The Lee Kuan Yew-Thaksin Connection

In 2006, the multi-billion dollar sale of Thaksin’s businesses to a Singaporean holding company finally sparked mass protests against him. Before this, Thaksin has long looked to the Singaporean success story as a model for his own reshaping of Thai politics.

During his time in power, Thaksin was viewed as an emerging regional leader when both Lee Kuan Yew and Mahatir were fading from the political scene.

Thaksin sent troops to Iraq and also assisted in the U.S. rendition of suspected terror suspects. This bolder and more visible foreign activity marked a switch from the disinterested foreign policy Thais had traditionally practiced for self-preservation.

Thaksin state visits to Singapore or Malaysia often resulted in edicts related to what he had seen there–Thailand must build the highest airport control tower in the world or look into Singaporean-style road toll systems for the inner city.

The Singaporean election model was also defended several times by Thaksin-directed political parties. This is the idea that “provinces which vote for the Thai Rak Thai party will be taken good care of first.”

Thaksin defended his absorption of existing political parties and pressure on the media by noting that Singapore was successful and did not need a strong opposition. The desire for Thailand to reach Singaporean levels of development was part of Thai Rak Thai Party dogma.

After his ouster, Thaksin continued to meet with the prime minister of Singapore and was treated as if he were still the Thai prime minister.

Lee Kuan Yew was apparently a Thaksin admirer and explained the Thai political situation on Thaksin terms–Thaksin was a reformer who wanted only to help the poor, the army upset his good work, and Thaksin was destined to return (here and here).

It should not be hard to understand Thaksin’s (and his peers’) adoration of Singapore. Traveling from a nation like Thailand into Singapore or Malaysia presents an obvious contrast of development. The rule of Thailand is that no new law is ever enforced for long and everything always reverts back to an equilibrium all sides can accept without losing face. In other words, nothing can every really be changed in the Thai world. Political parties traditionally formed broad fragile coalitions with little chance of reforming anything.

Compare this to Singapore. There a single party yokes all parts of the state, along with the business world and the media, to ensure that it can nimbly enact whatever is needed without facing the petrification that exists in the Thai world.

The reality may be that the Singaporean system may only work so well because of nation-state’s small size (it is really a small city, rather than a country) as well as its strategic location. However, the contrast between authoritarian Singaporean and laissez-faire Thailand are noted throughout the region (for instance, Rangoon’s Future: Orderly Singapore or Disorderly Bangkok?).

(2Bangkok Editor Ron Morris’ book, The Thai Book: A Field Guide to Thai Political Motivations, is available in the Kindle Store.)

Below are some mentions of Thaksin’s connection to Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore miracle:

2004: New York Times: Thaksin is riding high — maybe too high
…Thaksin sees himself as a successor to Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Suharto of Indonesia and Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia, renowned for their authoritarian tendencies as well as their long periods in office. This makes a large minority of Thais nervous that Thai democracy, which evolved painfully in the 20 years after the 1973 revolt against military strongmen, will be in sustained retreat against the forces of populist authoritarianism, a common enough phenomenon in the region and often accompanied by a large measure of cronyism and bypassing of judicial processes.
… The long-established pluralism of Thai politics, however, makes it unlikely that Thaksin can replicate the Malaysian or Singaporean systems of one-party dominance. His party is based on his personality, while the main opposition Democrat Party has an institutional base — and strength in liberal Bangkok, where a governorship election this year will test the depth of support for Thaksin’s party.
State powers of patronage are also much less in Thailand than elsewhere in the region and the diversity of business interests has its counterpart in politics. The press has been partly brought to heel by Thaksin’s use of commercial pressures, but the Thai news media is seldom cowed for long. Even when the generals ruled, the Thai press was freer than its counterparts in “democratic” Malaysia and Singapore…

2010: Book Review: Thaksin and Thailand’s Contentious Foreign Policy
…With the old guard going into retirement – Kuan Yew in Singapore, Mahathir in Malaysia, Suharto falling from power in Indonesia – Thaksin began to look like the next architect of a dynamic, emerging Southeast Asia, no matter how much the hackles were rising on the back of the necks of both his domestic and foreign policy establishment in Thailand.
Unfortunately, it began to appear that his business interests, with the sale of his Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek sovereign wealth fund, and his machinations with providing communications infrastructure to the Burmese, were paramount, and they played a major role in providing the excuse for his ouster…

2012: Lee Kuan Yew writes “Socialism or Free Markets? Consider Myanmar and Thailand”
…The most recent was the ouster of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. The military’s interference has resulted in a perpetual state of political uncertainty and has shaken investor confidence.
Both countries’ governments would do well to remember that it was the open-door policies of free trade and investment that made Thailand prosperous and the passive closed-door policies that held Myanmar back for 50 years…

2013: Singapore’s iconic figure, Lee Kuan Yew, on Thaksin
…The military leaders will continue to insist on privileges and will not be content with being reduced to an ordinary army. But they will also learn to live with a government made up of Thaksin’s allies. It may even be possible for the army to accept Thaksin’s eventual return to Thailand, if he can promise to get along with them and not pursue any vendettas.
There can be no reverting to Thailand’s old politics, to the pre-Thaksin era when the Bangkok elite had a monopoly on power. Thailand will continue moving along the path that Thaksin first steered the country onto. The gap in living standards across the country will narrow. Many peasants will be lifted into the middle class and will help drive the country’s domestic consumption. Thailand will do well…

2015: In praising the Lee model, PM could be endorsing Thaksin model
…Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore model was indeed Thaksin’s role model for nation building when the ex-PM was in office before the 2006 coup. Lee criticised leaders around the world, including many Thai elite, for mishandling their countries, but he praised Thaksin for visionary leadership and economic management. Lee has run Singapore like his company and hence the world knows the country as ‘Singapore Inc”, so did Thaksin who tried to make the Kingdom “Thailand Inc”…

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