Government fails to invest in human capital
Though having passed the first of three readings in the Lower House on Saturday, the government's 3.2-trillion-baht budget bill for the 2020 fiscal year has failed to gain approval from most opposition party MPs, who abstained in the vote.
The bill was criticised for a hike in military spending and the low priority it gave to "quality spending" particularly related to human development.
The bill proposes a 233-billion-baht budget for the Defence Ministry. It is a 2.7%, or 6.2-billion-baht, increase from last year. It is ranked fourth among the payouts. Some of this money will be used for security operations at the borders, some on unidentified military operations and the rest for purchases of new equipment such as helicopters, tanks and armoured vehicles.
The Education Ministry will get 369 billion baht, which is a 0.1% reduction from last year. More than half of this sum will cover the salaries of the ministry's officials and employees. This means spending on programmes that directly benefit students -- such as school lunch subsidies, learning materials and course development -- will be less than the overall defence budget.
The Public Health Ministry will get 139 billion baht, a 2.47% hike.
The proposed allocation for defence accounts for 7% of the overall budget. The percentage is not much different from that spent by the Yingluck Shinawatra government and even lower than previous governments in the 2000s. So the government may use this fact as the rationale for the hike.
But I don't think it is the right direction.
Do we only want to maintain the same percentage of spending on defence for the sake of military pride? Or do we want to spend as an investment in a future that can bring about progress in society and opportunities for everyone? If we want the latter, then the country's money should be spent more on long-term human development and less on the military.
Human development remains the biggest challenge faced by Thailand. In recent years, workers' wages have been low due to constraints in their capacity. And our education system has not been effective enough at producing a high-quality, innovative workforce. This has resulted in a widening income gap and the country falling into a middle-income trap.
Key policymakers under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha have often called for urgent actions to upgrade human capacity. But in practice, the government's spending has focused less on human development, as reflected in the bill, and more on investment in megaprojects and infrastructure. The government has rolled out populist programmes that target short-term economic stimulus. It should instead spend more on long-term schemes to improve workers' skills.
Despite the bill having been criticised over its priorities, the government has not shown any interest in trying to bring about changes to the country when it comes to public spending.
That could be observed during the parliamentary debate when government representatives, particularly Gen Prayut, couldn't properly answer questions raised by the opposition.
Future Forward's party-list MP Pita Limjaroenrat questioned the effectiveness of large spending on water management programmes citing his analysis which showed that it would not improve the ability of local farmers and residents to deal with droughts and floods.
Gen Prayut responded with a claim that the government had already done well. His government must proceed with the programmes "step by step" because it "doesn't have enough money". Well, the government may have enough money if its budget allocation had better priorities.
In another case, a Pheu Thai MP from Uttaradit province, Sarunwut Sarunkate, demanded Gen Prayut clarify his position on the universal healthcare coverage (UHC) scheme, or 30-baht scheme, launched in 2002 under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration.
He said Gen Prayut had often criticised the scheme for being "a financial burden" while blaming "a previous government" for causing the problem.
But Gen Prayut has often used the scheme to promote his government's "achievement" in international conferences.
His answer has baffled many. He said he had promoted "UHC" but never praised the "30-baht healthcare scheme".
It's unclear whether he lacked understanding about it or said it on purpose. But it somehow shows his lack of interest in healthcare investment.
Under the budget bill, the proposed investment in human development is insufficient. The bill demonstrates the government's desire to preserve the status quo and legitimise defence spending.
Meanwhile, people will not get the opportunities they deserve.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.