Submarines, or schools?
Parliament yesterday kicked off its three-day deliberations on the budget bill for the next fiscal year, with a big question mark hanging over it. What should the government's priority be next year -- submarines or schools?
If it passes, the budget will be used to in the upcoming fiscal year, which starts on Oct 1 and runs until Sept 30 next year. Despite the bill being vital as Thailand's economic recovery hinges on it, the way the government is prioritising the lion's share of the budget has sparked many questions.
Critics have slammed the bill for prioritising the military's budget and sidelining "quality spending" on human and healthcare development.
The bill authorises the government to borrow up to 700 billion baht to cover its fiscal deficit -- which is about 91 billion baht higher than this year's, as the government is expecting lower revenue collection as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What's noteworthy, is that the bill includes a 203.28-billion-baht budget for the Defence Ministry. While it represents a 11.24-billion-baht reduction, or 5.2%, from this year's figures, the bill retains the budget for submarine purchases.
Meanwhile, the budget for the Public Health Ministry is only 153.94 billion baht, down by 4.3 billion baht or 2.8% from this year's allocation.
The government had previously defended its decision by saying the public health sector will ultimately get a large share of the budget because it will receive another 140 billion baht to fund the government's universal health care scheme, also known as the "gold card" programme.
The scheme forms the backbone of the country's healthcare system, which covers some 48 million people, and its membership is expected to grow by more than 137,000 next year.
However, the bill shows that the budget for the gold card scheme this year will also be reduced by 18 billion baht, or 12% from this year's allocation, despite the importance of healthcare given the current circumstances.
In addition, the budget for the Social Security Fund covering 13 million people was cut by 18 billion baht, or about 30%, while the budget for the state welfare card scheme, which covers 14 million low-income people, was cut by 20 billion baht.
The government also cut the Education Ministry's budget by 24.5 billion baht, or 6.75%. More importantly, the budget for the Science Research and Innovation Fund was cut by 29% to only 19.8 billion baht.
The budget allocations have raised questions about priorities in our public spending. Submarines or more schools? If we want the latter, then the country's money should be spent more on long-term human development, innovation development and social security.
Thailand is in a challenging time. The country needs massive capital injections to boost its recovery and rehabilitation. It is understandable that a huge deficit and loans are a must. Opposition MPs need to be open-minded and see the bigger picture. However, the budget, which will be covered by loans and paid for with taxpayers' money, must be spent wisely and above all, allocated properly.
Human development remains Thailand's biggest challenge. Our education system has to be improved if we want to upskill our labour force. We need more investments in science, technology and innovation.
It is now time for the government to move from pro-military spending towards pro-human resource development.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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