HIGHLIGHTS

  • PRATEEP had found her vocation in 1968 when she watched over two children of working parents and soon had 28 charges she kept occupied with songs and games for five U`S. cents each per day.
  • As her efforts won public recognition, private contributions, and support from the Bangkok Municipal Administration, PRATEEP began, with help in-kind from neighbors, to construct the now seven building Pattana Village Community School.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her bringing learning, better health and hope to impoverished children otherwise denied services in the portside slum of Klong Toey.”

 CITATION

Thailand is not alone in experiencing a proliferation of slums especially around Bangkok with its approximately five million inhabitants out of the total Thai population of about 45 million. Population pressure, low farm income and unemployment in the countryside have combined with hunger for better opportunities to speed migration into the cities. The influx burdens public and social services such as water, sewage, health, education and housing, and imposes immense pressures upon available tax revenues and administrative capabilities.

PRATEEP UNGSONGTHAM was born 26 years ago in Klong Toey, the largest of some 300 slums around Bangkok which together house over 800,000 persons, of whom about half are children. Smells of the underlying swamp are pervasive and there are no septic tanks or sewers and little garbage collection. During the monsoon water rises to the ground floor of makeshift dwellings. Both the Bangkok Municipal Administration and the Port Authority, as landowner, are reluctant to provide normal services that might confirm squatters’ rights to remain in an area scheduled for port expansion.

Yet Klong Toey is a humanly vital community despite the fact that roughly one-half of the some 42,000 residents live in one-room shacks with 25 square meters of floor space for six persons.

PRATEEP’S father, a Chinese immigrant who after two decades of struggle as a fisherman had in the 1940s sought a better living in the capital city, supported his family of three children and four step-children by basket weaving. Like many women and children in Klong Toey eking pittances from small side businesses, the mother bought shrimp paste at her home village which she sold in Bangkok markets; PRATEEP at the age of six began to buy candies in the market and sell them in the slum. Her mother had registered their house and secured for PRATEEP the birth certificate most slum children did not have but which was required for entrance to government school. When she still was not admitted for lack of space her mother paid for her to attend an inexpensive private school for four years. At age 11 PRATEEP went to work for the daily equivalent of from 35 to 70 U.S. cents packaging firecrackers, chipping paint and rust and cleaning the bilge of cargo vessels, and polishing handles in an aluminum factory. Within four years she saved enough to return to night school and eventually earned the teaching diploma she determined upon in order to help neighbor children denied government schooling.

PRATEEP had found her vocation in 1968 when she watched over two children of working parents and soon had 28 charges she kept occupied with songs and games for five U`S. cents each per day. Within two months she had the limit of 60 children who could be packed into the largest room of her family’s jerry-built house and could maintain discipline only by instituting regular instruction in reading, writing and counting. Later teenage slum assistants helped teach nutrition and preventive health to her students whose families often gleaned part of their food from waste of nearby slaughter houses.

As her efforts won public recognition, private contributions, and support from the Bangkok Municipal Administration, PRATEEP began, with help in-kind from neighbors, to construct the now seven building Pattana Village Community School. For the 694 children enrolled in grades one through six, a kindergarten and rudimentary vocational school, there are 25 teachers and a small clinic staffed on weekends by volunteer doctors and nurses from city hospitals, all showing the people of Klong Toey where there is a will there is a way.

In electing PRATEEP UNGSONGTHAM to receive the 1978 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes her bringing learning, better health and hope to impoverished children otherwise denied services in the portside slum of Klong Toey.

 RESPONSE

Tonight I feel I cannot be myself. First, I want to speak to you in English, a language I am only beginning to learn. So please forgive me if I make mistakes and cannot speak properly. Second, this is the first time I have dressed in this way. This costume, like the Magsaysay Award, was given to me. A benefactor of my school wanted me to be able to accept this Award in Thai national dress. Third, I am only one of a team that has built the Klong Toey school the Award recognizes. The achievement is not mine alone but is a collective effort. So I am representing my fellow workers who are not here. Lastly, this ceremony is very far from Klong Toey, the slum of Bangkok where I grew up and still live and teach.

Yet, I welcome this occasion to say that the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation’s recognition of our school calls attention to a problem faced by all developing countries. A Thai newspaper last Sunday carried a cartoon showing that it took a man near the top of a coconut tree on an island of the Philippines with a telescope to see Klong Toey while our own people nearby had overlooked the slums of Bangkok. I wonder how many of you in this audience have visited the slums in your own cities. They are so frequently ignored.

Through our lives we ask when something happens, what does it mean? What am I going to do? I asked when I learned of this Award, what have I done to deserve it? What am I going to do to live up to it? My answer is this. For us slum people the past is hard and the present dismal. We always look to the future for something better. So, to help make a better future for at least some of my neighbors, I will donate all of my cash prize to establish a foundation to support the Klong Toey school. Added to this will be the contributions from others which were encouraged by the announcement of the Magsaysay Award to me. This new foundation will help make my dreams come true. We will enlarge the preschool and provide a nursery for smaller children so that their brothers and sisters of preschool age can attend classes to prepare them for regular elementary school. For the vocational school we have just started for post-compulsory education level young people, we will be able to add essential equipment and facilities.

To the Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation I want to express my deep thanks. You have my promise that I will do my best to live up to the honor you have given me.

 BIOGRAPHY

PRATEEP UNGSONGTHAM was born near the Bangkok slum of Klong Toey where she now lives. Her hardworking parents earned barely enough to carry the family through successive turns of misfortune. Her father, Pao Chu, came to Thailand in 1917 at the age of 24 from Swatow, China, and became a fisherman in Samutsakorn, 50 kilometers southwest of Bangkok on the Gulf of Siam. As was common among poor Chinese emigr?s, he had left behind a wife and four children to whom he sent remittances. He later took a second wife, Thongsuk, of Chinese-Thai ancestry, who had also previously been married and had four children. When a tidal wave in 1942 washed out the fish stakes that were his savings and his livelihood, he emigrated to the capital city to find a new life. He brought his wife and two of his stepdaughters to Bangkok, leaving two other children with his wife’s family in Samutsakorn. Arriving with only 34 baht (US$2.45), the family was taken in by friends living in the portside district of Klong Toey. Pao Chu took odd jobs and Thongsuk, using the 34 baht as investment capital, made and sold pork sate—a popular dish of marinated pork pieces broiled on small sticks.

After nearly four years the couple had saved enough to build their own house in the Klong Toey District where they ran a business of raising chickens and ducks. A son was born to them in 1948 and PRATEEP was born four years later on August 9, 1952. She was five years old when her father was again reduced to penury: all his chickens and ducks died of a sickness for which he could find no cure. Quick on the heels of this disaster, the Port Authority, as landowner, ordered all squatters to move from the area. PRATEEP remembers her father stoically tearing down their house, carrying the lumber to a new location in the neighboring Klong Toey slum and starting to rebuild. Although he did most of the work himself, he had great difficulty meeting the out-of-pocket costs of nails and other essentials.

The sprawling Klong Toey slum is a crowded collection of squatters’ houses often built on stilts above swamp land. The houses are usually small but neat, and linked by narrow boardwalks perched above the filth and muck. Most of the squatters were originally village folk. About one-third of all persons living in the slum—men, women and children—work, but their jobs are low paying, long houred, menial and irregular. The government has hesitated to supply municipal facilities to the area—such as garbage collection, drinking water and schools—for fear of legalizing squatter title to the land.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)