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11 Jun, 2006

A Tribute to The Last Great Leader of This Generation

Originally published: 11 Jun 2006

The 60th anniversary of His Majesty the King’s accession to the throne has brought Thailand closer to an even more important landmark.

In 2010, just four years from now, His Majesty will equal the record of the longest reigning monarch in modern history, the U.K.’s Queen Victoria who reigned for 64 years (1837 -1901). In 2011, His Majesty will eclipse that record. The only other contemporary monarch to have reigned for more than 60 years is Emperor Hirohito of Japan (1926-1989).

While Queen Victoria reigned over the expansion of the British colonial empire and Emperor Hirohito’s reign saw Japan involved in a world war, His Majesty has ruled over a country that has managed to stay remarkably free of both communism and colonialism. To an Indian like me, His Majesty ranks alongside great rulers like Asoka and Akbar, both formidable nation-builders with superb diplomatic skills and exemplary leadership.

For all its pomp and pageantry, being a king entails a far higher level of responsibility than a democratically elected leader. Royalty has to work even harder at earning public respect and trust, rising above the fray and steering clear of scandal.

As indicated by the fate suffered by the late Shah of Iran, known for his authoritarian rule and dreaded secret police, as well as the various Russian tsars and Chinese emperors, even the most absolute of power can dissipate quickly when rulers and the ruled begin to drift apart.

Indeed, at a time when simply good leaders are in short supply, His Majesty could well be the last of the world’s great leaders.

Just as the two world wars shaped the global geopolitical structure over the rest of the last century, so will this century be shaped by conflict over economic turf, natural resources, religion and culture. Sadly, present-day geopolitical leaders are worsening these looming conflicts by creating for-us or against-us camps and opening wounds that will take years, possibly decades, to heal.

The Berlin Wall, which was supposed to end the last vestiges of post-World War dictatorships, has merely been replaced by new walls such as between Israel-Palestine and the upcoming walls between the United States-Mexico. Other “walls” are also emerging between the “haves” and “have-nots” in terms of income gaps and the digital divide.

Leadership is the art of managing and motivating people to fulfil a broader, hopefully noble, goal. Good leaders do not seek respect; they earn it. When national leaders meet the people’s needs (the infrastructure of peace and harmony), corporate leaders can fulfil their wants (the superstructure of profit and livelihood).

Mention ‘leadership’ and qualities like sincerity, integrity, values, fairness, honesty, justice and respect may emerge. Mention the words ‘great leaders’ and names like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela may come to mind. His Majesty’s vision and leadership skills are in the same league as these great men.

From a cultural, political and economic perspective, His Majesty’s life will yield a profound legacy for Thailand and indeed the world. But there is not much time left to avoid the scenario painted by Gandhi when he chided his people thus: “Everybody is eager to garland my photos. But nobody wants to follow my advice.”

Politically, His Majesty is not a “democratically elected” leader. Neither were Gandhi, King nor Mandela (at least not until after Mandela was released from 27 years in an apartheid-era South African prison), thus proving that being visionary, wise and trusted is far more important than the convoluted mechanics of being “democratically elected”.

In contemporary Thai history, respected leaders like Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and Anand Panyarachun were also not “democratically elected” in the traditional sense. Simply enjoying the support of His Majesty was good enough for the people.

Economically, the royal principles of self-sufficiency do not always conform with the free-market principles of unbridled globalisation. While globalisation sees economic nirvana as being linked to global networks and knowledge chains, self-sufficiency is a slower, more modest philosophy that stresses equitable distribution of income, self-reliance and living within one’s means — more along the Buddha’s lines rather than Bush’s. Thailand already paid the price of ignoring this when struck by the 1997 economic crisis, the 10th anniversary of which will be observed next year.

Self-sufficiency is also in line with the principles of Gandhi, who dressed simply, ate frugally and lived humbly in order to walk the talk of his classic quote: “There is enough in this world for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” Globalisation’s “get-rich-quick” philosophy puts no caps on greed – economic growth comes first, with its consequences left for later.

Culturally, Mandela, King and Gandhi all espoused secular religious and racial harmony, with non-violence at its core. Gandhi, a trained lawyer with a keen sense of justice, lived in apartheid South Africa for many years. Later, upon his return to India, he sought to bridge similar chasms between Hindus and Muslims in pursuit of a united front to drive out the British colonialists.

In turn, both Mandela and King sought to heal the black-white racial wounds in their respective countries.

Like Martin Luther King, His Majesty the King, too, “has a dream” as repeatedly mentioned in his many nation-building speeches over the years. Indeed, the life and times of His Majesty gives Thailand a unique and priceless competitive advantage that may be on the verge of being squandered, if that dream is not converted to reality.

Thailand, which always strives to attain the status of “hub” of this or that, may now have one final chance of becoming a “hub” of a truly “new world order” and give birth to a new breed of policies and philosophies that transcend today’s short-termism.

A few weeks ago, the United Nations conferred on His Majesty its first human development award. Well deserved though that was, a Nobel Peace Prize would be a better idea.

As an expatriate who has savoured the salt of this land for 28 years, and my family for much longer, I respectfully and humbly join the chorus of tributes to possibly the last great leader of this generation.

Long Live the King.