By Invitation

Farewell to the last of S-E Asia's founding fathers


Few countries in Asia can understand and relate to Thailand's loss of King Bhumibol Adulyadej as much as Singapore.

After a remarkable 70-year reign that stretched from the immediate aftermath of World War II through the Cold War and well into the 21st century, King Bhumibol's passing on Oct 13 blew out the last candle among South-east Asia's founding fathers. It was preceded some 19 months earlier by the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding Prime Minister.

These two men were giants who stewarded and steered their respective countries' rise from backwater villages to proud modern nations. The similarities between them are striking even though Thailand and Singapore are fundamentally different in their political manifestations.

Founding fathers, such as King Bhumibol and Mr Lee, who leave indelible marks on their societies, invariably lead by the force of their personalities.

Mr Lee's modest lifestyle, moral fortitude and sheer hard work in politics and government to make something out of Singapore when it was forced to set out on its own in 1965, are legendary. Mr Lee led through the People's Action Party (PAP), which he built into a strong and steady electoral vehicle with the help of his party allies. When it appeared to be losing significant popular support to opposition parties in Mr Lee's waning years, the PAP regrouped and restored its dominance in the 2015 polls, held months after his passing.

When Mr Lee died on March 23 last year, many thousands of Singaporeans queued for long hours to pay their respects as his body lay in state at Parliament House and then lining the streets in pouring rain to bid farewell as his funeral cortege passed by. They were motivated by a desire to express their gratitude, for they knew they would not have had so much nor would their country have come so far without his leadership.


Singapore is a minute fraction of Thailand in land area, with one-twelfth of its larger neighbour's population of 68 million.

Unlike Singapore, Thailand is not a contemporary republic with roots in the wave of decolonisation of the 20th century, but a Siamese kingdom that dates back eight centuries.

When King Bhumibol died, the Thai people were deeply saddened to their collective core. The spontaneous outpouring of grief and tears underpinned a mourning period that will be observed by the public sector for one whole year and by the rest for weeks and months with some flexibility. Because King Bhumibol reigned for so long (currently the longest reign in the world and the longest in Thai history), just about every single Thai national has grown up during his time on the throne.

When outside observers think of Thai politics, their reference point is often the last couple of decades that have been marked by the controversial rise and divisive rule of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his clan and associates. But in fact, if outsiders want to understand Thai politics, they have to view it in the 70-year entirety of King Bhumibol's reign. Putting Thailand in perspective thus requires a long look back in view of the conditions and circumstances that prevailed at the time.

King Bhumibol was not meant to be a monarch. It was his elder brother who inherited the crown in 1935 and became King Ananda Mahidol at nine years of age, after absolute monarchy was abolished and replaced with constitutionalism three years earlier. Both brothers, who were the best of friends and inseparable in their growing-up years, were still schoolboys studying in Switzerland. At that time, the monarchy was at its lowest point and Thai politics was dominated by civilian and military leaders who became the new power holders.

When King Ananda returned to Bangkok after the war and died unexpectedly in June 1946, then teenager King Bhumibol was thrust upon the throne practically without any choice. To the Thais, this was a monarch who did not in the first place want to be king. Yet after becoming king, he devoted himself utterly to the job of nation-building. At the outset, the military rulers deployed King Bhumibol around the country and later abroad to garner domestic legitimacy and to mobilise international support as the Cold War gathered pace.

King Bhumibol was up to the task and eventually surpassed it. By working all around the country - from rugged hills and remote rivers to thick jungles and dirt roads - and promoting myriad public works projects, he earned more popularity and accumulated greater moral authority than the military could ever have hoped to build. He also became patron and sponsor of numerous charities, and endorsed and handed out just as many state-related papers from official documents to university diplomas. His whopping record of development work is now being made available on media platforms.

The Thai people thus saw a selfless man who made sacrifices to get Thailand through the hard and precarious years of the Cold War, when communist expansionism engulfed China and Indochina and when the country was poor with few prospects of prosperity and security. Accordingly, King Bhumibol's long-term legacies are that his reign helped keep communism away, thanks to a treaty alliance with the United States and a symbiotic relationship between military and monarchy. These in turn paved the way for economic development.

Moreover, he was a monogamist king who lived a monastic life of duty and diligence, devoid of typical pleasures like lavish travel and pricey junkets. Similar to Mr Lee, King Bhumibol's private life was low maintenance and involved no extravagance. Thais also saw how their late King, with his proven talents and accomplishments in music, engineering, sailing, the arts and development work, never travelled abroad again for 49 years, except for a day in Laos in 1994 to open a bridge across the Mekong River. This was a man who grew up in Switzerland and enjoyed winter activities like ice skating and skiing.

Mr Lee left behind a set of institutions that Singapore can work with and use to carry itself into the future, notwithstanding the problems and challenges that come with a maturing society and a developed economy.

Thanks to King Bhumibol's reign, Thailand has avoided the misfortunes related to communism and the civil wars that beset its immediate neighbours, and achieved considerable economic development. To carry itself forward, Thailand will need to build and strengthen new democratic institutions in a moving balance between the monarchy and military after King Bhumibol.

  • The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'Farewell to the last of S-E Asia's founding fathers'. Subscribe