By The Star Online
“DO you need to be young and a billionaire to start a successful third force movement in Thailand?” I asked Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit in an interview at his residence in a Bangkok suburb.
“I disagree with that. If you look at the money spent in the past election, we spend much, much less than established parties, ” said the 41-year-old billionaire politician.
Thanathorn is the wealthiest Thai MP, with 5.63 billion baht (RM760mil) in assets and 683 million baht (RM93mil) in debts. The Thai media describe him as the “billionaire commoner” because of his fight to change the social class system in Thailand.
His one-year-old party, Future Forward, won the third highest number of seats in Thailand’s elections in March this year. It is seen as a “third force” party for voters fed up with the pro-junta Palang Pracharat party and pro-Thaksin Shinawatra Pheu Thai party.
“Being a billionaire has nothing to do with the success. The factor is that the people see us as the younger generation who got successful in business. But it’s not the money that helps us to get votes, ” said Thanathorn, whose family owns Thai Summit Group, an auto parts manufacturer.
“What’s more important is the domination of ideas. Many politicians promise too many things. But for us, we are clear: We give the people what should be the destination of our country in the next 10 years and 20 years.
“We said, ‘Look, if we want our country to go beyond the political polarisation of the past decade, this is what we need to do. We need to democratise; we need to demilitarise; we need to decentralise our country’.”
Thanathorn stressed that the success of Future Forward is dominating the public’s agenda.
“It’s about the message we send to the people. For us, it is not the seats in Parliament that are the priority. That is secondary.
“The priority for us is to win the war of ideas. If you win the war of ideas, you win votes and seats. Not the other way round, ” said the politician who wore his daily “uniform” – a generic white shirt and brown pants – at the interview.
In the March 24 Thai polls, the Future Forward party won 30 constituency MPs and 50 party-list MPs out of the 500 up for grabs. This is sizeable support for a newly-formed party comprising “non-politician” leaders who are academics, entrepreneurs and social activists to win.
I asked how the party achieved this feat and if the down-to-earth billionaire had any advice for Malaysians who might be interested in starting a third force movement.
The Future Forward Party gave the voters a vision of the future, replied Thanathorn.
“We said, ‘Look, there’s already too much political polarisation and political conflict in the last decade that has cost many lives. We need change’.”
In pre-election campaigning, the party pointed to the inequality in Thailand, where the gap between the rich and poor is widening. It also pointed out that economic development in neighbours such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam has been growing at 5% to 6% a year compared with Thailand’s 3% in the last 10 years.
Thailand, Thanathorn noted, needs to democratise.
“Even if we successfully democratise our country, the military will step in because the elite don’t want to lose their economic interests if power is shared with the people. So they will strike back by staging another coup d’etat.
“So once you democratise the country, you have to demilitarise the country as well to get the military out of politics, making coups a thing of history, ” he said.
“Our message is simple, and people got it. That is why we won votes. We didn’t promise anything much. It was taking Thailand back to normal, which is democratising our country.”
The telegenic Thanathorn has captured the imagination of the millennials. He is popularly known as “Daddy” by his young female fans.
Did it take more than looks to win over the young voters, though?
“Just say you are 20 at this moment. That means you were born in 1999. By the time you were seven years old, there was already the 2006 coup d’état (the military ousted Prime Minister Thaksin). Four years later, when you were 12, people were killing each other on the streets, people were shot dead on the streets by the military over their political demonstrations, ” he said.
“A few years later when you were 15, you saw another coup d’ état (the military ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of Thaksin). So by the time you graduate from university, General Prayut Chan-o-cha (the coup leader) is into his second term as Prime Minister.”
Thanathorn continued: “They have seen all of this since they were born. How long has it been since there was a prime minister of Thailand elected by the people? Not many.
“The young question what happened to their country. So when they Google the answer, they understand the root of the political conflict is between the elite establishment and the people.
That’s why when somebody is speaking the truth about our society, he gets their votes, ” he said.
I brought up that “Daddy” moniker, and asked how it came about.
Thanathorn laughed and said: “Actually, it comes from a TV show – which I haven’t watched – and people say the character is just like me.
“You’ve got to understand that things move fast for the younger generation. They don’t want to see politics as dark and dirty. They want to see politics as colourful.
“You can make politics fun, constructive and creative. That is why you see all these different things coming up. So politics for them is not like the way we see it, ” he said.
But did being “Daddy” help the party get votes?
“No. It helps in the sense that it is a trend, ” he replied.
When he was running a business, Thanathorn visited Malaysia more than 50 times. He is familiar with what’s going on in Malaysian politics.
He observed that the one-million-dollar question in Malaysia is when the transfer of power from Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is going to happen.
“The international community is watching if and when it will happen, ” he said.
But that is one part of the Malaysian political equation, he noted. The other part – which he said is more significant – was whether the bumiputra policy would continue.
“Unless these two questions are solved, I don’t think you can get normalisation in Malaysia. In Thailand, the elite establishment wants to use religion and race as a basis to oppress others and retain power. How Malaysia is going to break this is important for the future of democracy, not only in Malaysia but in South-East Asia, ” he said.
When I asked who he thinks will be the eighth Prime Minister of Malaysia, he replied that he’s in no position to say.
When I persisted and asked if he doesn’t think it would be Anwar, he laughed and said: “To predict the future, I dare not.”
Well, then, what advice does he have for a potential “third force” political movement in Malaysia? Do we need a young, handsome billionaire?
“People need a vision of the future. They need to be clear what is the destination. Where are you going to lead this country? What Malaysia are you going to build? And you start with that, ” he said.
The world is excited by young gun leaders such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 39, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 47, and French President Emmanuel Macron, 41. I asked Thanathorn whether he sees himself like an Ardern, Trudeau or Macron of Thailand.
“Yesterday, it was Austria, ” he said on Tuesday, referring to Sebastian Kurz who became the Austrian Chancellor at 33 after elections last Sunday.
“I don’t see myself that way. I mean it’s an arrogant way to look at yourself in that way.
“But I have to be very frank with this. I have to be the Prime Minister to bring about change. There’s no one else.
“If you look at the Prime Ministerial candidates out there, I don’t think anyone really wants to push for a fundamental structural change the way we do, ” he said.
“So on my shoulders, I carry the dreams of millions of people who want to see change. So regardless of age – it is not about age or gender, it is about the dream, the Thailand we want to see.”
This week, Thanathorn is in Hong Kong to share the stage with a young Malaysian politician and talk about what’s inside the minds of Asia’s “next-gen” politicians. Some see this MP as the Ardern, Trudeau and Macron of Malaysia. Some hope this politician will lead a “third force” movement here.