Titima Suthiwan, Associate Professor for Thai Lang. and Lit., NUS – Real Leader Interview 23

Dhanya: I met Prof Titima Suthiwan through my friend Eunice. When I was speaking of Real Leader Interviews and about how we were meeting people with passion, Eunice thought it fit to meet her Thai Prof who was always passionate in her classes. She says its one of the best classes she ever attended. She said she would remember the class just for how Prof Titima always managed to keep the students engaged and interested in what was going on.
Charisma like that is something we at Real Leaders love! So Eunice and I met the Professor for a catch-up at the Arts and Social Science faculty of National University of Singapore. We had a good time listening to her story filled with quirks and little jokes! Hope you enjoy it too.
PS: I am sorry about the ‘okays’ you hear from me through out the video! I realised it can be really distracting when you are trying to listen to her. I promise to not repeat that with my future interviews!
About Prof Titima
Dr Titima Suthiwan holds a BA (Hons) in Thai language and literature from Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, and a PhD in Linguistics from University of Hawaii, U.S.A.. She was recruited by the Southeast Asian Studies Programme at NUS in 1998 to set up and coordinate theThai language program, which is now a part of the Centre for Language Studies, and the world’s largest and fastest growing Thai as a foreign language program. Prior to joining NUS, she taught in and coordinated Thai language program at various universities in the U.S., including University of Hawaii, University of Washington, Arizona State University, as well as University of Oregon where she also coordinated the Laos and Khmer language programs. Her publications are in the areas of Southeast Asian historical linguistics research, poetry, and translation.
Dhanya: Hello Prof, thank you for agreeing to this interview. We are really grateful to you for having you here. Do you want to introduce yourself first?
Titima: My name is Titima Suthiwan. I came from Thailand to Singapore almost 14 years ago to set up the Thai language programme at the National University of Singapore.
Dhanya: My first question is just getting to know you Professor. What is your story – how you ended up coming to NUS to set up Thai, what you did before that, where you grew up..
Titima: I was born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand. I studied Thai language and literature for my bachelor degree at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. During my time at Bangkok,  I was also a poet and a translator. Before I went to the US, I had published my collection of poetry that became the best seller in Thailand in the year that I published.
Later I studied Philosophy for my masters’ degree. When you do a PhD, you should have a question that you really want to answer! Back then I didn’t really have a question in my life. So I didn’t know what to do for my thesis after my coursework.
I noticed that a lot of my professors studied linguistics.  Since I liked language I applied and went to study Linguistics at the University of Hawaii. Initially I had just planned to do a masters’ degree, come back to Thailand and teach language. However I was awarded a scholarship at the University of Hawaii, so I decided to pursue a PhD since I felt it was a good deal – not having to pay the tuition fees. I also met a man there who I eventually married!
I taught Thai at the university by substituting the regular full time teacher when he was away. I also taught Thai at the summer school in various universities like University of Washington, University of of Oregan and Arizona State University.
So I had experience in teaching Thai as a foreign language and in managing programmes. In the University of Oregan, I didn’t really teach but I coordinated the Thai programmes. At that time there was no full time positions that were available in universities for languages. So I looked around and found out that NUS had a Southeast Asian Studies Programme but they were teaching only Vietnamese and Indonesian. I approached NUS and asked if they would be interested in offering Thai. They said yes and that’s how I moved here.
Dhanya: Could you tell us more about poetry book and what was it about?
Titima: The book was in Thai and it was about Love. Back then I was politically active and  very critical – especially about politics. In a while, I got sick of the dirty side of politics and decided to write about love.
I started writing poetry when I was in the fifth grade. I used to take orders from my friends for many occasions and sometimes I even wrote poetry for their homework. There have been times when they got better grades than I did.
I started to send my poems to women magazines and slowly got around to publishing.
One of my poems got turned into a song by a band and they were looking for the writer so they could pay the royalty. A lot of people claimed the poem to be theirs and I was one of them as well. Somehow, the band believed me but offered very little. I decided I would not take that little sum and let them use it for free.
It made me realize that it was time to have my poems published so there was some record of it all!
We planned the publishing around Valentine’s Day. 30 years ago in Thailand, most of the literature was about politics. When my book about love came out, 2000 copies were sold out in 2 weeks and we had to print 3000 more copies later. Eventually it was re-printed around 8 times!
I had another book that came out later that year. Recently, it was a children’s book about a cat at a university which was a real story! One of my best friends did the water colour illustration for the book.
Dhanya: My next question is what inspires you – what makes you wake up every day and do what you do – to teach Thai. What is it that drives you?
Titima: It is fun to be with people! I love being with the people. May be this is not politically correct but I like to teach and control people! Well actually control how you speak Thai. It is always fun to relate to people, to express yourself, to learn about others – especially about the younger generation. I like the older generation as well but it is tough to teach them unlike in the US. The students in the US were older than me because usually they were grad students. Here in NUS though, every batch of students gets younger each year.
Dhanya: In all these years, have you had this one experience that you always remember from your teaching?
Titima: To just be in a class is fun. To sum up all the fun moments we have had in the class, I remember the drama that my level 4 Thai students played at our programme’s tenth anniversary in 2008.
We had a Thai night and we had a variety of shows done by my students. The students in the Thai musical ensemble and my Thai level 4 students did a musical called “yîng rian, yîng bâaThe more we studied the crazier we become”. They imitated the classes and how we taught them. I specially remember the guy who played me. He dressed like I do – with these head bands and a bag. He even said “I am the queen and who dares to challenge me”. That was fun!
Dhanya: Who were your mentors through these years? Is there someone who is your inspiration / role model and has always said the right things for you when you needed it?
Titima: That would be the Buddhism education that I have received. I believe that I cannot become a Buddhist just by my birth. I studied the teachings and I really agreed! I also learnt from my grandparents and my father who became successful through education and honesty. My father never got corrupted by his position or power. I was lucky that my mom always told me about how honest my dad and her father were. I always rely upon these good teachings.
Dhanya: Since you mentioned Buddhism, could you share some of the learning from Buddhism that has formed your core values?
Titima: Buddhism has important teachings that I still can’t follow! The main teaching of Buddhism is that there are 3 characteristics to our world. The first – nothing lasts forever. The second – everything changes and the third – nothing is ours.  Of course I still do live in the worldly situation, this hand phone is very much mine!
When I was in my fourth grade, they started teaching Buddhism in class. I have discovered that principles I learnt there apply to my work – 1. Love what you do 2. Be diligent in what you do 3. Focus on what you do.
It is important that I just didn’t memorize them. I have thought these principles to be true. I have noticed that when I do what I love I could do it well. Buddhism is always something that I can rely upon and I agree with. This is what Buddha taught – you should not believe in anything just because someone told you to do so or just because your ancestors believed so. You have to think for yourself.
Dhanya: What advice would you give to the young leaders of tomorrow?
Titima: I think people should be sincere to themselves. When they do something they should really like it. It will be better if you know what you want to study, what you want to be or what you want to do for your living. Of course these are not constant wishes – they evolve as you grow up every day.
But the earlier you find out what your passion is, the better!  Suppose you like music or arts and instead you choose to study economics because you think it will bring you more money or more success, I don’t think that will make you happy. Because deep inside you would always think – too bad I didn’t get to be what I want. You have to be sincere with yourself.
Thank you Prof for a light and insightful chat! Your learnings from Buddhism were a highlight for us!
Thank you, Eunice for helping make this interview possible!
The Real Leaders Team,
Dhanya, Eb, and yours truly..