Homework assignment for the Kingdom
24 May 2005
Around two years ago, many bookshops arranged two special display shelves: one for books about Thaksin, the other for books recommended by Thaksin. Now there is a new book leaping off the shelves with the title “109 books that should be read, from prime minister Thaksin.” This seems to be his recommended reading list, his homework assignment for the nation. The cover announces that Thaksin is “the person who has sparked the love of reading, to lead towards the knowledge society” – Thailand's answer to J. K. Rowling.
At first sight, the title suggests these are the 109 books that the prime minister recommends all Thai people should read. But this is going to be a bit difficult. Only six are in the Thai language. For those who see value in the heritage of Thai literature, the contribution of Thai thinkers, or just the entertainment value of Thai authors, this list must be a bit depressing. But it gets worse. Among those six in Thai, two are translations from English-language originals (Harry Potter, and a UN report), and another two are by Thaksin himself. That leaves just the memoirs of General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and a book by the great religious thinker, Buddhadasa.
The remaining Thai literary output, from Inscription I onwards, just does not make the grade.
What does? Ninety-three of the books are about business success, company management, and futurism: rethinking the future, trends for the future, as the future catches you, leading at the speed of growth, the innovator's solution, how to change the world, into the unknown, the six fundamentals of success, etc., etc. So just about all of world literature, science and philosophy does not make the grade either.
The one theme which runs through this selection is how to make lots more money than other people. That's what “should be read” by the Thai population. And just about that alone.
Amid the blur of business futurism, there are a few surprises. Max Weber, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Stephen Hawking make it to the list. So too does Michael Backman's Asian Eclipse which is about the weakness of businessmen who rely too much on government assistance like monopoly concessions. And a real surprise entry is Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. Thaksin is on record as saying: “I'm someone who doesn't enjoy reading novels. I can sit and watch a TV drama with my children, but I have never read novels.” Thaksin mentioned Oliver Twist in a speech to the judiciary as a book which shows that poverty causes crime.
There are more surprises in an appendix on writers which the prime minister mentioned without specifying what book. These include the Greek historian, Thucydides, the Indian philosopher-artist-poet, Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian politician-pacifist, Mahatma Gandhi, and a string of European philosophers of liberalism. The theme running through this group is hatred of authoritarian rule.
But a closer look shows this is not actually the prime minister's homework assignment for the nation. It's simply a list of all the book titles that have emerged from his lips since 1999. A team from Phitsanulok House, consisting mostly of army generals, has been picking up these dropped pearls for six years, or has gone back over the prime minister's many, many spoken words to find them. Now we know what those surplus generals hired as advisers have been up to.
A lot of the books were mentioned by Thaksin as recommended reading at Cabinet meetings. Especially in 2003, the prime minister seems to have been giving his ministers a new recommendation about once every two weeks.
As the prime minister said nothing more about many of these books than the title, the Phitsanulok House team has also found and reproduced reviews and summaries by Thai journalists and academics. Wonder if they asked permission. The team has also drawn up a nice table showing when each was published, how long it is, and on what day(s) the prime minister mentioned it. They have also added up the total number of pages which is 31,376.
There is an appendix indicating which of the 109 is the oldest, which the fattest, the broadest, the smallest (one by Thaksin), most boring (not one by Thaksin), and so on. This is dedicated research.
Another appendix collects “Prime Minister Thaksin's pearls of wisdom.” These are also a bit difficult as most are again in English, and some rather deep: “Fruit of the poisonous tree be not eat”, and “Incompetent manager trend to high more”.
The book comes with glowing endorsements of its benefit to the whole nation from such independent sources as the prime minister's secretaries and General Chavalit, subject of the only book on the list by a living Thai author other than Thaksin himself. Chavalit writes that this new publication is “another beautiful flower planted in the literature of Thailand.”
Thaksin has also referred to the Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx. In fact he mentioned it twice, specified the publication date (1859), and summarised the content – a much more substantial mention than for most of the 109 books. However the Phitsanulok House team has decided that Karl Marx cannot appear in the list of books that “should be read” according to the prime minister. They have shunted it into another appendix of works that are excluded because “the organising team had too little data, and lacked clear supporting documents.” For the record, Thaksin told a legal conference that Marx wrote that “the economy determines many things, thus economic problems can sometimes give rise to crime.”