Where's our Jose Mujica?

Once there was a country whose ruler was an old man who refused to live in a mansion with a large staff of servants.

Instead, he chose to live with his wife in an old farmhouse where they grew vegetables and flowers.

Instead of a luxurious carriage, he chose to ride his old clunker of a cart and no one but he was the driver. He gave away nine parts out of 10 of his wealth to help the poor and small traders. And so he came to be called the "poorest ruler" of all the lands.

What was written to sound like something out of a fairy tale is in fact a true story. There is indeed such a ruler.

The story began circulating worldwide last year after the Spanish newspaper El Mundo published an interview with Jose Mujica, the president of Uruguay who has earned a nickname el presidente mas pobre or "poorest president".

Most of the stories published or broadcast dealt with his rise from a man of modest means to a guerrilla fighter to a lawmaker and finally to a president.

In the 1960s Mr Mujica joined the Tupamaros guerrilla movement to try to topple the country's dictatorship at the time. He was later arrested and served jail time for 14 years, much of it in brutal solitary confinement. After democracy was restored in 1985, he entered politics and became an MP and later a senator.

From 2005 to 2008 he served as the Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries minister. In late 2009 he was elected president.

Since taking office in 2010, the 78-year-old public servant has donated 90 per cent of his presidential salary for social causes, leaving him with about US$1,250 or less than 40,000 baht as monthly income.

He has no bank account, no debt and can only call an old Volkswagen Beetle as his own. The farmhouse he lives in belongs to his wife.

Mr Mujica says his decision to maintain an austere lifestyle was a matter of "free choice".

"I'm called 'the poorest president', but I don't feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more," he said.

"This is a matter of freedom. If you don't have many possessions then you don't need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself."

Under his government, Uruguay has become known for low levels of corruption. The country was ranked the second least corrupt country in Latin America (after Chile) in the Transparency International's Global Corruption Index (25th worldwide).

Having earned the admiration of Uruguayans for his humble living, Mr Mujica urges people around the world to adopt a low-impact lifestyle because, he says, the earth simply cannot provide for all those who wish to lead the lifestyle of those in developed countries.

In his gem of a speech to the Rio+20 Earth Summit last year (see full text at http://tinyurl.com/8y2zn46), Mr Mujica touched on what I believe will soon be a central question about the future of the human race: Should we adhere to the market system that demands ever more consumption to achieve indefinite growth at the expense of the world's natural resources and finally our own demise? Or shall we adopt a different consumption pattern that permits us to have time to live and be happy?

"What would happen to this planet if the people of India had the same number of cars per family as the Germans?" he asked.

"More clearly: Does the world today have the material elements to enable 7 or 8 billion people to enjoy the same level of consumption and squandering as the most affluent Western societies?

"We must realise that the water crisis and the aggression to the environment is not the cause. The cause is the model of civilisation that we have created. And the thing we have to re-examine is our way of life."

It is obvious from his personal conduct that he does not view economic prosperity as the ultimate goal of a country. Rather it is the state of wellbeing of its inhabitants.

"These things I say are very basic: development cannot go against happiness. It has to work in favour of human happiness, of love on earth, human relationships, caring for children, having friends, having our basic needs covered.

"Precisely because this is the most precious treasure we have: happiness. When we fight for the environment, we must remember that the essential element of the environment is called human happiness."

His speech was aimed at the other world leaders. Unfortunately, few were present in the conference hall to listen. This is sad but not surprising, however. Most people don't want to listen to something that contradicts their own conviction. Even worse is something that holds higher ethical or moral grounds.

After all the goal of most countries' leaders is already fixed _ prosperity through increasing consumption.

Even if in the back of their mind they know what such hyper consumption would lead to, most world leaders continue to hope that the inevitable calamitous consequences can be averted through more advanced technology or exploitation of less developed countries.

People will say lowering consumption is easier said than done, which is true. This is because we have been raised on the notion that being able to consume increasingly more is a virtue; it boosts the economy and thus helps the country.

Change is even harder when all the governments that we have had have been bent on actively encouraging the citizens to spend and consume more.

Our current crop of leaders are proud to tell us that our economy has been able to grow at a comfortable rate even as major economic powers _ the US, Europe and Japan _ have been struggling.

When the next meltdown happens, I wonder which of the leaders will be around to take responsibility.

But change must come sooner or later. Having a higher moral authority to lead the way would make the transformation a little easier to swallow.

So, may I have an order of Jose Mujica for Thailand, please?

Wasant Techawongtham was formerly a news editor at the Bangkok Post. Currently a freelance writer, he also serves as editorial director Milky Way Press, a publishing house.

About the author

Writer: Wasant Techawongtham
Position: Writer