Know-it-all leaders keep on bumbling

Know-it-all leaders keep on bumbling

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon: Opened mouth, inserted foot
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon: Opened mouth, inserted foot

I cannot help but feel a bit of pity for Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon who has been bombarded with heavy criticism for his gaffe regarding falling rice prices.

The sarcastic comment that farmers should sell fertiliser instead of rice cast a bad light on him. It gives the impression that he is unsympathetic to farmers -- the backbone of the country.

To be fair, Gen Prawit did well during the first part of that fateful interview, saying the matter was not his responsibility and the newshounds should direct questions to the prime minister.

He also assured that the government was doing its best to manage the problem.

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

It would be just fine if he stopped at that, dismissing the last question.

Unfortunately he didn't, and before he knew it, he had gotten himself into a tough spot.

I am sure this won't be the first or last time Gen Prawit says something he regrets -- the same goes for many others in government. He now finds himself in a very embarrassing situation because of his words.

I find it difficult to recall any powerful speeches or comments by politicians, especially when in power, that have impressed or inspired me. In fact, I have never expected any leader to come up with anything with nearly the same impact as Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a dream" speech.

On the contrary, we have never had a shortage of leaders or politicians embroiled in controversies related to something they've said.

Let me cite a few examples:

Former Bangkok governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, who was recently booted out of office by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha with the use of the draconian Section 44 of the interim charter, once angered city residents when he sarcastically stated that anyone complaining about flooding should move out of low-lying, flood-prone Bangkok and live on a hill somewhere in the North.

MR Sukhumbhand should not have been surprised that this sentence came back to haunt him again and again (and will continue to do so if he runs for any political position in the future). His political enemies will not spare him. Those words were a serious mistake; even Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva offered an apology on behalf of the ex-governor.

Thaksin Shinawatra, when still in office, raised eyebrows when he complained that hard work was adversely affecting his sex life. Obviously, he had no idea mentioning sex in public is a no-no.

No less notorious were his harsh words about the United Nations, exclaiming: "The UN is not my father!" Words that are still repeatedly cited by his critics.

Another politician, Kittiratt Na-Ranong, ex-finance minister, will be remembered by many for his infamous "white lies" episode. In advanced countries, such a confession would be political suicide.

Gen Prayut upset many with his sexist comments in the wake of the Koh Tao murders. He deserves some credit for admitting the mistake and apologising.

It's obvious that our leaders, elected or non-elected, possess poor skills when it comes to handling journalists' questions.

Perhaps this is because we are in a culture which makes the leaders feel compelled to answer every question out of fear of losing face. They may be afraid that it might make them look stupid to say "I don't know" or "I am not in a position to comment on this".

But a few, if any, realise that the "know-it-all" attitude does not do them any good. Providing an incorrect answer can even make them look idiotic.

Our leaders should know it's unwise to try to answer every question or comment on everything, especially when one lacks the ability to recognise tricky questions.

Some questions can cost those in power their high positions, a rare occurrence in Thai political history, though.

Look at ex-London governor Boris Johnson, now the UK foreign minister, who is known for his gaffes. He has learned something. Can this happen to our leaders? I am not that optimistic.

The regime's strongmen may argue that as military men, trained to deal with guns and ammunition, they lack prowess with words. Yet, that is not an excuse. They should bear in mind that they are now public figures and everything they say could be quoted or -- like this rice price brouhaha -- highlighted by the media or members of social media.

They should remember that samma vaja or the rule of "right speech" will always prevail.

If they have nothing better to say, Gen Prawit and others should go back to the old adage -- silence is golden.

Ploenpote Atthakor

Former editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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