Economy needs expertise, not inexperience

Economy needs expertise, not inexperience

The backlash against Narumon Pinyosinwat, the government spokeswoman recently promoted to head the ruling Palang Pracharath Party's economic team, reflects just the tail end of the administration's failures.

Although Ms Narumon holds a PhD in finance from the prestigious Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, she has been heavily criticised for lacking experience in public policy administration and economics.

Ms Narumon was a lecturer at the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida) before she was appointed vice-minister of finance under Apisak Tantivorawong in the pre-election Prayut Chan-o-cha government.

She was relatively unknown until she became the government spokeswoman in July last year.

Following the criticism, Ms Narumon downplayed the report saying she would only be part of the party's economic team.

Considering her limited background, it's fair to say that Ms Narumon would face a monumental challenge as chief of the ruling party's economic policy team.

The country's economy is in a slump which has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Bank of Thailand gave a forecast in March that the GDP could contract by 5.3% this year. Last week, however, it revised the figure down to a contraction of 8.1% this year, worse than the 1997 financial crisis which saw a contraction of 7.6%.

The global economy is in no better shape. As the number of people infected with Covid-19 has climbed to more than 10 million, countries are struggling to maintain a balance between public health concerns and the need to keep their economies running.

With second-wave infections always a possibility and lockdown restrictions barring certain industries from returning to business, even some of the most experienced leaders and economists are finding it hard to map a way out.

To let an inexperienced finance lecturer and risk management adviser like Ms Narumon take the helm of the ruling party's economic team would thus be a huge gamble.

The odds of success would definitely be less favourable if the spokeswoman were to replace Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak in the role.

The PPRP's newly appointed secretary-general Anucha Nakasai suggested that more well-known academics will be invited to join its economic team.

This will likely be Ms Narumon's first real test.

If the spokeswoman can draw in some big names who can inspire confidence, not just among business leaders in the country but also investors from around the world, to help the party, she would be given enough credit to go on to a bigger role.

The outlook is poor though. Ms Narumon is not that well-known, not in the international arena. Besides, what big-name economists or financiers would want to serve under an untested, inexperienced team leader?

Unless she has ambitions far greater than her talent, Ms Narumon could end up becoming a victim of circumstance.

The state of the economy has always been the Prayut government's weak spot.

All the dreams that it had sold before the Covid-19 outbreak -- the Thailand 4.0 digital economy, the Eastern Economic Corridor, the high- or medium-speed train, medical hub, smart farms and other megaprojects -- failed to materialise, at least not in a way that people could feel their positive effects.

Relief measures that the government rolled out during the outbreak were riddled with flaws.

Registration for the cash handouts was complicated, and the stipends ran into delays which exacerbated people's hardship and misery.

The government may have succeeded in clamping down on the virus and saving lives but the economy is dying.

The cabinet recently approved a royal decree to borrow 1 trillion baht to help people affected by the outbreak and to rehabilitate the economy.

Yet, there is still no clear plan about how the vast amount of money will be spent.

How will the billions of baht help people whose businesses have been disrupted by the outbreak? What kind of projects should benefit from the fund? Should the public be allowed to participate meaningfully in deciding how the money should be disbursed?

Above all, there has been no real discussion about what the country's grand economic plan should be after the virus disruptions.

We cannot rely on tourism. Exports won't save us either. What changes do we have to make then to stay afloat in the increasingly complex global economy?

The economic challenge facing the country is momentous. The government and the PPRP owe the public a better plan.

Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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