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Thread: The godfather tradition lives on
17-06-12, 06:40 PM #1Paknam Web Online Staff
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The godfather tradition lives on
The godfather tradition lives on
Published: 17/06/2012 at 01:43 AMNewspaper section: News
People continue to be astounded by a series of polls in which most respondents say they don't mind government corruption as long as they also benefit. The latest poll this month had 63.4% of respondents expressing the view. The poll in January this year had 64.7%.
It was 64.6% in November 2011 and 64% in January that same year.
But in reality Thailand has no corruption, only tradition. What we perceive as corruption today is but a tradition dating back to feudal times; a tradition that we still practise in the present, fusing it with modern electoral democracy, which sprang from feudal democracy.
Take an MP's relationship with his constituency. There is no corruption, no bribery, no vote-buying; there's only gift-giving in a social relationship based on the patronage system.
When there's a funeral, your local MP is expected to be there with a fat envelope in his hand. Weddings, birthday parties _ more fat envelopes. Sure, friends and families also give envelopes, but the one from the MP is given because of the patronage network.
It is considered good form for those envelopes to be replaced by other gifts or favours, such as, "Yes, I called the school, they'll accept your son." The MP is also expected to throw parties and sponsor festivals, with food and drinks, lucky draws and prizes.
When you need to pay your child's tuition fees, when your bookie is a little too persistent, when the local police are a little too hungry or when a neighbourhood quarrel threatens to get out of hand _ when these calamities and many more happen, what do you do? You go to your MP. Or your village head, or your district councillor. You go to your patron. Sometimes you go to the police, but it would be better for you if the police know you have a patron.
The patron then signs cheques, makes calls, bangs heads and gets in touch with connections on your behalf. If you want to start a business or do something that requires a bit of bureaucratic manoeuvring, the MP is there to help you. Greasing his palm is only showing gratitude and good manners, as befits a polite society.
Otherwise, all your local politician or patron asks of you is your respect and loyalty. All he demands of you is your unwavering support at election time and your body in the streets whenever he needs you to protest about something _ with bandana around your head, a banner in your hand and spit coming from between your teeth. He's not just an elected MP. He's also a godfather, a local don, though probably lacking the cool demeanour of Marlon Brando.
It's the patronage network, a tradition of give and take, of favours and rewards. Hence, 63.4% of respondents don't mind corruption, as long as they too benefit. But really it's not corruption. It is merely the patron taking care of his community and retainers, and they do for him in return. One happy family. Capisce?
Democracy is about ideals and laws, so vague and so distant and far too complex. The feudal patronage system is about relationships, person to person, the family; the simple things in life. It is who you know, not what you know. It's about connections, the true age of connectivity, where we don't even need Wi-Fi.
Here, the people do not rely on a set of rules or a body of laws, they rely on the power wielder, the patron. The power is arbitrary; hence bargaining and negotiation, plus a nice gift, is the norm.
When you are stopped on the street by the police, you drop a name or hand over a name card. You appeal to a social relationship. Failing that, there's the 100 baht bill. It's not bribery, but gift-giving.
You appeal to the name or rank of your father or of a powerful friend. It works so well that sometimes you can just make up a name and the police will back off. Go ahead, try it. The patronage relationship is ingrained and conforming; feudal patrons in democratic Thailand are as abundant as the rice in the fields and the fish in the sea. It's not corruption. It's about respect.
When you deal with government agencies, the first question you ask is not "what are the procedures", but "who do I know who can pull strings and make this happen". It's not corruption. It's about relationships.
School tea money is not bribery; it's establishing relationships between the school administrators and teachers on the one hand, and the parents and children on the other. Names and faces are recognised; the tea money is the social bond. The child who deserves a seat in the school belongs to the parents who're willing to be a part of the school's patronage network.
The much talked about 30% under-the-table bribe for private companies seeking government deals is, again, not corruption. It's about relationships, respect and mutual benefits.
If laws are changed to benefit _ or government concessions go to _ family, cronies, friends or chauffeurs, it is not corruption. It's taking care of your family, your patronage network. It's a matter of duty and honour.
Take a village under the patronage of the village head; a district under the district councillor. Take it to the town, provincial and regional level. Take it to the national level and we have Thailand mapped by networks of feudal patronage systems owing allegiances to patrons such as Newin Chidchob, Banharn Silpa-archa, Suthep Thaugsuban, Suwat Liptapanlop, Sanoh Thienthong and others.
How do people like Chalerm Yubamrung and Karun Hosakul keep getting elected time and again? It's because, whatever else they may be, to the people of their communities they are good patrons.
When a nation lives and breathes through these feudalistic patronage networks, there is no corruption; there is only tradition _ it's the way things have been done for centuries, though tweaked a bit under electoral democracy.
Constitutionally, legally and theoretically we are in a democracy. But the constitution, the legal and theoretical frameworks have little to do with day-to-day realities dictated by feudal governance. Words on paper do not dictate what we do. The belief system ingrained in our psyches does.
In practical terms, you can't get things done without joining and playing in the system. It's a matter of not just prosperity, but survival.
It is therefore only a half truth that 63.4% of respondents do not mind corruption, as long they also benefit. The whole truth is that there would be no government corruption if the people didn't play their part.
But the dilemma is that if you don't play in the system, you are likely to get left out, and then who will take care of you and yours? Therefore this tradition is self-perpetuating. And while there are those who profit greatly, such feudal governance can only result in the masses kept kowtowed on the floor and the nation mediocre. Because relationships, seniorities and divisions take precedent over abilities and merit.
At times, democracy plays into the hands of feudalism. Populist policies are wonderful tools to maintain and expand the patronage network. As well, advancement as a nation is stalled, because loyalties are to individual patrons, outweighing the sense of citizenship and nationhood.
In feudal times, the bureaucrats did not receive salaries. In modern times they do. In theory that should break the tradition, but in reality ... yeah right.
How to break the cycle? Again, we can talk about education reform until Euro 2012 magically appears on my black screen, but who has the patience?
We all want to see actual changes before we descend to Valhalla to drink, feast, fight and fornicate for the rest of eternity.
Revolutionary changes come on the back of visionary leaders. So if someone tells our democratically-elected prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, of this need for change _ and if she doesn't turn around and ask her patron for permission _ then we might actually be on to something.
The leader leads, whether in feudal or modern times, and she could be the first to break the chain of this tradition.
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