Harnessing Thailand's human capital
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Harnessing Thailand's human capital

A man uses a cane as he walks along a road in the Chinatown area of Bangkok. Almost a third of Thailand's population will be over 60 by 2050, according to the United Nations. That puts the country at a disadvantage among its Asean peers. (Photo: Bloomberg)
A man uses a cane as he walks along a road in the Chinatown area of Bangkok. Almost a third of Thailand's population will be over 60 by 2050, according to the United Nations. That puts the country at a disadvantage among its Asean peers. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Thailand is currently on a distressing trajectory towards depopulation, with the number of deaths each year surpassing the number of births. The latest available data from the Department of Provincial Administration paints a grim picture, showing over 48,000 more deaths than births last year. This number is set to escalate as the number of births continues to plummet and death rates surge. Should the current trend persist, by 2083, Thailand's population is projected to shrink by half to 33 million. The leading cause of this demographic dynamic is the decline in fertility rates among Thai women. These declining fertility rates have severe repercussions and thus warrant the attention and actions of national leaders.

Thailand's depopulation trend, or negative growth rate, is not just a demographic concern but a pressing economic, political and social issue. Firstly, it leads to a smaller workforce, hampering economic productivity and growth. This shrinking working-age population subsequently increases the proportion of retirees, placing an overwhelming burden on the former to support the latter. The strain on public resources and social services is a stark consequence. Moreover, specific industries, particularly those that rely on younger and tech-savvy workers, may face severe skilled labour shortages, further intensifying the economic woes.

Moreover, economic growth is driven by labour, capital and productivity, and with a declining working-age population, the labour force component decreases, potentially slowing down the country's economy. Fewer people also mean lower aggregate consumer demand for goods and services, potentially leading to declining economic growth.

In addition to the adverse economic effect, depopulation presents significant challenges to political stability and democratic development. It affects various aspects of governance, policymaking and societal structures.

One of the primary impacts of depopulation on the political landscape is its adverse effect on economic performance. Reducing the working-age population decreases tax revenues and limits the government's capacity to fund essential public services and social programmes. To maintain the magnitude and standard of these services, the government may have to resort to borrowing, leading to an increase in public debt and, potentially, economic instability. This strain on public finance often manifests in political dissatisfaction among citizens, who may perceive the government as ineffective or unable to cater to their long addiction to populist policies, which involve handing out cash and providing free social and health services, particularly to low-income earners.

This dissatisfaction can erode trust and confidence in democratic political institutions and fuel discontent, making it challenging for democratic processes to function smoothly in Thailand. The country has a long history of military campaigns and the use of public discontent as a pretext for overthrowing democratically elected civilian governments. As a result, Thailand risks plunging deeper into the dark side of a bureaucratic state characterised by a structured and rule-based approach to governance designed by and for the ruling class. This system's potential drawbacks include rigidity and the risk of bureaucratic overreach, where bureaucratic entities operate beyond their intended authority. This leads to a lack of accountability, transparency and alignment with democratic principles.

An ageing population, a common consequence of depopulation, further complicates the political landscape. The demands of an ageing population typically shift government policies towards healthcare and social security, diverting funds from other critical areas such as education and infrastructure. This policy shift can lead to political conservatism, as the older population tends to resist progressive policies and innovations. The focus on meeting the needs of older people may marginalise the interests of younger generations, resulting in youth disenfranchisement, already visible by the increasing popularity of the Move Forward Party among young voters. Feeling neglected and discriminated against, younger individuals may disengage from the political process, leading to lower voter turnout and decreased participation in democratic activities. The lack of engagement from the younger electorate can stifle the evolution of democratic practices and hinder the adoption of forward-thinking policies. Visionary and progressive-minded national leaders must guard against this undesirable scenario.

Depopulation often leads to shifts in political power dynamics, resulting in increased centralisation of power. As rural areas experience population declines, urban centres grow in relative importance, creating a power imbalance. This centralisation can facilitate an authoritarian leadership style, leading to the erosion of local governance structures. Such erosion undermines grassroots democratic development and suppresses citizens' political freedoms and civil liberties.

Depopulation can increase Thailand's vulnerability to external influences and dependencies. Due to its weak economic performance, the country may rely more on foreign direct investment approaches. In this scenario of increased foreign dependency, Thailand may have to open its door to investor countries, allowing them to influence domestic policies and political autonomy, thereby further undermining democratic sovereignty. Political decisions may be swayed by external interests rather than the democratic will of the Thai people, weakening the integrity of the democratic process and leading to a decrease in, or even loss of, people's autonomy.

Finally, depopulation also affects social cohesion and trust, both fundamental to political stability. As communities shrink and social networks weaken, the erosion of social trust becomes a significant issue. This erosion can lead to increased political polarisation and instability as individuals become more divided and less willing to collaborate across different social and political groups.

Approximately one-third of the world's countries are experiencing depopulation, notably in Europe and East Asia. Many of these countries have implemented financial incentives, family-friendly policies and affordable childcare and healthcare services. Some provide additional support, such as housing, educational campaigns and gender equality measures. Despite these efforts, none has succeeded in reversing the negative population trend.

Through more imaginative human capital policies, Thailand can excel by implementing immigration policies to attract young, high-calibre immigrants to boost the workforce and foster innovation. By providing a comprehensive integration programme and support services, such policies would rejuvenate the population, drive economic growth and push Thailand out of the middle-income trap. Ultimately, this would contribute to a more dynamic and sustainable society, ensuring Thailand's prosperous and resilient future.

Peerasit Kamnuansilpa

Khon Kaen University Dean

Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is Dean, College of Local Administration Khon Kaen University.

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