By The Nation
Both sides of the national divide have declared that Thailand is entering an era of “new politics”, but until educational reform is given the utmost priority, we will remain mired in an era of rudimentary, barely functioning democracy. Elevating its status would be an assured means by which Prayut Chan-o-cha, now ready to resume his duties as prime minister, can overcome the cynicism reinvigorated by the self-serving post-election jostling for Cabinet portfolios.
The sceptics are discouraged by both Prayut, who seems to support the notion that the major parties must control the major ministries, and his coalition partners seeking slices of the pie befitting not the quality of their nominees but their respective bargaining power. It is this archaic mindset that engenders the greatest flaw in our democracy – the tendency to disregard education’s importance in fostering progress.
It is a woeful tradition that, with each fresh distribution of the spoils of electoral victory, the Interior, Agriculture, Transport and Finance portfolios are seen as the most lucrative prizes. The Education Ministry is invariably among the less meaty bones thrown out to the dogs on the perimeter, the grumblers in need of pacifying. No consideration is given to how capable the recipient is to run the ministry.
With the ministry thus belittled, it is often over the course of every government’s tenure used as a handy toy to mollify unruly allies. As a result, rather than being an institution of long-term planning and consistency in addressing issues, the Education Ministry has a steady stream of politicians walking in and out of its revolving doors, each carrying his own opinion of what needs to be done until he’s offered a better post. Policies shift annually. Promising reforms are abandoned. The bureaucratic staff is unsure, confused or handcuffed. Nothing actually gets down.
Prayut, who gave hints in the years after the coup that he cared about schooling, will now be preoccupied with parliamentary politicking, including slicing up the pie to best secure his administration. The current situation is not encouraging. The scrabble for Cabinet seats easily overrides any thought of improving the quality of teaching or narrowing the rich-poor education gap or making sure underprivileged rural kids can attend class.
At no point in the election campaign did Prayut or the Democrats or anyone else ask voters to give them the mandate to improve Thai education. Evidently that is not the goal of the “new politics”, which is skewed instead to stacking the Senate and other such trickery, much the same as the old politics.
If there is to be a new thrust in politics, let it be about putting the public interest first. In terms of educational reform, this could mean as radical a move as slashing the military budget so that poor kids get the help they need at school. At the least it means all Cabinet members pooling resources to get the best technology into the classrooms.
Tilting Thai politics away from all the pie-sharing brinkmanship and instead lighting a fire under the Education Ministry would be a major challenge for Prayut. But he calls himself a patriot and evidently believes himself to be a strong leader. Let’s see him try. If he succeeds, he would indeed be a hero. If he tries in earnest but fails, he will at least have tried.