The Prayut Chan-o-cha government's decision to approve an observation tower that will make use of a water-front land plot belonging to a state agency has raised public suspicions, which is understandable.
The 29-storey tower, to be located on Treasury Department land at Charoen Nakhon Soi 7 in Klong San district, just next to Iconsiam, is to be operated by the newly formed Bangkok Observation Tower Foundation. The cost of the project is 4.62 billion baht -- of which 4.42 billion baht will be spent on project construction and 198.5 million will be reserved for land rental payments to the Treasury Department over 30 years.
The government issued a cabinet resolution to bypass the bidding process on the grounds that such a process would further delay the project. But why rush? Without a bid, a question emerges about transparency. Many have suspected it is Iconsiam which is just next door to the tower project that will benefit in the form of a cheap land lease. Not to mention that the public has become weary of several "bypasses" that the government has made, especially through the use -- or overuse -- of Section 44 for various projects in the past few weeks for such controversial projects as the 179-billion-baht Thai-Chinese rail project and the use of land under reform scheme for industries.
That explains why such a hasty decision on the tower faces suspicion and criticism. It sets a poor example in governance.
Such suspicions seem solid given that the foundation board comprises representatives from operators of business venture Iconsiam, including business heavyweights of the likes of Siam Piwat, Magnolia Quality Development Corporation and Charoen Pokphand Group.
The government has strongly dismissed claims of wrongdoing in the project. The government said no state money is to be used in the project as funds will be raised from the foundation, mainly through loans from financial institutions and donations from the private sector. The environmental impact assessment for the 459-metre project has been approved by the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning.
In a bid to justify the government's decision, Finance Minister Apisak Tantivorawong told the media earlier this week the state does not have to pay out any money for the project. He also said profits from the project -- expected to be about a billion baht in revenue from ticket sales -- will be set aside for social activities. The government boasts the tower will become a symbol of Bangkok, and a tourist destination that attracts more than a million visitors a year.
But such explanations have failed to quieten critics who are right in pointing out that if the government had set up a bid, the four-rai land plot would have gone to the bidder that made the best offer, whether in the form of income or other kinds of social benefits. But now we are forced to have a structure that many architects brand as another architectural eyesore.
More importantly, there is a question of whether Bangkok, which is already littered with high-rises, needs such a towering structure 459 metres tall. What Bangkok, with a population of more than 15 million, truly lacks is green space and public parks providing areas for ordinary people who have little option when it comes to quality of life. The ratio of green area for the city population is less than healthy, at 3.9 square metres per Bangkokian, while London has a proud record of 33.4 square metres of green space per head.
By pushing for the tower, the government simply has its priorities in the wrong place.