Saturday, February 16, 2008

Time to bring sexy back


WHOSE general election is sexier? Thailand's held on Dec 23 or Malaysia's, which is set for March 8?

According to Panitan Wattanayagorn, an associate professor with Chulalongkorn University’s department of international relations, Thais view Malaysia’s general election as “less democratic, less exciting, less fashionable, less sexy, less trendy”.

“We think our election is more exciting,” he added.

On what he thought was the Malaysians perception of Thai polls, Panitan said: “Chaotic, messy, unstable, and not good for the (Thai) economy.”

Thais perceive our general election as less exciting as there is no real political force in Malaysia that can topple the establishment.

“The Barisan Nasional (the successor of the Alliance) has dominated Malaysia’s political environment since 1957,” noted Panitan.

“And the opposition parties are not strong.

“Whereas, in Thailand, the Democrat Party (which is currently the sole opposition party) has governed this country a few times.

“We have a more open political environment, but Malaysia is more stable politically. We are now experiencing instability, and have been for a long time, while Malaysia has been stable since 1957.

“The reformasi movement caused political turbulence but not enough to overthrow the strong Barisan.”

Thailand has been rocked by instability since anti-Thaksin (Shinawatra) rallies started in 2005 and climaxed in a coup against the then prime minister on Sept 23, 2006.

And after 16 months of military rule, Thailand returned to democracy with the Dec 23 polls.

According to the associate professor, the political culture in Thailand is different from that in Malaysia.

“Unlike Thais, Malaysians are less politicised. We have civil society groups that are very active, such as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which led the anti-Thaksin rallies,” he explained.

“We have small but powerful NGOs which are able to play the role of providing checks and balances to the government.”

Another difference is that bread and butter issues are the priority in Malaysia.

“The economy is placed higher than political freedom,” observed Panitan.

“But for Thais political freedom is valued more than the economy.”

Economically, Malaysia is much better off than Thailand based on the human development index – Malaysia’s per capita income is US$5,000 (RM16,112), while Thailand's is US$2,000.

“When people are better off, they often ask fewer questions, as they don’t want their lives disrupted,” he said.

Isn’t feeding the stomach more important?

“Well, like India and Ghana, that is Thailand’s political culture (more concerned with politics than the economy),” he said.

Asked if Thais were interested in the March 8 polls, Panitan, who was a member of the prime minister’s eminent person advisory board during the Surayud Chulanont interim government, replied: “Not that much.”

“But one thing that may interest the Thai government is the outcome in the northern states (which have common borders with Thailand).”

If Perlis, Kedah, Perak and Kelantan were to come under the control of PAS, the cooperation between the Thai and Malaysian governments on southern Thailand, which has been the scene of a bloody Islamic insurgency, could be affected, Panitan noted.

Thais, he added, had the perception that some Malaysian northern states were not accommodative in terms of detaining Thai militants who cross the border.

“But, of course, that goes the same for the Thais, too.

“To improve the situation (in the south), Thailand must make sure it treats these people fairly and handles the situation in a more balanced way,” he said.

Well, Malaysians, let's make this election sexy!

(Published in The Star on Feb 16, 2008)