What Teerakiat’s moment in the sun tells us

opinion February 15, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

The education minister showed integrity and then backed away from it, allowing Prayut to crow about Cabinet unity



Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin caused waves this with his surprise condemnation over the government’s handling of the wristwatch scandal that’s ensnared one of his senior Cabinet colleagues, Deputy Premier and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. But Teerakiat’s apparent act of bravery was short-lived. Once he’d been called into the Prime Minister’s Office, he apologised to Prawit for what he described as “bad manners” in criticising the deputy PM behind his back. Thus, he’s staying on in government, despite having briefly rocked the boat.

While on his work trip to London last Friday, Teerakiat met a group of compatriots at the Thai Embassy, with whom he shared his low opinion of ethical issues involving Thais. “You can survive despite having 25 watches,” he said, a direct reference to the scandal dogging Prawit. Teerakiat also told a reporter for BBC Thai that, unlike some “thick-skinned” people, he would quit the Cabinet if he were exposed as having even a single luxury watch without good reason.

Teerakiat earned praise from the public for his seeming ethical courage in questioning the integrity of a fellow Cabinet member, for being straightforward and fearless in speaking openly about an ethical issue confronting the government. But admiration turned to disappointment when Teerakiat abruptly cut short his fight against “thick-skinned” people in government.

In explaining his apparent change of heart at a press conference on Tuesday, the education minister said that what he told BBC Thai was not meant for broadcast. He said that, had it been a formal interview, he would not have used the language that appeared in the audio clip posted on the news outlet’s website. However, BBC Thai disputed his claim, saying, “The minister agreed to be interviewed by our reporter ... He agreed to speak to our reporter, who openly recorded the interview on his phone.”

Teerakiat’s humble apology to Prawit has drained all nobility from his earlier remarks about the benighted but defiant deputy premier. His ultimate less-than-heroic stance has adversely affected his image. He is now viewed as no different than the people he’d criticised just days earlier. The minister’s lament over government ethics reflected the view held by many 

citizens. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha should not ignore this fact. This latest controversy is not just about Teerakiat or Prawit. It encompasses the serious question of integrity facing this government.

Yet the prime minister appeared more concerned about unity within his Cabinet. After Teerakiat apologised and said he would not resign, General Prayut declared the Cabinet free from cracks or friction and said its members remained united. “When you do something wrong, you just say sorry and it’s over,” Prayut remarked. It was clear, though, that he could not allow Teerakiat to resign now, because an abrupt departure would further stain the government’s image. People would ask why the critic had to leave, while the ones being criticised could stay on.

However, the prime minister should also be aware that a significant segment of the populace, as recent opinion surveys have shown, is unconvinced by Prawit’s explanation that he had borrowed all the luxury watches from wealthy friends. Rather than government unity, the PM should care more about growing public dissatisfaction with his Cabinet’s plummeting integrity.