Sinnamjai (Thailand)

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Sinnamjai 🇹🇭
Thailand map.png
Location: Thailand
Definition: An informal exchange of gifts and favours, widely used and morally acceptable
Keywords: Thailand Southeast Asia Gift Favour Problem-solving Personal connections Patronage
Clusters: Patron-client networks
Author: Wasin Punthong
Affiliation: Department of Political Science, Thammasat University, Thailand, and Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia
Website: Profile page at LinkedIn

By Wasin Punthong, Department of Political Science, Thammasat University, Thailand, and Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia

Sinnamjai (สินน้ำใจ) is a term widely used in Thailand that may be translated into English as a token of appreciation. It refers to an informal relationship of exchange and has its roots in the culture of giving gifts to others in order to express gratitude. The dictionary of the Thai Royal Society defines sinnamjai as money or valuables that are presented as a reward (Office of the Thai Royal Society 2011[1]). In this meaning, the term describes an object willingly given by one person to another, thereby reflecting the giver’s motivation. However, sinnamjaimay also take a non-object form, such as a symbolic action. Within a social relationship, sinnamjai may be presented by either a giver or a receiver in a reciprocal manner.

Sinnamjai is far from unique to Thailand. Similar practices include okurimono no shukan (‘the practice of giving gifts‘) in Japan (Rupp 2017[2]) and songli (‘gift-giving’) in China (Han 2017[3]), to name but a few. In Southeast Asia, the culture of gift-giving is also related to saboraschon ( ‘meritorious benefactor’) in Cambodia (Hughes 2006[4]) and to utang na loob (‘debt of gratitude’) in the Philippines.

Sinnamjai should be distinguished from a patronage network, though it may subtly lubricate relations among actors within such a network. In a formal patronage network, patrons protect and take care of their subjects while the subjects give labour, property and loyalty in return. Patrons who rank highly in the social hierarchy will bestow sinnamjai on their subjects when the latter fulfil their assigned tasks. Informally, however, subjects or low-ranking officials may approach other powerful patrons who can guarantee protection (Rabhibhat 1998[5]).

In this form of relationship, subjects are expected to repay their patrons by presenting sinnamjai. This reflects the emphasis placed by Thai society on the practice of returning favours which, culturally, has a moral implication. Hence, giving sinnamjai to other people is, by virtue of the interpretation of returning a favour, morally acceptable in Thai society. The moral roots of sinnamjai lie in the values of big-heartedness, generosity and sacrifice, underpinned by Buddhist virtues such as the four sangaha vatthu (‘the four principles of service’—generosity, kindly speech, helping others, impartiality), to which Thai people attribute great importance. These values justify the giver’s moral motivation in presenting sinnamjai.

In traditional times, sinnamjai not only was a formal component of the established patronage network but also operated informally in the personal relationships between people of different status in the social hierarchy. Even when the feudal system collapsed in the early nineteenth century, the cultural and moral roots of sinnamjai remained firm. They were however adjusted to fit new social realities. During the transition to the modern state, ‘the patrons who used to benefit from their subjects’ provision through the self-remuneration system had to adapt themselves by relying upon an extralegal channel to maintain their gains’ (Bowie 2008:476-77[6]). The relationship between patron and subject turned, therefore, into one linking the bureaucrats as a service provider with the people as a service receiver. In other words, the subject turned into a client who expected good service.

One example of this relationship is when a bureaucrat exercises his or her authority to specifically and swiftly deliver a service to a certain client. However, the relationship depends also upon the bureaucrat’s willingness to accept sinnamjai. Hence sinnamjai, within this relationship, operates as a lubricant that facilitates the expectations of both parties since the client is expected to present sinnamjai, symbolically or materially, to the bureaucrat. In this regard, simultaneous action reflects both an expression of gratitude and the practice of returning a favour.

Presenting sinnamjai also highlights the use of practical solutions to deal with the bureaucracy. In certain contexts, and especially when state bureaucrats are involved, presenting sinnamjai may be regarded as bribery. Therefore—and especially after 1997, the year that marked the beginning of political reforms in contemporary Thai politics—a series of anti-corruption laws was enacted. These include the fundamental anti-corruption law of 1999 that determines the conditions under which politicians and state bureaucrats may receive gifts or other benefits. They may, for example, accept a gift worth up to (but no more than) 3,000 Thai Baht (about €70) as long as the gift meets professional and moral obligations. However, there is no clear definition of such moral obligations. Consequently, presenting sinnamjai can be interpreted differently depending on the context, and this demonstrates the ambivalent character of sinnamjai. Presenting sinnamjai has been practised and, to some extent, accepted not only by Thais but also by foreigners visiting Thailand. For instance, some foreign visitors have presented sinnamjai to Thai officers in recognition of special services (ThaiPBS 2017[7]).

Sinnamjai is often linked with electoral politics. In an opinion survey conducted in the run-up to Thailand’s 2011 parliamentary elections, Pankaew (2011[8]) together with King Prajadhipok’s Institute examined public attitudes to the behaviour of members of parliament (MPs). Respondents were asked to rank the importance of a range of MPs’ activities. The survey results found that respondents still considered activities related to sinnamjai as important, with more than 50 percent choosing ‘important’ or ‘most important.’

The table illustrates that sinnamjai helps to facilitate the relationship between politicians and voters. Such a relationship is multidimensional: it not only reflects the satisfaction of voters’ expectations but is also seen as expressing politicians’ big-heartedness and good-will. At the same time, sinnamjai is subject to the prevailing vote-buying discourse. It is therefore not possible clearly to determine whether presenting ‘sinnamjai‘ in a political context is a form of corrupt practice or just an expression of kind-heartedness. The latter can be justified by moral and cultural underpinnings. This demonstrates the ambivalence in the exchange aspect of reciprocity (Lebra 1975).

Moreover, sinnamjai is closely linked to powerful provincial strongmen (pumeebarameenaichangwat; ผู้มีบารมีในจังหวัด). Sawasdee (2006:32[9]) argues that a culture of political patronage is more commonly found in rural than in urban areas. Furthermore, Eiawsriwong (2017[10]) and Haas (1978:284-6[11]) see patronage networks as a channel leading to resources and favours. Provincial strongmen who start their careers by building up public support as local politicians, satisfy their voters’ expectations by securing government funding for local development projects that benefit their constituents, and this in turn enables the politicians to build charismatic popularity (baramee; บารมี). Voters return the favour by voting for the politicians.

Despite its similarity to pork-barrel politics (Sidman 2017[12]), such a phenomenon can be differently perceived when seen through the prism of sinnamjai. The use of state funding to develop one’s own constituency can be portrayed as a provincial strongman showing his big-heartedness. Voters see it as morally acceptable for them to return the favour by casting their votes and expressing their loyalty. In this respect, sinnamjaiplays a crucial role in sustaining provincial strongmen’s popularity. Nishizaki (2005:186-8[13]) argues that, while provincial strongmen are often associated with the use of violence in electoral politics, many build their power and popularity without resorting to violence. One way in which they do so is by expressing gratitude to their hometowns by presenting sinnamjai in various forms such as donating money to charities or sponsoring construction works. Thinbangtiaw (2010:196[14]) argues that such practices typify an accumulation of social capital rooted in the combination of big-heartedness, generosity, sacrifice and trust. These values fit well with Thai culture as shown above.

Recent research by Satitniramai et al. (2013[15]) affirms that the relationship between patrons and their clients is seen not so much as hierarchical but rather as horizontal, with its focus on caring-for-each-other exemplifying the moral implications of sinnamjai. Moreover, there is an old saying in Thai, ‘Remember to return a favour.’ Accordingly, presenting sinnamjai is seen as being more about returning the favour than about vote-buying. Put another way, sinnamjai is the act of giving that expresses the giver’s goodwill. Hence, the receiver should also act in a reciprocal manner. In this way, sinnamjai helps to oil the wheels, containing moral connotations that motivate reciprocity which, in its turn and to a certain degree, sustains the patronage relationship in Thai society.


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  15. Satitniramai, A., Pawakarapand, N. and Mukdawijitra, Y. 2013. Final Report: Re-examining the Political Landscape of Thailand. Bangkok: Thai Health Promotion Foundation (Thai Health) (in Thai)