Tabloid saga and our gang mentality
The tabloid saga of the week is a slap-fest involving 30 people, mostly women, its flurry of glorious hair-pulling captured in a video clip. The cause is a triangulated romance between a young man and his two women, one of them a TV celebrity. Love hurts, as we teach our children, or it’s not love. But let’s pause and consider: what can a catfight, the first sensational, useless headline of 2016, tell us about the state of our national politics of the past decade? That we’re in a gang war, apparently.
To recap. The all-female wrestling match took place between the friends and relatives of the two women who love the same man. Details are sketchy, but participants reported that the niece of the spurned lover, actress Napapa “Pat” Tantrakul, set up a meeting with the woman, Benjawan Noppan, who’s accused of stealing the heartthrob of the story. When Benjawan showed up, according to her testimony, she realised she was walking into a Quentin Tarantino movie. Ensnared and outnumbered, she found herself mobbed by the family members and friends of her romantic enemy, and a catfight broke out. Photos show Benjawan bruised and battered. However, the other party claimed it was a fair fight, because Benjawan arrived with her own coterie, ready for the high-noon duel. This is what Thai soap fans call a classic dak tob, a slap-ambush, a sport practised in Southeast Asia and beyond.
I wish all the lovers well. To minimise the uselessness of this news report — it was indeed a full-length report that occupied headlines and prime time television for a few days this week — let’s treat it at least as a parable. The slap-fest was a case of emotional contest based on gang mentality, and to win the battle you need to ensure that your gang, your network, your clique, your club, is more powerful than that of your rival’s. Solution is not to be found in dialogue or compromise. What’s the use of dialogue, in love and in politics, when your loyalty and worshipfulness is beyond reason and dispute, and when you frame your worldview as us against them?
What’s the use of talking when the place where you can talk, or let someone talk for you — the parliament, its epidemiology being parler, “to speak” — is just a handpicked troupe of ventriloquists? Who slaps harder wins. Who has a wider, stronger network of power wins. Who surrounds him/herself with like-minded worshippers who’re ready to fight, wins.
For euphemism, “a gang” is replaced by “a club” or even better, “a network”. And boy, network is all you need in this country. From high-school alumni to university classes, all the way to the executive courses, civic or military, where people meet up not to learn anything but to network, to build the base of “my people” so that when it’s time for a slap-fest, you’ll have the upper hand for all the hair-pulling. Networking helps business and smooths rocky paths, no doubt about that, but when it’s crossed into blind allegiance and clannish vengeance, when it overrules other rules, then it resembles a gang war.
Which is, to an extent, what we’re going through. There was no real slapping when Khon Kaen campaigners gave out the calendars featuring the image of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, which incensed the authorities. The Thaksin club should have something much better to do than reinforce the banal idol worship and personality cult — and once again they realised who’s running the biggest club around here. Then we have the curious case of the suspended board members of the ThaiHealth Promotion Foundation, taken out and hung dry by Section 44 after a malfeasance probe. The Foundation also operates with a club mentality — our people are good people so they get our funding — but their grave mistake is not the alleged mismanagement: their mistake is to believe, naively, that the military was in their gang! Not a chance, doctors! The leadership of the Foundation, disliking the Shinawatras like a disease, at first rejoiced in having the generals in power — only for them to realise now that the soldiers have their own exclusive clique, network and interests, and the good doctors do not belong to it.
Thinking back to our original parable, the case of the ThaiHealth Promotion Foundation is the equivalent of a slap-ambush, a romance turned sour, a small club being outmuscled by the bigger one whose membership is never expired except by death. That club is running the show. It’s running everything actually, from healthcare to aircraft carriers. And while the Thaksin clique is nursing its false ego, the Democrat club busy with infighting, and the civic groups mistaking blackmailers for friends — as long as this keeps up, the biggest gentlemen’s club in the nation will laugh and rule.
Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.