Do all Thai roads lead to Singapore?

One Year Ago: Thai editorial cartoon: Ordered to report only happy news!

Thai junta chief and Prime Minister Prayuth was reportedly impressed by the progress and order of Singapore during a recent trip there, even commenting that Thailand would be better off if its media followed the Singaporean model. This model includes tight censorship that puts the press at the behest of government initiatives to develop the nation.

Thais have long been impressed by the example of Singapore, a nation-state that exemplifies values Thais have traditionally held dear–order, unity, progress and incorruptibility.

Freedom of speech, assumed to be every society’s highest value by the Westerner, is subsumed in Thai culture by an impulse to cater to those of higher or lower rank and monitor one’s actions and speech so as not to cause offense. Unity, or making the village of one mind, is instead the highest value. Political ruptures and disagreements are all put down to an impolite lack of unity. Democracy is defined as a unity of opinion and the giving up of one’s viewpoint to cooperate with the whole.

The Thai state is a laissez-faire market where greedy competition overwhelms any pretense at impartiality, strong arm tactics rule, and no law ever stands for long. Thais who can afford to travel overseas are stunned by the state of development of Singapore (and even Malaysia) compared to chaotic Thailand.

Prayuth’s praise of Singapore is ironic considering the junta’s campaign to eliminate Thaksin influence from politics. Thaksin was also enamored of the Singaporean model and its obvious success. Politicians in his party even vowed to dole out government services first to areas that voted for his party–mimicking the Singaporean tact of prioritizing benefits to areas that voted for the ruling party.

It was this fear of a one-party state dominated by Thaksin and his family that drove the Thai establishment’s continual moves to dislodge from power the parties that Thaksin controlled.

The West is always at a loss to describe the success of a state that does not adhere to its expectations for humanity. Singapore’s restricted media, harsh libel laws, one-party rule, and constrained election procedures are supposed to produce the repression and torpor of a third-world dictatorship. However, it somehow produces one of humanity’s great success stories in terms of a successful multi-cultural free market boom town.

It could be that this success is due to Singapore being less a nation than a strategically placed city.

Cities are always best developed under close control of a benevolent government and Singapore’s bureaucracy is tuned to granular optimization of human activity. Singapore’s location at an intersection of world trade routes probably guarantees that whatever state exists there would be a key location in world commerce. Add to that Lee Kuan Yew and his family–perhaps a singular phenomenon of incorruptibility (particularly for the Chinese world)–and we have the miracle of Singapore.

Singapore will continue to be a touchstone for Thais. Singapore is a regional neighbor that seems to validate Thai beliefs about the value of unity for the sake of progress. Thailand, after a decade of political turmoil, continues to search for a formula to create stability and emerge with its traditional values and royal systems in place. Western nations advising “quick elections” miss both the motivations that guide Thai values and the fears of Thaksin absolute rule that stoked one political rupture after another.

The Thai junta-written charter and the machinations that will surround its promulgation will only imperfectly reflect the Singaporean model. With the exception of the inheritance tax, most junta “reforms” have simply been strong-arm tactics to step in where the police are unwilling to enforce local laws. Once the military withdraws, all of these “reforms” will evaporate.

The new charter will reflect the supremacy of the traditional Thai balance of powers. This means non-elected forces will retain the ability to counterbalance elected governments with procedural roadblocks and retrograde reforms designed to prevent the elected, assumed to be self-serving and greedy, from attempting to monopolize power again.

It will take another generation for any real sense of good governance to emerge in the Thai world. What such future governance would look like is the real question. Thai deference for authority and the eschewing of freedom of speech in favor of unity will certainly not go away.

Thailand has already demonstrated its propensity and desire for monolithic governments since the 1997 Thai charter first brought Thaksin and his political clique to power. The present junta continues to float rumors for the necessity of a national unity government, encompassing all parties, after the next election.

So the impulse on both sides is still towards the Singaporean model in the name of development, order, and unity. However, the Thai realization of this model would not be cloaked in incorruptibility nor impartiality–both post-coup governments and Thaksin’s elected proxy parties have demonstrated that. All of these governments–military or elected–have ruled by emphasizing overwhelming force and menace towards those who resist them.

So while Westerners expect quick elections and free speech to solve all of Thailand’s problems, the nation will continue to gravitate towards a wildly imperfect version of the Singaporean model.

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

See also: Analysis: Thailand’s Half Democracy

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