Wednesday, October 9, 2013

National bad habits that keep us "under-developed"

Somebody posted a message on Facebook the other day, suggesting that Thailand had lagged behind because of some “bad habits” that served to keep Thailand “underdeveloped.”

He listed 8 “Thai habits” that he considered to be the main obstacles to turning Thailand into a “developed country.”

On top of the list is the prevalent “patronage system” which dictates that junior people must always obey their elders. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. If you want to get ahead in your career, you will always have to kowtow to the guy above you.

I raised this issue with a friend to find out whether he considered the “patronage” system a problem or not. He immediately shot back, saying that whoever had posted that message was either very naïve or utterly ignorant of the nature of Thai society.

“What he calls patronage system is in fact the traditional networking culture of Thai society. What’s wrong with that? Thailand wouldn’t have come so far without the close ties among family members, relatives, friends and, yes, patrons.”

He vehemently argued that what critics call “patronage” was in fact “mutual support” that had pulled Thailand out of one crisis after another.

I walked across the road to ask another man on the street. He didn’t wait for me to finish my question.

“Thai people are addicted to the patronage system. That’s the source of all our problems. Patronage means corruption. Patronage means inequality. Patronage means you can’t progress without good connections. Patronage means it’s not your ability that counts. It’s who you know, not how good you are. No doubt, we have been thrown into this mess.”

I was too scared to ask the third person I met. He might think I was trying to pull his leg. So, I asked him about the second “habit” that the Facebook post identified as a bad thing for national progress.

“Do you believe that Thai people have been lagging behind some other countries because of our fun-loving nature?” I asked the stranger.

He looked at me as if I had asked him why he had beaten up his wife. He stared at me, trying to make sure I was serious about the question.

Then, he said: “Fun? What fun are you talking about? Do we still have fun as a nation? Everybody is trying to hate everybody else. No, we are not a fun-loving people anymore. We are a nation of haters…”

I tried to put up a smile. But he refused to reciprocate. Before walking away, he looked me in the eyes once again and declared: “Are you trying to make me hate you?”

I didn’t manage to stop him long enough to tell him that I was only trying to find out why Thais weren’t being nice to one another anymore.

There were many other “bad habits” in the Facebook post but I was afraid to continue with my personal public opinion survey. I wasn’t ready to be hit on the head by people angry at being told the truth about their daily practices that contributed to national decline.

What if I told you that Thais are lazy, and afraid of changes, and that we are never punctual? What if someone tells you that Thailand could never hope to climb to the top if we continue to spend more than we can afford and that we tend to rely on others to do things for us instead of trying to work things out ourselves?

These “8 National Bad Habits” Facebook post hasn’t attracted much attention so far. But I hope someone will post another message to extol the “10 National Good Habits” that will drown out the “8 Bad Habits” – those good things we Thais do everyday that will one day make us a super-power.

Don’t ask me, though, what those “good habits” are. I am racking my brain to come up with the first few “good habits” we can really be proud of.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Oct 8: Much ado about nothing

Despite speculation to the contrary, Oct 8 will just be another day

Nobody really takes it seriously, except Premier Yingluck Shinawatra perhaps. But again, she might have heard it from her elder brother, Thaksin.

But once he told Thai Rath online that anti-government forces have set Oct 8 as the deadline to topple the Yingluck government, Thaksin set off a series of speculation, mostly by his own people.

Political observers were naturally puzzled that this prediction by one astrologer has been picked up and given credence by Thaksin despite the fact that nobody else had considered it anything more than just a juicy gossip.

One Pheu Thai MP went so far as to say that an astrologer had said the Yingluck government’s stars will be thrown into a crisis during Oct 7-9.

“The astrologer says that during that period, the government will be at its weakest point. Any attempt to topple it will have to be carried out then,” said MP Vorachai Hema of Samut Prakarn province.

He also claimed to have gathered his own “intelligence” pointing to the link between the current political problems with the rallies being held by rubber planters in the South.

He also the”plot” to use the southern protestors to undermine the government apparently failed. Therefore, the next move to subvert the government would be taken up by independent agencies.

By that he meant that the Anti-Corruption Commission will be handing down its decision on the validity of the petition by the opposition to rule against the government’s controversial rice-pledging scheme – which is also expected to fall between Oct 7-8.

According to this conspiracy theory, if the ACC finds the government guilty one way or the other, the red-shirts will launch street protests, prompting the military to move in to quell unrest. He predicted that the subsequent chaos will end in a military coup.

Thaksin only had to drop a hint. It would then be very easy for his followers to add colour to complete the story. There will always be those ready to believe that the plot is real. And there will always be people who think it’s too far-fetched to believe that another coup could take place.

But if one read his interview with Thai Rath carefully, the former premier who was ousted in a coup exactly 7 years ago, was in fact adopting a “talk-talk-fight-fight” strategy.

On the one hand, he was pointing an accusing finger at those he believes are intent upon ousting his sister’s government. On the other, he was handing out an olive branch, insisting once again that he was ready to give up politics if he could return home safely and without guilt.

Thaksin repeated his stand of not taking revenge – “I am ready to forgive everybody,” he declared. But, as usual, he didn’t admit any wrongdoing, raising doubts as to how he could come home under his conditions without creating a new round of turmoil in the country.

The ruling Pheu Thai Party has targeted independent agencies such as the ACC and Constitutional Court which would have to be removed from the new amended charter – or if they remain, would be rendered powerless. Under the scenario painted by the pro-government MPs, the rewritten charter will have to get rid of “independent agencies” that could interfere with the power of the executive branch.

In effect, that would mean that the checks and balances considered crucial in a vibrant democracy would be removed once and for all.

That has sent a wave of protests from those who see this as an ominous sign of a relentless attempt to allow the ruling party to gain full control of the country’s three pillars of political influence.

But despite all the wild speculation, part of which might have been a pre-emptive move, Oct 8 will be just another day on the Thai political calendar. It has long been established that Thai governments usually crumble from within. External factors are mostly a nuisance, never a real threat

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The '108 Forums' nobody has heard of

‘108 forums’ around the nation that nobody has heard of

It must have come as a surprise to many. A Cabinet release last week said the government had acknowledged an official report to the effect that a nationwide campaign of public hearings for national reconciliation at 108 forums had been completed.

Has anyone heard anything about this supposed “public forums” that were supposed to have been held around the country between June 10 to July 28, this year?

These sessions, funded by tax-payers’ money, were also supposed to have been organized by “representatives of faculty members from various universities.” We have yet to be told who these academics were and how they had been picked in the first place.

What was more puzzling was that according to the official report, this campaign had gathered a total of 101,683 people to join the forums. Besides, a total of 58,183 people were said to have responded to questionnaires.

In case you, like most of the rest of the country, haven’t heard about this particular project, let me cite the statement given out by deputy government spokesperson, Lt Sunisa Lerdpakawat, who said the campaign was officially labeled: “108 Forums of Conversations to Find a Way Out for Thailand.”

No, they weren’t held in secret. In fact, the sessions were to be public gatherings of people from all walks of life to exchange ideas of how the country could overcome the current political stalemate. If you have never met anyone who has taken part in the debate, you are in the majority.

To prove that the discussions actually took place, the report cited the findings of the project. The six-week exercise identified ten major obstacles that have been blocking Thai society from going forwards:

1. Different understandings about democracy.

2. Doubt over the country’s rule of law.

3. The so-called “judicial reform” has interfered with independent agencies.

4. Military coups and the military establishment’s role in conflict management.

5. Economic and social gaps.

6. Media bias.

7. Reference to the monarchy for political interests.

8. Lack of knowledge to resolve conflicts through peaceful means in society.

9. High stakes in political conflicts and related interests.

10. Corruption.

You could be excused to cast suspicion on the timing of the wrapping-up of the report. At the national level, the government’s sponsored Reform Commission, now being coordinated by coalition partner Banharn Silpa-archa, is due to hold the second meeting soon.

You should, therefore, not be taken aback at all if the “findings” from these forums were suddenly submitted to the Commission. But whether they will be accepted in full or not remains a big question.

Even Banharn himself has admitted that the process will take time and that so far the job could be considered 10% done. “The prime minister has said even if we could accomplish 1% of the task, she would be satisfied. As I see it, 10% is better than 1%,” Banharn told reporters. If he didn’t sound very optimistic, it was only because the veteran politician himself doesn’t really know what’s in store in the next meetings on the subject.

The first much-trumpeted meeting at the Government House didn’t offer any concrete idea on how the project would proceed, except that more meetings will be held. It’s not clear what Banharn is supposed to do, except that he will be visiting leading personalities from various circles “to listen to their opinions.”

Prime Minister Yingluck has said she won’t offer any suggestions on how national reconciliation could be achieved, the official reason being that the government didn’t want to influence the outcome of the discussions. But without the premier’s making the first step towards reconciliation, the whole exercise will just be another “political event” – a political stunt, no more no less.

And the tax-payers have yet to be briefed on what really went on in those 108 forums around the country

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Serious discussions between sisters

Premier Yingluck Shinawatra is seen here conversing with her sister, Yaowapa Wongsasasdi, in Parliament yesterday -- just as things were going wrong, once again, in Parliament.

It was the latest in a series of unfortunate incidents in the House when about 26 Pheu Thai MPs were found to be absent -- the parliamentary session was therefore forced to end because of the lack of a quorum.

It was supposed to be another day of a heated debate on the Senate's constitutional amendment. Yesterday's session was to discuss Section 7 covering the process of senators' election.

Yaowapa, who is in charge of imposing discipline among Pheu Thai MPs, was said to have been quite irritated by the mishap. She was quoted by a close aide as threatening to punish the absent MPs by not fielding them in the next election.

It wasn't clear what the sisters were exchanging in this picture. But whatever the topics, they couldn't be very pleasant.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

After a 3rd-class train ride, Transport Minister should fly economy

Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt has taken a rough bus ride and discovered that City bus No 8 is the worst.

He has also taken an 8-hour train ride to the northeastern province of Surin and found that toilets on the lowest-class train carriage were dirty and lacking in running tap water.

He also wrote in his Facebook that Train 135, a third-class route, also saw a 30-minute delay and the carriage was not in good condition.

Now, he should take the cheapest seat on the national airline to determine how it can get out of its financial trouble.

The minister’s staff had earlier set up a Facebook page to seek reactions from bus passengers about bus services during Aug 6-14. It didn’t take long before complaints started pouring in and City Bus No 8 got the highest number of negative comments.

Passengers complained about drivers and conductors having bad manners and speeding past waiting passengers. Some let passengers off in the middle of roads. Black fumes and engine problems added to the list of “unbearable services.”

If you remember, the minister had earlier taken a bus trip to work in Bangkok but had to get off and jump on a motor-cycle taxi because of the long delays on the route.

Minister Chadchart’s ride on the slow train to Surin wasn’t disclosed until he had finished the ride, he wrote, so that he could find out for himself how the State Railways of Thailand’s service was like before reacting to the request to raise fees for third-class train service by 10%.

What he found talking to train drivers and police confirmed his suspicion that the service was far below standards. They told him about old locomotives, worn-out or used train parts, lack of qualified personnel and uneven distribution of assignments among the staff.

Now, that THAI has reported a net loss of 8.4 billion baht in the second quarter, the transport minister should disguise himself as an ordinary passenger on all the airlines that compete directly with the national carrier – as well as take the lowest seat on one of the THAI flights to find out just how to get the airline out of trouble – and, as he told reporters, to determine whether it’s the result of management problems.

The minister might find that the country’s bus, train and airline services suffer from a similar setback: They are tied to politics and bureaucracy and nobody, not even the country’s best manager, can turn them around under the current management structures.

Attempts to “privatize” the train and bus services have been made on a regular basis, to no avail. Moves to improve efficiency have at best been no more than lip service. Reasons for the failure of these transport services to seriously serve the public are no secrets. Management objectives have never been about improving the bottom lines by giving top priority to customer service.

It’s all about politicians, once in power, demanding the rights to put their own people at the top posts to promote their own influence and benefits.

The national airline is supposed to be a publicly-listed company but the finance ministry remains the major shareholder and the Royal Thai Air Force insists upon its say in the management. In other words, the airline remains officially a “public company” that is controlled by political and bureaucratic interests. Paying passengers do not come first, as they should in a real business concern, in the overall scheme of things. This despite the fact that the national carrier has to compete head-on with all the other international carriers that have to be run professionally to survive in the increasingly challenging airline business.

If Minister Chadchart takes a really long airline flight after his adventures on the bus and train, he might find that there is a common solution to all the problems plaguing our transportation services: Get the politicians out and let the professionals in

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The China Dream: What does it really mean?

A Chinese reporter asked me the other day for my views on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.” It was a rude awakening. I was lost for words.

I asked the reporter what he thought was his president’s definition of the “China Dream” which has become a highly popular slogan spread in the form of a propaganda blitz. “Dream walls” have sprung up in schools and universities. Students have been told to write their own “dreams” on the wall.

The Chinese reporter told me he was also trying to understand what Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” was about. He did say though that he thought whatever the phrase means, “it is a very popular concept at the moment.”

So, I went in search of the meaning of the dream. In the process, I might be able to stumble into something I could call “Thai Dream.” That would be a great challenge for I know that anything that is described as “Thai Dream” would be even more nebulous than the Chinese version.

In his own words, Xi Jingping explained his China Dream this way in his first address to the nation as head of state on March 17, this year:

“We must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese Dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

What it all means is far from clear. Neither has he come up with specifics on how to put the “dream” into practice.

I tried to find some clues in his following remarks in the same statement:

“To realize the Chinese road, we must spread the Chinese spirit, which combines the spirit of the nation with patriotism as the core and the spirit of the time with reform and innovation as the core.”

That doesn’t offer me more clues.

So, I went in search of explanations from Chinese experts quoted by news agencies and western scholars.

A BBC report quoted Liu Mingfu, a retired Chinese colonel, as proclaiming that he was very clear about the real meaning of the China dream. He published a best-selling book entitled: “The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-America Era” in 2010. He believes that the Chinese leader shares his dream and that is to make China the world’s dominant power.

Liu was quoted as saying: “Since the 19th Century, China has been lagging on the world stage. President Xi’s dream is of a stronger nation with a strong military.”

A well-known Chinese scholar, Yu Jiangrong, writing in micro-blog Weibo compared the China Dream with the American Dream this way:

“The American Dream refers to the dream of the American people, of which the protection of individual rights is the basis. The Chinese Dream is the dream of the country, of which the strengthening of the country’s rights is the premise.”

More enlightening was the effort to search Weibo for the Chinese people’s reactions to this phenomenon by Chris Marquis and Zoe Yang, associate professor and research assosicate of the Harvard Business School.

They quoted a popular post reblogged over 9,000 times as saying:

“The precise meaning of the Chinese Dream: 1. The UN relocates to Beijing. 2. Premier Li Keqiang inspects Taipei with the assistance of Provincial governor Ma Ying-jeou. 3. The Chinese National Footabll Team wins the FIFA World Cup and gains possession of the World Cup trophy for the first time ever. 4. Beijing accidentally bombs the Pentagon and expresses regret. 5. Aircraft carrier Liaoning returns to Hawaii to replenish supplies. 6. The stock index surpasses the million-point mark this week. 7. RMB becomes the sole international currency. 8. Increasing cases of Americans illegally immigrating to China in recent days!”

The authors said the most significant finding is that the most prevalent posts by far are those that express an interpretation of the China Dream based firmly in bettering Chinese society as a whole: correcting inequality, ensuring free education for all, improving the quality of food, air, and water.

“In this sense,” the writers concluded the Chinese Dream is truly both individual and collectivist.

To me, the most enlightening interpretation came in this microblog quoted by the authors who used the Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight social media listening tool to analyze Weibo posts:

“The commoner’s China Dream: 1. Education without tuiton; 2. Employment without guanxi; 3. Doctors that don’t sell medicine; 4. Food without poison; 5: News without lies; 6. Professors with wisdom; 7. Government officials without bribery; 8. Police that do not abuse citizens; 9. Those who strip naked do not gain celebrity; 10. Those who brag do not become famous; 11. Homes that don’t get demolished; 12. The people don’t fear authority; 13. Environment without pollution; 14. Leadership without special treatment.”

Have I discovered the Thai Dream along the way?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Why do we need others to tell us to invest in our own future?

I am not sure why we have to be told by people from the outside that we must invest in our own future.

My guess is that they think we don’t know where our future lies – or whether we do have a future at all. Perhaps, they know we have been investing -- but not in our future. If they are concerned that we aren’t investing in what is important, why aren’t we worried about our failure to prioritize our investment?

Bloomberg View columnist William Pesek quoted economist Peter Warr at the Australian National University in Canberra as saying:

“There is little sign that inadequate investment in human capital and the need for reform of the education system is recognized by the current government…”

He was also quoted as observing that there are few, if any, kickbacks available from investment in education. Physical infrastructure is another matter.

Populism and long-term vision don’t usually go together. Mega projects excite politicians. Human capital investment projects don’t bring votes in the next election. Raising education standards can’t really be seriously taken if we change education ministers every six to nine months.

There has been no shortage of rhetoric about investing in the country’s future, of course. All politicians talk about it. National committees have been set up to address long-term issues affecting the country’s competitiveness.

But politicians are concerned only about the next election, “the future” is far away, too elusive for them to feel any pressure to think about, let alone taking real actions, anything that is not directly related to retaining their power base or to edge out their political rivals.

Once the issue of future planning is raised, the people in power and those around them invariably ask, openly or otherwise: “What’s is it for me or my party?”

If that’s the kind of questions asked by the people who are supposed to be leading the charge into the future for the country, you could be pretty certain that “the future” isn’t on their agenda.

Thailand doesn’t lack experts who could draw up roadmaps for the future. Qualified technocrats have carried out research work that covers every possible aspect of how to invest in what really counts to ensure sustainability. The private sector has also embarked on its own campaign to improve human capital but it’s mostly done with a narrow objective in mind.

The 2.2-trillion-bt mega projects to build infrastructure are all about the “physical future” of the country that doesn’t guarantee a sustainable tomorrow. We have not heard any visionary plans to pour money into shaking up the country’s education system or to invest seriously in innovations along with putting substantial capital into building up human capital.

The 35-billion-bt water schemes have run into obstacles for the very simple reason that the powers-that-be had not even considered the very basic question that comes with genuine national development: Have you considered asking the public for their views about spending their tax money that may affect their environment?

It’s the political culture – shortsighted, self-serving and corrupt – that is at the core of the problem.

If we don’t invest in creating the next generation of leaders, at all levels, that could be in the forefront of public service, then we are not “investing in the future.” And if the present crop of national leaders are bound by immediate return on their personal investment in getting elected, it would be asking for the impossible to expect them to appreciate the importance of “investing in the future.”

For them, the future is only a few months away. They can’t afford to part with the government budget for all the mega projects for their own which has to be spent now to get elected tomorrow.

For them, the day after tomorrow is already too remote for their imagination.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Straight-talking officials should get praise, not threats

The finance ministry has set up a very unusual “committee” with a very dubious assignment.

It is charged with the unenviable task of trying to find out just what a senior official there had told a Senate committee seeking information about the controversial rice pledging scheme.

The need to set up this particular “committee” isn’t very convincing unless it has the real purpose that was totally different from the stated objective.

The “target” in question was Supa Piyachitti, a deputy permanent secretary of the finance ministry, who also heads a working group that takes care of the books related to the financial bottom line of schemes related to subsidizing prices of agricultural products, with rice being the main item.

The uproar was about what she had told the Senate Committee on Economy, Commerce and Industry who had invited her to tell the members about stories that the rice pledging project was full of loopholes and that it was costing tax-payers an unprecedented amount of expenses.

The press reported that Supa had said what she had said on other occasions all along – and that the loss was piling up and that corruption was widespread – the loopholes were there at every step of the process.

Premier Yingluck Shinawatra wanted to find out why Supa had made this statement. Minister Vorathep Rattakorn, the minister in charge of looking into the numbers of the project, and Finance Minister Kittiratt na Ranong were demanding that Supa come up with “evidence” to prove her testimony.

Then came the news that a committee had been set up to investigate “disciplinary action” against Supa. Minister Kittiratt denied that. Yes, a committee was formed but it wasn’t of a disciplinary nature. It was to be a “fact-finding” mission to trace down what Supa had told the Senate committee – and whether the press had misquoted her.

If facts were what the prime minister and ministers concerned were after, there was a much simpler way ot finding out. The premier and finance minister – Supa’s bosses – could have just summoned her to a meeting and asked the senior official (she is due to retire in the next few months) point-blank what she had testified to the parliamentary task force.

In fact, the minister could have found out both what Supa had told the committee and what the “facts” are without resorting to the complicated process of setting up a committee.

It would have been quite easy in fact to just ask for the taped testimony to hear what Supa had actually said. There was no need whatsoever to employ the antiquated practice of threatening a bureaucrat who wasn’t following politicians’ whims by applying the pressure of investigating him or her over “disciplinary” offences.

Supa was no whistle-blower in the strictest sense of the word. She wasn’t trying to “expose” any government secrets. Nor did she even attempt to discredit the government’s populist polices. Supa, as a good, honest “servant of the tax-payers” should, was simply telling it like it is. As an experienced technocrat, the deputy permanent secretary was only warning about potential chances of corrupt practices – against which the premier had just, one day earlier, declared with great fanfare as the target of a policy of high priority at the Government House.

When our reporter asked her for comments on the looming investigation against her, Supa said: “I don’t have any particular feelings one way or the other. I am doing my duty. Finance Minister Kittiratt is also performing his duty. The permanent secretary (Areepong Poocha-oom) is also doing his duty. We have respect for one another.”

Supa insisted that she had told the Senate committee that the rice pledging scheme was risky and there were loopholes at every step of the process because of the involvement of up to 10 government agencies.

She recalled that a committee member had also asked her to identify the step that was the most vulnerable to corruption, “and I responded by saying that every step in the process carried risk of corruption. In fact, what I told the committee members were included in a report from my sub-committee which had been submitted to the prime minister as early as October, last year…”

That means if the premier and the finance minister shouldn’t have been surprised by what the deputy permanent secretary was telling anyone who cared to listen about the potential loopholes of the project.

A conscientious and courageous bureaucrat who dares to speak the truth – quite a rare species in Thailand’s officialdom – should at least get praise and encouragement, and not subject to veiled threats of “disciplinary investigations.”

Sunday, June 30, 2013

White Masks hold their 5th rally

The White Masks gathered for the fifth time this afternoon at Rajdamri Intersection. Reporters say protestors wearing white masks were also
holding rallies in 41 other spots around the country, including those in Hong Kong, Australia and the USA.
The gatherings to express their dissatisfaction with Premier Yingluck's government and former PM Thaksin Shinawatra were peaceful. There were no apparent leaders heading the protests. They simply read out their statements against the government and dispersed.
Analysts say the government has been surprised by the spread of the White Mask phenomenon and one of the reason for the wide-ranging Cabinet reshuffle seems to be related to the fact that the White Mask protest isn't just a passing fad.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

From legacy journalism to digital media

At our Convergent Newsroom, every report, however small or trivial, about the global trend about the media is discussed with great interest. As Andrew Grove of Intel once said in his famous book “Only the Paranoid Survive,” we make it a point to tell everybody in the newsroom to deliver and analyse “bad news” before digesting “good news” especially if it is directly related to the future of journalism.

It was therefore with a mixed sense of trepidation and consolidation that we read last week the report in the Economist under the headline: “Like the sun, newspaper circulation rises in the east and falls in the west.”

It was from a World Press Trends report that usually collects masses of data about newspaper circulation and revenues in over 70 countries. Circulation has fallen modestly from 537m in 2008 to 530m in 2012, but that masks huge regional variations. The report makes for particularly gloomy reading if you happen to be employed by a newspaper in America or western Europe. Since 2008 circulation in America has fallen by 15% to 41m while advertising revenue has plummeted by 42%, accounting for three-quarters of the global decline in advertising revenue in the same period.

In Europe, the report says, circulation and advertising revenue have both fallen by a quarter. And revenues from digital sources such as websites, apps and so on have not made up the shortfall. Digital advertising accounts for just 11% of the total revenue for American newspapers.

But further east, though, things look brighter. Circulation in Asia has risen by 10%, offsetting much of the decline elsewhere. With 114.5m daily newspapers, China has surpassed India to become the world's biggest newspaper market.

Thailand’s case is somewhere in the middle. Our circulation is holding up but revenue from our broadcast side is growing. Our strategy is towards “convergence” – a strong base for print with an aggressive new media business model, strongly backed up by our digital broadcasting plan.

A new book entitled “The New Digital Age” by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, in one way, confirms my belief that news organizations will remain an important and integral part of society in a number of ways. Sure, many outlets won’t survive in their present form – and those that do survive will have adjusted their goals, methods and organizational structure to meet the changing demands of the new “global public.”

It has become increasingly clear for our newspeople that reporting duties will undergo significant changes. As the book suggests, the role of the mainstream media “will primarily become one of an aggregator, custodian and verifier, a credibility filter that sifts through all of this data and highlights what is and is not worth reading, understanding and trusting.”

As I look into the future of how we will be operating as professional journalists, our role as “verifiers” will become even more important than today. Apart from enhancing our ability to provide cogent analysis of current affairs, journalists in the digital era will be an important source for news consumers to rely on for their professionalism in curating, aggregating and filtering the massive swell of reporting and information in the system.

As the authors suggests, “Ideally, the business of journalism will become less extractive and more collaborative; in a story about rising tide levels in Bangkok, instead of just quoting a Thai river-cruise operator, the newspaper would link its article to the man’s own news platform or personal live stream. “

In our daily debate on the major transition from legacy to digital media, we intend to do more than that. We will explore ways to integrate all the new voices in society and create communities, both online and offline, to pursue a truly digital world of journalism where everybody can be a reporter, consumer and activist.

But above all, no matter how fast and dramatic the latest information technology develops in the future, the most crucial tasks of our journalists remain unchanged: to do the serious work of journalism in a serious manner, be it investigative reporting, exclusive interviews, explanation of complicated events and, above all, to serve as the conscience and soul of society.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Tawil-Yingluck face-off gets complicated

Expect a drawn-out battle between Premier Yingluck Shinawatra and Thawil Pliensri, the former secretary general of the National Security Council, demanding to be returned to his former post. The Administration Court last week ruled that the premier must give him back the previous position.

Several complications are bound to emerge. For one thing, the premier isn’t likely to comply with the court’s order immediately. Thawil was a tough-talking bureaucrat who mounted a relentless campaign against being transferred from his NSC post to become an adviser to the prime minister. He wasn’t considered “one of us” within the Yingluck government who almost immediately upon taking office replaced Thawil with an “insider” – Lt Gen Paradon Pattanatarbutr.

Thawil fought the case with vehemence. He claimed that the transferred was carried out unfairly and that he had done nothing wrong to deserve the move. The premier had said the transfer was aimed at “boosting the efficiency in implementing government policies because Thawil was well versed in national security affairs and would be able to better serve the government as adviser to the prime minister.”

Thawil took the matter up with the Administration Court, seeking a return to the post, citing unfair practices.

The court’s verdict sided with Thawil, the premier’s official reason for the transfer did not match real action. Part of the ruling read:

“The position of NSC secretary general carries a higher degree of responsibility (than those of a premier’s adviser) and the incumbent could offer advice to the prime minister (without having to be transferred anyway…”

The court also ruled that the transfer had been carried in violation of normal practices which state that recipient unit must initiate the move by seeking the superior’s approval before putting a written request to the work unit of the person involved. That process apparently wasn’t followed.

Once politicians are in power, they tend to think they could move bureaucrats around without having to comply with the established rules. Or perhaps, the premier might have been ill advised, having just taken over office, as to how to reshuffle technocrats around without facing court cases.

Technically, Premier Yingluck doesn’t have to comply with the court’s order immediately. She has the right of appeal – and there is little doubt that she will pursue that path. Accepting the verdict without putting up a fight would entail further problems. Several other prominent bureaucrats who have complained about being edged out of their positions for “political reasons” have lodged similar complaints. Those who haven’t done so may be emboldened by Thawil’s case.

Thawil himself has made no secret of his desire to encourage others in a similar situation to follow his example. He told reporters: “My advice to government officials who have been maltreated the same way not to submit to political pressure. If they are bullied, don’t go down on your knees to ask for mercy. That would not futile. They should follow the procedure available to them. That means to fight. To win or lose is another thing. Bureaucrats shouldn’t fight among themselves. In most cases, it’s the politicians who bully officials…”

Another possible complication is related to the fragile ongoing peace talks with representatives from Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). The Thai official delegation is led by the current NSC secretary general, Lt Gen Paradon Pattanatabutr. The fact that the incumbent may have to vacate his seat to make way for his predecessor’s return has thrown a spanner in the works.

Opposition Democrat Party’s deputy leader Thaworn Senneam has already called for the postponement of the peace dialogue until the government resolves the uncertainty over the leadership at the NSC. The premier will have to decide how to handle this highly sensitive issue that has both domestic impact and regional consequences.

It’s a Catch-22 situation for the premier. If she doesn’t appeal the verdict, her political clout would be dented. If she does, Thawil is set to mount his second attack. He says he will take the case to the National Anti-Corruption Commission if the premier decided to appeal “in order to protect myself from further persecution.”

Either way, the battle promises to be a long, painful one

Saturday, June 1, 2013

We are a nation without Plan B

Energy Minister Pongsak Ruktapongpisal says the May 21’s power blackout in all 14 southern provinces was “unavoidable.” He put the blame on a natural occurrence: lightning striking a high-voltage transmission line that supplied power to the South.

Then came the warning from energy officials that because of the lack of power plants, a similar breakdown of power on a regional scale could hit the Northeast and even the capital, Bangkok.

The two official explanations – technical and natural accidents – obviously don’t answer the crucial question: Where was Plan B?

Even if we were ready to accept all the official reasons cited for the country’s worst power breakdown, there is still no guarantee that a repeat of the scary “Southern Total Blackout” would not take place.

It’s even more frightening when you suddenly discovered that Thailand had always been in such a vulnerable situation. All the “what if” questions immediately surfaced. What if some terrorists had detected the “power vulnerability” of the country’s energy supply system? What if lightning had struck in other parts of the country at the same time. What if a “human error” had added to the “technical trip-up?” What if the total blackout had taken place on an election evening?

Let’s assume we accept all the explanations given so far by the government:

- Power produced in the South doesn’t meet the local demand.

- The incident was not part of a conspiracy to stage incidents to support the policy of building coal-fired power plants.

- The blackout wasn’t related to the energy minister’s earlier warning of a widespread blackout because a natural gas facility in Myanmar that supplies Thailand’s power plants was under maintenance.

- The blackout wouldn’t have been so widespread had it not been for the fact that the system was running on a automatic mode. Had the system been handled manually, the power failure would have been on a more limited scale.

Still, the main question remains: Where was the “contingency plan” and where did the buck stop?

No heads have rolled so far. Accountability doesn’t appear to be high on the political agenda.

The national malaise of the lack of “Plan B” affects not only the energy sector that this particular incident has underscored. It pervades the whole political and social spectrum. And that’s the main reason why we have been stuck in the mud for so many years.

There is no “contingency plan” for a country caught in a conflict that has plunged the country into an abyss from which we have yet to emerge. We now hear calls for “going for broke” from the ruling politicians to ram through the constitutional changes and an amnesty bill that have stirred new controversies.

The ruling elite have Plan A to get what they want. We aren’t sure what would happen if the “going-all-the-way” strategy backfired, triggering a “political blackout” that covers the whole country. In that case, it would not be possible to put the blame on a natural occurrence such as lightning. There is no Plan B to avoid a potentially disastrous confrontation.

The government’s controversial and highly expensive rice pledging scheme has been a glaring Plan A to “raise the living standards of poor farmers.” Now, despite the fact that the plan has floundered and could incur the tax-payers huge losses, there is no “contingency plan” to beat a tactful retreat. There has never been a Plan B either.

Before the next disaster, be it energy, political or superstitious issue, strikes, we badly need a Plan B in place for every major endeavor in the country.

The risk of being unceremoniously hurled from Plan A to chaotic Plan Z is simply too high to be acceptable.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Kittiratt vs Prasarn: Sport topics are great; interest rates too hot for dinner

Central bank governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul had a dinner appointment with Finance Minister Kittiratt na Ranong the other day and the whole of Thailand wanted to know how it went.
The minister had publicly said he wanted the governor replaced for not reducing policy interest rates. The governor has stuck to his gun, arguing that interest rates weren't the real reason behind the strengthening baht.
"The first half an hour of the dinner was fine because we were talking about sports. But when the topic was interest rates was raised, the atmosphere became somewhat tense because we still had different ideas on the issue. The minister still wanted the policy interest rate to be reduced by 1%," Prasarn told Matichon in an interview published today.
Obviously, the two left the dinner the same way they had met earlier in the evening: Both agreed to disagree.
Asked whether he had given up on the fight? Prasarn responded: "I would have to make a decision if we hit a situation where we can't find a way out and if my continued presence causes damage to the country. But the fact remains that our economy remains reasonably stable with a proper balance."
My take? Prasarn isn't giving in easily. He is here for the long haul.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

PM's interference won't end Finance-BoT conflict

Bank of Thailand chairman Virabongsa Ramangkura has urged Premier Yingluck Shinawatra to intervene in the currency dispute between the central bank and finance ministry.

But is this an issue that can be resolved through political “mediation?”

In fact, I am not sure that Dr Virabongsa was serious in making that suggestion. In fact, it was more like an afterthought during a surprise press conference he called last Thursday. It was clear that his intention to hold the public session was to dramatise the “failure” of the central bank in curbing the rise of the baht value.

Virabongsa made no secret of his fear that that if nothing was done to solve the problem, the country could “sink to its demise or the economic could go into bankruptcy.”

But he devoted a great amount of time to discussing how difficult it was to dismiss Dr Prasarn Trairatvorakul from the post as central governor.

In fact, earlier reports said the premier, in a meeting of her kitchen cabinet earlier last week, had posed the question of how the central governor could be legally replaced. Her office has yet to issue a denial to that story.

Finance Minister Kittirat na Ranong has gone on public saying he was “thinking about replacing the central governor every day.”

There is little doubt that the government is very unhappy with Prasarn for not being “obedient” enough in a number of controversial policy issues, the latest being the repeated suggestion by Viragongsa and Kittirat to reduce interest rate to curb the strengthening of the baht.

Prasarn has argued, both publicly and in official documents to the government, that bringing down the interest rates wouldn’t solve the problem. But then under the law, decisions of interest rates doesn’t rest with the governor. The Monetary Policy Committee is in the official organ to review interest rates on a regular basis. The central bank governor is only a member of the committee although the finance minister appears to believe that the governor could influence most, if not all, of the MPC members.

Can the central governor be sacked? Under the law, he can be removed from office by the Cabinet on the recommendation of the finance minister – not for defying political wishes or orders – but for “serious wrong misconduct or dishonest performance.”

The BoT says the MPC is in charge of interest rates. The finance minister holds the BoT responsible for the strong baht. Virabongsa, as BoT’s board chairman, insists that he doesn’t really want to see Prasarn dismissed. Perhaps, he has read all the clauses in the law and come to the conclusion that sacking Prasarn for disagreeing with the government would make things worse.

Does he really think that the premier’s direct intervention would resolve the conflict between the central bank and the finance ministry?

This isn’t an issue between two politicians fighting over their respective interests over which the prime minister has total control. This is in fact a normal and in fact healthy divergence of views over whether interest rates are related to the strengthening of the currency – and what policy options are the most appropriate. It’s not about sharing the cake. It’s about academic analysis and pragmatic experience. It’s about mutual respect between politicians and technocrats.

It’s not about threats of dismissal or “you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch yours” compromises. It’s about mature, responsible people putting all the arguments for all sides on the table and, realizing there are no panaceas, deciding on the most practical monetary tools while closely monitoring to check on the outcomes.

Political intervention will only raise more questions and answers. Restoring mutual respect and professionalism between the finance ministry and central bank as well as the MPC is the only path to a real solution.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

What's up, Madame PM?

A rare pose of Premier Yingluck Shinawatra. It's not clear what she was laughing about but photographers say the premier often shows her personal, soft side when the right question is posed to her. Avoid tough, political questions especially about her elder brother at all costs!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Thaksin goes for broke

Thaksin Shinawatra is going for broke. According to a Pheu Thai MP, the former premier said in a recent Skype session with the party members that if the move to amend the constitution failed, the party should turn the table -- by dissolving Parliament to call a new election so that Pheu Thai could return with an absolute majority to clear the way to amend the charter.
Ubon Ratchathani MP Somkid Chuakong quoted Thaksin as saying that the Constitutional Court had no reason to stop Parliament from voting to change clauses in the charter. That's why if the party's plan could not proceed, the alternative is to go back to the people to ask for a clear-cut mandate to return to Parliament and get the job done.
That, of course, will prove very controversial. Perhaps, it's only a threat to get his way without having to return to the polling booths. But one thing is clear: He is desperate to get the constitution changed the way he wants -- and he isn't sure that the plan will pull through.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A leader's soft side...

A good husband must hold his wife's bag. And that applies to even the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, while walking down his plane in his recent trip to Africa. This picture was reportedly posted by a Chinese reporter onto a Chinese micro-blog but was soon taken off by censors. I don't see anything wrong with an Asian leader showing his "soft side" publicly. After all, China is said to be going all out to make use of its "soft power" to step up her influence around the world. And "soft power," like charity, begins at home.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Southerners ask: Where is Chalerm?

Chalerm Yoobamrung is deputy premier in charge of security affairs, including the Deep South. But he hasn't visited the area in any serious way since taking office. Instead, he has flown to Kuala Lumpur to hold talks with Malaysian authorities but hasn't really sat down with local officials and residents to show his personal concern for the deteriorating situation down there.
The day after the deputy governor and assistant governor of Yala were killed in a bomb attack earlier this week, reporters asked Premier Yingluck why Chalerm hadn't flown South to show the government's concern.
The premier was obviously caught off-guard. She said something about Chalerm's imminent visit there but also defended his reluctance to be personally meeting local people in the three southern provinces. "Sometimes, our puuyais (senior authorities) from Bangkok don't want to disturb the local officials by visiting since they would have to provide security measures and other conveniences which could distract their normal duties," she said.
That, of course, still doesn't explain why Chalerm hasn't been down there. First, he said he would be in the South after the Bangkok governor election.Then, his excuse was that he would wait until the House session on constitutonal changes was done. But he flew North instead, under the pretext that he was observing the smog situation up there -- an issue not related to his job description.
The deputy premier has always said he is no coward and would be ready to face any seriousl challenge anywhere, anytime.
It's time to show it where he is needed most.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Somchai's sympathy for with his wife

If you really understand Khun Yaowapa Wongsasdi, as her husband Somchai does, then you would have to be very sympathetic with her.
Somchai, a former prime minister, says: "Her brother was prime minister. Her sister is now prime minister and her husband was also prime minister. She looks good and outstanding. Therefore, whatever her move, Khun Yaowapa becomes news...."
Yaowapa is running in a by-election in Chiang Mai after one of her close aides vacates the seat so that she could run to become an MP.
Is she the "stand-in PM" as has been speculated in the political circles. She has said nothing officially. But her sister, PM Yingluck, says she is still the PM and she wants to complete her four-year term. Her brother, former Premier Thaksin, has said that Yaowapa won't be a "replacement PM" but once she is back as MP, she will be supervising Pheu Thai MPs in the House.
You can't really help it if people around you are either former Premier or the current prime minister.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The PM's "woman's touch."

Premier Yingluck in one of her more interesting poses yesterday. She could offer the "women's touch" while fielding serious political questions at the same time.
Asked by reporters about rumours that her sister, Yaowapa, was being groomed to be a "stand-in prime minister" in case she had to let go out of seat at Government House, Yingluck's plea was prompt and gentle:
"You don't want me working anymore?"
She insists she is in charge. She says she isn't under her brother's shadow. She appeals for a chance to complete her four-year term. Who knows, she might make it!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Stand-in PM? Who's that?

Thaksin Shinawatra said (yes, through Skype again to Pheu Thai MPs) there was no such thing as a "stand-in prime minister." Yes, her other sister, Yaowapa, is running in Chiang Mai's by-election but that's because she will be active in Parliament to help Pheu Thai Party's MPs get into line. She isn't being groomed as the next premier if a political accident materializes that could force his other sister, Premier Yingluck, out of office.
Yingluck herself told reporters that she wanted to complete her four-year term and that she wanted to work for the people. Regarding the Counter-Corruption Commission's investigation into her loans amoungint to Bt30 million to her husband Anusorn Amornchat's company, Ad Index, the PM said she had submitted all relevent information and was confident that she hadn't done anything wrong.
Thaksin's son, Panthongtae, however, wrote in his Facebook that Pheu Thai Party could come under pressure from various sources of ill intention. Uncertainty is always high. "So, it might be nice to have two or three stand-in premiers, just in case..."
You would have to decide for yourself which version is more credible. I am at my wit's end.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sister as 'Stanby PM'?

?It's not just speculation anymore. Quite a few MPs of the ruling Pheu Thai Party seem to confirm that a very interesting event is happening in Chiang Mai's political scene.
Kasem Nimmolrat is said to be planning to quit his MP's post to pave way for a by-election that will see Yaowapa Wongswasdi, PM Yingluck's elder sister, running so that she can be the "standby" in case the premier has to step aside due to certain "political accidents."
What can possibly unseat PM Yingluck? Well, insiders have worried about several complaints that have been filed with some independent agencies against the PM may contain some "unexpected risks" which could force Yingluck to give up her post. In that case, the Shinawatra's inner circle wants to be sure that Yaowapa is there to fill in the PM's post immediately.
                                          Yaowapa's is Thaksin Shinawatra's younger sister. She is the wife of former Premier Somchai Wongswasdi whose five-year political ban isn't listen until Dec 3, this year.
Kasem ran for the by-election when Somchai-Yaowapa's daughter Chinnicha Wongswasdi was disqualified as Chiang Mai MP over a year ago. Kasem, by the way, had served as Yaowapa's secretary before he was fielded to run in the by-election.
                                          Of you ask why this sounds like a game of family musical chair, you are not alone. Some observers have already posed that question -- and the Democrat Party says it has embarked on the process of screening candidates to field one to fight Yaowapa, if that speculation should come to pass in the next few days.

Friday, March 15, 2013

How ironic: A "reconciliation" bill that promises to split the country further

The Pheu Thai Party members who pushing for the passage of an amnesty bill insist, despite skepticism from their detractors, that they have no “hidden agenda” to slip in a clause that could include former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra in the deal.

But Plodprasob Suraswadi, a deputy prime minister, spilled the beans by declaring that the “reconciliation bill” must offer Thaksin amnesty.

“Why does Thaksin have to be exempted (from the proposed amnesty)? All quarrelling parties must be included in the proposed clemency,” he declared.

That probably shot the proposed bill through with holes. At least, Plodprasob’s statement, which perhaps represents the real – if unspoken--motives behind the move, has seriously weakened the ruling party’s argument all along that they weren’t working to help Thaksin. They were only trying to end the country’s conflict by pardoning all the people punished for harbouring different political opinion.

It didn’t help that Thaksin was said to have ordered his party to make a strong push for an amnesty law. He was officially advocating that line not for himself – but to help release red shirts who are being jailed for having joined the protest against the previous government – and those considered “political prisoners.”

But, according to party’s inside sources, Thaksin had issued the order through Skype to the party’s coordinating committee on Monday because he sensed that some red-shirt leaders were becoming disillusioned and might be abandoning their support for the party.

In that message, the former premier probably didn’t talk about his own amnesty although he was quoted as asking wistfully when his supporters could effectively bring him home. He was suggesting, of course, that his case would have to be settled one way or the other before he could be back in Thailand again.

But the haste with which some of the party members revived the “ reconciliation bill” – so soon after the party lost the Bangkok gubernatorial election – has raised some serious questions about the wisdom of such a move. There was little doubt that as soon as the issue was renewed, a new round of conflict would inevitably rear its ugly head again.

The fact that the person who spearheaded this new move is none other than Deputy House Speaker Charoen Chankomol, a senior Pheu Thai Party member, rendered the matter almost stillborn immediately.

While six versions of the “reconciliation bill” were waiting in the House agenda, Charoen’s open invitations to at least 11 groups of people to attend a “brain-storming” session last Monday were almost immediately shot down by the Democrats and the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

That means that the main opponents of Pheu Thai Party put up a roadblock as soon as the renewed attempt was launched. The same old routine was repeated: Pheu Thai declared that they were proposing the bill for the sake of uniting the country. The Democrats promptly rejected the idea arguing that the campaign was obviously another attempt to help Thaksin. They would have nothing to do with any bill that offers amnesty to people with criminal offences, especially related to corruption.

The first round of Charoen’s forum on Monday saw only five of the 11 parties he had invited amidst suspicion that an amnesty bill submitted by 42 Pheu Thai MPs was to be brought forward for House debate, thereby making it an “urgent” item on the agenda – a move that would certainly spark a new round of angry exchange between the pro-Thaksin and those against.

Judging from Thaksin’s latest Skype messages to his supporters here, the amnesty bill would be followed by the proposed charter amendments which, again, have been interpreted by his opponents as another move to pave the way for his return home without any criminal consequences.

The twin challenges will almost certainly backfire yet again. It is hard to imagine why Thakin’s supporters would want to create a political storm that could destabilize the Yingluck government. That should be the last thing on Thaksin’s mind. But paradoxically enough, this is precisely what might just happen if the amnesty move isn’t called off to make way for the government to resolve the much more urgent issues such as the controversial rice mortgage policy and the huge public debt being created to launch the Bt2trillion infrastructure mega projects.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Governing through Skype

Government by Skype? This morning's headlines say that former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra was on Skype again yesterday to members of his Pheu Thai Party ordering them to make a strong push for an amnesty law to prevent the red shirts abandoning their support for the ruling party.
He was also said to have criticized the party members for having reacted too slowly to the Democrats' attack on Police Gen Pongspat Pongcharoen during the campaigns leading up to the March 3 gubernatorial election. He said that was the main reason why Pongspat lost to M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra.
One Thai newspaper's headline said the former premier also advised the Pheu Thai Party's MPs to proceed with the constitutional amendments with an article-by-article approach instead of an original plan to ram it through in one go.
As far as anyone could ascertain, Premier Yingluck wasn't in attendance when the Skype exchange took place . That means she can still insists that although she had grown up with her brother and might share a lot of ideas but "I am not under his shadow" -- as she reportedly told reporters during her recent trip to Belgium and Sweden.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lessons learned for all concerned in today's Bangkok Election

So, he made it, with a big bang too! M.R. Sukhumbhand Patribatra won the Bangkok's gubernatorial election with more than 1.2 million votes, beating his rival from the ruling Pheu Thai Party, Police Gen Pongspat Pongcharoen who got slightly more than 1 million votes. Premier Yingluck was prompt to accept defeat, extending her hand of cooperation for a "seamless" working relations with the Bangkok governor who belongs to the opposition Democrat Party.
Today's election provided a range of "lessons learned" for all parties concerned. The Pheu Thai Party now realizes that the majority of Bangkokians have yet to put their trust in a party that was involved in violent acts in the capital a few years back. Thaksin Shinawatra's confidence to "easily beating" the Democrats in Bangkok was flawed. The misplaced polls that had Pongspat leading the way before the ballot-casting must have stirred some "silent voters" to come out to cast their votes for fear that the polls might be proved right.
The Democrats, too, must have come to the realization that its dominance of the Bangkok constituencies wasn't always guaranteed. In fact, the fact that Pongspat obtained more than one million votes must have been awake-up call for those who thought Bangkokians would always vote against the powers-that-be.
Various polling agencies must now conduct some serious soul-searching and to revise their polling techniques which have now been proven seriously flawed. It would take quite a while before any trust in all those well-known polls could be restored. And they must admit that it's unfair and unprofessional to blame it all on the respondents who have been accused of the pollsters of having "lied" to the volunteers seeking their views.
Bangkokians have spoken, and loudly so...with almost 64% voter turnout, much higher than the last election despite the downpours in certain constituencies this afternoon.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Kotler to be in town

Marketing guru Philip Kotler will be in Bangkok March 6 to hold a day-long training session on "Value-Driven Marketing". I wll be anchoring the afternoon session to field questions from participants.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Visionary strategies and short-sighted politicians don't go together

Not surprisingly, Premier Yingluck Shinnawatra's 4 main national "strategies" announced last week have not evoked a national sensation. It's no rocket science to declare that the country badly needs to find ways to become more competitive against other countries. Nor is it an earthshaking pronouncement to say that bridging the rich-poor gap is one of the government's top priorities. And to put stress on environment-friendly initiatives won't excite anybody these days. To be quite frank about it, I can recall the fourth major plank of the "national platform" myself. If it was a call for a serious anti-corruption effort, it wouldn't be taken seriously unless the premier could convince the rest of the country that things are going to be for real this time around. The event was meant to be a launching pad for a renewal of a genuine National Agenda but most critics took the government to task for the announcement that it would triple the per capital income in ten years. The plan to borrow Bt2 trillion to lay the country's infrastructure was also challenged for the lack of any real action plans. The blueprint was immediately questioned by Nibhond Puapongsakorn of the TDRI "think tank" for being ambiguous and unrealistic. He said such a major exercise to map out the country's future should be the joint effort of professional engineers, economists, legal experts, technocrats and politicians, perhaps in that order. But the Big Plan announced with fanfare by the government last week was seen as no more than the exclusive work of politicians bent on spending huge sums of national budget without much consideration for effective implementation and, most importantly, without any suggestion how the progress of each project could be monitored and measured. What Thailand badly needs, regardless of who's in power, is well-known but politicians in charge don't seem to have come up with any satisfactory plans. What a real "National Agenda for the Future of Thailand" should incorporate must include: 1. Overhaul of the education policy. 2. Put the country on the path of innovation. 3. A credible action plan to reduce the gap between the haves and have-nots -- a gulf that has so far defied any pledge by all the past governments. 4. An anti-corruption campaign that works. 5. A genuine plan to decentralize power from the Cabinet to the provinces. 6. A serious action plan to revamp the bureaucratic system. The main paradox is that while the citizens of this country demand that politicians who are granted the mandate to rule must get all these actions in order, it's precisely these people in power who constitute the main obstacles to the fulfillment of these crucial aims. All these national objectives, without which Thailand won't be able to move forwards in any significant way, are necessarily tough nuts to crack, requiring vision, sacrifice and accountability from the powers-that-be. These qualities, unfortunately, are exactly what are lacking among those seeking high offices in this country. Premier Yingluck insists that she is in charge of the government – and her brother Thaksin hasn’t been running her Cabinet through Skype – as suggested by an article published in the New York Times last week. Her statement would be made more credible if she undertook to draw up a genuine National Agenda that really spells out her own vision of where the country should be headed – and , more important, how those action plans will be implemented under her direction. Nobody expects her to follow her critics’ suggestion that the premier should show her independence and real power by ordering police to have Thaksin arrested – as was the case with Somchai Kunpluem, better known as “Kamnan Poh” who had fled court verdicts for several years before being cornered. But she can demonstrate her leadership by coming up with a plan to build the nation that she can really call her own. A large number of people in the country are waiting anxiously for that master stroke.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Chavalit on comeback trail?

Is he really making a comeback? Rumours started to circulate yesterday that former Premier Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh had been approached by Thaksin Shinawatra to return to politics by taking up a Cabinet portfolio related to security affairs. The surprise twist didn't appear to have stunned Premier Yingluck who didn't confirm or deny the story. That probably means there was something to the story. She told reporters that nothing of that sort of taking place now. But then she went on to say that Gen Chavalit was an experienced man and could be helpful although she didn't say how or when or why. Gen Chavalit hasn't been seen in public for a while. Now you see him, now you don't. Obviously, he wasn't going to disappear completely from the political scene. It doesn't really matter whether he was once a prime minister and that if he takes up any post in the Yingluck Cabinet, it would be a big come-down. Once you have decided to serve the country as a politician, you would have to check your ego at the door. I know what you are probably thinking. But I won't bet on it!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Yingluck insists "I am in charge."

Premier Yingluck Shinawatra posted this picture on her Facebook yesterday, saying she had just been able to squeeze some time into signing papers at her desk. The picture shows her with 6 mobile phones -- and Thai Post was quick to point out that the Facebook post was obviously aimed at confirming her statement one day earlier that she was really the prime minister of this country -- and that her brother, Thaksin, was not running her government. The premier was obviously upset over the New York Times' article about Thaksin running the governemnt through Skype and that Yingluck was only cutting ribbons and attending ceremonies. "I am in charge. I am the prime minister," she declared. Some of her critics suggested that the premier could prove beyond all doubts that she was really in charge by ordering police to arrest Thaksin, who is legally still a fugitive on the run. This was an apparent reference to the surprise arrest of Somchai Kunpluem, better known as "Kamnan Poh" in Bangkok after he had fled a court verdict of a jail term for nearly ten years. Premier Yingluck has yet to respond to that challenge.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A little blunder that explains the country's terrible bureaucracy

This isn’t one of the “quirky” news tit-bits on the inside pages of a newspaper. It’s a real-life “dark secret” for this villager of Prachinburi who has finally decided to go public with his unusual ID “phenomenon.” Buarai Paosaeng of House No 9, Village No 11 of Tambon Nonsri, Amphoe Kabinburi, in the eastern border province of Prachinburi has carried this ID card for over ten years, under a cloud of uncertainty and perhaps a deep-rooted sense of anxiety. What if people found out that he was born on “Feb 31, 1961”? And how does he explain to anyone who asks him when his ID will expire? It’s clearly printed on the card that the document will remain valid until “Feb 30, 2563” with the signature of the local authorized official, no less. Of course, the ID is an authentic one, issued by the Local Administration Department of the Interior Ministry. Buarai has no doubt that he could produce it anywhere and it would be taken seriously. In fact, he has had no problems so far using it for all practical purposes. But what if someone finds fault with his birth date? What if he decides one day to exercise a Thai citizen’s right to apply for a passport? What if the passport was issued accordingly showing him with his “official date of birth” and an immigration official in one of the foreign countries raises a storm about “falsification” of an official document of international significance? That could spark an international incident and will the Interior and Foreign Ministries of Thailand come to his rescue? Probably not. The last time a similar incident took place only a few weeks earlier, as assistant headman of Aranyaprathet District of Srakaew province, also in the eastern part of the country, some serious consequences fell upon the ID card owner, not the officials concerned with issuing the weird ID with a strange birth date. The misfortune came upon Sangwian Kooncharoen, one of the local assistant village headmen, who reported that his ID card showed him born on Feb 30. The burden of proof didn’t fall on the officials concerned. Instead, he was told to show documents to prove that he had not been born on Feb 30. And when the controversy was widely reported in the local press, Interior Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan was miffed – not at his own officials who had issued the card but at the card-holder himself for making such a fool of the people involved. “He deserves to die,” the minister told reporters. It was widely understood that the person the minister considered to be at fault was the person who made the issue public. The minister was simply trying to show the public that he was simply performing his duty to protect his subordinates to the best of his ability. The assistant headman, who officially was supposed to be under the minister’s jurisdiction as well, was left to defend for himself. He subsequently decided to do what a good, honest and responsible official was supposed to do: He quit. It’s not clear whether that would make it easier for him to get his ID card revised to confirm that he had not been born on a non-existent date on this planet. Now, Buarai of Prachinburi has a more serious problem. The birth date on his ID was even more challenging. Sangwian’s Feb 30 date was bad enough. But Feb 31 could prove to be even more “out of this world.” He just had to get the word out before people thought he was living in his own little surreal world. Buarai has a full history of his own to tell the world to prove that he hadn’t made up the information on his own ID card. He told reporters: “I am the son of Mr Ma and Mrs Kham. My birth certificate (a document to produce to get an ID) says I was born on a Wednesday, January 31, 2503 (1960). When I turned 17, I went to Kabinburi District to apply for my ID card. The card expired three times and has been renewed every time. When I turned 27, I was married and had our marriage registered with my wife at the same district office. That’s when I discovered that my birthday was Feb 31, 2504 (1961). I then went to the local officials to have the information on my ID and domicile document corrected. I was told to continue to use my ID and related document…until I heard that a similar case had taken place in Srakaew. That’s why I am making my case public as well so that I could probably get my real life back…” Buarai says he has never really been able to mark his birthday with the traditional “merit-making” ritual like most Thai Buddhists “because I don’t have a real birthday.” Perhaps, the national human rights movement could lend a helping hand. The consumer protect group should launch an investigation into this case before the next victim surfaces. To blame it on bureaucratic inefficiency would be blasé and counter-productive – and quite frankly, extremely boring. And to demand an explanation from the Interior Ministry and seek out the responsible parties would be tantamount to banging your head against a wall. You could get seriously injured and nothing will change

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Harmony is in the air, at least publicly

Who says they don't like one another? Premier Yingluck Shinawatra was out in full force and outstanding fashion last night at the celebrations of the 421st anniversy of the Royal Thai Army. Here she is seen flanked by Privy Council President Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and Army Commander-in-Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha. Everyone was all smiles -- and if you still have any doubt about the harmony between the government and the army and the privy council president, you are a real pessimist, albeit a cautious one.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Giants clash at Lumpini Park

Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva runs with his deputy, Korn Chatikavajij, and other supporters run to catch up with M.R. Sukhumbhand Baripatra, former Bangkok governor, who is running for his second term. They were at Lumpini Park yeserday -- where their rival, Police Gen Pongsapat Pongcharoen, was also campaigning. Premier Yingluck Shinawatra and Khunying Sudarat Kaeyurapan, were out in full force to seek votes from local residents who were doing their daily exercise at Bangkok's biggest park. Sukhumbandh is running under the slogan of an opposition candidate balancing the power of the ruling party. Pongpasat is campaign with the theme of "seamless" coordination with the government if he was elected as the next governor. The Democrats, with a strong base in the capital, can't afford to lose while Pheu Thai has to make a dent in Bangkok's middle-class. Both sides have huge stakes in the outcome of the March 3 Bangkok governor election.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Show us the money!

Noppadol Pattama, adviser to Thaksin Shinawatra, held a press conference yesterday with a difference -- he produced a stack of cash to declare that he would pay anyone who can produce evidence to prove him wrong two million baht! Noppadol hit back at the opposition Democrats for having accused him of having signed an MoU with Cambodia that put Thailand at a disadvantage when he was foreign minister. He said anyone who could come up with evidence to prove the Democrats' claim will be paid one million baht. "Any if that person can do that within 24 hours, I will hand out another million baht instantly!" The Democrats must now show that they can earn two million baht from their arch-enemies. I am not sure whose cash it was. But it certainly underscores the fact that Thaksin and Noppapol are ready to put money where their mouths are.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Abhisit tells Thaksin: Let's give Thailand a chance

Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has come up with the latest salvo against former premier Thaksin Shinawatra by publicly asking him: "Please, give Thailand a chance." In an interview published by Thai Rath this morning, the Democrat leader said the country had suffered long enough and that Thaksin should let the country return to the right track. "I believe Khun Thaksin doesn't have any financial problems anymore.I believe if Khun Thaksin admits to his wrongdoings and accept the Thai laws. He can come back under the law and Thai society will forgive him," Abhisit said. He didn't say what "forgive" here means in specific terms. Abhisit added that he and his team are under the same conditions that they are asking from Thaksin "since Khun Thaksin is sparing no efforts against us anyway. Let me say that we aren't thinking about ourselves. We must give the country a chance," he said. Thai Rath's headline suggested that Abhisit was slightly opening the "door of reconciliation" to break through the country's longstanding stalemate.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Soldiers' protest against paper raises questions

A group of soldiers gathered in front of the office of ASTV Manager Daily for the second time today, prompting the Reporters Association of Thailand to issue a statement condemning the move as an intimidation against press freedom. The soldiers were demanding an apology from the newspaper's editors for what they claimed to be the paper's "unfair and biased" criticism against their boss, Army Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha. The army chief had earlier criticized the paper for having published articles critical of his work. The paper subsequently ran a page-one article hitting back at the army commander-in-chief. A group of about 50 soldiers in full uniform gathering in front of the paper's office on Friday. The paper published more critical articles against the army chief. Today, the soldiers came back for the second time to repeat their demand. Army Chief Gen Prayuth defended the soldiers' action, arguing that they had not violated the army's regulations. "They were defending the army's dignity, not mine," he declared. Sondhi Limthongkul, the paper's owner, was quoted by Manager Online as stating that he would not apologize to the army chief. "Soldiers should protect the people's interests and not any individual's," Sondhi was quoted as saying. Things will get hotter before they cool down.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

This will be the year of living precariously

The year 2013 will prove to be highly eventful for Thailand – with the proposed constitutional amendments topping the list of “potentially explosive issues” followed closely by economic “time-bombs” in the form of the Bt300/day minimum wage and the costly and controversial rice pledging scheme. Somewhere on top of the list of “hot topics” is the ruling by the International Court of Justice over the Preah Vihear temple. Popping up all over the place in the political minefield is the widespread corrupt practices tied to the government’s various populist schemes which could blow up anytime in the course of the ongoing investigations by various social pressure groups. And just under the surface of the political vulnerable landscape lies the “reconciliation bill” which has become a taboo of sorts. No sooner had the draft law been submitted to the House when huge and strong protest from both within the legislative body and independent groups virtually sent the proposal to the backburner, waiting to be revived at another, unpredictable time. This will be the year when Premier Yingluck Shinawatra will have to prove that she is more than just her elder brother’s sister. She will have to decide whether to make it in politics or to go down into history as a seat-warmer who could charm one side of the severely divided society but remains an enigma for the rest of the country. The charter amendment issue could be her undoing if Yingluck doesn’t handle it in such a way that she could really fulfil the pledge to make the change a “democratic one” that will really involve all sectors of the population. Thaksin’s public push for the referendum clashes with some red-shirt leaders’ call for a dash toward the third and final reading of the charter change bill that will entail the rewriting of the whole constitution through an elected assembly for this purpose. Yingluck has so far appeared to be sitting on the defence, either because she isn’t sure what’s the fuss all about or that she is working to patch up the differences between various groups, both within the Pheu Thai Party and the red-shirt movement. Political instability that could rock her government comes from both the charter issue and the upcoming verdict of the ICJ over the Phreah Vihear case. Foreign Minister Surapong Tovijakchaikul kicked off a controversy at the beginning of the year by suggesting that the Thai people should be resigned to the fact that Thailand won’t win the case. “For us, the expected ruling is either status quo or a defeat,” he said, prompting strong criticisms that he was throwing in the towel even before the fight begins. Thai and Cambodian officials and lawyers are to testify on the case in the middle of April, this year. Surapong first said he won’t be at the hearings and the Thai delegation will be headed by Thai Ambassador to the Hague Virachai Plasai while his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong will be making a visible presence there. The Thai foreign minister changed his mind a few days later and announced that he would be personally heading the Thai delegation. Depending on how the government handles the verdict, things could get fluid. Attempts will intensify from the government’s critics to whip up public nationalistic sentiments that could turn ugly. The combination of domestic conflict and cross-border tension could become a combustible mix. Negative reactions from various business segments over the enforcement (beginning Jan 1, this year) of the Bt300/day minimum age in most parts of the country will get louder as more medium and small-sized firms feel the pinch of the additional financial burden. The rising cost of living plus sporadic reports of labour lay-offs in certain industries to add to the grim political stirrings. Any one of these potentially explosive issues could force a confrontation between those for and against the government on the streets, especially if the move to get Thaksin home without facing judicial punishment is renewed again. That would be tantamount to igniting a real political conflagration. Of course, Premier Yingluck is aware of all the potentially calamitous scenarios. How she defused all those time-bombs by keeping a proper distance from her own brother and all the various contentious factions within our party and affiliated groupings will decide how much she could really be her real self