A scholarship which would give Year 12 students in Australia the chance to live and study in Thailand for a year and teach Thai children to swim is the latest brainchild of one of Thailand’s most remarkable and inspirational role models: Mechai Viravaidya, AO.
A function in Sydney on Monday organised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand gave guests the opportunity to hear and meet Mechai in person.
The evening began with a tribute in remembrance of King Bhumipol Adulyadej. Original Pathé newsreel footage of the King and Queen’s visit to Australia in August 1962 was screened.
Mechai Viravaidya, AO, with well-wishers attending the Tourism Authority of Thailand function in Sydney.
Mechai, widely known in Thailand for his work in education and family planning, outlined his Five Journeys, which are:
- Reducing Births
- Reducing Deaths
- Reducing Dependence
- Reducing Poverty
- Reducing Ignorance
The founder and chair of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), Mechai is also a widely acclaimed leader in the fields of public health, education and community development. He’s an engaging public speaker, with the gift of being able to leaven information with humour.
Since 1974, Mechai has thrown himself into community-based family planning services, innovative poverty reduction and rural education programs, large-scale rural development and environmental programs, as well as groundbreaking HIV/AIDS prevention activities in Thailand.
Mechai Viravaidya, AO at the Tourism Authority of Thailand function in Sydney
One of Mechai’s secrets, he revealed on Monday, is to “take ‘no’ as a question”. When he comes up against bureaucratic obstacles, he quietly and determinedly overcomes them. His dedication to birth control, popularising condoms and vasectomies and breaking down the initial embarrassment surrounding family planning, earned him the affectionate nickname “Mr Condom”. It was largely through his efforts that average family sizes in Thailand fell from seven children in 1974 to 1.5 now. Population growth went from 3.3% to 0.4%.
Mechai was also behind Thailand’s first famous “Cabbage and Condoms” restaurant. They have spread – there are even two of them in England now – though none in Australia so far.
Born in Bangkok to a Scottish mother and a Thai father (both of whom were doctors and had met when studying in Edinburgh) Mechai arrived in Australia in 1954 at the age of 13.
He said on Monday that when his flight arrived in Darwin 62 years ago on a refuelling stop en route to Sydney, he was ready to get off the plane. He had assumed Australia had just one airport. Thailand at the time had just one, in Bangkok – and if you missed it, next stop was Rangoon.
Mechai studied and graduated in Australia. He went on to establish the Mechai Patana Bamboo School in northeastern Thailand, with the aim of eradicating poverty by making education accessible to underprivileged children in rural areas. It features a huge geodesic dome made of bamboo, 30 metres in diameter and the biggest in the world.
Students and their parents pay school fees in the form of community service and tree planting. Parents and students are required to share the responsibility of 800 hours of community service and the planting of 800 trees per year. By the time these students have completed their secondary education, they will have planted 4800 trees and, together with their parents, experienced the joy of doing public good.
Mechai served as Thailand’s deputy minister of industry from 1985 to 1986 under Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda. He served as senator from 1987 until 1991, putting much effort into combating AIDs – no small task, considering the government’s first reaction was to censor all mention of the virus in case it affected tourism.
In 1995 Mechai was appointed an Honorary Officer of the Order of Australia, for “service to Australian-Thai relations and contributions to the world AIDS debate”.
He is considered one of the most effective campaigners for social change ever and his audience found his presence in Sydney on Monday inspirational.
Written by Peter Needham