Daunting double portfolio

Daunting double portfolio

Supattanapong Punmeechaow talks about his responsibilities and challenges while serving as both deputy prime minister and energy minister

Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow talks at a press conference at the Finance Ministry on Aug 17, 2020. (Photo by Arnun Chonmahatrakool)
Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow talks at a press conference at the Finance Ministry on Aug 17, 2020. (Photo by Arnun Chonmahatrakool)

Supattanapong Punmeechaow is doubling up as deputy prime minister and energy minister in the cabinet reshuffle published in the Royal Gazette on Aug 6.

He is authorised by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to supervise the Finance and Energy ministries, as well as core economic agencies like the Board of Investment (BoI), the Eastern Economic Corridor Office (EEC) and the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC).

Mr Supattanapong, 61, looks very close to this incumbent government, as he was the prime minister's personal adviser on economic investment and infrastructure even before the general election on March 24 of last year.

He holds a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Chulalongkorn University and a Master of Business Administration from the same institute.

Mr Supattanapong has a long history in the energy business, formerly serving as chairman of Global Green Chemicals Plc, director of the risk management committee of PTT Global Chemical Plc, senior executive vice-president of PTT Plc and president and chief executive of PTT Global Chemical Plc.

The Bangkok Post interviewed Mr Supattanapong about his new responsibilities and challenges amid people's heightened expectations and ongoing threats from Covid-19.

What was the deal before you decided to join this cabinet?

Firstly, I was contacted to take the new energy minister position. Gen Prayut later called on me to double as deputy prime minister handling economic issues. I myself am willing to help this administration, particularly on energy and economic issues.

Before working for the prime minister, I retired for one year from the role of executive at private companies and I remain strong enough to serve this country.

Gen Prayut is very concerned about the economic issues and the serious impact of the pandemic. I see it's time and a good opportunity for me to help the government to tackle economic issues.

However, I'm not the leader of the economic minister team, as I have been assigned to supervise two ministries: Finance and Energy, and core economic agencies like the BoI, the EEC Office and the government's planning unit, the NESDC.

What is your target for working on economic issues amid the virus-hit economy?

Covid-19 has wrecked all countries over the world. Thailand itself could not generate income from foreign tourists and exports, the two major contributors to GDP.

I personally set my own challenging target that GDP this year should contract less than 7.3-7.5% as recently predicted by the NESDC. Figures should also return to positive figures in the year to come.

The government pledges to implement a host of new measures to boost the economy and policies to restore the confidence of investors, as well as those aiming to spur private investment, domestic tourism, domestic consumption and create more jobs.

Details of new measures to boost private investment and domestic consumption will soon be proposed to the newly formed Center for Economic Situation Administration (CESA).

I myself have also asked for cooperation from the private sector to help the government to spur the economy. Cooperation will be based on the so-called co-payment principle. Under the new principle, the government will subsidise a part of the private sector's expenses and offer some incentives to lure private companies to join government projects.

I will meet each group of the private sector to talk about cooperation, and the first meeting will be held with 20 energy companies on Aug 20.

What are your challenges in the short, medium and long terms?

In the short term, the government's first priority is to assist laid-off workers and rehabilitate the tourism sector, and we expect the Covid-19 vaccine may be made available over the next 12-15 months.

We need to focus first on alleviating the hardship of people who were affected by the closure of factories and laid-off workers in the tourism sector.

The public and private sectors should cooperate as much as possible with each other to curb a repetition of the viral outbreak now that the second wave will possibly result in a drastic impact on the economy.

The government will exert all efforts to speed up the recovery of ailing domestic tourism and entice cash-rich Thai people who normally travel abroad to travel more at home.

However, the government alone cannot tackle the problems.

I myself have to ask for cooperation from large companies to help promote their employees to travel more in the country while the government pledges to subsidise a certain amount of expenses. This incentive will be discussed at the next meeting of the CESA over the next two weeks.

In the medium and long terms, the government will focus on introducing more measures to attract investment.

Current S-curve industries may no longer serve as the government's investment target. The government needs to consider first the real demand for potential investors.

Thailand should also seek new opportunities. For instance, universities should concentrate more on research and development in energy, data analytics, bioengineering, artificial intelligence and bioeconomy.

I've asked Mr Pailin, chairman of the committee to drive economic management, to study and revise the S-curve industry policy to make it conform with the changing environment caused by Covid-19.

(The government's targeted S-curve industries are cars; smart electronics; affluent, medical and wellness tourism; agriculture and biotechnology; food; robotics for industry; logistics and aviation; biofuels and biochemicals; digital; medical services; defence; and education development.)

Promotional privileges should align with the demand of foreign investors.

Mr Pailin has high potential [to lead the committee to drive economic management] given his experience in private companies and supervising the EEC for Innovation. He also has expertise in research and development and bioeconomy.

Mr Pailin has already been assigned to revise S-curve industries and privileges to make them compliant with the changing business environment after the outbreak.

Thailand should focus more on promoting the agricultural industry now that the pandemic has triggered global concerns about food security.

Another key challenge is poverty. Tackling income disparity is a big challenge for me, and I am studying how to address this problem in both the medium term and the long term.

Regarding energy policy, community power plant development is one solution to help tackle poverty in remote areas.

The community power plant policy, nonetheless, will be revised in order to provide the best benefits to communities.

For you, what is the key role of the newly established CESA?

The new centre will work as an economic cabinet to make decisions on measures primarily to rehabilitate the economy.

In the short term, the CESA aims to create 1 million jobs for new graduates and laid-off workers.

The government will allocate some funds from the 400-billion-baht budget for economic and social rehabilitation to support job-creation projects supervised by the NESDC. The target is 400,000 new graduates and 420,000 laid-off workers by this year.

The government also plans to allocate funding from the 3.3-trillion-baht budget from fiscal 2021 to create jobs in the last quarter this year and next year.

The key goal is to retain employees as long as possible. The government will thus help private companies to maintain their employment. Job creation can also help laid-off workers to enable them to have enough income for daily spending.

The CESA has also established three working committees to work in the short term chaired by representatives from the Thai Bankers' Association, Piti Tantakasem; the medium- and long-term working committee chaired by Pailin Chuchotthaworn, chairman of the committee to drive economic management; and economic data working committee chaired by Thosaporn Sirisamphand, secretary-general of the NESDC.

The government may need to conduct surveys among foreign investors on their opinions about their investment and what they need in terms of incentives.

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