His Majesty King Rama IX of Thailand has been a huge jigsaw. If one looks too close, one can miss the big, overall picture.
Too far out and important details can go unnoticed. Even as Thais said their last goodbye to the late beloved HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej, overwhelmingly and wholeheartedly, it was not easy for foreign observers to really comprehend what it all meant.
This week, the world saw oceans of black-clad Thais gather for a grand funeral ceremony, the scale of which has not been seen before in modern Thai history and rare by global standards. The parades were culturally exquisite and the pavilion reflected all the traditional Thai grandeur.
All of these, however, are not even half the story.
Now, the world knows that here was a very hard-working, multifaceted king, who devoted himself to helping Thais secure a better life, who rebuilt a monarchy that was facing a formidable test of time, and did so with maps, cameras, pens and pointers, not with a sword.
His integrity was unquestionable, and the much-scrutinised laws that guarded him could be summed up by the words of a government official, who could have sounded belligerent or rude to reporters a couple of years ago: “Others don’t have what we have, so it’s up to us, not to them, when it comes to protecting it.”
It’s his key philosophy, the sufficiency economy, that may still have many puzzled, including many Thais.
He preached it gently and subtly, but the idea was set against a glaring backdrop of a conventional economy that had been in place for a long time, firmly supported and cocooned by superpower nations.
His sufficiency economy idea is, in fact, simple. It advocates getting back to basics and not biting off more than one can chew.
In elementary school terms, the existing mainstream economy in its most complex but widespread form goes like this: Village A bets on how many fish Village B will catch three years from now. In many cases, money is borrowed from Village C to place the bets. Village D insures the debts, some of which are to be bought by Village E if they go bad. When the bad debts get worse, Village F becomes a rescuer by buying all.
King Rama IX’s idea has you catch your own fish, just enough to put some on the table and sell the rest in the nearest market so you can buy additional healthy food. Simple?
Yes, but it’s hard to do nonetheless.
One may say he was a dreamer, but the six-village complexity triggered the world’s biggest economic meltdown in recent memory, which came at a time when human beings were better equipped than at any point in history to put food in every mouth on the planet.
In other words, the near-collapse of the world economy has more to do with digital numbers whirling on computer screens at financial institutions across the globe than genuine human abilities to create food, shelter or medicine.
Again, if one looks “too close”, one will claim an “irony”.
King Rama IX didn’t really have to catch fish for a living, some argue. This, however, is more or less the same as criticising the “humiliation” of pledging to “serve under Your Majesty’s feet in every life” while the crucial fact that it was always him who did the serving is ignored, or bemoaning the obligatory standing up in the movie theatres while waiting in a Starbucks queue may take a lot longer.
If one looks from afar, important details could be missed.
Television footage in honour of the late monarch can be bland if one does not think along. Every one of them features the green of veggies and crops, the dark brown of soil, the translucence of water and the limited number of farm animals.
Nobility is in the details, in this case. The monarch’s idea is that if you can make good use of the soil, keep the veggies and the crops green, maintain the flow of the water and raise an appropriate number of farm animals, you will really need little else. You will be happy, fulfilled and dignified.
Nobody ever heard King Rama IX criticise any economic system that he might have disagreed with. The “obligatory” TV footages carry absolutely no political message, with interviewees, in a matter-of-fact manner, only thanking him and talking about how to get enough water and keep the soil rich. They never went out of their way to ask others to do the same. They look only genuinely happy and sincerely grateful.
The economic status quo is very omnipresent and deep-rooted, and King Rama IX was certainly well aware of that. He also appreciated the fact that the Thai people are an unavoidable part of it, particularly because this is an era of “globalisation”.
The King passed away in October last year, certainly realising that his sufficiency economy idea will take time to grow.
One of the biggest funerals the world has ever seen has come to pass.
Again, if one concentrates too much on the “scale”, some very important things that King Rama IX has done or conceived could be overlooked. To measure the monarch and how Thais feel towards him, October 26 is a key barometer, but it is just one of many.
He must have wanted his sufficiency economy philosophy to be up for judgement, though. As an outgrowth of a system called “absolute”, challenged by something called “democracy”, King Rama IX espoused an idea that sought to create genuine dignity and equality. He has sown the seeds, which can wait patiently underground, for as long as it takes.
The writer is The Nation’s editor-at-large.