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Thailand’s plan to remake economy a lofty goal amid airport, cultural woes

Thailand is prone to policy faddism. Several years ago, the Asean Economic Community (AEC) was all the rage until it officially came into being with a whimper at the end of 2015. Back then, hardly a day went by without some kind of a workshop or conference in Thailand about the AEC. But it did not add up to much, as Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) today is hardly more economically integrated than it was more than a decade ago when the AEC was conceived. In fact, Asean is more internally divided and beset with more geopolitical tensions and troubles than we have seen in many years. Yet Thailand went head over heels for it until a new fad arrived.

Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok. Thailand’s ‘face’ to the outside world suffered from a 

range of ills, including a lack of washrooms, poor baggage handling and not enough contact gates. Photo: Reuters

Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok. Thailand’s ‘face’ to the outside world suffered from a

range of ills, including a lack of washrooms, poor baggage handling and not enough contact gates. Photo: Reuters

Thailand is prone to policy faddism. Several years ago, the Asean Economic Community (AEC) was all the rage until it officially came into being with a whimper at the end of 2015. Back then, hardly a day went by without some kind of a workshop or conference in Thailand about the AEC. But it did not add up to much, as Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) today is hardly more economically integrated than it was more than a decade ago when the AEC was conceived. In fact, Asean is more internally divided and beset with more geopolitical tensions and troubles than we have seen in many years. Yet Thailand went head over heels for it until a new fad arrived.

That fad is now “Thailand 4.0”, the much-touted Fourth Industrial Revolution that is transforming livelihoods and ways of life around the globe. The idea is that Thailand needs to become a more digital society, underpinned by innovation and economic upgrading with better education and skill sets to move away from its middle-income trap. Indeed, the Thai government has even refashioned a new Cabinet portfolio, called the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society.

Yet Thailand 4.0 is long on superficial vision but short on policy coherence and implementation. Thailand’s global competitiveness rankings have been abysmal, matched by its bottom-rung education attainment in international benchmarks. The fancy 4.0 talk and large sums of government budget to promote it are misplaced. While it is all well and good to have a long-term strategic vision for growth and development, getting the basics right and picking low-hanging fruits may be more important and do-able.

For example, take Thailand’s main Suvarnabhumi airport, one of the 20 busiest global air travel hubs. This airport is effectively Thailand’s window for getting around and its “face” to the outside world when foreign visitors set foot in the country. Its passenger traffic expands at a good clip annually, in recent years in double-digit figures. Despite a history of corruption, infighting and ineptitude, it opened for business a dozen years ago after several decades of government inertia and ineptitude. It was supposed to change Thailand into a single-airport country, shuttering the nearly century old Don Mueang airport.

But Suvarnabhumi airport quickly ran into trouble. Its original design for 30 million passengers was expanded to accommodate an additional 50 per cent passenger increase, only to be swamped by even more traffic.

Few facilities worked correctly at Thailand’s main international airport, from a lack of washrooms to poor baggage handling and not enough contact gates for direct disembarkation rather than bus gates. The entire duty-free business was given to King Power as a monopoly, with terminal passengers coerced into walking and shopping due to few chairs being made available.

It was makeshift all the way at Suvarnabhumi. Even now, the kerbside turnstiles for passengers to enter the terminal building do not work properly. Nor do the lifts inside the terminal. Unsurprisingly, Don Mueang airport had to be re-opened to full utilisation to cushion demand from low-cost airlines. So Thailand now has a virtual two-airport policy for international air travel at its capital, which is the hub and heart of mainland South-east Asia. These airport woes represent Thailand 2.5, nowhere near 4.0.

More disgraceful is the Thailand Cultural Centre (TCC), built more than 30 years ago. Anyone who has been to it knows how it is misplaced and mismanaged. The remarkable pity, like the continually growing traffic at Bangkok’s two main airports in the face of shoddy facilities, is that the best global talent in culture and the arts keeps coming back to display their wares at the TCC.

Its busiest period coincides with the rainy season in the second half of the year, when an annual festival of dance and music is exhibited, including global names such as the Stuttgart Ballet and world-famous conductors such as Zubin Mehta.

But without modernisation and digitisation, the TCC is also left in the “2.5” era. It does not offer food facilities commensurate with its top-notch dance and music companies. Its parking is untidy and sometimes unworkable, and its management has not bothered to find a convenient walkway that can connect with the underground train station. Customers in need of an evening meal or just a beverage, some all dressed up for their special evenings, are forced into a crude canteen-like stall.

The TCC’s facilities are now considered so inadequate and unsafe by leading brands in the world of arts and culture that they may no longer come to Bangkok for the show.

There is actually a culture minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha but few know how he got there nor his name (Vira Rojpojchanarat), and he is apparently uninterested in rectifying these shortcomings.

Like Suvarnabhumi airport, the TCC is the country’s face, prestige and credibility. Fixing it up before the next festival season would not only boost Thailand’s and Bangkok’s international profile and reputation but it could also be a long-term legacy for Gen Prayuth, especially when he may not have much of a fruitful and positive performance to look back on.

Fixing up Suvarnabhumi airport with a two-airport air transport strategy in mind is equally urgent, particularly the midfield concourse to add passenger capacity.

While lofty and long-range goals are necessary, Thailand’s government can achieve much more by picking lower-hanging fruits, doing things that can be done now for immediate impact and problem-solving. Ultimately, Thailand has to aim high but also connect the dots and bridge persistent gaps along the way towards 4.0. BANGKOK POST

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

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