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Chasing the Little White Ball
issue 263 – January 1995
Condensed Version of Article
Golf courses are sprouting like mushrooms after spring rain across East and South-East Asia.MaleeTraisawasdichai finds that fairways make good business but bad neighbors.
‘My wife was a caddie. She is dead.’ So spoke 27-year-old Pong Kheungkham, father of a little boy and a poor farmer from Baan Thung Yang – a small village in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. Janpeng, his wife, was two months pregnant when she miscarried on the 17th hole at the Santiburi Private Community. A month later she was dead.
Perhaps it was because she had carried the heavy bag over such a long course or because of daily exposure to the chemical pesticides used to keep the greens – but the cause of Janpeng’s death was never clearly established. Her story shows how rich golfers’ élitist passion is satisfied at the expense of the poor. Golf constitutes an arrogant ‘power sport’ for the privileged few.
Around Asia the advent of the golf course means disruption of ecology and the human community. Japan, Asia’s most golf-crazy country, has at least 2,016 golf courses covering 2,227.7 square kilometers of land. The area exceeds that of Tokyo.1
In Thailand – the centre of ‘golf mania’ in South-East Asia – 200 golf courses have depleted the country’s limited water supply that is vital for rice farmers. In Malaysia over 160 golf courses have swallowed up tracts of rainforest. In Indonesia 91 golf courses have bitten a big chunk out of traditional farming wetlands and nature reserves, in one case expelling nearly 1,000 families.
China, Burma and Indochina are the new frontier of the corporate golf industry. A ‘golf-resort-plus-casino’ package is being introduced to Burma, Laos and Cambodia. In Laos, Thai developer SompotPiyaoui’s plans for the KonPhapheng Resort Development include two casinos and two courses, a 1,200-room hotel, an international airport and a power station. ‘Setting up a resort complex in the middle of the KhonPhapheng Fall, which is ecologically sensitive and the habitat of unique fauna like the Irrawaddy dolphins, is in itself unacceptable. It is a black and white issue. It’s like you were going to poison the Mekong River right into Cambodia and Vietnam.’
Cheap land, weak regulations and feeble local opposition in South-East Asia – particularly Indochina – are a strong draw for Japanese developers. Back home in Japan strong local opposition has managed to halt the construction of 720 golf courses since 1988. For Asia’s poorest countries golf resorts provide a lure to draw easy money from wealthy tourists, expatriates and the local nouveaux riches.
How many ‘golf dollars’ stay in the host country is also a matter of debate. ‘When a tourist starts his journey he buys a Nikon camera and then flies with Japan Airlines,’ says Thai anti-golf activist ChyantPholpoke. ‘Arriving in, say, the Philippines for golfing, he takes a Toyota limousine and checks in at a Japanese-owned hotel. He goes up to his room in a Hitachi lift where he takes a drink from a Toshiba fridge, turns on a Sharp air conditioner and a National TV.’
Golf is the sport of the powerful and influential. In Indonesia half the existing golf courses are owned by President Suharto and his family3. The US armed forces have 300 golf courses, maintained at a cost of $60 million a year to the American taxpayers.’ According to Thai Lieutenant General SananKajornglam: ‘Most generals have to play golf because it’s a high-society game. Golf is expensive. If you are known to be good at golf and you play with the right clans, then let your superiors win, you can curry favour and get promoted.’
Thai farmers are not so sure. In 1994 Thailand experienced its worst-ever drought year. The Royal Irrigation Department (RID) discovered 13 golf courses illegally diverting water from irrigation canals. The Government, however, prohibited farmers from growing a second rice crop while golf courses went on pumping water from the reservoirs. An average course in Thailand consumes 6,500 cubic meters of water per day – enough to satisfy the domestic needs of 60,000 rural villagers.
SuradejVongsinlang – a water-resource engineer who quit his golf-course job – is candid about water-theft tactics: ‘Some golf courses near rivers dump rocks and sand into the river to make the water level rise, so it will flow into their golf course.’
Caddies and course workers also fall victim to pesticide poisoning. Caddies interviewed at Santiburi golf course in Chiang Rai said they all suffered skin disease, dizziness and kidney problems after just a year’s work. Dead birds are found almost every morning after greenkeepers have sprayed pesticide at night. In the US a Golf Course Superintendent Association’s study confirmed that: ‘Among golf-course superintendents there is more lung cancer, more brain cancer, more cancers of the large intestine and prostate. Especially lung cancer.’
The image of Thai women is often used to sell the country to tourists – golf tourism is no different. One promotion leaflet entitled ‘Thailand Paradise Golf Plus’ pulls few punches: ‘The splendour of the courses and club houses is unrivalled in Europe. And the service offered by the caddies, who are young, friendly, knowledgeable – and usually female – is unparalleled in the world.’ A receptionist at the Santiburi golf course revealed: ‘I have been approached by golfers many times to go out. Once a Malaysian pro told me if I went with him he would give me all the money he won from the game. But I managed to refuse his offer gently.’
It remains to be seen whether the ‘nature-loving’ golfer can be convinced.
MaleeTraisawasdichai is a journalist with the Nation in Bangkok.
1GAG’M Newsletter, May 1994.
23Far Eastern Economic Review, 5 May 1994.
Questions related to Case Study
Answer all of the questions below. (Total: 30 marks)
Assume the golf course is owned by the Thai government and was created to promote economic success and improve the standard of living in the country. Evaluate the success of this golf course using the Triple Bottom Line. Be sure to use specific examples from the case to support your evaluation. Based upon your evaluation include a summarizing statement on whether or not this golf-course has been successful. (10marks)
Imagine you are a local government official in neighboring Cambodia and you have been asked to look at the golf course in Thailand to decide if a similar development should happen in your country. Using only a Utilitarian/Rule-Utilitarian framework explain your decision. (10 marks)
What are all of the factors that should be considered to decide if the golf course manager (not owner) is Morally Responsible for any damages that have occurred? (10marks)