Political flattery reaches dizzying new heights

Flattery, it seems, has become the order of the day within the highest corridors of power. When in doubt, praise, flatter, curry favour, back-scratch and/or ingratiate. You can’t go wrong.

And your success is guaranteed as well, and instantly, too. If any proof is needed, just re-read this news item that appeared over the Songkran holiday:

A group of loyalists from the Thai Rak Thai Party led by secretary-general Suriya Jungrungreangkit paid a visit to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and did something quite out of the ordinary. However, the fact that something extraordinary transpired isn’t what made this gathering stand out. In fact, these days it doesn’t matter if you turn tradition upside down or inside out as long as you say something that people want to hear. If you hit the right chord, you can get away with just about anything.

What was out of the ordinary that day was that the purpose of the visit was supposed to have been that the gathered loyalists could ask for Songkran blessings from their senior.

But what actually happened is best expressed by this statement from the group’s leader: “We come here today to pledge our loyalty to you, Mr Prime Minister. We promise that we will be obedient subordinates forever . . .”

It might not have come as a shock to those who overheard the utterance. But it did make newspaper headlines the following day because of its political overtones. The PM didn’t, however, show any surprise at all. In fact, he told reporters afterwards that he was very delighted with the “gift” left by his visitors, mostly members of the various groupings within his party (factions would be too unflattering a term).

What must have pleased the prime minister most was that this statement amounted to a promise that the factions would work harmoniously together.

Of course, it would be uncharitable to link the “loyalty pledge” to the rumours that were going around at the time about Suriya being eased out as party secretary-general. In any case, the promise to be “obedient subordinates” did, if nothing else, confirm the speculation that ingratiation has become the ruling party’s creed.

You hear praises being heaped on the “great leader” in Parliament. You hear Cabinet ministers introducing each of their policy statements with this permanent prefix: “At the instruction of the prime minister . . .” A new television soap opera on the leader’s amazing life story is being produced by a leading television station.

Political flattery has become an art form. Government politicians and civil servants are competing to invent new ways to extol and glorify the premier.

The highest form of flattery, of course, is to do it without getting caught. A wise leader would never ask a committed subordinate (especially one who has officially offered a Songkran pledge): “Are you trying to flatter me?” Instead, he would return the favour with something like: “I’m flattered, and you are too kind.” Mutual admiration is, in today’s Thai political jargon, “fully-integrated reciprocal altruism”.

But competition is so fierce in this game of high-level ingratiation that a civil servant is offering a crash course on how to flatter and get the promotion you want.

He told me: “Life is tough. Everybody, it seems, is learning the art of flattery in a very quick way. You can never praise enough.”

He has just got a promotion for his “sincere and candid evaluation of the boss’ performance”. I asked for his secrets, and he was generous enough to give me the following tips:

l Be physically there. Be sure to check where the big boss will be standing once he gets out of the car. Be there. Make your presence felt. Describe to him how great he looks that morning. Tell him how the village has been transformed from a poor little deserted place into something prosperous and new. Make sure the villagers all smile and nod their heads as you say it.

l Be innovative and creative in your praise. Don’t be caught repeating that standard form: “Yes sir! This is truly visionary. You are much ahead of the pack, sir.” A visionary leader needs creative followers who can sing the same praise in one hundred different ways. And you stand out only if you can invent something really exciting using materials that would otherwise sound dull. (“I can’t really imagine Thailand without you, sir.”)

l Find out the leader’s weakness and very, very carefully praise the opposite. Praise a dictator for his democratic spirit. Tell him he has a great sense of humour when he has just screamed at a Cabinet member.

l When he tells you: “Tell me frankly what you think of me,” it’s time to lie. He is in fact looking for compliments, not candour.

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