How far can Yingluck’s ‘beauty premium’ get her? — Pavin Chachavalpongpun
AUG 5 — Today, Yingluck Shinawatra, 44, leader of the Pheu Thai Party, will take office as Thailand’s Prime Minister. Her party won a landslide election on July 3, ending 32 months of the Democrat-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Three months ago, the name “Yingluck” was rather unfamiliar to Thai voters. Today, Yingluck fever sweeps the nation as she becomes the first-woman Prime Minister. Thai politics is known to be a male-dominated domain.
Will Yingluck, the youngest sister of former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, be able to use a softer, feminine touch to keep her enemies at arm’s length?
Yingluck is 1.72m tall, which is above the average height for Thai women. She is slim but not skinny, elegant but not over-dressed. She is often seen dressed in monochrome, in a plain shirt and dark-coloured jacket.
Yingluck knows how to display her womanly side and it is not through her dressing; indeed, her public image has been sexed down, in line with constructing her reputation as a credible and serious leader.
Thai historian Chris Baker recently wrote: “Yingluck’s hair ... it’s long, and lush, and sensuous. It’s been lifted a little at the peak with gel and swept at the tips, but it’s designed to look natural, in contrast to the clipped, sprayed and regimented bonnets of senior bureaucrats and army wives. Very feminine.”
Undisputedly, Yingluck is a beautiful lady. And she seems to intelligently combine the best of Thaksin and Abhisit. Like Thaksin, she is personable and folksy, remarkably likeable; like Abhisit, she is good-looking, intellectual and urbanite. What the two men failed to do while in power, she may do well as she will be able to learn from their mistakes.
A study by Panu Poutvaara reveals that being beautiful confers many advantages on a person. People’s looks influence how they are perceived and treated by others, even by those who know them. And interestingly, attractive persons exhibit more positive behaviours and traits than unattractive persons, and thus receive more benefits, or a so-called “beauty premium”.
In Thailand, too, there are benefits to being beautiful in politics. Yingluck proved better-looking candidates have a higher chance of becoming elected. In fact, in the absence of a clear policy platform, people might as well vote for the most handsome or beautiful candidate.
Yingluck’s popularity has increased immensely since the election. She has emerged as the darling of the media. She speaks Thai eloquently. Her English is decent. Slowly building up her leadership role, she has unveiled her qualities of patience, tolerance, politeness and flexibility.
For example, she waited uncomplainingly for the Election Commission (EC) to endorse her election victory. Despite widespread rumours of the EC working on the behalf of the elites in an attempt to disqualify her, Yingluck was willing to co-operate to expedite the endorsement process. These qualities are alien to Thaksin, known for his hot temper and impatience.
Yingluck exemplifies for many Bangkok residents the “modern-day working woman”. She represents a new generation of Thai feminists. They are self-assured, often have university degrees and careers, and are married with children. At the same time, Yingluck appears to believe in the traditional values of a rural family; most of her supporters reside in the remote areas of Thailand.
Yingluck’s charm and beauty may prove a powerful weapon in captivating her opponents. So far, she has exploited her “beauty premium” to challenge the military, an overbearingly macho institution.
She wanted to create a working relationship with the military and thus proposed a private discussion with the army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha. It is not known if the meeting took place, but Gen Prayuth surprisingly announced his acceptance of the election result less than 24 hours after the polls closed. Was this at least in part because of Yingluck’s charm?
Her calm character also puts the military in an awkward position. Pushing her around could make the army seem like brutes bullying a woman. On the other hand, taking orders from her might be viewed as weakening its masculine image.
Yingluck is like an electric shock, which can either rejuvenate or jeopardise a comatose patient. But beyond her beautiful face, she urgently needs to exercise her skill and leadership in tackling difficult issues, including reconciliation among the different political factions, so as to find the way out of Thailand’s crisis. — Today
* Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.