Debating about Debating


Right now the English-language speaking community within Thailand (and their concerned observers overseas) is all a-twitter about whether or not caretaker PM Abhisit of the Democrat Party is going to debate Puea Thai’s choice for PM,Yingluck Shinawatra.  There are myriad reasons being posed as why they should (or should not) which better blogs out there are going in great detail over.

My personal opinion is that, as someone who has successfully run a large-scale business like SC Assets, Yingluck could probably hold her own against the silver-tongued Abhisit, but there really would be nothing of substance to emerge with regards to policy. (Has any politician ever been taken to task for what was said or promised in a debate? They are frankly just as meaningful as pre-season scrimmages in sports.)

From my experience, Thailand just does not have much of a culture of debate.  Sure, you occasionally hear of Thai school kids who do well in an international forensics competition, but the default mode of deference to age and station makes it difficult in most everyday situations for Thais to risk “selling their face” in order to present and defend a position, in a limited amount of time, with the possibility of being told you are wrong and have definitively lost. (And besides, all those “na krub” and “na ka” can really eat into your two- minute rebuttal.)

The essence of winning a debate is to present your position in a clear and compelling manner that could sway the truly unbiased observer to your viewpoint.  It’s not really so much about being right (as in some competitions you have to be ready to argue for OR against any issue), but more about who is the best at convincing others they are definitely right (or at least less wrong and less appealing than the other guy.)

So herein lies perhaps the only reason for undecideds to see a debate: Who do you perceive as best equipped to lead Thailand?

A lot of folks seem to ignore or discount the fact that there is a whole world out there, most of which could care less about Thailand and some who (openly or not) root for us to fall on our faces.  It’s a harsh reality, and you need someone not only strong enough to face down his fellow countryman (or woman) but also to the juggernauts who, if they really wanted to, could hurt us with a few policy adjustments that would scarcely be noticed by their half billion or billion plus citizens.

In a way, the debate environment is like a laboratory crucible, that would place candidates under a fair amount of pressure and see how they deal with it.  Do they smirk, thinking they are the smartest one in the room? Deflect a difficult question with vague, wonky technospeak?  Or do they make you feel like they understand a problem just like you do and their approach to dealing with it is inspired?

Now it may not work, or rather probably will not work, if neither side takes it seriously, taking for granted that they can spin the perceived outcome, or if we focus more on how someone dressed or did their hair. 

It was framed as more a discussion than a debate, but I remember when the Red Shirt honchos sat down across the table with government leaders on live TV last year to try to hash out their problems.  It was fascinating theater, and on the surface heartening that two sides could try to work things out.  But after the obligatory pleasantries, it just became another disappointing “he said, he did” round of finger-pointing which likely had negligible impact on the heavy-handed crackdown to follow.

Now whoever wins the upcoming election should be able to focus on what really matters for Thailand as a whole rather than having to devote significant resources to defending against domestic rivals.  But you don’t have to be a cynic to know that is unlikely in our current nose-cutting, face-spiting environment.  In the meantime we are all left doing a somewhat enjoyable, yet ultimately pointless and soul-draining exercise of “mass debating.”

Yes, you can go blind from that too.


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