An Australian business leader made the unlikely suggestion at a conference yesterday that Thailand could surpass Singapore as a regional financial hub by becoming a new gateway to Myanmar.
Carey Ramm, executive chairman of the Australian consultancy AEC Group, said Thailand is drawing greater interest from Australian investors thanks to its diversified economic base and connections with China and India.
"With a better strategic position, Bangkok will become the next Singapore," Mr Ramm said on the sidelines of the 2012 Australia-Thailand Business Conference.
"By 2020, Thailand will become a high-income country."
The Australian government recently issued a white paper outlining Australia's shift in foreign policy emphasising relations with its Asian neighbours. Thailand is Australia's eighth-largest trading partner.
Mr Ramm said the Australian government plans to set up a business incubator in Thailand to serve as a "nursery" for exporters, offering information and assistance for companies and investors interested in starting a business in the country.
Attractive sectors include engineering and manufacturing, oil and gas, mining, IT and electronics, construction and infrastructure.
Mr Ramm said Thailand is also seen as an attractive hub for Australian firms to access Myanmar and the Greater Mekong Subregion.
Charamporn Jotikastira, the president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand, said the local bourse has the potential to become a hub for the region.
Turnover on the SET recently surpassed Singapore as No.1 in Asean. The Thai market has 20 listed companies with a market capitalisation of more than US$1 billion, second only to Indonesia with 23.
The Asean Trade Link programme, an initiative connecting seven exchanges in six Asean countries, encompasses 3,778 listed firms with a combined market capitalisation of $2 trillion. Mr Charamporn said Asean will account for 6% of global gross domestic product by 2015.
Manop Sangiambut, an executive vice-president at Siam Commercial Bank, agreed that Thailand's position as an Asean hub will only improve as new economic corridors and road networks are built throughout the rest of the decade.
The political and economic reforms in Myanmar also bode well for the country and the region, and its new foreign investment law will help set the stage for further investment.
But Mr Manop noted challenges remain in Myanmar, including weak institutional capacity within the government.
The 2015 general election will also be a key test of the reform process. The country's ethnic strife is another potential cloud for investors, as is the country's overburdened electricity grid and underdeveloped infrastructure, Mr Manop said.
James Wise, Australian ambassador to Thailand, said the amount of investment and engagement between Thailand and Australia still remains low. Australia still has limited knowledge of Asian cultures, he added.
"Right now, the focus is on Asia," said Mr Wise.
Rohini Kappadath, director of cross-border business at Baker Tilly Pitcher Partners in Australia, said one of the main challenges for those interested in doing business in Asia is to consider Asian ways of thinking.
"Patience is an absolute necessity in Asia. People from the West usually focus on a certain business deal and the business-partner relationship is not as long as those relationships that happen in an Asian business environment," she said.
"In Asia, it is more like a friendship or relationship-driven business. This is something that Australians need to understand.
"[Investors] need to understand that sometimes they may have to face electricity shortages or pollution, but the benefits gained are worth taking the risk."
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Writer: Nithi Kaveevivitchai & Nareerat Wiriyapong