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Wanted: A roadmap out of 'the middle of nowhere'

Publication Date : 25-10-2012


A sage told me recently, in describing how depressed he was over the future of Thailand: "I can't say Thailand is marching forward. Neither can I say it's lagging behind. I can't say Thais are stupid. Neither can I say my fellow countrymen are bright

A few days after that, I read an enlightening story in a similar vein.

Somkiat Tangkitvanij, the new director of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), says the country's development efforts have hit a dead end.

"Thailand can't hope to grow as before," he said. "We have used up our old fortunes. If we don't try to find a new way out, the country stands to suffer."

The country's old development model has run its course. The three major pillars of development strategy are industrial development, exports and cheap labour. Now, without a proper technological development plan, Thailand can't move forward.

"We can't hope to rely on exports," said Somkiat. "The world demand for our goods is declining. The US, Europe, Japan and China aren't going to buy more from us."

Two serious issues have arisen to make the whole scenario worse: shrinking education quality and deepening corruption.

These three negative factors won't plunge the country into an abyss right away, but a fourth issue - the government's troublesome financial position - could cause Thailand to stumble, and that could trigger a sudden fall.

In other countries facing a similar malaise, when public debt has climbed to a dangerous level, public confidence has eroded - prompting the government to print more money, pushing up inflation and burdening the country's debt burden proportionately.

The next two years won't see a crisis here. Thailand's public debt still stands at around 40 per cent. But the trend has delivered some worrisome signs. These, according to the TDRI president, stem from the political game being played by all the major parties.

It doesn't matter which party wins the election because the rules of the game have more or less been set: The winning party, in order to stay in power and to win the next election, will have to adopt the populist way.

"It is clear that the path has been set for all political parties to please the electorate the easy and highly visible way," Somkiat explained. "The ruling party feels obliged to spend tax money to please the voters - instantly and tangibly. The real cost will surface over the longer term. That's when the problem emerges."

The crux of the problem, therefore, lies in the fact that Thai politicians tend to play the short-sighted game. "The voters have been spoiled," he said. "They demand the goodies from their politicians today or tomorrow. If they tell the people to wait two or three years, they might stand to lose the next elections."

As a result, no government is interested in long-term, sustainable development plans. Governments rarely last the full four-year term, and even if they do, Cabinet members need to be moved around every few months so that political debts are paid and scores settled.

"If a minister has six months to one year in his or her position, how can they get anything done in a serious way?" asked the high-profile academic.

These are questions that have haunted the country for a long time. Any academic or research institute attempting to brainstorm the country's best minds for a proposed roadmap to get the country out of the political deadlock runs the risk of being accused of being dogmatic and theoretical.

But the issues are real and the dilemma is serious. The stalemate has been compounded by the prolonged social conflict fuelled by the pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin factions.

The paradox is glaringly clear: Thailand has managed to survive despite its intractable political problems. The people have somehow muddled through despite the rotten system.

But the "inventory of good luck plus pure charm" is undoubtedly running low. Only a real political, economic and social reform movement can prevent an imminent breakdown.

How we can get out of the "middle of nowhere" is at the crux of the country's real problems.


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