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25 Dec, 2005

Over the festive season, ponder the difference between water and oil

Originally Published: 25 December 2005

My previous column ended by volunteering a forecast on what will happen next on the global stage. So, here goes.

Economic law says that whenever a commodity faces a shortage, its price goes up. Look around and see what’s in short supply these days – and try looking beyond mere commodities.

By its very definition, a ‘shortage’ means a scarcity, a paucity of something in big demand which cannot be produced in quantities enough to meet that demand.

In today’s materialistic world, everything is evaluated by either a price or a cost. The buying, selling and trading of millions and millions of products, commodities, shares – even words like these — occupies all our time.

‘Cost’ is what goes into making that product or process, ‘price’ is what we eventually pay for it while market forces eventually determine the third and most important factor, its ‘value.’

High value products fetch a commensurately high price, even though some may not cost much to produce, like diamonds. But all products fulfil a need, satiate a desire or perform a desired function which, at its very heart, has to satisfy the ‘buyer’ who has to feel that he/she got ‘value for money.’

In shortest supply these days is not a product at all, but an intangible — good quality leadership. In spite of being in very high demand, there is a severe shortage of it across a broad range of institutions –– families, communities, societies, companies, countries, you name it.

But because it commands such a high value, and is so desperately needed, the world to come will find ways of seeking it out – and readily pay the price for it.

Another reason for the shortage is that the ‘components’ and ‘raw materials’ of good leadership are also in short supply – like honesty, trust, truth, compassion, integrity, morality and perhaps most important, wisdom.

The two dominant systems today – political democracy and economic capitalism – do not inherently require leaders to possess any of the above.

In fact, the more dishonest, untruthful, immoral and untrustworthy one is, the more the chances one can rise to the top via the ruthless, backstabbing processes involved in climbing the corporate and political ladders, and surviving once there.

The two systems are like conjoined twins. Indeed, they have become inseparable. They feed off each other.

But because, as the Buddha said, the only constant is change and everything is impermanent, both these systems are already falling on their own swords, gradually creating a vacuum that will have to be filled, probably not by tomorrow or next week but certainly in the years to come.

According to the latest World Economic Forum public opinion poll [www. weforum.org/trustsurvey], trust in a range of institutions has dropped significantly since January 2004 to levels not seen since the months following 9/11.

“Public trust levels in national governments, the United Nations and global companies are now at their lowest since tracking began in January 2001,” according to a WEF release. “The poll also reveals that public trust in national governments and the United Nations has fallen the most over the past two years.”

Ever wonder why?

Note that both capitalism and democracy emerged from the ashes of dictatorships like communism and fascism both of which collapsed. To paraphrase George Orwell, their theoretical dogma considered all animals to be equal but some animals were considered “more equal than others.”

In other words, the leaders considered themselves above the law.

There is perhaps no better way of explaining this than to compare two global leaders, His Majesty the King and US President George W Bush – the former having reigned over a nation for longer than the latter has been alive.

This is what Australian futurist Richard Neville had to say on his website about the King’s birthday speech: “It looks like a pompous Royal ceremony, all show and no substance, until I check out what he’s saying.

“The King’s speech is utterly without guile and spin. It is self effacing, it is healing. It stands up for the right to dissent. It offers a rebuke to the Thai Prime Minister for trying to silence his critics with lawsuits. It unfolds a vision of a sustainable, efficient Thailand, one powered entirely by renewable energy.

“The King is candid about his shortcomings. His words are a window to an eccentric, subtle and compassionate mind. It is not a speech that a Bush, a Blair or a Howard could ever conceive, much less deliver. It is a reminder that the measure of a nation is not the measure of its GDP. A country’s true wealth is derived from its values. When these values are enshrined in the actions of those at the top, then mutual respect becomes the intangible currency that empowers the population.”

In other words, Neville respects the King for saying that he is not ‘above it.’ By lowering himself, the King in fact raised himself in Neville’s eyes.

That is leadership — a valuable role model that may appear powerless on paper but is very powerful in practise.

To hear Bush preaching “freedom and democracy” today reminds me of the communist dictatorships’ fraudulent references to themselves as “People’s Democratic Republics”. They were neither.

Like Bush, they divided people into for-us or against-us, and had no qualms about human rights violations, torture, wiretapping, media controls, all of which were proclaimed as being necessary to protect the ‘state’ and the ‘people’ from its ‘enemies’.

Then, the self-righteous West hailed those who opposed the communists as dissidents. Today, those who criticise western hypocrisy and double-standards are considered ‘terrorist sympathisers’.

Politically, democracies are well on their way to becoming dictatorships. Economically, the excessive influence and machinations of global multinationals are also coming under public scrutiny.

So, just as the world is seeking alternative energy sources because continuous consumption of fossil fuels is unsustainable, so, too, will it seek alternative, more sustainable systems to democracy and capitalism.

But first, just like oil, it will have to pay a high price for them.

The seeds of these new systems have been planted right here in Thailand and should be nourished and nurtured next year, the 60th anniversary of the King’s ascension to the throne.

His Majesty knew that water would be more important than oil. Hence, dams were built. Water is a source of life. Oil is only a source of energy. Big difference.

His Majesty’s self-sufficiency economy offers a much more sustainable and equitable means of poverty-alleviation, the primary target of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals.

Politically, he is unelected but his wisdom and stature has helped keep Thailand independent and pulled it out of many a crises.

Just like trees in a rainforest grow straight and tall in search of the sunlight, so too will humanity have to rise above the undergrowth and reach for the light.

Sunlight, by the way, shines equally on people of all castes, colours, cultures and creeds. There is no such thing as a ‘chosen people.’

Think about that over the festive season.

I wish all my readers, even my critics, a good one. And, please, watch your alcohol intake.