Professor Bundhit Kantabutra's Biography
By sons Burin and Vitit Kantabutra
In the following you will read the story of a man who had big dreams, only to have his dreams exceeded by his own accomplishments. Immediately upon his return from schooling abroad, Mr. Bundhit was charged with the daunting task of creating an infrastructure for the entire field of statistics in Thailand, both in practice and in academia. In addition to all this Mr. Bundhit was given the urgent task of collecting essential statistics for use in repairing war damage. He not only accomplished all of these objectives, but also became a pioneer in two other important fields -- information technology and insurance.
Despite his busy schedule, Prof. Bundhit managed to have a good family life, and was also able to spend a great deal of time and effort helping his students far beyond the classroom. Behind all these accomplishments was his wife Prapa, herself a remarkable woman whom Prof. Bundhit so deeply loved. Although he is no longer with us, his good deeds continue through the acts of those who, like him, love our country and work tirelessly for it. His full story follows.
Childhood and Youth in Thailand
Bundhit Kantabutra was born on 23 October 1915 in Lampang, then a rural province in Northern Thailand to Phraya Rajvaraiyakarn, a public prosecutor and Khunying Bunrod, both highly ambitious, self-made people. When Master Bundhit was young the family had to travel often due to his father's duty. However, the family realized the importance of the boy's education, and made sure that it did not suffer from discontinuity.
As a youth Master Bundhit moved to Bangkok with his parents, and there more serious schooling began. Starting out at a school which he soon discovered to have low standards, he decided on his own to move to a strict, serious school run by French Catholics called St. Gabriel. There he was introduced to the English language, which he loved. After finishing Matayom ("the middle grades") 3 (elementary school) he moved to Assumption College, another Christian school in Bangkok known for high academic standards.
Then in 1934 after finishing Matayom 8 (secondary school), his parents sent him to study at the university level in the Philippines, as in those days, many Thais found good, affordable universities with American-style instruction in the Philippines.
Higher Education and Life Abroad
There, Mr. Bundhit majored in accounting at Far Eastern University, where his early English lessons and strict schooling became indispensable.
On the evening of 6 June 1936, an event occurred that young Bundhit would never forget -- the Thai Students Association in the Philippines was having a banquet on the Roof Garden of the Great Eastern Hotel in Manila. At 7 p.m., as Mr. Bundhit, the Honorary Secretary of the Association, was busy with last minute organizational tasks, a young lady, a new Thai student, walked out of the elevator escorted by two other ladies. She immediately caught Mr. Bundhit's attention, and the affair between them was to last a lifetime. The two celebrated the anniversary of their meeting, June 6, until the very last year of his life.
It was love at first sight for Mr. Bundhit. He sought every opportunity to be with her, e.g., as Honorary Secretary of the Association, he had to distribute photos of Association activities to its members, including Miss Prapa, which he did – but he brought only one picture per visit. However, at 20, he was still rather naive about dating. Yet in September of that year he won her heart and they became steady dates. His life in the Philippines was very happy from then on, with the young couple either meeting every day or talking on the phone.
After earning his bachelor’s degree from Far Eastern University, Mr. Bundhit went on for his master’s degree in accounting from the University of the Philippines. He was then awarded a Thai Government scholarship to further his studies in the United States. The trip by ship took four months.
The scholarship was to prepare for the Certified Public Accountant exams at Northwestern University, Illinois. However, while studying at Northwestern, he discovered that only American citizens were allowed to take the CPA exams. Thus, in 1939 he moved to the University of Chicago for its MBA program following a recommendation to do so from a professor of his at the University of the Philippines. “The University of Chicago is so good,” said the professor, “that you simply have to study there.”
This professor also recommended that Mr. Bundhit switch majors from accounting to statistics. Mr. Bundhit listened, and switched his major. As we will soon see, this decision to study statistics at such a great place was key to Mr. Bundhit’s ability to serve his country.
During this time Mr. Bundhit and Miss Prapa constantly communicated by letters, because their budgets were too limited for telephone calls. After he graduated and began his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, Miss Prapa began her Master’s degree in pharmacy at the University of Michigan. Even though Ann Arbor was quite far from Chicago, Mr. Bundhit still made the round-trip almost weekly.
In 1941, Miss Prapa graduated, and moved to International House, on the University of Chicago campus, to prepare to return to Thailand.
However, out of the blue, on December 7 of that year, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. America was dragged into the war, so an immediate return was impossible.
The young couple joined the Seri Thai (“Free Thai”) Movement and married on August 14, 1942, at Chicago, after which they moved to Washington, D.C., where he was Seri Thai’s representative of the Thai students in the US.
Their first son, Burin (“Joe”), was born on August 17, 1943.
When the war was won, Mr. Bundhit’s duties with the Seri Thai ended, so the family returned to Chicago. It was hard to find living quarters, because landlords didn’t want families with young kids, but they finally managed to rent a small apartment.
Their only daughter, Jitrapa (“Judy”), was born in Chicago, on January 25, 1947.
Mr. Bundhit passed the Ph.D. comprehensive exams in statistics at the University of Chicago in 1946, and stayed in Chicago until returning to Bangkok via London, Paris, and Rome, arriving on August 14, 1949.
Professional Life Back in Thailand
Upon his return home, Mr. Bundhit reported to work for the civil service because he had been on a government scholarship for part of his studies. Even though his services were offered to another agency, Mr. Bundhit was immediately recruited to collect various statistics for Thailand instead.
Why was a well-trained statistician so urgently needed? Just as the Second World War had made Mr. Bundhit’s marriage happen, it strangely enough also launched his career! Forced to side with the Japanese, Thailand was heavily bombarded by the Allied Forces. In 1949, the country was still applying for international grants to rebuild itself. However, funding agencies required that Thailand present various economic statistics in the grant proposals, and the young Mr. Bundhit was immediately put in charge of collecting these important missing statistics as quickly as possible. In addition to this large-scale, urgent task he was also put in charge of the long-term development of both the practice of statistics in general and university-level education in the same field in Thailand.
Few people would accept such a gigantic combination of tasks. However, Mr. Bundhit was to succeed not only in these three unusually large assignments in statistics, but he in fact became a pioneer in three different fields in Thailand: statistics, information technology, and insurance.
To complete the long-term missions in statistics mentioned above, Mr. Bundhit introduced the discipline into Thailand as the basis of national development and economic planning by heading the statistical development team of the Prime Minister’s Office, which later became the National Statisical Office (NSO). He later founded the Department of Statistics at Chulalongkorn University and became its first head as well as the first Secretary-General of the NSO.
Prof. Bundhit, who was elected as the first (and only) Fellow of the American Statistical Association from Thailand, strengthened the basis of this science further by initiating a long-term project with US-sponsored scholarships for Thai students and civil servants. While others sought to build buildings (and as we will see below, he himself built Chulalongkorn’s Statistical Computing Centre and its first departmental library) his goal was always to build people. Towards this end, he found funding for many scholarships, fostered critical thinking abilities through assignements requiring research in journals and books, taught students to socialize by bringing them for lunches at the nearby exclusive Royal Bangkok Sports Club, promoted public speaking activities, etc. All told, Prof. Bundhit did so much to get statistics established in Thailand that he became known as, “The Father of Statistics in Thailand.”
But Prof. Bundhit was also a pioneer in Information Technology. Seeing how computers were crucial in statistical and other types of data processing during a tour of many U.S. government agencies in the 50’s, he ordered what was to be Thailand’s very first computer in 1961, which was to arrive in 1963. This computer, an IBM 1620, was worth B 2 mln. at that time and was one of the most popular computers on US college campuses. Purchased with financial assistance from the US government and a substantial educational discount from IBM, the computer was installed at the Statistical Computing Centre, Chulalongkorn University, built by Prof. Bundhit to house this computer.
The computer, the Computing Centre, and Chulalongkorn’s first departmental library that Prof. Bundhit built with funds from USOM and the Asia Foundation were the pride of the Statistics Department and the envy of others. Students from the Faculty of Architecture even made a fantasy movie about all these incredible happenings at the Department of Statistics!
But the other students on campus didn’t need to be too envious, since Prof. Bundhit soon opened Thailand’s first computer programming classes to the rest of the entire campus, and in fact to the general public. People came from many parts of the campus, the government, as well as the private sector. Even the United Nations sent people to take these computer classes. Many of Thailand’s most senior Information Technology professionals today took their first computer classes on this very first computer in Thailand.
In the same year as the year Prof. Bundhit installed the IBM 1620 at Chulalongkorn, he installed an IBM 1401 at the NSO so that serious statistical work requiring intensive data processing could take place in Thailand.
In addition to being a pioneer in statistics and information technology, Prof. Bundhit was also a pioneer in the insurance business. In those days Thailand didn’t have anyone officially certified to be an actuary. One day Prof. Bundhit returned home to his wife Prapa with a book in actuarial science (the mathematics of insurance, concerning the computation of premiums, etc.). He told her that he already accepted a job as an actuary, and so she should read the book so that they could work together in this field!
Even though Mrs. Prapa’s degrees were in pharmacy, her love was really for mathematics. While in Chicago, she took graduate mathematics classes from the University of Chicago, then probably the U.S.’s best mathematics department, and did very well. Thus it was no surprise that she accepted her husband’s challenge, read that book, and became an actuary.
Although Prof. Bundhit was best known for his contributions to statistics and information technology, it was their work together in insurance that seemed to occupy their minds most evenings at home. Appropriately enough, their daughter Jitrapa became the first Thai woman (and the second Thai) to be certified as an associate of the Society of Actuaries (U.S.).
From 1949-1969, Prof. Bundhit’s life, both professional and private, was mostly just grand. His wife Prapa landed an excellent job (also in statistics) with the United Nations in Bangkok, which she kept until retirement. Prof. Bundhit had many other important activities during these years, such as serving on the Board of Directors of IBM Thailand.
Interesting events occurred in conjunction with this association with IBM. For instance, Prof. Bundhit and Mr. Jürg Schlaepfer, a Swiss electrical engineer who served as Treasurer of IBM Europe, presented HM the King with the first electric Thai typewriter! The Royal Household also had IBM data processing equipment (a rarity in those days), which these two men inspected. Prof. Bundhit’s IBM position was an unpaid position, from which he resigned long before he had to make some sensitive decisions for the government.
During these calm decades, Bundhit and Prapa’s third child, Vitit (“Mo”), was born on June 19, 1958.
The Great Storm
In 1969-70, a totally unexpected crisis hit the NSO, and this event’s severe damage to the country’s statistical abilities have lasted even to this day. A group of people, both in and out of the public service -- including those whom he trusted and had thought to be honest-- attempted to have a number of computers used in the 1970 census. Extensive testing showed that the proposed equipment was not suitable for demographic work, and the national interests would definitely be severely damaged if it were used – but still this group persisted, allegedly to benefit themselves.
Professor Bundhit tried with all his might to preserve Thailand’s interests, but the tides of corruption were overwhelming, and even affected his younger son, Vitit, then aged only 10. He decided to leave the civil service after 18 years of dedication, with great sorrow and disillusionment, on September 14, 1970, to become an independent statistician at age 54.
Still, he continued to serve his profession, by supporting the statistical and actuarial professions. For example, he helped found the Statistical Association of Thailand and continued to assist Chulalongkorn’s Department of Statistics, and continued to serve the Thai insurance industry (with Prapa) as consulting actuary.
Retirement and Honors Received
Although Prof. Bundhit never really formally retired, as his advancing years took their toll, his professional activities gradually tapered off. He delighted in playing golf, listening to classical music, and talking with Mrs. Prapa. Their daily walks at the Polo Club, and meals at the Royal Bangkok Sports club, became the highlights of their life, as were the visits from his many friends and former students – many of whom had, by now, reached positions of prominence from which they, in their turn, could contribute to Thailand’s well-being through the usage of statistics. He and Mrs. Prapa looked forward to the visits of each year’s freshman class of the Statistics Department, who were brought by their seniors to meet their founding father. When they came, he would encourage them to live by his favorite quotation:
“I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer, nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Having been such a dedicated professor, Prof. Bundhit would have been delighted to know that the class of 2001 students of Chulalongkorn’s Department of Statistics elected him as the “Most Beloved Professor”, for few people are so fondly remembered so many decades after their retirement.
Dr. Bundhit had many achievements and honors, including:
· Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand.
· Knight Commander (Second Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant.
· Knight Grand Commander (Second Class, higher grade) of the Most Illustrious Order of Chula Chom Klao (this is the highest royal decoration available to a commoner).
Other achievements and forms of recognition:
· Founding Secretary-General, National Statistical Office, Office of the Prime Minister, Royal Thai Government, 1963.
· Graduate of the 6th class, National Defense College,, 1963.
· Elected Fellow, American Statistical Association, 1972. First (and only) Thai to become a Fellow of this prestigious organization.
· Founding President, Statistical Association of Thailand, 1973-1975.
· President, Actuarial Association of Thailand, 1978-1980.
· Elected Fellow, Actuarial Association of Thailand, 1980.
· Appointed Professor Emeritus of Statistics, Chulalongkorn University by His Majesty the King, 1980.
· D. Sc. Statistics (Honorary), Kasetsart University, 1986.
· Ph.D. Statistics (Honorary), Chulalongkorn University, 1987.
· Professor Emeritus Bundhit Kantabutra Fund established, Chulalongkorn University, 1988.
· Ph.D. Applied Statistics (Honorary), National Institute of Development Administration, 1993.
· Professional Achievement Citation, University of Chicago, 1994.
· Recipient of “IT Award” from HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, 1995.
· In 1998, The Statistical Computing Centre that Dr. Bundhit had built in 1963 to house Thailand’s first computer, was renamed the Bundhit Kantabutra Building.
Although he has passed away on 2 December 2000, he lives on, in those whose lives he has touched and who continue his work for our country – and in the Professor Emeritus Bundhit Kantabutra Fund, which we cordially invite you to make a donation.
This Fund is to establish a chaired professorship in statistics at the Faculty of Commerce and Accountancy, Chulalongkorn University. This chair will be the first in this field of study in Thailand, and thus will carry on Professor Bundhit’s pioneering tradition. (For further details, please see the Fund’s Web page at http://bundhit.acc.chula.ac.th).