PM Abhisit is monopolizing the moral high ground
Published in the Bangkok Post, Friday,January 8, 20010
The moral high ground, according to Wikipedia, ‘in ethical or political parlance, refers to the status of being respected for remaining moral, and adhering to and upholding a universally recognized standard of justice or goodness.’ In politics, it is one status in which politicians strived to capture, real or perceptive, in order to legitimize their political positions on issues and the public offices they hold. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of England held the moral high ground of protecting freedom and democracy, ultimately leading to victory over the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler in WWII. President Abraham Lincoln, in refusing to deny the basic rights of human by abolishing slavery, fought and won the Civil War, to firmly establish his ideals of justice, goodness and honesty.
Few modern politicians can claim such a status. Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi come to mind. And although there are those truly committed to their beliefs, many are merely trying to create a perception of being moral – as a ploy to ensure their political survival. But in the end, to paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, you can fool people some of the time but not all the time, as the truth will eventually prove the politicians’ true worthiness.
In addition, on the issue of moral high ground, Robert H. Frank, in his book: What Price the Moral High Ground? Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments (Princeton University Press 2009) “challenges the notion that doing well is accomplished only at the expense of doing good,” and “honest individuals often succeed, even in highly competitive environments, because their commitment to principle makes them more attractive as trading partners” (Wikipedia ‘Moral High Ground’).
Keeping the concepts in mind, in recent years, a disturbing trend emerges in Thai public perceptions. Polls conducted show that Thais are willing to compromise honesty with the ability to work effectively. Politicians can be ‘a little’ corrupt as long as they can deliver goods and services as promised. The shade of grey becomes darker as politicians pay lip service honesty while seemingly being effective as a shield to their corrupted ways. The society as a whole loses. Is there really no ‘Honest Abe’ in Thai politics?
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva thrives to be one. His rapid rise in his political career is attributed to his good looks, quick wits, eloquent speeches, and most of all his honesty with clean records throughout his years of public service. He builds his credibility on being incorruptible and now as prime minister is capturing and one may say, even monopolizing, the moral high ground to maintain the premiership.
His first act at the head of the cabinet table early last year was to set the 9 iron rules of do’s and don’ts. Three directly addressed the question of honesty and corruption prevention. ‘Cabinet ministers must work with honesty and integrity, extending to their subordinates and staff’ (No.2). ‘The government is ready for auditing in policy performance and other matters. Ministers must not create barriers to such audits..’ (No.8). And ‘ministers have no privileges over the people in following the rule of law. Political accountability and responsibility come before legal obligations’ (No.9).
However, within the first few months, there was the ‘canned fish’ scandal at the Ministry of Human Resources and Security. Then there were abuses in the Community Sufficiency Project at the Office of the Prime Minister. The most damaging is the latest scandal at the Ministry of Public Health as the PM-appointed investigation committee found the Minister in negligence of abuses of funds and the Deputy Minister accused of being directly involved.
Even though his ministers blundered, the government survived due to PM Abhisit’s ability to claim the moral high ground and with political shrewdness able to manage out the crises. Minister of Human Resources and Security Vitoon Nambutr and Minister of Public Health Vittaya Kaewparadai resigned from their ministerial and Korbsak Sabhavasu from being Chairman of the Community Sufficiency Project under the pretense of ‘political spirit.’
But in actuality, Korbsak retained his Deputy PM post and will eventually be rotated to Secretary General to the PM, Vittaya got consolation as Government Chief Whip, and Vitoon was actually replaced by his own protégé. Of course, all three are members of PM Abhisit’s ruling Democrats.
A slightly different treatment is given to members of the coalition partners. Sopon Saram, the Minister of Transportation, was stopped in his tracks with the 4,000 buses project when there were questions about its viability. Porntiwa Nakasai, the Minister of Commerce, has a long standing feud with DPM Korbsak and PM Abhisit himself over the issue of quotas for various agriculture products. The Deputy Minister of Public Health, Manit Nopamormvadee, is now in a hot seat with pressure to resign. All three are from the Bhumjaithai Party.
PM Abhisit may sincerely want to set a higher standard for Thai politics. And he must be commended at least for his attempt. One also cannot blame him if he works to strengthen his strong points as his political immunity. But he has more to prove than just being ethical and he must not use his moral high ground as camouflage for any wrong doings.
In essence, PM Abhisit must continue to make accountability stick meaning that investigations of all charges be it alleged corruption, abuse of power, or negligence must continue and not let them be swept under the carpet because the person responsible has just happen to change positions in a ‘musical chair’ move. All the same, there should be no ‘double standard’ in treatment between those in the Democrat Party and the coalition partners. The Democrats has historically always been accused of ‘aow dee sai tua, aow chua sai kon uen’ or ‘keep the credit to oneself, put the blame on others,’ a bad trademark which politicians in other parties believe and despise. PM Abhisit’s continuity as Prime Minister depends on whether he will decide upon each case fairly and in a transparent manner or not.
More importantly, his moral ‘superiority’ may buy him some time but it will not last forever. Eventually the public will judge him and his administration not on the clean good looks but the performance in solving the nation’s woes. PM Abhisit may try to extend his high ground but tackling issues with ethical debate such as the cancellation of the on-line lottery project. The economy, the political conflict, and the Southern violence remain on the agenda without any substantial progress. It is time for PM Abhisit to prove his political worthiness in managing the country and understand that his success, and his legacy for that matter, depends not only by ‘doing good’ but also by ‘doing well.’