Democratic Governance: Striving for Thailand's New Normal
Keynote Address at
Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand
23 March 2016
Thailand is currently at an important crossroads. Major changes are occurring in the economic, social and political spheres that will have far reaching implications for the future of this country.
With the forces of change coming from both within and outside, what will constitute Thailand’s “new normal”?
My predictions are probably as good as yours. What is clear in hindsight is that globalization, consumerism, extravagance, dishonesty, and immoderation have led to management failures in both government and business.
It is therefore time to have a better understanding of our past behaviour and how it contributed to the present situation. We should be mindful of the Sufficiency Economy thinking formulated by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in terms of its key principles of moderation, rationality, and immunity. A better grasp of these concepts can help us confront problems or crises and find solutions.
I would like to use this occasion to suggest to you what I believe to be the four essential elements of the new normal in the development of Thailand – the elements that will contribute to true and enduring change.
The first element in Thailand’s “new normal” rests on ensuring sustainable and widespread economic development. Here I emphasize “sustainable and widespread”.
In the past, we have focused too much on the overall rate of economic growth, but neglected the quality of that growth and the equitable distribution of income and opportunities.
The Asian financial crisis of 1997, and the more recent global financial crisis, both illustrate the dangers of unbridled economic growth. We have also been reminded that growth fuelled by populist measures that disregard fiscal discipline are unsustainable and leave problems in their wake. In Thailand, the first-car purchasing and rice-pledging schemes were both examples of short-term stimulus measures. Policies of this kind are pushed by governments the world over to secure quick popular support with inadequate regard for their negative economic repercussions.
Sustainable economic development must focus on strengthening the foundations of the economy. This entails raising underlying economic competitiveness, be it through improving public sector efficiency, state enterprise reforms, developing skilled and flexible labour, or upgrading education and research.
At the same time, sustainable development requires that the fruits of economic growth be spread widely and equitably to ensure social cohesion and continued economic and political legitimacy.
Many of the problems that we currently face, including the simmering political tensions and sporadic clashes suffered in the past decade, can be traced back to the injustice and inequality inherent in our society.
Economic disparity, in itself, retards economic growth, as has been shown in numerous studies. Unless firmly addressed, inequality and injustice in their various forms will eventually hold back a country’s development and breed political upheaval, even violence. We have witnessed this to some degree in Thailand already.
The second element in Thailand’s new normal should be to promote an open and inclusive society.
Apart from the need for more equitable distribution of income, as I just mentioned, we must also ensure equality of rights, liberties, and opportunities for all segments of society.
Liberty and equal rights are not simply about the right to vote. The demands and views of everyone must be heard and respected – not just those of the victors in elections. Majoritarian rule does not give a mandate to the winning party to do as it pleases in a winner-takes-all fashion. As the American libertarian James Bovard once observed, "Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner."
Every group, every religion, every region and every rung of society must be able to participate collectively in shaping the direction of Thailand’s development. This will instil a critical sense of ownership in our nation’s destiny that will compel each and every member of society to keep the state under constant scrutiny.
The demands and views of all groups, not just those in power or positions of authority, must be heard and respected. As a people, we tend to see things strictly in black and white – right or wrong. Often in life, there is no absolute right or wrong, just different perspectives and judgments.
The role of the media in serving as an unbiased and objective platform for voicing different views and perspectives in a balanced manner is also critical. Modern technology has opened up unprecedented space for public discourse. In the vast marketplace of ideas, not everything is of equal value. So long as our institutions enable people to understand how to assess ideas in this marketplace – selecting the rigorous and rejecting the shoddy, democracy is not only sustained, it thrives.
As Thailand approaches elections in the near future, it will be imperative for the winners to consider themselves representatives of the entire country, and not just of the people who voted them in. They have a duty to address the concerns of all interest groups and promote consensus in society. Striking that balance is an art. I hope all political parties have learned important lessons from our painful past, and will do their utmost to pursue this vital principle of governance.
The third element of the new normal in Thailand is respect for the rule of law. This goes beyond simply the application of the law. It requires adherence to both the spirit of the law as well as its underlying moral principles.
The World Justice Project has attempted to make global comparisons of the rule of law. The figures for 2015 see the four top places occupied by the Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. With a score of 0.52 out of one, Thailand ranks 56th among 102 countries and 11th out of 15 in the region. Thailand trails the Philippines, Greece and Ghana, and this should remind us that we still have far to travel on our journey to attaining the rule of law.
Every individual and organization, private and public, and even the government itself, must be subject to the law.
The legislative and enforcement processes must be transparent and just. The judicial system must be neutral, independent, efficient, and have full integrity.
Importantly, the law must not be used as a means for attaining political goals. State actions must not be arbitrary and based on whims. Dissidents must not be prosecuted or deprived of their legal rights. The human rights of every citizen must be strictly upheld across the board.
Lawful governance does not imply using the law to govern people or enforce the state’s will. We must have rule of law rather than rule by law.
Here in Thailand, a semblance of calm and stability belies tensions beneath the surface. Society cannot flourish in the long run if order and stability are rooted in measures that inhibit public discourse. When order and stability are imposed rather than allowed to emerge naturally in accordance with the rules and norms of society, there can be no transparency.
When the rule of law is weak, corruption flourishes. Democracy becomes dysfunctional when politicians, civil servants, the private sector, the judiciary, the police, and the military use their power to enrich themselves and advance their own interests at the expense of civil society.
We read about the impunity of the rich and powerful in our newspapers every day. An independent and neutral judiciary is fundamental to the rule of law. If judges use one law for the powerful and another for the powerless, the entire political and judicial system is compromised, and the people’s trust in the government to see justice served is eroded.
The rule of law demands public responsibility and the transparency of state institutions and their personnel. A government that is not held accountable, not answerable to anyone, and whose actions are not subject to public scrutiny, is more likely to abuse its power and disregard the public interest.
Governance through the rule of law together with public accountability and transparency form the basis of responsible government. This is related to the fourth and final element of the new normal that I would like to talk about, namely the need to recalibrate the balance of power between the state and the people.
Responsive government lies at the core of true democracy. It can occur only when there is comprehensive decentralization and local political empowerment. The closer a government is to the people governed, the more responsive the government will be.
A centralized system of governance cannot keep pace with the increasing complexity of today’s society. Decentralization enables the participation of more diverse interest groups and represents one way to curb the concentration of power and influence exercised by political forces.
By decentralization, I do not mean the distribution of power to local government bodies that report to the central authority. I mean dispersion of power directly into the hands of the people or their representatives.
In the past, we have established local institutions but always retained centralized control over them. Going forward, we must reform these local bodies so that they become answerable to the needs and demands of the local populace, rather than to the central government.
The heart of democracy beats only with the participation of all citizens in exercising their rights on issues that affect them directly. They must be well informed on these issues if there is to be ‘active citizenship’. In each locality, province, and region, the demands and solutions to various challenges may or may not be similar. The formulation of policies and plans of action should give precedence to the input of local communities.
The success of decentralization hinges on a balanced and diverse flow of information, which brings me next to the crucial role of civil society. An active civil society provides a mechanism whereby the collective views of citizens can shape and influence government policy. By bringing arguments and information into the public domain, policies can be examined and challenged. A genuinely democratic government will feel obliged to present counterarguments or to modify its position. Such interactions are healthy for democracy, and enhance the decision-making process.
A vibrant civil society relies on the wisdom of the populace and its ability to make rational and informed decisions. Democracy becomes a force for meaningful progress when voters not only understand the issues at hand, but are also conscious of their context, the various alternatives available, as well as their responsibilities as democratic citizens. We must therefore urgently reform our education system from one that simply produces graduates to one that nurtures the ability of people to think critically and make constructive changes in society.
There has been much discussion on this topic over the years but little tangible progress. We must take a step back and carefully reassess our fundamental approach. No one here, or anywhere else for that matter, can predict with confidence what that world will be like five years from now, let alone in that distant future. Yet we are tasked with educating our children for that world – to ensure they are equipped to solve the problems of their time.
In my view, the best way to do this is to shift the emphasis of education away from memorizing facts and rote learning to focus instead on nurturing creativity and adaptability. This all starts with getting teachers to teach less, encouraging students to read more diversely, and ensuring teachers engage in dialogues with students. The main focus should not be on getting the right answer but on instilling confidence to think problems through, to voice opinions and to articulate reasoned arguments.
In an age where a staggering amount of information is available at the touch of a button or the swipe of a smartphone, learning will be more important than knowing. If our children are to be able to solve the complex problems of the future – and climate change is but one – they will need a high degree of creativity. This is something I feel has been sadly neglected so far.
The enemy of creativity is the fear of being wrong or making mistakes. I believe every child is born with an immense amount of creativity and the capacity to innovate. But an education system that stigmatizes mistakes, focuses on correct answers, and penalizes wrong ones, serves to retard creativity. By the time children grow into adults, they have been deprived of their creative impulse by the fear of being wrong.
Innovation does not come from a fear of being wrong. On the contrary, the courage to risk making mistakes, the relentless process of trial and error, and the ability to bounce back from repeated failures are the seeds of innovation and advancement. Let us not forget that the iPhone many of you carry around was regarded with some scepticism when it was first released in 2007. Its success is a testament to Steve Jobs’ willingness to be wrong rather than his fear of not being right.
An education system that promotes good learning skills in children will contribute to a citizenry capable of grasping issues of concern and placing them in the right context. This contributes to well-informed, rational decisions, and helps ensure that the responsibilities of society under democratic rule are met.
A New Normal for Thailand
What I have laid out so far is a vision for a new normal for Thailand built upon the foundations of democratic governance. It broadly represents a framework for governance that Thailand has lacked up to now.
We have a tendency to focus on democracy in form rather than in substance. We follow procedures and go through the motions of elections. Yet we have paid little attention to developing the institutions that are critical to sustaining democracy. The challenges that we are presently facing have their roots in the fact that we have never had a true democratic transition – a genuine change in our political system.
Change has always been superficial, old wine in a new bottle – or you could even say old wine in an old bottle but with a new cork. Critically, we have not dug deeply enough to uncover the true underlying cause of current divisions in Thai society.
Much of this is not related to the actual policies of governments, present or past, nor is it about a fight between pro-government or anti-government forces. Rather it is about poverty, social injustice, unequal rights and opportunities, and about the way power is divided between the state and the people – or even among groups of people.
Thais have traditionally been good at creating problems. Some say that they are also good at solving them, but is this not really a bit of a myth? Our development path has been one of muddling along, an ‘ad-hocracy’ you might say. Little has been done in the way of strategic long-term planning or effective implementation.
While substantial progress has been achieved in terms of economic development, we have not taken sufficient note of its negative political and social impact. At this juncture, it has become patently clear that many of our economic, social and political institutions are inadequate when faced with the challenges of globalization. We have simply not kept up. Rather than face up to our problems, we Thais often yearn for a knight in shining armour to ride to the rescue. But the time for that kind of ‘I-know-best’ style of management has passed.
The Road to Reform
To make headway towards the new normal that I have described, we must embark on comprehensive structural reforms now.
Successful reforms often result from leveraging on opportunities that arise, such as at times of crisis. I have always held the view that we did not make the most of the 1997 financial crisis.
Thus at this point we should not waste time debating where we are, or if we got here in the right or wrong way. These are important and legitimate questions that deserve reflection, but they should not prevent us from moving forward or seeking solutions to the problems at hand.
A reform strategy must always be assessed within the context of the bigger picture. In the past, the main thrust has been through constitutional reform, which is not ideal and may even be counterproductive. We have been rather profligate with our constitutions. We are on our 19th in the space of 83 years – which happens to coincide exactly with my age.
I was involved in drafting Thailand’s 1997 constitution, which for the first time involved broad-based public participation. I had hoped it would make Thai democracy more open, transparent and accountable, and that electoral reforms would limit money politics and corruption.
That said, I have always recognized that a constitution is not a silver bullet for all that ails society. For a constitution to make a real difference, society must first embrace the underlying values it espouses. A constitution alone cannot bring about meaningful change without the necessary reforms to other key democratic pillars, particularly political institutions and the people’s mindset.
Structural reform is a continuous process rather than a one-shot exercise. It might begin with drafting a new constitution, but the process must evolve. We must not imagine that certain initiatives today will bring about lasting change and forever resolve prevailing problems. There are no once-and-for-all solutions.
There is no unique blueprint for reforms to bring about true democracy. The seeds of democracy must be sown from within each society for the shoots to be accepted and nurtured. People must want democracy for it to take hold. As Mahatma Gandhi once observed, “The spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without. It has to come from within.”
The elements of democratic governance that I have outlined can serve as overarching supports to encourage democracy to evolve meaningfully.
As a nation, we have come far, and there is no turning back to the way things were. Change is inevitable and permanent. Each and every one of us has a stake in the future of our country. We must forge a collective vision that is progressive and contributes to change that is constructive.
Democratic governance is ultimately a state of mind, rather than a set of tangible rules or procedures. Over and above the implementation of critical reforms, moving forward requires that we fundamentally change our way of thinking, attitudes, and mindsets to embrace openness, a diversity of views, as well as values that support societal change.
Democratic governance opens up channels through which the diversity in our society can come together to advance political, economic and social development. It thus represents the most direct route to true sustainability. That is my hope for Thailand’s new normal.