SIGNS OF THE TIMES
By Andrew Biggs
Every day as I leave my gated community at Samut Prakan, I am greeted by the smiling face of Dr Natthaphong Robkob at the end of my soi.
Not just at the end of my soi. Every three metres or so along Srinakharin Road, there he is. He is the candidate for the Thai Local Power Party, and he is running on a campaign of making Samut Prakan “the envy of the world.”
With the skytrain currently being built along Srinakharin, resulting in traffic snarls and pollution at a level deemed acutely dangerous to human life, Natthaphong’s campaign promise leaves the safe zone of “lofty” and borders on “ludicrous”.
Nevertheless he has my vote. He understands the power of shock value, hence his campaign billboard slogan that says: I WANT TO RESIGN.
That’s right. While the other 99.99 per cent of campaign billboards beg for candidates to be elected, Dr Nattapong is begging to quit.
For recent visitors to Thailand, the sight of thousands of campaign billboards jostling for position along the nation’s roadways may come as a bit of a shock. First of all, how were they erected so quickly? If you are indeed surprised by that, just wait until March 25, the day after the election, and watch how quickly they disappear.
For those of us who have been here a bit longer, there is something comforting in their return. We haven’t seen them in nearly five years.
Prior to the army taking over the government we had elections all the time. A little too frequently, perhaps.
An absolutely vital part of election campaigns here are these billboards. Seeing them reappear is like welcoming an old school friend at Suvarnabhumi who has come to visit for holidays. Even better, like the old school friend, the billboards aren’t here for long.
Five years is a long time. The world changes, and campaign billboards change too.
In the past they were really boring. The majority featured a picture of a candidate in full government service regalia, hands by the sides. It was as if the country wanted to be governed by ageing uncles and librarians.
They never smiled. It is a quirk of Thai culture that, despite having the best smiles in the world, Thais generally take photos like they are taking a police mug shot. Thus at election time Bangkok’s roads turned into galleries of ashen-faced would-be politicians with faces only their mothers could love.
Well this is 2019, folks, and after a five-year gap … they’re back.
Gone is the deer-in-the-headlights uniform stare. After the tedium of military rule, democracy is being given a chance to shine once again — and it has risen to the challenge.
Imagine going back in time, say, two decades, to your former self. Imagine my telling Andrew Biggs in 1999: “Twenty years from now, those dull old billboards of uncles and librarians are going to be replaced by parties extolling the virtues of marijuana, taxi apps, the Lord Buddha and NGV buses.” To which my 1999 self would reply: “What’s an app?”
This time round, the billboards are way more audacious and contemporary … plus they have taken a leaf out of the Fundamentals of Headline Writing textbook.
Take Dr Natthaphong over in Samut Prakan who is declaring his desire to resign. It certainly grabbed my interest. The first time I saw it, I was lucky I didn’t crash into any of the road-raged lunatics careening down Srinakharin at night.
It turns out Dr Natthaphong is just being a little, well, gimmicky. The full text translates to something like this: “If I don’t get back to you within three hours, I’m ready to resign.” I assume Dr Natthaphong is running on a campaign of efficiency and public accountability … two platforms that are way more doable than turning Samut Prakan into the envy of the world.
(Reading it fills me with the morbid urge to call Dr Natthaphong at 2 o’clock in the morning, then set the oven timer. At 5 am I’d be texting him: “You didn’t respond! Go on! Resign!” while registering my outrage on social media when he refuses to.)
I am thankful for the variety of messages and, in some cases, the audacity of those campaign platforms.
I wholeheartedly congratulate Phumjai Thai’s bid to festoon inner-city Bangkok with campaign billboards promising to legalize marijuana. This is not because your favorite columnist wants to rip up his holy basil plants on the sunny side of his house. It’s just that I would never have believed that conservative Thailand would see such a campaign.
“Marijuana can make farmers rich!” the billboard shouts. “The new economic crop!”
To have standpoints and policies like these is quite a new concept in Thailand. Thai political parties, like the Thais themselves, are not big on specifics. It is hard to tie them down on policy. As newcomers will discover in the week or two after March 24, politicians scramble to join coalitions that ensure they are in power. It is not conducive to have party platforms or campaign promises, in the event they may have to follow through on them.
This is why the big parties, like arched enemies Pheua Thai and the Democrats, trumpet vague campaign slogans which can later be adapted for whichever camp they end up in.
Thus, Pheua Thai have billboards saying: “Stop the economic crisis! Eradicate debt!” which has as little meaning as the Democrats’: “Solve Poverty, Build People, Build The Nation.”
With the big parties remaining vague, we rely on the smaller newer parties to spruce things up.
Prachaniyom’s billboards are nothing but strong, campaign promises: Reduce the military budget. Raise the minimum wage to 360 baht.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit deserves a special award. He’s the leader of millennial-propelled Future Forward Party. Their candidates don’t want anything to do with conservative government attire or vague promises of prosperity. They are photographed in trendy brown t-shirts emblazoned with their orange triangular logo on it. I’d wear one, though I fear I am not in their demographic.
And look closely at Thanathorn’s billboards. He is photographed as a Vanity Fair model, staring into the lens in some, and off to the side in others, but each with a sultry, “Let’s-eat-pizza-when-this-is-all-over” look. He didn’t even shave for the shoot!
In contrast, Prachachart Party campaign posters have a single word on them: “Smile”. Each candidate is depicted smiling. While this is a worthy ideal, one hardly needs to tell Thais to smile. And considering Prachachart is a party whose base is in the war-torn, violent three southernmost provinces, one is reminded of keeping one’s own house in order before starting on others.
There are so many others I keep seeing and admire for their originality. Is it deliberate that the Pheua Paen Din candidate for Samut Prakan is photographed wearing a white coat? I see that billboard and associate it immediately with bad cholesterol. I almost expect him to be telling me to lose weight and get more exercise.
If you think Bangkok’s streets are clogged with these billboards now, wait as March 24 creeps even closer. These millions of posters will all join up to become a single wall of cardboard and wood, lining roads like teeth, continually being replaced.
Yes, replaced. I know a guy who works at one of the big parties. They have a unit devoted solely to replacing their billboards, as they are being stolen by “saleng”, those old guys on bicycles collecting rubbish, who then resell them or use them as protection against the upcoming rainy season.
Whatever the outcome of the election, Thanathorn, Dr Natthaphong and legal cannabis cultivation will live on, albeit as a slum ceiling.