Opinion: The awkward truth about the elephant ticket

Revelations last week by Move Forward MP Rangsiman Rome that promotions within the Thai police force were subjected to outside pressures should come as no surprise for any long time observers of Thai politics.

In fact, the same thing is likely true for the army and the air force.

The so-called ‘elephant ticket’ is something that is widely known within the police force itself and a source of consternation for many officers who have to otherwise wait a long time for promotions.

But nepotism within the armed forces is not anything new, in fact promotions through favor and connections has not only been a staple of the police force but EVERY government organization.

It’s a problem under the Prayut administration but it was also a problem under Yingluck, under Abhisit, under Thaksin and countless other premiers.

Go back far enough in Thai history and you will see writings prior to the 1932 revolution (which transitioned Thailand from absolute monarchy to a constitutional one) complaining about how the highest posts in the land were not given to those with the most talent or experience but to those with the most connections or prestige.

But cronyism is hardly a problem that is contained to Thailand.

It has been a problem for countries from Latin America to Europe and for a very long time. Napoleon won countless military battles not just because of sound military strategy but because of the revolutionary idea that the best and most talented people should lead the armed forces instead of loyal princes and aristocrats. The British conquered the world because their parliament was a stable influence over the course of centuries and was able to curtail outside pressure to appoint capable men to influential positions.

Thailand’s gift and curse over the past century is that we haven’t been embroiled in any long-term political or armed conflict. The communists of the 60s and 70s did not pose an existential threat to the country, we have never been invaded by a foreign power, and the political movements within the country have lasted only a relatively short amount of time.

Therefore there has been no need for a meritocracy and cronyism has become the de-facto modus operandi.

God-forbid that we should ever go to war because a system based on cronyism wouldn’t last that long and we would likely be found out.

But even apart from the possibility of armed conflict, cronyism has another long-term, damaging effect on a country. When incapable men are given positions based on connections, the institutions that they are tasked to lead suffers as a result. This is not rocket science.

That is why the political-military-technocrat balance has been so important to the progression of Thailand despite years of constant military intervention.

Alarmingly, we see that balance erode under the current administration. Capable, intelligent men like Predee Daochai do not last in this government because they can see through the rot and see this government for the group of cash-grabbing officials that they are.

More and more, we have incapable men leading the country at a time when we need the most talented to rise to the top.

We have generals and sycophants running key ministries when we need those ministries to succeed. As a result, we have witnessed six years of economic stagnation, we have seen the rollback of progressive policies for money-making one, and we have survived the coronavirus pandemic only to embroil ourselves in an economic crisis.

The problem with cronyism is also that we have created a system of government and a society where merit is not rewarded, where talent does not guarantee success. The best and brightest Thais find the most appealing jobs in foreign companies or in the private sector. There is no incentive to innovate, to enter public service, or to do public good because those positions are filled through connections.

Like the police force, the rest of us too are embroiled in this system of cronyism where the best are ignored and the connected, elevated. If that does not change, the country will never progress.

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