Time to adjust expectations of new govt
text size

Time to adjust expectations of new govt

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin holds a garland before praying at a shrine in the parliament complex, before delivering the government's policy statement on Sept 11. Bloomberg
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin holds a garland before praying at a shrine in the parliament complex, before delivering the government's policy statement on Sept 11. Bloomberg

Many Thais have high expectations of the Pheu Thai-led government. They can't be blamed, because in the lead up to the election on May 14, they were bombarded with various pledges under the slogan "Think big, can do for the Thai people".

A lot of these pledges, despite sounding rather too good to be true, create dhope among Pheu Thai supporters. But critics remain unsure if the party will be able to fulfill its campaign promises.

Such doubts have only increased after Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin delivered his policy statement in front of parliament last Monday. Many of the party's supporters were surprised to find out several policies that had been promised were not included in the government's agenda, fuelling further suspicion that Pheu Thai is reneging on its promises.

Among the policies that weren't included were the pledge to raise the daily minimum wage to 600 baht, the 25,000-baht minimum salary guarantee for university graduates, 200,000-baht annual income for every household, and a 20-baht fare for all trips on Bangkok's electric train network. None of these are considered as urgent or pressing by the new administration.

Those whose feet are grounded in reality weren't too disappointed by the omission, as from the very beginning, they believe those were just empty promises designed to attract voters to support the party.

It appears that the policies, which sound too good to be true, were conceived high up in the ivory tower of the party's elites. The 25,000-baht salary guarantee for a bachelor's degree holder, for instance, has been criticised for being out of reach with reality.

While the figure itself isn't that high, it is much higher than the starting salaries of civil servants and many workers in the private sector. Only some graduates employed in certain fields such as engineering, architecture, dentistry or computer programming are paid that rate or higher.

In an attempt at damage control, the government decided on a quick fix. At the first cabinet meeting last Wednesday, the government decided to lower diesel prices to under 30 baht per litre by cutting the excise tax starting on Sept 20, and cut power rates from 4.45 baht per unit to 4.10 baht per unit starting in the September billing cycle.

While the speedy move is appreciated, it does not address the real problem, that is the pricing structure for fuel and power, which tends to favour major oil companies, PTT in particular, and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand at the expense of consumers.

Without major reform of the pricing structure, consumers will be exploited and held at the mercy of the oil companies.

The digital wallet scheme is another example of a project that wasn't well thought out. The government has failed to explain where the 560 billion baht required to fund this populist scheme will come from, apart from promising that it will not resort to borrowing to fund the scheme.

The failure to provide a clear answer about the source of funding speaks to the fact that the people behind this scheme initiated the idea without knowing where the money will come from.

Borrowing seems to be the likeliest option, as there is some room to do so -- at present, public debt accounts for 64% of GDP, still below the 70% threshold.

Since the government is likely to fail to deliver some of its promises, it should heed the advice from the governor of the Bank of Thailand about the digital wallet scheme and the debt moratorium for indebted farmers.

Instead of a "blanket" handout of 10,000 baht to more than 50 million Thai nationals who are 16 and older, and a "blanket" debt moratorium for every indebted farmer, the government should target those who need the money most.

A debt moratorium will not solve the farmer debt problem, it will only give them a temporary respite. As such, debt refinancing seems to be a better option.

Or, the government should strive to increase farmer incomes, instead of allowing rice millers to enjoy the biggest chunk of the profit pie.

Many commuters in Bangkok and its surrounding suburbs will welcome the 20-baht train fare. But what about private investors, especially those who have been awarded the concession to operate the services?

Transport Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit appears confident the 20-baht train fare can be implemented on the Purple and Red lines by the New Year.

The lines are operated by Bangkok Express Metro (BEM) and State Railway of Thailand respectively. He seems to believe the ministry can arm-wrestle them to deliver the promise for the government.

But it is a different story on the Green Line, which is privately operated. There are contracts governing the concession, which cover fare rates, that are legally enforceable.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration also owes the BTSC, which operates the Green Line or skytrain, and the Mass Rapid Transit Authority, a lot of money, about 100 billion baht.

The government under Prayut Chan-o-cha was reluctant to come to City Hall's rescue. The question which remains to be answered is how Mr Suriya plans to solve this problem.

Another aspect of the 20-baht fare which the government didn't think about was its impact on future investment.

After all, which private company would want to invest in a mass transit system where it could only collect 20 baht per passenger per trip, regardless of the distance travelled?

We need to take a step back and adjust our expectations. We should focus on pressing issues that affect our livelihood and quality of life.

We should be demanding radical changes in fundamental issues, such as bureaucratic reforms within the Royal Thai Police, and an end to corruption, which has spread through the entire system. We don't expect the government to solve these problems within its 4-year term. But at the very least, it must start in an honest and realistic manner.

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

Do you like the content of this article?