Sunday, August 16, 2009




Published in the Bangkok Post: 15/08/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News

What is it about politics that makes it so hard to find a leader both decent and effective? Why is it so hard to find both qualities in one individual? If an electorate facing urgent problems must choose between a mild-mannered politician in service of the status quo, and an unpredictable Machiavellian manipulator, who offers the greater hope and who the greater liability?

A recent Thai Rath editorial compared current Thai PM Abhisit with fugitive former premier Thaksin, suggesting one man was clearly more decent, but the other more capable. The comparison ended with the lament about the difficulty of finding a leader who was both keng and dee (clever and good). Both terms are praiseworthy attributes, but the former is a kind of efficacious talent or power, the latter a rather more static moral quality.

To reduce complex, internally conflicted adult individuals to simple stereotypes of "clever" and "good" is to employ the language of the schoolyard to over-simplify things a bit. But it's a catchy media angle and it raises interesting questions.

Is the current prime minister being damned with faint praise when he is described as being good but essentially ineffective? Or is it a withering critique of Thaksin to portray him as rather more clever than good? What's better, what's worse?

The editorial gives both pols a slap in the face, suggesting that one is likable but lacking as a politician, the other not particularly likable but perhaps fit for politics. Is there something about the rough and rumble world of politics that makes the concept of a "good politician" an oxymoron? Is it really so hard to combine the two? The Thai dilemma has interesting parallels to the situation in America at the moment. What kind of man is President Obama, if not a nice man? He rode into office on a wave of niceness, he exuded a basic civility lacking in his opponents. And yet he increasingly is showing himself to be far more complex than nice.

Mr Obama is still a crowd-pleaser in personal terms - decent, well-mannered, soft-spoken - and he is revered by his followers with something close to devotion, but a dispassionate review of his accomplishments to date suggests he is something of a phony and flip-flopper when it comes to policy.

Worse yet, there are growing indications that good guy Obama was never quite the good guy that he was widely assumed to be, or if he was, once upon a time, a man both endearing and decent, he has long since shed his high-minded moral standards to get ahead in a treacherous political world where nice guys often finish last.

As is said in China, the higher you go, the more treacherous it gets, with the implication that it takes more than a bit of treachery to get to the top and stay there. Given such a forbidding political terrain, with all the dragons, real and imagined that need to be slain, is it any surprise that being decent and good is not only not good enough, but perhaps even a liability?

On the surface, there would appear to be little worth comparing in Mr Obama and Mr Abhisit, as their differences stand out. One man, who had to overcome the stigma of being a mixed race candidate in a racially polarised society, is the son of a deadbeat dad and had a pointedly less-than-aristocratic upbringing. The other, born with the silver spoon, hails from a nationally respected, well-to-do clan. One is a natural orator and almost obsessively charismatic, the other well-spoken but quiet and retiring.

Both men were educated at elite institutions at the secondary and tertiary level, where prestige of association counts for almost as much as brainpower. Both men are physically attractive. More importantly, both men are widely perceived to be good, decent individuals.

Though relatively young and relatively inexperienced, both enjoyed support from powerful patrons who helped pave the way and set the ground for a launch to national prominence. Key introductions and necessary initiations into the political world were handled by political elders, imparting each candidate with deep personal and political debts even before assuming office. Both were long-shot candidates, propelled to the heights of national power in a way that couldn't have been easily predicted even a year ago. Both maintain a clean image despite surrounding themselves with political operators with less-than-clean credentials. Indeed, both men have gotten good mileage out of their kindly personalities, wearing good manners and decency on their sleeves, and each has helped calm their respectively troubled nation. Each has been reasonably effective in reducing political temperatures that were near the boiling point due to the gross indiscretions of their predecessors. And each, after about half a year in office with little accomplishment to point to, is increasingly being seen, and being seen through, as decent but lacking in the ability to get things done.

That's not to say they haven't tried to make things better. They both follow in a wake of destruction left behind by forceful leaders who were self-styled "deciders". The initial popularity of both Mr Obama and Mr Abhisit can be understood in part as a thirst for change in terms of leadership style; much of their initial success was rooted in the ability to appear as un-Bush and un-Thaksin as possible. The public has lost its taste for imperious leaders who come off as rash, rude and divisive.

Like him or hate him as you may, Bush Jr put plans into action, including things the nation neither wanted or needed, like an unnecessary war. Ditto for Thaksin, who correctly recognised that Thailand needed a thorough makeover, but went about it in the most clumsy, self-serving and callous way as possible, intimidating the media and releasing the gratuitous violence of an ill-conducted anti-drug campaign. With politicians like that, bringing each nation close to the brink, it is no surprise that the electorate could so crave untested candidates who were all talk and no track record. A necessary salve, perhaps, but how long can smiling Taoist non-action be relied upon to lead societies riddled with pressing concrete problems ranging from mass unemployment, environmental degradation, civic turmoil and looming epidemiological disaster?

The jury's still out on both Mr Obama and Mr Abhisit, but each and every passing day, each and every policy delay, fritters away what precious political capital they may still possess as soft successors to hard men. That they inherited a broken, dysfunctional government apparatus is not their fault, but to the extent they follow in the footsteps of their controversial predecessors, attending to the elite while inadvertently condemning the poor to even more poverty, is a betrayal of the promise that catapulted them to power in the first place.

Discontent will mount as fundamental social problems go unattended. Merely playing the role of Mr Nice Guy is not good enough; goodness to have any meaning at all must manifest itself in good works with good results. Given a complex, unforgiving political landscape, the challenge remains; can good men find a timely and effective way to do good works without betraying their basic decency? Can a politician be both clever and good?