Commentary: Umesh Pandey
No one could have said it better than Transport Minister Chadchat Sittipunt did when he observed what a mess Thailand had made of itself after years of colour-coded politics.
A novice in the political field but among the smartest people in Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s cabinet, Mr Chadchat described the period that began with street protests in early 2006 and a coup later that year as a “lost decade”.
I for one could not agree more with him on this issue.
Speaking last Thursday at “Post Forum 2013”, Mr Chadchat estimated the opportunity losses and other costs of those wasted years at 1.7 trillion baht, a figure nearly equal to the country’s annual budget.
Some people may take issue with the minister’s calculations, and it’s only been seven years since anger at Thaksin Shinawatra brought people onto the streets, but his point still stands. There is no doubt that this country has lost its charm as a destination for investments and tourism in Southeast Asia.
Apart from this, Thailand for years frittered away opportunities to strengthen its best selling point — its location at the heart of Asean and the Mekong region — by investing in badly needed new infrastructure.
The path Thailand has taken calls to mind the long, slow decline of the Philippines, once Southeast Asia’s strongest economy before years of political upheaval made it the “sick man of Asia”. Only recently has that country regained its footing.
Thailand today can be said to have regained political stability, but stability is threatened by some who fear the loss of their vested interests and want them protected, even if it is at the cost of the national interest.
To bolster his “lost decade” argument, Mr Chadchat pointed out some very interesting facts that left some in his audience dumbstruck.
Thailand today ranks 49th in global competitiveness on infrastructure, while Singapore is in second place, Japan is 16th, Taiwan 27th, and neighbouring Malaysia 29th.
Comparing the World Economic Forum survey for 2012-13 with that of 2010-11, competitiveness scores have declined for rail (to 65th from 57th), roads (39th from 36th), ports (56th from 43rd) and airports (33rd from 28th).
If those figures are not sobering enough, consider that even the job you are doing could be under threat. Thailand’s ranking as a recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) has fallen to fourth in Asean at $8.6 billion from second in 2004. In that year Thailand received $5.86 billion while Malaysia ranked third at $4.6 billion. Last year, Malaysia attracted $10 billion in FDI, 17% more than Thailand.
Countries across the region over the past decade have been investing heavily in infrastructure, but in Thailand, apart from spending to make life easier for commuters in Bangkok, little has been invested to facilitate the movement of goods, services and people in other parts of the country.
Drive to any other part of the country and try to identify any significant new highways, expressways, waterways, rail lines or even airports that have been built over the past decade.
Now take a look at our neighbours. Malaysia saw the bright future for cheap air travel and developed a low-cost terminal (which it is now expanding again), as well as roads and rail networks to link more parts of the country.
Singapore’s Changi, which some believed would face a big threat when Suvaranbhumi Airport opened in Bangkok in 2006, has expanded beyond most expectations and remains one of the region’s best air hubs.
Even Myanmar is getting ready to improve — or in some cases create from scratch — the infrastructure it badly needs to become a 21st century economy.
Thailand, meanwhile, has a lot of infrastructure that was built a decade ago or much longer and has reached its maximum handling limits. It is in desperate need of additional capacity.
Although keeping corruption out — or should I be realistic and say “at manageable levels”? — is a key, it is time for people in Thailand to unite behind the cause. We need to think about where we want the country to be in the future, instead of assuming that because it is in the centre of the region, people will always want to be in Thailand.
There is no country in this world that investors cannot live without, especially a country with just 68 million people, limited natural resources and, sorry to say, limited human capital to attract value-added businesses.
If we do not have proper infrastructure as well as political stability, sooner or later we may find ourselves in the dumps and it would not take just a year or two to get out. It could take decades.