What it means to be country proud: Lessons from Bangkok

April 5, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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Chee Soon Juan
5 Apr 06

So Thaksin has resigned.

After weeks of rancour between him and the country’s civil society plus parliamentary opposition, the once invincible Thai leader bowed to pressure and announced that he would not continue in his post.

Only the day before when the initial results of the election trickled in, Thaksin emerged victorious albeit without any opponent against which to measure the victory (opposition parties had boycotted the polls). He even appeared on television to say that with his new-won mandate, he would carry on as leader of the country

They say that 24 hours is a long time in politics. Thaksin should know it better than anyone else because in that period, the prime minister did a volte face and announced his resignation.

The question of why he resigned is of intense speculation. Did his meeting with the revered Thai King have anything to do with his decision to quit? Or was it the sharp elbows of his party colleagues that nudged him off his perch? Or maybe it was the refusal of the opposition to accept his olive branch of forming a unity government aimed at reconciliation with his detractors. Analysts and pundits have much to investigate.

However the more important question, at least in this essay, is not the ‘why’ but the ‘how’ of Thaksin Shinawatra’s fall from power.

Singaporeans, by and large, know that the entire episode was triggered by the announcement that he had sold the shares of his telecommunications company, Shin Corp, to Temasek Holdings.

Incensed by his regard for only his own profits and disregard for Thailand’s security, Thai civil society led by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul launched a mass protest calling for Thaksin to step down. The movement was subsequently joined by the Opposition.

The sale of Shin Corp to Temasek, although a big factor, was however only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Thaksin had been having dangerous liaisons with Singapore’s autocrats and, in the process, picking up awful anti-democratic habits.

He openly announced his admiration for the PAP’s strong arm tactics and, worse, tried to put them into practice in Thailand. He sued/prosecuted the media, both local and foreign, for writing articles that were openly critical of his mixing of business with politics. He also sued a social activist who had accused him of corruption (the courts had enough judicial spine, however, to dismiss the lawsuit). He promoted the idea of a two-countries-one-economic-system arrangement with Singapore. He even remarked during a visit to the lion city during the Lunar New Year period (analysts speculate that the Temasek-Shin deal was done, or at least finalized, then) how much he liked the fact that there was so little political reporting in our 140th ranked media.

Enough was enough, the people of Bangkok said. And they took to the streets in their tens of thousands.

Without a window broken, without a fist thrown, without a bullet shot, the people who loved Thailand and looked on with increasing alarm at the way Thaksin was dismantling the democratic process stood up to the Thai strongman and faced him down.

Not only were the people worried about Thaksin’s intimidation of the populace, they were also enraged that the wealth amassed under one family was used to do business in a non-transparent manner and in the process threaten national security. Many were also concerned about how Thaksin was using populist policies and public money to buy votes from poorer folk living in the rural areas.

The combination of these factors tipped the balance against Thaksin and the autocrat-wannabee finally met his match in April 2006.

What does this all have to do with Singapore? If you have to ask, you probably haven’t been paying very much attention to politics in general.

The point is that when the people in Thailand saw that their country was headed in the wrong direction, they acted. They held rallies, marches, and sit-ins. They displayed posters. They sang patriotic songs. In other words, they waged a non-violence battle against Thaksin, armed with only their physical bodies and abiding spirit for democracy – and won.

Do we, Singaporeans, know loyalty when we see it? When the PAP crushes the media, buys votes and threatens voters with upgrading, bans podcasting and blogging during elections, sues oppositionists until bankruptcy, refuses to tell how our national wealth is being used, and allows foreigners to protest in our own country but prohibits us, citizens, from doing the same do we act or do we freeze in the face of intimidation? Do we know loyalty and courage? Do we know love for country?

The SDP has always fought for the political and civil rights of Singaporeans. We make no apologies for this because without the ability to peacefully assemble and conduct non-violent protests, we will never be able to meaningfully address rice-and-soy-sauce issues that affect our everyday lives.

More importantly, without the ability to battle autocrats for the heart and soul of the nation, we relegate ourselves to occupiers of a patch of earth without dignity and love for country.

Without the ability to love our country, how much pride do we have as a people?

If I pose this question to Singaporeans and Thais: “What does it mean to you to be a citizen of your country?” I hope that Singaporeans’ responses can be filled with as much pride as our northern brethren’s.