Better ways to spend B22.5bn than on two subs
As I saw my Bangkok-bound train approaching Yala train station last week, I hoped the ride would be a perfect end to my nostalgic trip to the southern province, my second in recent years. In the latest visit I was glad the time-capsuled town showed signs of change, with new chic cafes, restaurants and hotels opening.
But the overnight ride made me realise something had remained unchanged: the train service. When I stepped on the train, I was stunned by how everything looked and smelled exactly as it had 40 years ago. It's the same old train that had the signs that said: "When the train stops, don't use the toilet."
When I bought the train ticket for the 20-hour trip weeks beforehand, I expected a new and cleaner train with modern facilities, like the one operated by CNR (China CNR Corporation Ltd), which now links Bangkok to four major destinations, namely Chiang Mai, Ubon Ratchathani and Nong Khai, and Hat Yai. The service was launched in 2017, the first improvement for the rail agency since 1997.
While it's understandable that the State Railway of Thailand would not want to invest in the three southernmost provinces, since the routes could be considered high risk for the debt-ridden enterprise, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the local people sitting on broken benches at the platform waiting for the worn-out and never punctual train to arrive. What did they do to deserve this?
The fact of the matter is that while the government plans to spend a fortune on two China-made submarines, we still have barely any money going into the improvement of our public transport systems that hundreds of thousands of people rely on daily.
Why would Thailand need 22.5 billion baht in submarines while its many taxpayers are left on broken benches and in dilapidated train carriages, and still don't have efficient public transport? (For those who keep saying that these low-income people don't pay tax, VAT is also a form of direct tax).
The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) strongly defends this purchase, saying it will boost relations between Thailand and China as well as make other countries feel kreng jai, or, in other words, keep others off our back.
The RTN also said Thailand actually needs six of the submarines, but it opted to acquire only three, worth 36 billion baht altogether. How kind!
That substandard and slow train is just one example. The government could use such a large amount of money for something more useful and practical for the people.
If bought, the future of the submarines wouldn't be difficult to fathom. Look at how we manage other military vehicles. A fleet of 25 tanks now serves as an artificial coral reef under the sea near Narathiwat while the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, Thailand's first aircraft carrier, now serves as a playground for Children's Day.
The controversial submarine deal has become a joke for numerous local newspapers and websites. Many have listed possible projects that the amount could be spent on and others presented them in infographics.
According to local websites, 22.5 billion baht could support the Universal Health Care package for 5.7 million Thais in 2021, buy milk for all schoolchildren nationwide for two years or support at least two projects to stimulate post-Covid tourism.
If directed to the Disease Control Department that's responsible for Covid-19 pandemic, the money would enable health authorities to work better for five years, support universities like Ramkhamhaeng for 20 years, Thammasat for five years, or Chulalongkorn for four years, to name a few.
Another showed an infographic on how the same amount could instead be spent on infrastructure or facilities. 22.5 billion baht could buy 1,200 electric buses with maintenance packages, 523 cars for city train systems, 1,022 public libraries, 7,031 kilometres of asphalt roads (replacing dirt roads), 2.8 million new drainage covers, 900,000 high-specification laptops for students, or 15,000-baht cash handouts to 1.5 million people.
Information from spaceth.co says that Thailand could become one of the leading nations in space exploration too. With the same budget, we could have a Thai version of Nasa and would be able to launch another New Horizons, the interplanetary space probe set up in 2006. Nasa's New Horizons spacecraft is the first spacecraft to explore Pluto up close.
Though defending the country is a noble deed, the RTN's submarine venture is suspect. During a time when people can barely make ends meet and the economy is sinking, with the government saying it is "unable to provide cash handouts", hearing about the RTN's wish to shop for submarines is insulting.
That these submarines are to be procured for "national defence" is pretty ironic, considering so many people are barely surviving as it is.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.