Much Ado About Nothing

Anyone paying attention to Thai politics in the past week would have felt like parliamentary meetings have turned into fashion shows.

Debate has raged fiercely as the Future Forward Party raised the issue of the dress code for MPs. Outraged was sparked when the party spokeswoman wore traditional regional clothing to a meeting. Twitter erupted into all-out warfare, split along partisan lines, about proper dress for parliament.

If this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. At a time when there are numerous issues in the country that must be discussed, an improbable amount of airtime is being given to questions such as whether ties should be required of politicians.

A brief brainstorm will reveal a variety of topics more worthy of discussion. Here’s one: the new cabinet.

A new cabinet has finally been appointed by prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. It includes some of Prayut’s old brother in arms and some technocrats from the previous government. But most of the cabinet will now be filled by new faces — relatively new, that is, given that most of them are career politicians, many even hailing previously from the pro-Thaksin parties that PPRP supporters claim to despise.

The cabinet appointment has received a certain level of attention, especially because Thammanat Prompao, the incoming deputy agriculture minister, was apparently convicted and imprisoned in Australia. The government’s legal brain, Vissanu Kruea-ngarm, defended the prime minister’s choice, arguing that nothing in the law says a man who was convicted elsewhere cannot serve as minister. (To which the obvious rebuttal is yes, perhaps the letter of the law allows it — but what about ethical standards?)

However, the new cabinet list has still not received anywhere near the level of scrutiny that it should. Suriya Jungroongrueangkit, for example, served for Thaksin and was deeply implicated in corruption scandals, while the new education minister, Nataphol Teepsuwan, is still listed as an owner of an international school in Thailand, marking a clear conflict of interest.

Instead of further enflaming and provoking unnecessary anger from conservatives, the opposition needs to provide laser-focus on the new cabinet, and other issues. People have limited time, and if Future Forward MPs intentionally create drama, the public will not pay attention to the issues that matter most.

As the house speaker, Chuan Leekpai, put it, “all MPs are adults and they should know what is, and is not appropriate”. Future Forward MPs have already been doubted for their relative youth and inexperience, and their fussing over dress codes does not help.

On the other hand, government MPs and their supporters need to also stop the obsession with style over substance. It reminds me, almost, of the days of Field Marshal Phibun, when he issued cultural mandates decreeing how Thai people must dress. Conformity was, perhaps, decreeable in the 1930s. In the 21st century, this is doubtful.

Take a look at Singapore’s parliament. The People’s Action Party is one of the most successful governing parties in the world. Yet there is no outrage when their MPs do not wear suits and ties. In fact, it could even be said that a simple business shirt is far more suitable to the scorching heat of Southeast Asia.

Wasant Techawongtham wrote in the Bangkok Post that “incompetence, lack of transparency and ethical indifference cannot be covered up by clothes alone, no matter how “proper” they are.” He’s right. Government MPs and the new cabinet would do well to heed his words.

Much attention has been paid too to other non-issues. The Future Forward Party leader, Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit, recently traveled to Europe to give talks. The government spokesman said the government is worried about this trip, while Thanathorn’s opponents claimed that he was “chuk suek kao baan“, a Thai saying for bringing trouble to the homeland.

This ignores the fact that opposition leaders all over the world regularly give talks in different countries, and these trips tend to be non-issues. If the government is truly worried about perception, it would do well to begin by not appointing unsavory characters to high positions.

As Shakespeare would say, Thai politics in recent weeks has been much ado about nothing. Let’s focus on the real issues at hand.






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