Mixed views about Thais from Singapore's statesman

Mixed views about Thais from Singapore's statesman

Singapore's late founding father Lee Kuan Yew was a leader who did not mince his words, especially after he stood down as prime minister in 1990.

He shared his views on regional and global issues in a forthright manner in his books and interviews.

And in recent years, there were two areas of caution he expressed about Thailand. First, the military's interference has resulted in a perpetual state of political uncertainty in the country and has shaken the confidence of investors.

Second, a failure for Thailand and other countries in the region to close economic and social gaps will lead to more protests to demand improvements in the distribution of wealth.

Lee compared Thailand with Myanmar in an essay entitled Socialism or Free Markets? Consider Myanmar and Thailand, published by Forbes Magazine in 2012.

He said both countries are comparable in size and in the 1960s had similar rates of growth.

While Myanmar chose a closed-door economic policy in 1962 after a coup by Gen Ne Win, Thailand pursued a free-market economy and became one of Asia's busiest manufacturing hubs, Lee wrote.

He noted, however, that while elections were held regularly, the army continued to stage coups whenever it considered the government unreliable or going against the monarchy.

He warned the repeated cycle of power takeovers has led to political instability in the country.

"Both countries' governments would do well to remember that it was the open-door policies of free trade and investment that made Thailand prosperous and the passive closed-door policies that held Myanmar back for 50 years," Lee wrote.

During a seminar on the future of Asia in Tokyo in the same year, Lee said he believed political protesters in Thailand were demanding a more equitable wealth distribution.

He said growth in various Asian countries has benefited somewhat while there is a growing disparity in others.

"This is something countries in the region have to be mindful about when they are undertaking their growth strategy," Singapore's Minister Mentor said.

He added that governments in the region should learn from China, which invested in infrastructure development in inland areas where four major cities that could house as many as 40 million people each are being built.

This is one way to reduce social and economic gaps that could create an unstable country divided between the haves and have-nots, he said.

When it comes to geopolitics, he said Thailand remains far from being a serious challenge to Singapore's leadership position in the region.

"How high are their skills and education? They have to be better than us," Lee replied to the question of whether Thailand could be Singapore's competitor, published in the book, One Man's View of the World.

He did not believe that Thailand has the ability or the potential to develop the English-language skills and other qualities necessary to attract high-value investments for the majority of its people either.

"First, we have the advantage of the English language. Second, we have an education infrastructure that has been producing high-quality graduates, those from the polytechnics and those from the ITEs. Nobody goes without some skill. Can they develop that for 60 million people spread across the rural areas?" Lee said.

In his view, Bangkok has always resorted to its "bending with the wind" strategy when it comes to foreign policy.

"You know the history of the Thais. When the Japanese were strong and about to attack Southeast Asia, they allowed Japanese troops into Thailand, made it easier for them to move on to Malaysia and Singapore. So whoever is the winning side, whoever is the more powerful side, that is the side they will ally themselves with," Lee said.

Thailand's former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was impressed with Lee's nation-building efforts and considers the late statesman his political mentor.

Lee had some praise for Thaksin: "He is much shrewder and smarter than his critics," he said.

Still, Lee maintained reservations about the ousted premier.

He said Thaksin once told him he took a trip by coach all the way from Bangkok to Singapore. After that, Thaksin told Lee he knew what made Singapore tick so he was going to do it the same way.

"I don't know whether one trip gets him to understand our black box, which has to do with education, skills, training and a cohesive society with equal chances for all," Lee said.

Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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