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.”