I spent some time in Thailand last year with a friend of mine who was teaching English there. He found that cheating was widespread in his school and when he tried to pull up some students on cheating and escalate the matter it was not dealt with at all by the senior teachers. They would often reassure him that the students would be reprimanded but then one complain from the students parents and the whole episode would be brushed over.
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  7. Nice post, a lot of what you say rings true within the Thai mindset; that there is nothing wrong with acheiving your goals through cheating.

    I have a Thai friend whose daughter is approaching University age. They are worried that she wont pass the entrance exams at her chosen college. When the parents went to an open day at the Uni where they meet the course heads etc, they were approached and offered the chance to pay now before she sits the exams and she is sure to pass. If they dont pay and she fails the exam she will have to resit it.

    They paid and thought nothing of it, “Its the Thai way” she told us.

    Its the way this is all above board, the institution has numerous people involved and the parents see it as normal. This type of act will ensure that within the next few generations Thailand will have eradicated its own intelligent workforce for a bunch of people with brown envelopes always looking for who to hand it to.
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    1. Hi Ray, thanks for commenting. I don’t blame the parents for wanting their kids to get ahead, but it is just so short-sighted. It is also a system where incompetents can prosper too easily. Things are far from perfect elsewhere in the world, where money can buy success, but it is more obvious in Thailand.

  8. Paul, I think you have misunderstood all this, you have a problem of not understanding another culture in its own terms. I reckon that your use of the word “cheating” is misconceived and offensive. Cheating entails underhandly deceiving others, something which is obviously not going on here.

    I think that what you are failing to understand is that Thais have RADICALLY different assumptions about wisdom and competence. Westerners put a premium value on a person being able to work things out for themselves, alone, as individuals. But Thais put no value on it at all. Instead they highly value the ability to work with others in their community to reach agreed, shared, answers to questions.

    I suspect that this has developed from the very different histories of Thailand and the West. In the latter there has been ongoing technical changes of circumstances such that people had to learn to adapt to new circumstances. By contrast, much of life in rural Thailand has probably changed hardly a smidgeon in many centuries. So the people have no need to value individual novel solutions, but merely to carry on doing what their ancestors and neighbours have been doing.

    So calling these people “cheats” is entirely misconceived.

    Meanwhile, over in the West, there is an equally powerful and merely more subtle process of much the same. In western universities, those who ape their professors’ incorrect views get promoted to professorships themselves, while any who think for themselves and rock the intellectual boat get dumped from the system as rejects instead. There’s plenty of evidence of this both past and present.

    In fact I would (tongue-in-cheek) accuse you yourself of the same “cheating” you are accusing the Thais of. That’s because you are merely plagiarising the mentality you grew up with, of putting a premium on individual production and condemning of group production. Haha!

    1. Hi Robin, thanks for your comment. If this was just my opinion then you might have a point, but this is a subject that most Thais I’ve met agree on. One of the reasons why I found cheating so hard to deal with was that my students would get upset about it. They would work hard yet other students would just copy their work and pass with no effort. In the above post I link to an article by a Thai student that who is complaining about the exact same thing. This is not so much about my values but the values of the many students that I taught over the years; they call it cheating and so do I.

  9. Thanks Paul for your interesting reply. I would suggest that the reality is not exactly with your own (and colleagues’) position but somewhere in between, as follows. Sure there are those other Thais who do consider it cheating. But they are clearly a minority. I don’t mean from that that their “morality” is outvoted, just that they can be construed as sort of “deviants” produced either by outside influence or by the re-arising of the natural tendency to sometime appreciate original talent. (Most of the time original talent is despised rather than appreciated.)

    Meanwhile the “cheaters” really do have that alternative cultural outlook, as proven by the fact they make no secret of their “cheating”. The existence of many Thais who resent the lack of recognition of their own talent or individual effort doesn’t make that less so (or make it any more worthy either for sure).

    1. Hi Robin, I’ve never met any Thai who didn’t consider it to be cheating; from what I’ve seen a lot of people just accept it because they believe there is nothing that can be done to change it – this doesn’t mean that they value it or don’t believe it exists. I also don’t agree that those people who get upset with cheating are social deviants; the only thing they shared in common was that they didn’t like the fact that they got the same rewards as people who didn’t anywhere near as hard as them. I’ve worked in rural and urban schools in Thailand and these opinions can be found everywhere.

      1. By social deviants I meant merely that they are not the majority. Your own articles indicate that most(?) Thais have no shame or concern about the matter so those who do must be the minority?

        “I’ve never met any Thai who didn’t consider it to be cheating.” But the articles indicate that most or many Thais consider it to be perfectly reasonable and not something they need to hide. The implication would appear to be clearly that they do not mean what westerners mean by cheating. There may just be a mistranslation of language going on here. Dictionaries can be worse than useless in this regard as they just sanctify errors (which appears to be a standard practice in Thailand anyway!).

        1. Hi Robin, there is a high degree of tolerance in Thailand for cheating. It is accepted in much the same way as alcohol abuse has been accepted in Irish culture. The vast majority of people might say that it is normal to cheat but this doesn’t mean that the see it as a good thing – it also doesn’t mean that they don’t share the same understanding of cheating as people in other parts of the world. I think most humans will agree that if one person works hard for something but gets the same reward as those who cheat then this is not fair. It is also common for bullying to occur when students refuse to play the game and share their homework – I know of one student who had to move school because of it.

        2. Ok Paul, you may be correct — though I remain a bit sceptical not having been to Thailand to get any experience of the matter directly for myself.
          Curiously I have noticed in the dating sites references to seeking honest, nor liars etc, which perhaps reflects the same.
          The preoccupation with “saving face” appears also to indicate that truthfulness is not valued very highly by many.

          1. I think the best way to get to know a culture is to experience it yourself. I’ve lived here for a long time, but in many ways I’ll always be an outsider – all foreigners are. On most issues in Thailand I’m neutral and try to avoid criticising the culture as much as possible. I believe there is a lot more good than there is bad here. With this issues I’ve seen so many people hurt by it that it is hard not to have an opinion; not that my views matter that much.

            A former neighbour and student of mine worked her ass off to get good grades. She wasn’t naturally good at studies and had to study hard for every good grade; her parents spent a fortune on extra classes for her. She didn’ cheat. If you had seen her face when I put up the marks for her year you would understand why I am so uncomfortable with this type of cheating – the students who didn’t work and only copied got the exact same mark as her. The next term she had no interest in class and joined a gang of disruptive students; she got in all sorts of trouble that year. This is very common and young people get disheartened because of it.

    1. “So where is your opinion on this subject coming from?”
      – I have a lot of experience of how people work outside of Thailand and I’ve read a number of discussions of the situation inside Thailand (as here). I’m aware of the limitations of my own knowledge which is why I wrote that last sentence of mine meaning to indicate I don’t have a closed opinion of the matter. Though in my extensive experience many people even who have direct experience of matters still manage to develop strong unsound opinions; that being because people often jump to prematurely fixed conclusions on the basis of their first few experiences and because of the confusing presumptions they bring to the matter (as e.g. with foreigners coming to Thailand).

      Just above here, Paul writes of one Thai student who was disillusioned by the marks she got. From that one can reasonably infer what she thought of the matter. One can’t so confidently infer what the many others thought of it, one can’t infer that those others thought “yes we are deceitful cheaters”, and it’s very conceivable that they don’t think that. Not least because if they DID think that, then they would take care to conceal their “cheating”, and be ashamed about it when challenged. The published reports (as here) repeatedly emphasise that they don’t, and that is an anomaly that your interpretations here fail to address.

  10. Robin, It takes an expat living in the country full-time around 3 years before they have a better understanding of Thais and the Thai culture. It is just not possible to garner the same inside experience from the internet such as you have been doing.

    Paul is stating an opinion that quite a few in the education industry hold. Thais included. Cheating in Thai schools is a subject that is discussed at length (offline) amongst educators and students.

    My main experience with the Thai education system is with higher education (MSc-PhD) but from lower eduction all the way up to Chula, cheating in Thai schools is a hinderance no matter what you want to call it. But until you live here, you won’t understand where Paul and others are coming from.

    1. “Robin, It takes an expat living in the country full-time around 3 years before they have a better understanding of Thais and the Thai culture. It is just not possible to garner the same inside experience from the internet such as you have been doing.”

      You there have completely failed to get the point I made, that even people with years of direct experience of something can form a misunderstanding of it, for reasons I indicated above. New (more accurate) perspectives often tend to come from outsiders.

      “Cheating in Thai schools is a subject that is discussed at length (offline) amongst educators and students.”

      And it is highly unlikely that this debate has been going on for a century, let alone several centuries. So the very existence and extent of this debate is strong evidence that it is the product of a culture clash, of the arrival of Western values on the scene, challenging the former Thai status quo.

      “But until you live here, you won’t understand”

      On the contrary, until you were BORN AND GREW UP there, you won’t understand!

      Apparently one of the most important phrases in Thailand is “Mai pen rai”. Indeed it appears to have been the national philosophy (and obviously quite in line with the essence of Buddhism).
      E.g. – http://www.gay-thailand.net/mai-pen-rai.htm

      And let’s have a safe bet that not one of those writing here has ever been a Buddhist.

      The student Paul referred to clearly was very far from a state of mai pen rai in the situation he described. She was living a life in denial of the national philosophy. That’s not to say the “cheating” is good or ok, just that the believers of Mai pen rai don’t believe they are “cheating”, as is proven by their very own behaviour about it, hence why your use of that word is incorrect. It would be like you going to Arabia and telling all the Muslims that they are “evil” for stoning gays and so on (even if they are); or going to the Kalahari and telling the natives they are “indecently” dressed. But you just don’t get it do you. You can’t understand that going somewhere physically does not equal going there in the philosophy-scape too.

      1. Indeed, as Paul wrote right at the top there: “the vast majority of respondents claimed that they saw nothing wrong with cheating to achieve a goal.”

        By definition the word cheating means doing something wrong, so by definition the use of that word is incorrect from the majority Thai perspective, just as saying that killing apostates is “evil” is incorrect from a majority Saudi Arabian perspective (as they’d instead say it is an excellent deed that Allah commands).
        But you still don’t get it do you? You can’t travel the philosophy-sphere merely by plane.

        1. It’s like saying that tigers are murderers. They do indeed kill people but in their own terms they are not committing any crime by doing so.

      2. Hi Robin, it is not my attention to offend you, but you really seem to be out of your depth here.

        I think there is a huge problem in the world today with people offering opinions on issues they are not really qualified to comment on. You admit that you have never been to Thailand yet you are lecturing people who do live here about Thai culture – do you not see something odd about this. You are trying to make pronouncements on a culture that you obviously don’t understand. Not only do I live here but I’m also married to a Thai and my son is half-Thai. Almost all the people I spend my time with are Thai – yet you seem to want to provide a lecture to me about Thailand. Can you speak Thai? Can you read Thai?

        Now while I’d accept such a lecture from someone like Catherine, who after all lives here, I don’t really pay much attention to someone who obviously has little of value to share on the subject. Catherine is the administrator of a successful Thai language website so I think you are barking up the wrong tree by arguing with her about Thai culture – as I said, you are way out of your depth.

        In regards to your Buddhist comment. I’m a Buddhist and that was one of the reasons I moved to Thailand in the first place.

        I value my readers here and always welcome comments.

        1. Thanks Paul for your latest reply – it appears we are just going to have to agree to disagree! I still don’t find your points persuasive. Even though you have this experience, and even have become a Buddhist, that’s not the same as having been born into a different worldview. And accurate insight does not always grow from direct experience; enhanced mental flexibility can be an important factor, as shown in numerous instances in the history of ideas. Anyway, thanks for patiently discussing with me here!

  11. Paul, excellent read and I remember the survey you were talking about where Thai’s seemed okay with cheating. As a teacher it has to frustrating to no end and as a parent it would definitely have me worried.

    Robin, you don’t know the first thing about Thai culture and have never been to Thailand and yet you feel qualified to reply like you have lived here for years. Your analogies are way off base, especially the one regarding tigers.

    Mai Bpen Rai, while it is a Thai saying I would hardly classify it as an important one in regards to your theories. I would assume you are a teacher of some sort in the west that always teaches from the book and is always correct. It’s no wonder that children of the West are becoming less intelligent every year.
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    1. Hi Tim, I am worried about how my son is going to cope when he starts school. I’ll try and teach him my values but there is a lot of peer pressure. I don’t blame the students; I’d have cheated a lot more in school if I thought I’d get away with it.

  12. Interesting reading indeed. I assume this issue only adds to a number of quality foreign Teachers over time being somewhat disheartened and perhaps becoming blase in their lessons.

    The “bum” foreigner teacher who claim “teaching english in Thailand ia a piece of piss… Perhaps embraces this cultural phenomena and just cruises through the lessons knowing that the exams/homework etc will “sort themselves out”.

    So what mindset is best to take into these positions?

    1. Hi Richard, I suppose the best that teachers can do is just put their focus on the students. I doubt the forign teachers will ever be able to change much about the system, but they can do the best possible job within the system.

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