Democracy and the Challenges to Civil Society, Bangkok, 20 September 1994
Among the nations of Southeast Asia, Thailand stands alone as one that has been free from the ravages of colonialism. The Thais owe this partly to the wisdom of their rulers throughout the ages. By their ingenuity, Siam was spared the rule of European powers. And Thailand remains today an abode of freedom, her people spared the trauma and humiliation of foreign domination.
The others in our region were less fortunate. They were simply overwhelmed by the sheer fire power of the marauding Europeans; internecine conflicts and other social and political problems made them easy prey to foreign aggression. It was thus left to the new generations in this century, through nationalistic movements, to redeem and regain our lost freedom and nationhood.
From the vantage point of our time, the upshot of the process of decolonization in Southeast Asia was not only to eject the colonial powers, but the empowerment of the people themselves, that is to say, it liberated their minds and restored their confidence. In fact national independence would not have been possible without the prior cultivation of the spirit of liberty and nurturing of the aspiration for a just social order. Once this took root, it acquired a life of its own. This spirit became the enduring theme in the consolidation period for nation building, and the great thrust for economic and social upliftment.
For her own part, Thailand has had the singular fortune of having enlightened and reform-minded monarchs who prepared the initial conditions for social and political transformation. I believe she also shares and participates in the great Southeast Asian quest for providing what is best for the people: the enlargement of liberty, the diffusion of prosperity, justice in the distribution of wealth, and accountability in the public sphere. The recent history of our region has indeed been animated by that grand and enduring theme.
The current economic empowerment of Southeast Asia has drawn a vast array of commentaries. In our view, our future prospects in the economic realm are indeed bright. The focus on economic growth must be sustained and the integration of the region economically must be accelerated. In this regard, the current leadership in Thailand has been supportive in pursuing bilateral and multilateral initiatives.
However, we cannot be content with economic progress alone. We aspire to much more than mere comfort. We seek liberality in politics and enrichment in culture. The people must not be subjected to condescending and patronizing postures. There must be unrelenting efforts to eliminate injustices and to remove glaring social blights from our societies.
I feel we must have the courage to address the stark contradictions within our society. Although we take pride in religiosity continuing to be a major element in our lives, yet at the same time, and most paradoxically, our society seems to be indifferent to the moral decadence and the erosion of the social fabric through widespread permissiveness and corruption. Of course some would say that many of the vices rampant are but the inevitable consequences of abject poverty. No doubt there is more than a grain of truth in that. Yet, we cannot help feeling that if the practice of religion has been entrenched together with its moral and ethical dimensions, then this degeneration would most likely have been kept in check.
Our self-induced euphoria in respect of the remarkable economic growth must also not blind us to the parallel rise of corruption: bribery, nepotism, and the abuse of power. While some may seem content to regard this as a necessary evil, we firmly hold that this is a fundamental issue at the core of our moral and ethical foundations. There can be no compromise on this.
The experience of Southeast Asia in economic, social and political development is indeed rich and varied. Because we wanted our development to be indigenous, Asean remained neutral during the Cold War. Each member had from the earliest embarked on various modes of democracy. However, some may have entertained the idea that authoritarianism is the most efficacious means for economic success. To them, democracy is may be too cumbersome for orderly development. It may even be inimical to political stability, which is a pre-condition for rapid economic growth and social well-being. Even Asian, especially Confucian, values have now come to be invoked in support of that proposition. Nevertheless, this notion has been effectively debunked by the experience of Thailand and Malaysia. Political liberality is not incompatible with strong economic perfomance. Both these countries have sustained growth for more than three decades while practicing open and vibrant forms of democracy. As for Asian values, they had produced great civilizations in the past. However, if these values are to contribute towards a renaissance of Asia, they must serve as a source of liberation. Asian cultural renewal must mean the cultivation of all that is true, just and caring from our heritage, not by perpetuating the narrow and oppressive order of the feudal past.
A number of challenges and threats to our maturing civil society still lurk in the background. After the Communists conceded defeat and ceased their campaign of aggression and violence, there however remains the menace of ethnic intolerence and religious extremism. It was Furnival who coined the term plural society and described plurality as the defining feature of Southeast Asia. The brutality of ethnic violence and the havoc wrought by religious fanaticism in our times should impel us to take a firm position with regard to these forces. Despite our liberality, the fact that our societies have been to a large extent spared the ugliness of these forces is largely attributable to our readiness to act decisively when necessary.
For reasons of justice no group should be marginalized or denied full participation in the national economic and political process. There must be genuine efforts to gradually reduce social inequities. This is indeed the best guarantee for social harmony and stability. Democracy is about the only system which provides the channel for the expression of discontent and dissent. Properly instituted, democracy will ensure order and stability. Because it allows for legitimate grievances to be aired and contentious issues to be openly debated, democracy prevents the accumulation of pent-up violent and disruptive forces. Be that as it may, we must constantly be vigilant against the abuse of democratic institutions to whip up racial and religious intolerence. As President Vaclav Havel discovered in the former Czechoslovakia, democracy could also allow the overflow to the surface from "the sewers of the nether regions of the human psyche" to infect our minds.
Religion and spirituality run deep in the Asian character and they have been a great source of strength to us and will be the bulwark against moral and society decay. However, the challenge before us is to cultivate of moderation in religious life and to promote the inculcation of universal perspectives.
In facing the manifold challenges to civil society, I believe we must remain focussed on its basic needs. Foremost is the creation and preservation of social order, without which there would be chaos. Freedom under the circumstances would be illusory. Under a truly democratic regime, such an order is to be achieved through the exercise of authority with accountability, not merely by the coercive power of the state. On the part of the people, the proper and legitimate assertion of one's individual rights must go hand in hand with the recognition of private duties towards the good of society. Liberty must not be allowed to degerate into immorality and permissiveness. This sense of social discipline must exist if we are to bring to fruition a civil society built upon our ideals of democracy.
When the old Kingdom of Siam was at the pinnacle of her prosperity and power in the late seventeenth century, a great poet of the time, whom many believed to be the King Nara himself, composed the famous "Phleng phayakon krung Si Ayutthaya" -- the Long Song Prophecy for Ayudhya.
One would not find much difficulty in finding similar sentiments expressed in the literatures of other great Asian traditions. The people and their rulers, will toil day and night to improve their well-being. But in the final analysis, however fervent our hopes, and however great our labour, only through justice and virtue can we truly attain and sustain prosperity.