Monday, January 07, 2008

What value is there in a raised flag?


What value is there in a raised flag?

The glory of making a journey is worth less than the answers we might find when we get there


To have a Thai astronaut going into space aboard a superpower's shuttle would be an admirable feat. We have not had the honour yet, but others in Asia have, the latest being Malaysia. International politics must play a part in selecting which developing country's astronaut will take a ride on a developed country's space shuttle. However, it is not the decisive factor as there is always more than one developing country which the developed ones want to please.

One question I think developing countries should first ask is: Why do we want to go up there?

Is there honour in launching into the vast universe on another country's spaceship? If there is, I can't see it.

One can argue that exploring outer space is a near-impossible academic opportunity for people from developing countries which do not yet have the required technology and resources to build their own space vehicle.

Indeed, there are many suppositions born out of human imagination which have yet to be proven scientifically because we can't recreate certain conditions around them on Earth, such as zero gravity. There are answers we yearn to know that can only be solved when we leave this planet.

Such tasks must have at least two qualities. First, they must be based on scholarly pursuits, not pure fantasy which will be useless to everyone, and they must be an unsolved mystery. Second, the questions _ and answers that can be found _ must contribute to humanity in one way or another. They might enhance our knowledge of the world or shed light on the true nature of things including our own existence.

For me, the question of why would we want to go into space is important. It is a far better reason than the superpower just happened to have a spare seat.

Why would a Thai want to go into space?

I do believe that some Thai scientists, mathematicians, philosophers or theologians must have appropriate questions that can be explored up there.

I wonder, however, if people who have the power to send these people up would care about these questions. Most of the time, these powerful people only look at the immediate political gains or commercial benefits from their sponsoring people to go to hard-to-reach places. Most of the time, they believe that the simple act of raising the Thai flag on difficult terrain is an honour admirable enough on its own (and is close enough to their commercial purpose).

So if one day Thailand receives an invitation to take a ride on a spaceship (which is possible in the near future as we are only one of a few nations in Asia which has not shown our flag in outer space), we will probably accept the invitation just for the sake of showing off our national flag.

I doubt if there would be a process that begins by selecting worthy questions before determining who is best to find the answer to them. Don't forget that Thai people have been sent to far away and remote places, such as the North Pole or the recent failed attempt to scale the summit of Everest. And it seems to me they were trying to get to these places to do nothing more than raise the national flag.

The first man to reach the summit of Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, together with sherpa Tenzing Norgay, deserves praise for his perseverance, prudence and learnedness. His success, however, was not in raising the British flag (Sir Edmund is a New Zealander, but scaled the mountain as part of the British expedition) as much as in the knowledge _ both about the Himalayas and mountain climbing _ that he accumulated and helped to pass on.

The Union Jack on the summit of Everest thus proclaims the power of scholarship that Britain (and the Western world) has accumulated for humanity to use. I call it ''power'' because it is indeed powerful. Knowledge is power. The fact that it is accessible and applicable by all of humanity also contributes to power. The society that picks up the knowledge and manages to put it to good use will empower itself.

In this sense, all the new knowledge derived from reaching the summit of Everest has been turned into power.

Suppose a Thai expedition could raise our tri-colour flag on the summit of Everest, what would the flag reveal? It would reveal the strength and prowess of Thai people to a certain extent, but would it say anything about Thai society?

In the past, an expedition to the so-called ends of the world was usually sponsored by a scholarly association or the Royal Institute. At present, aside from space travel, expedition sponsors are usually businesses _ both those which sell products and services and those that sell information like television programmes.

In short, an expedition has become a tool for advertisement. And in a society enamoured by the raising of the national flag, it works well. Such travel can attract a large number of viewers and it can claim space in the media without sponsors having to pay for it.

Actually, I think there is more to gain, commercially too, if only we could step out of the flag-raising culture and instead raise problems that will have implications for Thailand as the main purpose of an expedition.

We should raise our brain power and use the results of brainstorming to plan the journey to reap the maximum benefits. Whether we reach the final destination or not, we would obtain something along the way that would help us answer those questions, if not now then in the future.

I have in mind an example of a question _ one which has to do with the impact of global warming on Everest or the South Pole. Can we project this question in vivid images before the eyes of Thai people? What would happen to the Mekong and Salween, which have their origins in the Himalayas? And how would climate change affect the lives of Thais who live near rivers?

We might not be able to raise the Thai flag, but that would be alright as long as the mission was anchored in the issue of global warming. We would have raised the issue. Every time someone in the world tries to estimate the impact of global warming, then they would tap into information brought back by the Thai team. The knowledge would last for centuries, not for a few moments, like a TV image. And it would reach an international audience, not only a local one.

This type of advertisement, however, is a long shot, gradually yielding benefits over a length of time. I understand that it is not suitable to the nature of businesses in Thailand, which operate much like make-shift vendors at temple fairs. When one temple fair ends, they simply move on to the next one.

The flag-raising obsession not only pervades explorations to hard-to-reach places, but also influences a large part of the contemporary attitude and culture. We want Thai footballers to play with European teams. We wish the national team could enter the final round of the World Cup. We hope Thai athletes can sweep the most gold medals at international competitions.

We hope so because the Thai flag would then be hoisted in the arena or on television. We wish for this, even though there is remarkably little free space where Thai children can run or play football.

Some of our champions still chase the football in empty lots beneath the expressway, I believe.

The flag-raising obsession means our country, which sits almost at the bottom of Asia in terms of education quality, has garnered the highest number of gold medals from the Academic Olympics. We are the champions when it comes to the intricacy of the handicrafts made by the disabled or the sportsmanship of our disabled athletes, but our country scarcely provides any facilities for the disabled. Even Bangkok's footpaths rarely accommodate wheelchairs.

Is it because of this culture of desiring one's flag be raised higher than the rest that the sense of nationalism as defined by politicians often turns out to be shallow _ such as pride in paying back International Monetary Fund debt before its due or erecting the highest airport control tower in the world.

The latest symbol of this that I have heard proposed is to force cars to stop at 8am and 6pm to pay respect to the flag.

Is it because of this flag-raising obsession that Thai people can look over the heads of other Thais because they only want to keep their eyes on the flag?

..... Bangkok Holidays .....

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