Personal benefit will always defeat moral integrity

opinion September 25, 2012 00:00

By The Nation

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Whether the interior minister can keep his post after his involvement in the Alpine land scandal is a moot point: Thais too easily forgive and forget the misdeeds of those in power


Thai politics is facing another ethical question, no matter how familiar that sounds. Concerning Interior Minister Yongyuth Wichaidit, we are hearing a lot of technical terms and the names of committees or sub-committees. People are talking about what happened first and what happened later, and how they should be interpreted. Everybody has his own interpretation regarding whether Yongyuth is legally qualified to continue serving in the Cabinet after his past deeds involving the Alpine Golf Course controversy, which has now been ruled a legal offence. This political issue, however, may turn out to be just like many others before it – it is more of an ethical affair being portrayed as a legal one.
  To simplify a complicated story, the National Anti-Corruption Commission notified the Interior Ministry last month that Yongyuth – while he was a deputy permanent secretary at the ministry – had committed a serious disciplinary offence in connection with the Alpine land scandal. His supporters insist wrongdoings related to the Alpine case were expunged five years ago, in an “amnesty” to mark His Majesty the King’s 80th birthday. Parliament then passed a government-sponsored law to pardon all officials tainted by civil-service disciplinary offences up until 2007. Sceptics are asking how someone judged today to have done something wrong can possibly benefit from a pardon that, when issued, had nothing to do with him to begin with.
Can Yongyuth carry on acting as interior minister? That’s a tough question. Tougher, however, is the question, “Should he continue as interior minister?” 
The latter would be an easy question to answer in various countries, but in Thailand this is the very issue that has brought so much national destruction, strife and endless pain. It’s not just that we are a nation that easily forgives and forgets. We are a nation that specialises in whitewashing senior or powerful figures suspected of wrongdoing. This is a fact, and it’s a fact that has brought the whole country to where it is today, and it also symbolises everything that is wrong about the nation – the greed, the abuse of political power, the nepotism, the fraudulent willingness to do whatever it takes to change records or rewrite history. 
How a donated piece of land, intended by its original owner to serve her religious purpose, ended up as a luxury golf club had nothing to do with economic pragmatism. The land was transformed due to corruption, conspiracy and the mindset that, with political power, you can do what you like.
And the malaise that led to the Alpine scandal is highly contagious. It is not limited to any particular area of the political spectrum. Abuse of power is everywhere, and it can be covered up by yet more abuse of power. Sometimes “the will of the people” is used to paper over the abuse of power, but making it look better is not the same as making it right.
In the end, Yongyuth’s fate will certainly be decided by who wins the legal debate. Countless opinions will be sought, but the most important one – that of Yongyuth himself on whether he should, not can, go on as interior minister – is unlikely to matter much.
Ironically, this is a country where sometimes the laws are downgraded to something less significant than “what your heart tells you”, especially if it’s millions of hearts speaking together through the ballot box. This is another thing that we Thais are good at – shifting back and forth between sticking to the letter of the law at all costs and ignoring it entirely. Maybe that kind of flexibility would not be so wrong if we had the ability to choose the right time to be resilient. Obviously, we do not have that ability. When the situation cries out for ethics, we point at the law, which has become our safe haven instead of what it should have been – moral guidance with a stick.

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