PHUKET: Increasingly, materialism and morality clash in a modern world where even television entertainment forces the two pillars of mind and matter into battle. For some, life is just a game where there must always be winners and losers.
And how can morality possibly measure up in a world where having it all is depicted as what the economics of selective advantage demand from us, and what the advertising industry insists will make us smile each day, from dawn until bedtime?
It may seem trite to compare President Barack Obama, leader of the Western world, to Richard Hatch, the sly and less than admirable winner of perhaps television's first true reality contest, 'Survivor.'
Here was a television show made for the 21st century, where 15 competitors are set the task of befriending and betraying each other as necessary to win the prize, a million dollars.
For the president of the US, the need is also to form alliances and cast them off if for some reason their continuation imperils the best interests of the nation.
In 'Survivor,' the competitors are deprived of the bargaining power of wealth and must manipulate their way to success by guile and gumption.
As Bruce Rich writes in his book 'To Uphold the World,' ''The victor won through a strategy of calculated plotting and deception over 14 fellow contestants who put a higher value on personal relationships, honesty or honor, or who were not as skilled in scheming.''
I could not help wonder, as many other have probably done, how the president of the United States of America would fare as a competitor on 'Survivor,' and how Richard Hatch, the ultimate survivor, would fare as the president of the United States of America.
Would the world be a winner?
There is a phrase, ''moral compass,'' which is probably used less often these days than in the 20th century, when moral issues and moral values were probably raised more frequently because people worried more then about religious values.
So it was of great interest when Barack Obama made his historic visit to Burma, more recently called Myanmar, in November, 2012. Burma, at an epic crossroads, was opening to the world like a black lotus blossom.
In the darkness of Burma's heart, though, lay one thorny issue: the fate of the Rohingya, a minority people of Muslim faith.
Deprived of citizenship since 1982, the Rohingya had been subjected to ethnic cleansing campaigns and burned from thousands of homes in scores of villages by mobs brandishing torches.
In the 'Survivor' world of geopolitics, Burma, endowed with natural resources and geographically positioned between China and India, was something of a grand prize.
Would the President of the United States mention the Rohingya or leave the disturbing moral issue unspoken in the quest for material benefits?
To his credit, Barack Obama called for an end to the ''crushing poverty and persecution'' of the Rohingya. ''For the sake of our common humanity,'' he told his Burmese audience, ''and for the sake of this country's future, it is necessary to stop incitement and to stop violence.''
Richard Hatch, we suspect, would have behaved differently by burying his moral compass and ingratiating himself to Burma with weasel words and the skills of a back-stabber in quest of the prize.
Central to Rich's chapter, 'Wealth Above All,' is the thought that the Machiavellian commitment to political expediency is an alternative that must always be at odds with personal and public morals.
He disabuses us of this notion in relating the history of Kautilya, a ruler in ancient India who managed to achieve good governance while upholding a moral code structured around the extremes of the different worlds of Hatch and Obama.
In Kautilya's wicked world, the aim is to be ready to exterminate any threat at any moment. Yet in spite of the Machiavellian apect of his character, there was a completely different side.
As well as aiming for artha, or wealth, Kautilya insisted on treating those who obeyed the rules, or who were in genuine need, with due care and consideration.
In the 21st century, it often seems as if wealth and welfare are impossible to maintain together. Yet in the brutal world of ancient India, Kautilya balanced one with the other, much as modern day Singapore perhaps preserves a heavy hand for law breakers or security risks yet at the same time provides a prosperous sanctuary for those who obey the rules.
Has Obama ever read of Kautilya, we wondered, and if he has, does he strive for the same kind of balance?
For Obama on his visit to Burma, there was no real need to mention the Rohingya, no gain to be had from adding the support of the United States of America to a troubled people.
Better, perhaps, to take the Richard Hatch approach and concentrate on the winner takes all end game. By choosing to take a moral stance on the issue, Obama may have elevated himself above those who do not weigh moral issues so closely, and thus ensured broader support for an America with values beyond wealth.
The Rohingya, for one, have nothing to give in return except goodwill. The issue for them in coming months and years will be whether the leaders of Burma take to their hearts Obama's vision of a better world built on wealth and morals, or whether the black lotus remains their floral symbol.
Today in flimsy boats off Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and yes, even Singapore, there are people battling to survive. The losers die. This game is called ''real life''.
For the world's leaders and especially for those in Burma, the lesson appears plain: by all means, strive for power and wealth. But failure to maintain a sense of moral values at the same time can in the end prove costly beyond measure.
Chutima Sidasathian is a PhD candidate in the Asian Studies Program, School of Liberal Arts, Walailak University.