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Honesty is shown by actions, not superstitious ritual

The fashion for swearing oaths has undermined public accountability

The Football Association of Thailand (FAT) last week came up with a "noble" way of tackling the country's match-fixing problem by getting 130 referees to swear an oath before the Emerald Buddha statue in Bangkok. The ritual was meant to restore the referees' integrity and give the football clubs and their supporters confidence that the officials would now perform their duties honestly. However, the move has left many observers baffled, with both fans and international media unconvinced it will end corruption in the game.

The sport's governing body was following a fashion already well established among politicians. In recent years lawmakers such as Chalerm Yoobamrung and Snoh Thienthong have take oaths at the same temple in a bid to convince voters of their integrity. Whether they succeeded is another matter. People tend to be sceptical of such acts, viewing them as a convenient mask for liars to hide behind. Trust, after all, must be earned rather than pleaded for. Honesty has to be demonstrated through concrete actions, not superstitious rituals.

The FAT oath-taking ceremony made headlines outside Thailand and been greeted with ridicule. News that referees who faced allegations of corruption and poor performance insist they are now ready to uphold the laws of the game has been taken as evidence of a weird and backward society. Even more ridiculous is that most of them apparently believe that taking the oath has wiped clean the slate of their past misdeeds.

The root cause of the match-fixing allegations is poor refereeing decisions during games. These have sometimes led to post-match violence among fans. But rather than tackling the problem with a rigorous investigation of bad refereeing, the FAT has chosen superficial quick fixes that do nothing to improve the quality of officials on the pitch. Now fear is growing that leading Thai Premier League clubs upset by poor refereeing might break away and form a separate organisation. But instead of allaying that fear and strengthening the health of Thai football, the oath-taking ceremony seems to have been a face-saving exercise on the part of the FAT.

It also underlines a wider problem concerning Thais' approach to honesty. "Actions speak louder than words" is a maxim rarely heeded in Thailand. One of the referees was adamant that the oath-taking ceremony would lead to improvements. If everyone joins him in that conviction, Thai football is doomed.

We all like to present ourselves as honest people, and few of us are willing to take responsibility for our wrongdoing. But when such lack of personal accountability infects officialdom in a popular sport like football, we risk passing on the amorality to youngsters. They should not be taught that they could evade accountability for their actions by swearing an oath.

Honesty is not the same as fear of supernatural punishment. Rather, it is fear of betraying one's principles and professional ethics. Referees will uphold the laws of the game only when they are afraid of making mistakes that could ruin their professional reputations.

Meanwhile they can swear as many oaths as they like, but it will never improve their performance on the pitch.


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