Damned by dysfunction — Voranai Vanijaka
JUNE 3 — The Democrats and the People’s Alliance for Democracy once again found common cause in their fear of amnesty for the bogeyman which might set up his return. They showed a mutual willingness to discard the democratic process and use thug-like intimidation and violence to achieve their goal of stopping the controversial reconciliation bill.
Their actions perpetuate the never-ending cycle of idiocy in Thai politics, where the two sides of the political divide differ only in the colours of their shirts and their exact purposes. But otherwise they are all the same: hypocritical in their words, shameless with their propaganda, destructive in their deeds and selfish in their motives.
Polarised politics, pulled apart by extreme partisanship, acted out by too-eager cronies and driven by popular personalities out of self-interest, all legitimised by self-righteousness. Both sides would claim their causes are just, as if that excuses deeds that are unjust.
The Thai political institution is dysfunctional. No matter whom we vote for, no matter what reform is introduced, it all comes to naught because the institution and the characters operating in it are not only incapable, but unwilling to change for the better.
I am reminded of a talk I had with His Holiness Phra Paisal, one of Thailand’s most revered monks, regarding greed and materialism in the Buddhist institution and the near impossibility of reform. He told me of a corrupt abbot who enriched himself with donations, but it is impossible to remove him because worshippers in the district love and revere him so much. Meanwhile his peers defend him vigorously, despite his ill deeds.
To institute reform would be too upsetting and would implicate too many important people. It would expose too many failings. It would question the system that has been in place for decades or centuries. The Buddhist institution too is dysfunctional.
For all the talk through the years of education reforms, presently the Bodindecha School, one of the Kingdom’s premier secondary schools, is embroiled in a “tea money” controversy. Rote learning still plagues the system, no matter how much lip service is given to the need for change. Learning just to pass multiple choice exams, tutorial schools that milk parents for money and a tradition more obsessed with form and ceremonies than critical thinking and creativity are all very much still the norm.
To institute reforms would be too upsetting; too many important people would lose face; too many skeletons would be exposed. It would question the only system that all the teachers and administrators know. It would turn a deep-rooted tradition upside down. If the institutions of government, religion and education are so dysfunctional — and throw the media into the mix too — what chance does the rest of society have?
The theme is one and the same: organisational behaviours and practices conforming to traditional routines that are rigid, outdated and impractical, but safe, easy and rewarding in their own way.
The players defend and uphold such routines because it is all they know — the institutional pyramid, dysfunction from top to bottom.
But it’s not just a Thai problem, is it?
Four years ago, US presidential candidate Barack Obama promised, “Yes, we can change”. Four years hence, the US and the world has found out, “Change? No we can’t, not really”.
This isn’t because President Obama hasn’t tried his hardest to institute reforms. But what chance do a few individuals have against institutions deeply entrenched for decades or centuries in their routines and traditions, filled with people who from top to bottom are unrepentant and unyielding?
Presidents come and go, while institutions led by oil dealers, arms merchants, bankers and preachers shape policies and determine destinies.
In Greece, political parties outdid each other in spending and spoiling the masses with populist policies. Systematic corruption abounded until the country went bankrupt, but this isn’t anything unique and exclusive to the Greeks. Other European countries are said to be heading down the same road, and Thailand is no stranger to spending and spoiling the populace for votes, as well as systematic corruption as a matter of time-honoured tradition.
One may argue that modern democracy isn’t about human rights, freedom, justice or equality — it’s about trading favours for votes. Hence, the democratic institution is itself dysfunctional, not just in Thailand.
Local, regional or global economic crises, one after another, every few years or so, basically boil down to borrowing money we don’t need, spending money we don’t have and hedging and speculating into the future in the hopes of making money on goods and services that do yet not.
But we spend this speculated future profit in the present because the credit mentality of modern capitalism dictates that value comes from spending money we don’t have. It’s greed, frankly, and it is dysfunctional.
The future then catches up with us and we are neck deep in non-performing loans and staring at the stark reality that bankers, brokers and fund managers are actually not oracles with the gift of foresight. Instead, their crystal balls are stamped ‘‘Made in China’’ on the bottom. So we have an economic crisis.
Yet bankers get lucrative bailout deals, because the capitalist economic system is so institutionalised in the global network that we fear entire economies would crumble if we did not prop up the very people who in fact collapse economies because of their greed and irresponsibility. Then we start the same cycle again, with laughable existential irony. One may argue that the capitalist institution itself is dysfunctional.
This past week, the World Economic Forum met in Bangkok on the theme “Shaping the Region’s Future through Connectivity”. It’s a prelude to the oncoming Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.
Luxury hotels, big limousines, expensive suits and cheery talk abounded. The opening ceremony was full of smiles and the closing ceremony echoed the sound of congratulatory applause for the grand success of the gathering.
But are institutions — local, regional and global — capable, or even willing to actually see through the reforms needed to be made to achieve the goals of the AEC? Human nature favours the joy of flowery words over critical self-examination.
One Dutch businessman I talked to at an expatriate event on Wednesday said he’s very excited about the AEC. But he also lamented that he’s found in dealing with the Thai government on this very issue that institutionally no one is prepared or even knows what they are doing. What’s more, the media has never really tried to explain what the AEC actually entails. However, he said, everybody loves talking it up.
Will the institutions that run Thailand and the nations of the AEC be willing or capable of actually making it work? Time will tell. Looking at Thai institutions, which save for a very few seem quite dysfunctional across the board, the prospects are not encouraging.
Then again, it matters little, for no doubt when leaders meet again for more forums in the coming years congratulations will be exchanged and successes boasted of. All the while tragedies like the one in Greece will happen again and again the world over, as they have through the last century — and Thailand will still be its own worst enemy.
But because those at the top of the pyramid will reap the fruits of the system, and some in the middle might get a taste — while those at the bottom seek handouts and conform to survive — we will pretend that it is all a success story, from introduction to prologue.
The plot is stale, the theme is boring, but the tale deeply rooted, with characters unrepentant and unyielding. It’s tradition. It’s culture.
And so institutional dysfunction is perpetuated, with congratulations all around.
The Matrix isn’t just a movie starring Keanu Reeves, and woe to the bearer of bad news. That’s you, Morpheus. Watch out for Mr Smith. — Bangkok Post
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.