Dissecting Thai innovation

Dissecting Thai innovation

STEM crucial for the development of kingdom

Suchatvee Suwansawat
Suchatvee Suwansawat

As an engineer and educator, Suchatvee Suwansawat sees the Covid-19 outbreak not only changing the way people live but also how the world operates in the era of globalisation.

"I think from now on, it is necessary that Thais be localised [self-reliant]," said the chairperson of the Council of University Presidents of Thailand, adding that, in his view, every country will become "mildly nationalist" and self-dependence will be a trend.

In the past, countries heavily depended on exports and imports. Factories were set up abroad, where labour wages are cheaper. But now, the movement of people and logistics may not always be possible, Prof Suchatvee said, referring to the effect of Covid-19 on economies around the world.

"The unemployment rate is high in every country. People who work abroad will return home as they cannot survive, although the wage [in a foreign country] is high," he said. "When people don't have money, problems follow like the domino effect.

"The movement of capital, people and information will not occur in this period or the near future," Prof Suchatvee noted. "The whole world will become localised, self-reliant."

Therefore, every country must lessen its dependence on imports amid uncertainties in the world.

"We used to be confident that we have food security. Isn't that true? Thai doctors and nurses are so good, but we cannot fight [diseases] with our bare hands," he said. "We cannot produce N95 masks on our own, but if we ask to buy them from abroad, [sellers] will refuse, saying their people -- Americans -- are also dying.

"Even for regular face masks, we had to wait for an engine from China before we could produce them domestically. No need to talk about a vaccine, it is impossible to import it [early]," Prof Suchatvee added.

He also pointed out that other equipment, including ventilators for patients, are in short supply in the kingdom. Domestically produced products must be in stock in case of emergencies instead of being exported, he said.

At the same time, other countries would also be likely to stop depending on rice imports from Thailand, Prof Suchatvee noted.

"How can we withstand the trend of neo-nationalism and the trend of localisation [self-dependence]?" he asked.

Exporting countries cannot depend on the income from goods sold in other countries, Prof Suchatvee said.

"After Covid-19, no matter what we call it -- a new normal or new reality -- unless Thailand stands up and fight, we will always be the underdog," he said.

To survive, Thais must create innovations on our own, and Thais -- both the people and the government -- must support Thai innovation, he added.

Prof Suchatvee, who is also president of King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL), recalled the time in April when KMITL launched a prototype of its Mini Emergency Ventilators.

He said about 10 universities and institutions during the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak researched how hospitals in Thailand can procure enough equipment to treat patients.

"Ladkrabang [KMITL] could produce [the ventilators] for 5,000 baht each, and Thais were glad," Prof Suchatvee said. "Unbelievably, some Thais said they were too afraid to use them despite our invention being able to do everything MIT's and Cambridge's [ventilators] can."

He noted that other Thai medical teams could have done better, but they were disheartened due to a lack of support from citizens. "Thais do not trust Thai innovations," Prof Suchatvee said. "It's not their fault because we grew up not seeing Thai innovations, only imported products in the market."

He used the success of South Korean products as an example of what support from citizens can do to further the development of a nation.

"The first Korean-made TVs could not beat Japanese-made ones, their first mobile phones could not beat the Americans', but they [South Koreans] used their own products, and now Korean-made TV sets are sold in Japan, and Korean mobile phones are sold in the United States," Prof Suchatvee said.

"This is because the Korean people and the state supported local products," he said.

According to the academic, while Thailand continues to produce more products, and the economy is scaling up, Thai products have never reached their full potential due to a lack of support from citizens.

"Remember: Thais make, Thais use, Thais survive, Thais prosper. We cannot stray from this mild nationalism and localisation," Prof Suchatvee said, referencing a motto from the era of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, who was prime minister of the kingdom during various period between 1938 and 1957.

FM Plaek used to say: "Thai tham (does), Thai chai (uses), Thai charoen (prospers)."

To set an example for the rest of Thailand, KMITL has announced the establishment of a hospital that will use Thai innovations to prove that they work so citizens will be more confident about local products.

The engineering professor highlighted the power of technology in reaching people from every corner of life and how education plays a crucial role in success.

To develop Thailand's human resources, especially now that we have a lower birth rate, nutrition for the younger generation and quality teaching in early education must be prioritised, said Prof Suchatvee.

"Quality must be prioritised. It's too late to focus on my generation," the 48-year-old educator said. "We must now focus on the early childhood stage, beginning at birth.

"For small children, [providing quality] nutrition must be the highest priority," Prof Suchatvee said. "Thais born today must be provided with the best nutrition. We must set our goals so that Thai children can be at least six feet, or 180 centimetres, tall [when they grow up].

"Secondly, education for primary school students must be the best, no matter what," he stressed. "The best English language teachers must teach at kindergarten and elementary levels. The best math, music and art teachers must teach at kindergarten and elementary levels.

"When [the students] grow up, they can leap," Mr Suchatvee said. "In 20 years -- which is not too long --Thailand will make a comeback."

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) must still be the key to national development, and Thai education must stop the disconnection between arts and science, he noted.

"Nowadays, how can anyone who does not understand computers and coding survive? People who work in mass media must understand artificial intelligence (AI)," the educator said. "If engineers like me produce unattractive mobile phones, who will buy them? We have to understand [tech] design.

"Adults have to cultivate a sense of lifelong learning and create readers," he said, adding his heart broke after seeing Thai publishers closed their businesses.

Prof Suchatvee said he always make use of his free time reading books or listening to audiobooks, noting he finishes two books per week on average.

Although he is unhappy with many things in Thailand, the president of the Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning is optimistic about the kingdom's future. He sees Thailand as a potential leader in Asean in 20 years.

"In 20 years, but we have to push," he added, emphasising leadership skills as a critical factor.

"Not only [must we be] smart, we should also have perseverance. People will still [criticise] us as leaders even when we are doing good," he said, adding Thai leaders need to aim high and have the support and trust of citizens.

"Bangkok must [aim to] host the Olympics, Bangkok must host the World Expo," Prof Suchatvee said. "Hosting means we will have guests. We must actively tidy up our home to welcome the guests. Without [expecting] incoming guests, our house will be just as messy as before.

"Having a vision means seeing what others do not see. People may doubt, but if you are a leader, this is what you say: 'We will beat Singapore in 10 years.'," he said. "People may underestimate you, but unless our leaders have visions like this, Thailand cannot go anywhere."

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