Thursday, August 4, 2011

Tablet computers are no cure for our ailing schools

Tablet computers are no cure for our ailing schools
By The Nation
Published on August 4, 2011

The eye-catching policy lacks planning, and could even erode our childrens' capacity to concentrate

Could tablet computers be a magic solution that makes our children smarter?

This is the burning question that Thais have been asking (and even hoping for a positive answer to) since the Pheu Thai Party announced its "One Student, One Tablet Computer" policy.

Of course, it is undeniable that tablet computers can be a high-tech classroom aid. But no one should believe they are a "magic bullet" that will instantly improve the quality of education, as the marketing gimmicks that Pheu Thai used would have voters believe.

Thai students have for decades been the victims of adults' failure to provide them with a proper educational environment. The quality of our schooling system is generally below par. The rich can afford to send their children to good schools but the vast majority of us are stuck with the low-quality education system.

Decision-makers and parties involved have been complaining about this issue for years but no sufficient effort has been made to fix it. It is no secret that one of the major weaknesses of our school system is the quality of teachers coupled with large class sizes. Each class at a typical public school usually accommodates 50 students or more, which makes it impossible for every student to receive proper attention.

Instead of addressing these fundamental problems, our politicians have opted for the quick-fix of the tablet PC scheme. In truth, these politicians are treating our education system as merely another channel for their populist marketing gimmicks.

They have diverted our attention to a narrow focus on physical materials in schools, even though education reform requires a more subtle approach that addresses the "software aspect" of learning.

Our children should be equipped to become responsible global citizens with the ability to express their thoughts, excel in whatever interests them, and with the conscience to protect our environment.

Taxpayers are willing to support our children. But we need an effective and strategic approach to ensure that this project is worthy of investment, not simply another empty mask hiding corruption.

First of all, the Pheu Thai Party has not come up with a proper plan to ensure that the tablet PC scheme will serve its purpose of enhancing the learning experience of our students from elementary school.

While the government plans to seek more than Bt2 billion to purchase 800,000 tablets, the Education Ministry and the politicians in charge have not convinced the public that they have a good plan to maximise their use. For instance, what will be the benefit of these tablets in rural areas where there is no broadband coverage? In addition, has the ministry prepared teachers so that our students will have qualified instructors to provide proper guidance and ensure that these gadgets will promote their learning ability.

The Pheu Thai Party is trying to justify the scheme by saying that they can acquire cheap tablets at around Bt6,000 apiece or less. But that is not the point. While these tablets could have a lasting impact on the environment when they become electronic waste in a couple of years, what guarantee do we have that they will produce any lasting impact on the intellectual capacity of our children?

Worse still, without proper guidance, these gadgets could exacerbate the problem of attention deficit disorders in children, and negatively impact their ability to analyse and think. In contrast, the much cheaper option of mass-produced textbooks has a proven educational value and, as history has shown, many of these books last for decades - even a century. Textbooks have served their purpose well in Thai schools, with their valuable information passed from one generation to the next.

It is also unclear how the tablet would encourage children to form a reading habit, which is widely recognised as a means to improving intellectual capacity. Thailand's slide in education rankings is no surprise if you consider that Thai children are now reading an average of only five books a year, while Singaporean students read 60, and South Korean around 80. Don't be surprised if Vietnam soon outsmarts Thailand - each Vietnamese kid now reads an average of 50 books a year.

In short, the priority for Thai schools is not an electronic gadget that could shorten students' attention spans, but good libraries or learning resource centres where they can spend time learning about whatever topics interest them.

Distribution of tablet computers is certainly not a crime, but politicians need to get the priorities right. They should ask themselves what our children can learn from these give-away tablets; have they prepared the infrastructure to enable our children to excel in their learning environment? But instead, the authorities are focusing on a mega-budget project which will, yet again, squander money that could have gone towards genuine improvements for our children's education.

These gadgets are no substitute for a good education - a point that even Steve Jobs likes to make. At the launch of the new iPad, Apple's CEO had this to say: "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough - it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing."

Breathing space for America, but for how long?

Breathing space for America, but for how long?
By The Nation
Published on August 3, 2011

Debt ceiling deal is a short-term fix for long-term problems that endanger economic recovery for rest of the world

Although the US House of Representatives on Monday night managed to pass an emergency compromise to allow the government to up its borrowing, the US economic crisis is still far from over.

As of press time, the legislation to increase the debt ceiling is being hurried through the Senate. But once rubber-stamped, the agreement will only help the US administration pay its bills. After weeks of confrontation and suspense, the House of Representatives' vote on Monday simply eased worries that the US would default on its debts for the first time in history. But the legislation still falls far short of addressing the fundamental issue facing the US.

While the emergency compromise, passed by a vote of 269 to 161, enables the US to stave off immediate economic catastrophe, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have yet to address the structural reform that will enable the US economy to recover. The deal may allow the US administration to borrow more to avoid defaulting, but America is still struggling with stalled growth and a high unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent.

The US economic woes are a result of years of big spending. The financial meltdown triggered by the sub-prime crisis in 2008 dragged on because of the failure to reform. The administration's stimulus packages have not produced the positive economic "multiplier effects" the White House had hoped for. All these issues have snowballed into a heavy weight of economic woe, evidenced by the soaring deficit.

Though an agreement was finally reached in the Lower House, the deal has not spelt out how the US administration will turn around the economy. Washington is in desperate need of a long-term plan and structural reform to promote stronger growth and increased revenue, if it is to escape this economic trough.

The dilemma facing the US administration is whether the cash-strapped nation should spend more to stimulate growth or, alternatively, apply austerity measures to slash public spending. The Congressional Budget Office expects the present deal to cut federal spending by US$2.1 trillion over 10 years. But some economists have pointed out that austerity might not be the solution to reversing the economic slump.

Passing measures to fix the US economy is being made more difficult by a polarised Congress in which lawmakers have taken up entrenched positions on different sides of the aisle. The ultra-conservative Tea Party camp will shout down any attempt to raise taxes while liberal Democrats are adamant that social benefit programmes be maintained.

But while the debt ceiling issue will be decided in domestic political circles, the crisis Stateside is having serious repercussions for the global economy. The US debt-service ratio will hit the credibility of dollar-assets. Many countries in Asia hold billions of dollars in US treasury bills as part of their foreign reserves, with China and Japan holding the largest portions of US debt.

The US debt problem also puts pressure on Asian currencies, especially the yuan, because the crisis will potentially further weaken the value of the dollar against currencies in the region. In fact, the debt-ceiling impasse in recent weeks pushed up prices on Asian stock markets.

America's indebtedness could bring upward inflationary pressure, too, as the US is also likely to inject more money in a bid to boost the economy. But at the same time, the prospective cuts in federal spending could affect domestic demand. If that is the case, Thai exporters to the US market can expect to suffer.

The US crisis is also a glaring lesson in how the global economy has become closely interconnected. It is no surprise, then, that the rest of the globe is watching anxiously to see whether the world's biggest economy can find a solution to get out of this mess.

This week's deal in Congress may provide some breathing space, but the relief will only be short term. Meanwhile, the world is staying tuned and desperately hoping that Uncle Sam can come up with the right solutions.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Media bribery claims must be urgently probed

Media bribery claims must be urgently probed
By The Nation
Published on July 8, 2011

Allegations about 'rewarded' journalists undermine key pillars of democracy

The investigation into an allegation that some journalists received money from the Pheu Thai Party in exchange for favourable coverage of the party during the general election must be pursued in earnest and to its conclusion. Simply put, this scandal threatens the foundation of Thailand's fragile democratic system.

Last week, the Manager website publicised an e-mail which the paper claimed was leaked by a Pheu Thai Party source. The e-mail suggested that a Pheu Thai deputy spokesperson paid journalists Bt20,000 to ensure that positive coverage and images of Yingluck would receive more space in the media. In the e-mail, the party's spokesman claimed he had spent money wining and dining certain members of the press last month. The reporters were also named in the e-mail.

If this allegation is true, the reporters in question must be punished. The published e-mail explicitly suggested that the reporters were bribed, a suggestion that, if true, severely violates the ethical code of journalism. The allegation does not merely affect the reporters said to have been involved in the bribery, it also taints the credibility of the reporters' news outlets. And most importantly, the incident damages the credibility and integrity of journalism as an institution.

In fact, this alleged bribe has caused more damage to these news outlets than to the reporters involved, because the general readership will remember the names of the news outlets rather than the names of individual reporters, whom the e-mail mentioned by their first name or nickname.

On the other hand, if this e-mail turns out to be a fraud, the culprits must be brought out into the light. And the result of the investigations must be widely publicised so as to clear the names of reporters whose careers have already been affected because of the rush to judgement by many groups in society. All the time it remains unclear whether the bribery actually took place, the reputation of the reporters alleged to have received the bribe is tarnished. Thus, it is imperative for all parties involved to get to the bottom of what happened and find out if bribery has taken place.

In this regard, the National Press Council of Thailand's decision to investigate the allegation within 15 days was welcome. The council, the News Broadcasting Council of Thailand, the Thai Journalists Association and the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association last week issued a joint statement declaring that the allegation had impacted negatively on the media profession. It also set up a panel of respected members to probe the matter.

The press associations cannot let this allegation go unanswered, and neither can the news outlets that these reporters are attached to. Already, the issue has attracted strong public attention. For instance, social activist Dr Tul Sittisomwong called upon the media organisations to find the truth behind the allegation. "I don't know whether such an action [media bribery] is against any laws but it is improper," he said.

The Pheu Thai Party must also do more to reveal to the public what exactly occurred. An internal investigation should be conducted and anyone who is found to have been involved must be held accountable. The party earlier issued a short statement that did nothing to answer the questions regarding the incident. After all, it is illegal for a political party to offer bribes, and if there is truth in these allegations, a serious crime has been committed.

With the country so politically polarised, the media has found it difficult to perform its duty, especially during the election campaign. The media, both local and international, has sometimes been accused of being biased. Some media outlets have been charged with partisan coverage, of going easy on one political party while taking frequent shots at the other. In other cases, media outlets have been accused of featuring certain political parties more prominently than others.

Against this background, it is imperative for every party involved to uncover the truth and reveal it for all to see. This is a brewing scandal that affects the credibility of two main pillars of democracy - political parties and the media.

Yingluck's first challenge: prove you are not a puppet

Yingluck's first challenge: prove you are not a puppet
By The Nation
Published on July 5, 2011

Thailand's first female prime minister must reassure the country she is no 'clone' of her brother if any real national reconciliation is to take place

Yingluck Shinawatra now has to bear both the privilege and the burden of being Thailand's first female prime minister. Yingluck will have to silence her critics by showing that a woman can also be a good premier.

Yingluck has everything she needs to become a good leader. She has been praised by some observant academics for displaying a willingness to compromise, which could be an asset for national reconciliation efforts. Another plus is her experience in the corporate world.

But first of all, Yingluck will have to prove that she is serving the public interest, and not her family business as some critics have claimed.

She will receive the torch passed on by her brother, fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the champion of populist policies. But Yingluck will not have easy days ahead.

First of all, her government faces the immediate challenge of helping people suffering from price rises, an issue that hurt the Democrat Party.

While the rising prices are an inevitable part of a regional inflation trend, the new government will have to help those people who are most vulnerable to the higher cost of living.

During last week's campaign, Yingluck mentioned several potential measures to cope with price rises, including scrapping the oil fund to lower the cost of fuel. But she will have to consider these crucial policies wisely. Although scrapping the oil fund might be successful in lowering fuel prices in the short run, it would leave government without an important tool to lessen the fluctuation of petrol prices in the future. After all, the oil fund was established as an alternative to using tax money for petrol price intervention.

The minimum wage proposal should also be re-considered. In fact the government alone cannot promise workers a certain wage level, because the decision will have to be agreed upon by a tripartite committee of workers, employers and the government. An unrealistically high minimum wage might make for a sexy election campaign promise, but it could create more job losses in the future as factories shift to outsourcing their labour needs or automation instead of paying more for low-skilled workers.

Economic problems aside, the new government will have to proceed with the process of reconciliation to seek the truth behind the deadly political unrest and provide justice to all parties. The reconciliation process must be aimed at providing justice to all rather than providing amnesty for certain politicians.

The two components of truth and justice are of central importance to reconciliation. While investigation into the facts must continue, the process should also offer justice to all parties involved, with investigations taking into consideration the motives and actions that led to the loss of so many lives.

If these two central components are not addressed properly and fairly, the process of national reconciliation will not be possible.

In the longer term, the Yingluck administration will have to improve the country's competitiveness in preparation for Thailand's entry to the Asean Economic Community, where we will face direct competition from other countries in the region.

Unfortunately, none of the political parties has offered any platform to address Thailand's competitiveness. Instead, they have preferred to focus on populist measures. Such policies should in fact be short-lived, with the government instead turning its focus on how to improve the productivity of the country and its people in the long run. However, the Pheu Thai Party has not yet made any serious plan to improve education or improve the capacity of people in a sustainable manner.

These are some of the prominent issues that the Yingluck government will have to address. Although she managed to lead Pheu Thai to a massive victory, she still has to prove that her government and her political career are not designed to produce an amnesty for Thaksin or to return those of his assets now frozen by the courts.

Of course, Yingluck was handpicked by her brother to become the party's prime ministerial candidate. And he described her as his "clone".

But she has the opportunity to make her own history. It would be a crying shame if our first female prime minister were taking office simply to serve the interests of her family.

Formulate a long-term strategy for energy security

Formulate a long-term strategy for energy security
By The Nation
Published on June 30, 2011

The country needs an effective, well- considered management plan to prevent accidents and ensure a safe, reliable, sustainable power supply

Thai-MarriageThailand should further explore alternative energy, especially environmentally friendly sources, with the recent leak from a natural gas pipeline off Thailand's coast serving as a warning that an energy crisis could strike if the country does not adopt a proper strategy.
The leak in PTT's gas pipeline has affected the country's natural gas supplies. PTT, Thailand's largest energy company, said earlier this week that the leak had reduced natural gas supply by 660 million cubic feet per day, from a total of 4.4 billion cubic feet per day. The leak has affected gas delivery to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) and its main gas separation plant, PTT said.

In response to the leak, the Energy Ministry has implemented an emergency plan to prevent power shortages. But a more sustainable long-term energy plan should be devised urgently.

At present, Thailand is heavily dependent on natural gas. As much as 70 per cent of the country's total electricity generation is derived from natural gas. The concern over a possible energy crisis is thus legitimate after the leak in the pipe that connects one of PTT's main pipelines in the Gulf with its Platong field. In the aftermath of the incident, Egat now plans to increase power production using fuel oil and hydro-electric sources to offset the reduced natural gas supplies.

While Thailand may still have to depend heavily on natural gas sources, the relevant agencies involved should further explore alternative sources of energy to prevent disruption and blackouts should another leak in the pipeline occur in the future.

Agencies involved should begin a serious effort to explore the advantages and disadvantages of each type of alternative energy source, such as wind or solar power, to find out what source generation will best be able to help meet Thailand's ever-increasing needs. The evaluations should obviously determine which sources of energy are the most economical and environmentally desirable.

Although politicians have long talked about the exploration of alternative energy sources, they need to do much more to bring these ideas to fruition.

His Majesty the King has for a long time pointed out the importance of renewable energy sources. But so far the relevant agencies involved, even the general public, have not fully heeded his advice. It's time to do so, to explore the potential.

An important issue is the impact of energy generation on our environment and whether we have in place appropriate prevention plans to prevent damage. As recent incidents have shown, energy generation and environmental protection must co-exist together. Power plants and transmission facilities need proper maintenance and their safety measures cannot be compromised. The radiation leaks at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan serve as a glaring example of the importance of precautionary measures. Japan is known to be a world leader in clean technology but the devastation caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima plant shows that accidents can be beyond our control. However, the damage can be minimised with the proper precautionary measures in place.

We hope that the PTT leak will serve as a lesson for the government and all of us on the importance of energy security and the options that we have in mitigating damage and supply risk. It's time for the government and its agencies to craft an effective energy and resource management plan. Thailand's geography and its background as an agricultural nation must be taken into account to prevent possible damage from unsuitable power generation on our landscape and way of life.

The alternative is to continue with our intransigent attitude and continue to implement inadequate defensive reactions whenever accidents happen.

Putting populist pledges into action may bankrupt us all

Putting populist pledges into action may bankrupt us all
By The Nation
Published on July 7, 2011

The Pheu Thai Party needs to reconsider its promised billion-baht give-aways

The prospective Pheu Thai-led coalition government will now have to reconsider carefully how to implement the pledges it gave to voters during the election campaign.

The Pheu Thai Party lured voters with a raft of policies it promised to implement should it gain power. However, some of those policies may squander taxpayers' money, failing to boost the capacity of the country's human capital and create sustainable wealth for its people.

Pheu Thai is a champion of populist policies, and many voted for the party because they wanted to benefit from such policies. However, when populism is put into action, the country's fiscal health can suffer through the massive budget spending needed to finance give-away programmes.

Pheu Thai ran a campaign full of policies aimed at catching the voter's eye. Included were pledges to raise the national minimum wage to Bt300 per day, offer higher prices to farmers for their rice crops, provide tablet computers to all primary schools, cap mass-transit train fares at Bt20, and ensure college graduates receive support of Bt15,000 per month.

While the party has yet to spell out how it will implement these projects, there are already concerns that some of these policies could be a waste of taxpayers' money, leading to more damage than benefits.

Credit ratings agency Standard and Poor's recently warned of the dangers. "Implementing many of these policies without having proper appropriation of the revenues would adversely affect the country's fiscal position," said Takahira Ogawa, a credit analyst for the agency.

Measures undertaken by the last government over several years to counter the global recession and implement populist policies have already eroded Thailand's fiscal strength, he was quoted as saying.

"Further significant erosion could be detrimental to the current ratings," Ogawa cautioned.

For instance, Pheu Thai may have to reconsider its pledge to distribute computers to each primary school student. The "one tablet per child" programme would amount to 800,000 computers at a cost of about Bt4 billion. But it remains to be seen how this project would contribute to the children's development - especially those living in rural areas with no broadband coverage.

The pledge to raise the minimum wage to Bt300 in 90 days might also lead to uncontrollable inflation. It is crucial that the minimum wage level be acceptable to both employers and workers so as to ensure it is practical and conducive to the business environment. A rate set too high would discourage factories from hiring workers, causing high inflation and creating potential job losses as factories turned to outsourcing.

The rice-pledging programme is also likely to cost more than Bt100 billion. And yet, the programme would not benefit poorer farmers, as they lack the facilities to store and dehydrate rice as required by the pledging programme. The major beneficiary would in fact likely be the rice millers.

Populist policies are not necessarily bad, but they must be implemented only according to necessity, as short-lived programmes to ease the suffering of people and complement other sustainable policies.

It would be unfortunate if political parties used full-blown populist policies so as to inflate the economy's growth figures in the short run, without considering the consequences to the country in the longer term.

Instead, the government has a duty to focus on policies to boost Thailand's capacity and competitiveness in the long term. Populist policies also instil a perception that the government will provide people with economic security, which discourages self-reliance in favour of reliance on hand-outs.

In addition, such policies naturally attract corruption because of the huge sums of taxpayers' money involved.

A country will fail to develop if its government places a higher priority on populist policies than on a sustainable economic platform to boost the country's long-term competitiveness. Although these give-aways may seem like an essential element of economic strategy because voters have become addicted to them, the Pheu Thai Party-led government must reconsider how to implement them in the best interests of the people. Otherwise, we could all be bankrupted altogether.

New Govt Should Push PPP Scheme for Investment

New govt should push PPP scheme for investment
By The Nation
Published on July 3, 2011

Public Private Partnership is under-utilised, has potential

The new government should strengthen the joint investment scheme with the private sector under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) to cope with possible fiscal challenges. Whoever wins, the government will face a big challenge to manage the expectations of the public, as every political party has promised the voters populist policies that require massive spending.

The promises have led to concern that if the new government has to use the fiscal budget to finance the programmes they have promised to voters, the new government may face a fiscal deficit.

One of the options that the government can explore is the Public Private Partnership (PPP), which the government has under-utilised.

The PPP format will help ease the government's investment budget especially when the new government is likely to face a budget deficit. Bank of Thailand Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul recently urged the new government to limit the 2012 budget deficit to Bt350 billion to avoid pressure on fiscal policy and inflation.

The government had targeted that the investment budget would account for 5.5 per cent of GDP. However, it has so far managed to invest only 3.5 per cent of GDP due to limiting constraints. Besides, a certain amount of budget has been used to finance populist measures.

Examples of PPP projects are the Bangkok Mass Rapid Transport. Currently, four MRT projects - the Purple Line, Dark Green, Green and Blue Lines - come under the PPP format. The value of these projects combined is Bt22.7 billion. The value was small compared to the government's target to boost the value of PPP investment to Bt1.29 trillion.

If the government better utilises the PPP platform, it can draw the money from the private sector to finance the investment, easing the government's fiscal burden.

However, the government has under-utilised the PPP platform. First of all, the private sector was concerned about political instability and uncertainties in the aftermath of a change in government. They were afraid that every time the government changes, its policy also changes.

Another hurdle discouraging the private sector from participating in the PPP project is the legal hurdle or the uncertainty regarding legal interpretations. As things turned out, companies participating in public projects have sometimes encountered legal problems or unpredictable interpretations of the law.

The PPP format can be done in two formats: Build-Transfer, where the government maintains ownership of the project and Built-Operate-Transfer, where the private sector finds the source of investment.

In fact, if the government can manage to provide clear and transparent procedures for PPP investment projects as well as clearing political and legal hurdles, the private sector would want to take part in the PPP investment. This is because the private sector could manage to lessen the risk due to the government's support.

Apart from helping ease the government's fiscal burden, the PPP would also help boost the capacity of the private sector. PPP would provide an option on fund raising, which is one of the challenges facing Thai operators, especially after the Asean market is integrated under the so-called Asean Economic Community, which will be fully formed in 2015. Thai private sector will face direct competition with all the other companies in Asean countries.

The traditional form of investment, where the government has to shoulder most of the investment budget, would not help enhance the competitiveness of the private sector. And the Thai private sector will not be able to maintain its competitiveness unless companies find solutions to the following issues: how to find comprehensive fund raising, value-chain solutions, effective partnership programs and hedging instruments.

Thus, the new government should look for options that promote investment without adding pressure on the budget as well as promote local competitiveness instead of focusing on spending the fiscal budget to finance the majority of its investment in the future.