Thailand urgently needs to tackle development traps
About two weeks ago while having supper with my family, my wife received a phone call from former prime minister Anand Panyarachun. So far, so good. But when my wife turned the phone over to me and said, "Khun Anand wants a quick chat with you", my instincts told me I had written something irritating and was about to be lectured by a former prime minster. However, my concerns quickly dissipated, because to my surprise I had just earned a different kind of lecture: an invitation to the Amartya Sen lecture series which was held last Tuesday at the Intercontinental Hotel in Bangkok. Phew! Dodged another bullet.
Needless to say, the Amartya Sen lecture series, the first of its kind held outside Europe, was indeed a special occasion. Here are a few things I found particularly interesting. The event was packed with the good and the great of Thai society. Scions of the nation's banking families, heads of industries, property magnates, towering intellectuals, and past and present mandarins and ministers. Despite this star-studded crowd, there was one person who stood above the rest, one star that shone the brightest, one statesman from Thailand that we can be sure will never embarrass us under the full glare of the international stage. And his name was Anand Panyarachun.
A real statesman requires no official title, because these things are self-evident. Real respect is earned and can only be given by people's own volition. But, in my view, what makes Khun Anand unique is his emphasis on youth development. This is a rare quality in Thai leaders. Most Thai leaders are youth-oppressing, attention-seeking, limelight-hogging, microphone-grabbing personalities, because they see it as their time in the sun. Khun Anand, instead, made it a point to deflect attention towards youth, and consistently tried to introduce Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and governor of the Bank of Japan Haruhiko Kuroda to many of the younger generation he had invited to join the proceedings that night. He has faith in the next generation, and so should we.
I wish more of the younger generation in Thailand could have been exposed to the discussions that night. Here was an event that openly identified the future economic, social and environmental "traps" Thailand faces, but outside of that room the regime is doing all it can to discourage free and fair discussion on a whole range of issues that are of vital importance for the future of this country. The contrast was staggering.
Mr Kuroda identifies three traps which Thailand will encounter. Firstly, the middle-income trap, which is essentially the difficulties that middle-income economies face when traversing towards high-income status. Secondly, the demographic trap - an ageing population, mainly due to higher life expectancy and lower fertility rates, which will put pressure on sustaining per capita income growth. Thirdly, the Malthusian trap - the depletion of natural resources such as water, oil, and land will effectively place limits on future economic growth. So how do we sustain economic growth in Asia? In short, Mr Kuroda points to Total Factgor Productivity (TFP) growth.
These so-called traps are the defining economic challenges of this generation. Thailand urgently requires a vision to tackle these monumental tasks. We also face political traps. It is a "democracy trap". The challenge before us is how Thailand can move towards a more open, free, just and pluralistic society without shedding any more blood. Thai elites have two choices to make. Are we happy to have a big piece of a small cake? Or should we settle for a smaller proportion of a much bigger cake? Would you prefer to own 5% of Apple stocks at 1990s valuations, or 1% at current valuations? In my opinion, the answer is obvious.
It's time we opened ourselves up for public discussion and debate. The Amartya Sen lecture panel that night unanimously stressed the importance of public discussion and discourse as a hallmark of effective democracies, which will eventually lead to more sensible, well-thought through public policy. Sadly, let's be honest, these complex and nuanced economic, social and political issues are not what a military mindset has evolved to solve, let alone comprehend.
The benchmark of any civilised society can be judged on how it treats its youth. In Thailand, instead of educating kids, we indoctrinate them. Instead of encouraging them to speak, we shut them up. And instead of rewarding courage when a student makes a stand, we have teachers that publicly denounce them for being mentally ill.
Oscar Wilde's famous play The Importance of Being Earnest is essentially about someone who leads a double life. Thailand is leading a double life of its own. We tell the world we are on the path to a more just, equal and democratic society, but under the cloak of darkness we suppress dissenting opinions and stifle free debate, whilst slipping quietly back towards a more medieval societal arrangement. I don't know about you but given the choice between adopting Gen Prayut's 12 moral principles and Anand Panyarachun's 7 Pillars of Democracy, without a doubt I would choose the latter every day, and probably twice on Sundays.
Songkran Grachangnetara is an entrepreneur. He graduated from The London School of Economics and Columbia University. He can be reached at Twitter: @SongkranTalk
Songkran Grachangnetara is an entrepreneur. He graduated from The London School of Economics and Columbia University.