Proving Plato wrong — Voranai Vanijaka
JUNE 10 — Plato argued that the majority of the people are ignorant and ill-informed, that they would always get it wrong. According to him, they are easily swayed by specious rhetoric and tend to be short-sighted, selfish and fickle. They are conditioned to fall prey to skillful manipulators, worship demagogues and are nothing but a collective tyrant. Hence, democracy does not work. Does any of this sound familiar?
The philosopher was speaking of the challenges facing Greece’s democracy then, but that what he said 2,500 years ago still rings true — even if to a lesser degree — for present day Thailand is a testament to two things. One, philosophers have better foresight than fortune-tellers, and two, my country needs some serious re-engineering.
An educated populace is required to engineer a healthy democracy. But ranting about Thailand’s educational system can be quite redundant. Rote learning, tea money and the obsession with obedience, forms and ceremonies have all been well documented and discussed. The masses are poor and poorly educated. Also Thai education being what it is, how well educated are the educated anyway? There are definitely brilliant minds and success stories in Thailand, but looking at the country as a whole, our screws are quite loose.
Given that democracy is government by the people and for the people, the question then becomes: is Thailand suited for democracy?
If we look at education for the answer, clearly we are not so qualified. As Plato reminds us, the ignorant should not be put in charge — it’s dangerous.
The basic criteria of democracy must be met if it is to be a healthy system. Educationally, Thailand may not be fit for democracy, but educationally, Thailand can become suited for democracy. The learning curve is some kind of wonderful. Let’s establish three things. First, democracy is a prostitute, she can be bought and sold, but she’s the best looker in the glass cage on Ratchadaphisek Road. Sure she’ll steal your money, but she’ll leave you enough for a cab ride home.
Feudalism, fascism, communism and other -isms are rather unsightly and will steal all your money. Socialism will give you all her money, but then you become a prostitute, and she ends up a broke prostitute. So Thailand should stick with democracy, even if we’re not quite the right fit yet.
Second, the masses of Thailand are poor and poorly educated because they have been conditioned to be that way by a system of feudal democracy that once served the traditional elites of Thailand well, but is now outdated and crumbling. However, it was this system that kept Thailand intact through the communist threat of the last century. So give kudos where they’re due.
Third, if other countries have healthy democracies, we can too — we are just as capable. There must be hope, or else there’s only hopelessness. The masses of Thailand can become better off and better educated, and make an honest woman out of democracy. But basic criteria must be met first.
Western culture looks to ancient Athens as the starting point of its love affair with democratic ideals. It looks to the Roman legal system as the foundation for its social structure. Emerging from the so-called “Dark Ages”, feudalistic Western societies evolved through the Renaissance, the ages of discovery, reason, enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
The Renaissance brought about a liberalisation in art, culture and science. Discovery opened doors to the world. Reason brought logic and rational thinking. Enlightenment married liberalism and logic to give birth to the concept of social justice based on the principle of human rights. The Industrial Revolution brought technology and the modern capitalistic economy, and also expanded the middle class into a powerful group.
These periods of history were characterised by many woes and catastrophes; colonialism, witch hunts, wars, genocides and exterminations. They also eventually formulated the notions of justice, liberty and equality.
Development of Western democracy has been a long and painful process, centuries in the making, and it is still highly flawed in its present form. However, she’s still the best looking prostitute in town.
In contrast, present-day Thai society cannot look into its own history for exemplary models of democratic values and legal systems. Students may study Greek democracy and the Roman republic, but only in passing and there is an absence of a mental and emotional connection. It is difficult to identify with foreign cultures two millennia back and half the world away.
In 1932, Thailand went straight from feudalism into democracy, bypassing the evolutionary stages. Instead of a renaissance in art, culture and science, and instead of discovery, we are stuck in the age of censorship. Thailand has a high literacy rate, but also high rates of censorship and propaganda. The people are kept ignorant and misinformed when reading materials are limited and ludicrous.
We don’t burn people at the stake, but we organise witchhunts and give three to five years imprisonment for the crime of saying the world is not flat and the sun does not revolve around the Earth.
Instead of reason, we have mobs storming government buildings and politicians bitch-slapping each other in parliament. Instead of enlightenment, we champion group-think and conformity; we crawl at the feet of our social superiors and look to magic and superstitions to solve our woes.
The Thai political system is democratic, but the culture is feudal. Take for example Buakaw Por Pramuk, muay Thai world champion, brand ambassador of the time-honoured Thai tradition and admired and beloved around the world.
Now picture Buakaw kneeling at the feet and wai-ing the owner of his former camp at a press conference, apologising for having the audacity to no longer want to be taken advantage of in an unfair contract, for having the gall to actually think he should receive a fair share of his earnings, to mistakenly imagine that he could determine his own destiny.
There is no equality in a society rigidly divided between the phu-yai (superior) and phu-noi (inferior). The latter are always used as pawns, to be manipulated and used. Buakaw is an international idol forced into retirement (at least for now), so what chances do the rest have?
We have industrialisation and a growing middle class, but that only means we married feudalism with capitalism, without first having torrid affairs with liberalism, discovery, reason and enlightenment. We match elitism and greed without the other ladies — and we have a materialistic society that places too much value on face, power, money and skin-whitening technology.
Thailand’s political transformation was sudden and with gaping holes, to say the least, skipping through stages like a Democrat MP leaping for the House speaker. And so we have an electoral democracy with a feudalistic political and social mentality, functioning through the patronage system.
Through some five centuries, Western democracy was able to disassociate itself from its feudal baggage, to a large degree. With only some 80 years behind it, Thai democracy is still very much overloaded with feudal behaviours. And so we have two factions of elites using the masses as convenient pawns in their struggle for face, power, money and skin-whitening technology.
The pattern will always repeat itself if we fail to understand, not just the sum of our history, but also the sum of the world’s history. The solution then is to cram the sum of 500 years of Western democratic development and 80 years of Thai democratic development (the real one, not the propaganda version) into the Thai psyche.
To discover, to reason and to enlighten; to show Plato that the Thai people can be better off and better educated, expanding the middle class, fit for democracy. This brings us back to the issue of education, and that will require hundreds of more pages, to be submitted to parliament for debate, passed into law and practised in earnest, to re-engineer the country.
But unfortunately, parliamentarians are too busy bitch-slapping each other over some bill about amnesty, seized assets and some dude who doesn’t even live in Thailand. While the masses march for or against that dude, instead of reading books with their children, which is a far, far better thing to do in the interests of correcting social injustices.
So instead of a democracy, we have an “ineptocracy”, which according to the urban dictionary, is a system of government where the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable of producing. The definition goes on to say that it’s a system in which the members of society least likely to sustain themselves or succeed are rewarded with goods and services paid for by the confiscated wealth of a diminishing number of producers. — Bangkok Post
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.