Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Thai children are still being denied decent education

Published on August 31, 2010

As other countries progress, our teachers remain disillusioned and our students lag behind their peers

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been touring several American states to raise public awareness about the importance of education. He has said on multiple occasions that education is a civil rights issue. His goal is to ensure that every American child is provided with the opportunity to obtain a quality education. He also notes that the quality of teachers is one of the most significant factors in this goal.

One of the challenges facing US public schools is how to attract qualified graduates to teaching, given the current low remunerative return compared to other professions. Good teachers are unsung heroes in any country, and unless the problems they face are not resolved, the education system will continue to suffer.

The statements by Duncan, a former chief executive officer of Chicago public schools, are true indeed, and should be noted here. Thai education ministers tend to focus on grand projects in their efforts to reform Thai education, with emphasis on infrastructure and procurement of equipment. However, they should really be concentrating on the quality of teachers and ensuring that good teachers are properly rewarded.

There are always good teachers who want to make a difference, but eventually they tend to be discouraged by a system where the majority - who resist change - accuse them of trying to rock the boat. Traditionally, the education departments in most colleges tend to require the lowest examination scores. The result is that students in most of our public schools are stuck in big classrooms with deadwood teachers who hardly receive any training to improve their teaching methods.

The lack of incentive for people to become teachers starts with the failure to instil a sense of desirability to enter the profession. Duncan rightly points out that good teachers should receive praise and commensurate compensation for their work. But this is not the case. Good teachers are barely even recognised.

Due to the low pay for teaching, suitable candidates tend to choose other areas of study such as finance. Those that do end up in schools cannot put all their effort into teaching students in class because they have to earn extra income from tutoring the same students in cram schools.

In fact, the Thai Education Ministry has a massive annual budget, but it is never spent wisely. The large class sizes in public schools are never reduced, and the quality of teachers hardly improves. Not many Thai schools have an effective system to evaluate teachers, and the government is failing to address the issue of making the system more attractive for the best graduates.

While well-off parents can send their children to expensive international schools that offer international-standard curricula, the public schools are still forcing rote learning on students. In short, we are denying our children equitable access to good education.

It's time the government understood that quality education is the most important factor in driving a country forward. A recent Newsweek survey to find the "Best Country in the World" ranked South Korea as the world's second best nation for education after Finland. Singapore ranked fourth after Canada, while Japan came fifth. The magazine said South Korea had made an amazing leap from the 1960s when its national wealth was on a par with Afghanistan. "Today, it's one of the world's richest nations, in large part thanks to its focus on education," the magazine reported.

Unfortunately, the Thai government has so far taken no leadership role in reforming our education system. While US Secretary Duncan gladly took his portfolio because of his passion for improving education standards for American children, the Thai Education Ministry is seen as a third-rate consolation job for politicians. No education minister has demonstrated any significant initiative or determination to prepare the younger generation for a changing world. Our children are not simply lagging behind in terms of academic achievement, but also in social awareness and responsibility. What we have seen so far is the education budget consumed by programmes for building infrastructure and information technology without addressing the issue of how these facilities can teach our children.

It's time for a sea change in the way we educate our children, otherwise this country will never reach its true potential.
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August 31, 2010 09:54 pm (Thai local time)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Economic outlook leaves no room for complacency

Published on August 26, 2010

Indicators for the second half of the year do not seem so rosy; businesses must now look to sustainability

The public and private sectors should not be complacent at the buoyant growth rate in the first half of this year. The National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) earlier this week warned of deceleration in growth as the demand for Thai goods overseas is set to slow down.

The Thai economy grew by 10.6 per cent in the first half of this year largely due to robust export demand. But that demand is unlikely to be sustained in the second half. The quarter-on-quarter growth during the remainder of the year will be zero or even fall into the negative zone.

The latest forecast should serve as a warning to both the government and private sector that they should, from now on, operate with caution to ensure that the country can withstand the pressures of a changing business environment. There is no room for overconfidence. This should be a time for reflection on how to create sufficient immunity in the Thai economy.

The recent signs of deceleration in demand for Thai exports show that unless our products are of high quality, foreign importers will quite happily shift their orders to other countries where they can find better quality at competitive prices.

Instead of calling for a weaker baht in order to boost exports, Thai manufacturers should now be turning the strong baht to their advantage by investing in upgrading their products and moving up the technological ladder. They should not be looking at producing the same old products in the desperate hope of competing with others through lower prices. The government should also be encouraging those with potential to invest overseas, which would indeed help reduce the current strength of the baht.

Neither should Thai manufacturers and exporters continue to count on labour-intensive industries, because they will certainly lose out to emerging regional competitors with cheaper costs, such as Vietnam and Indonesia. The desperate calls for the Bank of Thailand to intervene on the baht shows that a number of these exporters are still benefiting from lower production costs, in comparison to other regional economies. However, if these manufacturers can transform to producing unique, quality products, they will be gain greater immunity from the fluctuations in foreign exchange.

The Chinese market, which has contributed to the robust export growth, is set to contract. The global economic slowdown, especially in the US and Europe, is likely to have an impact on Thai exports to the Chinese market. Entering the mid-term election season, the US market could be more vulnerable as there are increasing calls from US politicians for trade protectionism to protect their constituencies.

However, businesses should not see the expected deceleration in growth as entirely pessimistic. First of all, it should give pause for thought as to whether the recent robustness has been a matter of economic luck or strength. And to consider the factors that will sustain good growth in the future.

Unfortunately, the Thai economy has been heavily dependent on the export sector in boosting growth, while the other three engines - consumption, investment and government spending - haven't functioned to drive the economy in a sustainable manner.

Sole reliance on the export sector will expose the Thai economy to external risk, which can be disruptive. For instance, the fluctuation in demand can seriously affect the workforce, especially for those in the labour-intensive industries.

Decelerating growth statistics will not matter so much if businesses can continue to operate competitively. The recent concern among many about the slowdown in export demand shows that the success of their businesses is often judged purely by the numbers. But the key question now and in the future will be sustainability.

The other challenge to address is whether the recent high growth has translated into a more even spread of wealth. The statistics show that this may not be the case. Farmers have certainly not seen an overall improvement in their well-being, as agricultural production has contracted as a result of drought and plant disease which has affected output of paddy, rubber, sugar cane, cassava and maize.

If this uneven wealth distribution is not tackled effectively, the recent surprisingly high economic growth rate will be meaningless to the majority.

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August 29, 2010 09:38 am (Thai local time)

Free Handouts will always be open to abuse

Free handouts will always be open to abuse

Published on August 18, 2010

Tax money should be better spent on raising the minimum wage and on education to teach self-reliance

The Abhisit government has kicked off its debt-relief scheme to help debtors who have suffered from exorbitant interest rates. The scheme is part of the administration's populist programme, with which it hopes to woo voters, especially in the rural areas. The intention behind the scheme may be fine, but an increased number of populist policies may adversely affect the country's fiscal position and the morality of the people.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva apparently is trying to connect with poor debtors amidst criticism that he is out of touch with the grassroots. Some 1.18 million people with combined debts of Bt122.67 billion are registered with the government.

But the implementation of the debt-relief programme, along with other policies, may instead wreck people's motivation to work hard. It may leave them wrongly thinking that the government will always rescue them. If not handled properly, this scheme could also create a moral hazard among lenders.

Debt relief is the latest in a series of government "bail-out" policies for the poor, including free transportation and utilities. The government has basically resorted to the same kind of initiatives that proved to be powerful tools to attract votes for fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Unfortunately, these policies cannot be sustained. They also create many opportunities for corruption. And they do not help bridge the gap between the rich and poor, as statistics have shown that the wealth gap has widened over the past decade - despite the fact the populist policies came into full force over the same period.

People in rural northeastern provinces are still living in poverty and many have had to sell their land. But many of the poor remain ignorant of the concept of self-reliance or self-sufficiency because the government's easy-money programmes have instilled the wrong perception among them. They believe, it seems, that they can always ask for more.

Politicians like populist policies to reach poor voters because they generate short-term political benefits. They don't care that tax money is most often wasted in these schemes. But bad habits are difficult to break. People, once given free handouts, crave more. The sad news is that eventually they will lack the motivation to work hard and stand on their own two feet.

This debt relief scheme must be handled with caution and monitored with diligence. The government must ensure that those who are willing to work hard will benefit from the programme, while those who squander the money that is given to them will not easily get away with their wasteful habits. There is no other way to ensure that people recognise the value of hard work. They cannot be permitted to wait for easy money every time election season comes around.

In this context, a minimum wage rise would make more sense than more handouts, as it would reflect the actual situation in the labour market. The supply of labour is lower than the demand, but the current minimum wage of around Bt150 discourages many Thais from taking on low-paying jobs. Instead, employers are forced to hire foreign migrants, which results in the creation of a new set of problems, including human rights abuses.

The disbursement of the budget on populist policies will result in future budget crises, as many of these programs are not simply one-off schemes. Human folly means they will always require continuation, and will thus force future governments to commit to the same. The government has pledged to balance the budget within five years. But if it continues its spending spree to appease voters like this, it is unlikely that a balanced budget will happen in that timeframe, if ever.

The government should learn a lesson from the populist policies that previous governments doled out. No country will move forward if the majority of the people refuse to work hard but simply wait for government assistance. The tax money of those who do work hard - and, in some cases, of those who are honest enough to pay taxes in the first place - should be better spent instead of being exploited for politicians' benefit.
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August 29, 2010 09:35 am (Thai local time)

Billionaires could give advice on use of their money



Published on August 8, 2010

Ploys to avoid aid dependence would amplify their laudable generosity
Recent news about the pledge by 40 US billionaires to donate half of their fortunes to charity should inspire many to follow the trend of giving back to society. According to international news agencies, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet think fellow US billionaires should donate most of their vast fortunes to charity - and they recently revealed that 40 are set to do just that.

In a statement released by www.givingpledge.org, 40 of the wealthiest families and individuals in the US have committed themselves to returning the majority of their wealth to charitable causes. They include CNN founder Ted Turner, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and Hollywood director George Lucas as well as Buffet and Gates. The Giving Pledge, announced six weeks ago, is the brainchild of Gates and Buffet to persuade the rich to give more to charity.

The move should be trendsetting, indeed. It is an admirable cause to give back to society. It is not shameful to be rich. After all, these billionaires, such as Microsoft mogul Gates, are exemplary models of the successful businessman who worked hard and excelled to become one of Forbes richest people.

However, the joy of giving has proved to be more precious than the joy of receiving. And Gates, along with some philanthropists, have found such joys by donating fortunes for the cause that they have been passionate about. Gates, for instance, has been actively involved in the global campaign to tackle health issues. His foundation finances millions of vaccinations in developing countries and contributes to research for a new medicine to prevent HIV/Aids.

In fact, it makes sense for businesses to give back to society as it's part of the concept of corporate responsibility. After all, many have earned profits from the goodwill image that the companies successfully established among their customer base. The giving back will affirm the image of the companies or the investors as businessmen who care. Any billionaire, or anyone at all, cannot live happily if their neighbours are still suffering bad health or poverty.

Although quite a few Thai billionaires have also made their way into the Forbes rich man's club, it does not take a billionaire to take this initiative. Everyone can participate in the process of giving back to society, either by donations or their labour. Everyone can find the cause that he or she is passionate about, be it health, education or the environment, and participate in the campaign by volunteering or looking at every opportunity to make contributions to support the cause. The experience will definitely be fulfilling and rewarding.

At any rate, charity is not a magic solution to solve global issue. The more challenging question is how the money will be spent to enable people to stand on their own feet. The fact that a number of least developed countries are still struggling with poverty, in spite of decades of billions of foreign aid, shows that development is not possible without rural empowerment.

Flows of millions of aid dollars can also instil a negative perceptions among recipients, that they will be forever dependent on donations and others' money, wrecking their will and inspiration to be self-motivated and self-reliant. Unfortunately, some aid organisations or nonprofits have misspent this donated money in some developing countries without realising the real needs and potential of the local people. Some donations fed the need for foreign aid even more. This has resulted in an increasing dependence on foreign donations among some of these countries.

Therefore, let's hope that these shrewd businessmen/philanthropists will use their business skills and top-notch management to ensure that their money will be spent to serve the root cause of the problem that they intend to tackle. Eventually, the recipients' self-reliance and being free from charitable donations will measure the success of their philanthropic project. Otherwise, these donors will have to re-evaluate their strategy if the recipients still crave more charitable money. If that is the case, their donated fortunes will be nothing but a lost investment.

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August 29, 2010 09:32 am (Thai local time)

Young People Need Protection from Bad Soaps



Young people need protection from bad soap operas
Published on July 21, 2010

Producers and parents are both responsible for allowing children to watch inappropriate TV content

The rating system on Thai television should be effectively enforced to ensure appropriate content for viewers. Although the rating system exists, the airtime of some programmes with inappropriate content for children and youth is before many youngsters' bedtime.

At a recent seminar by the Christian Council of Thailand, panellists voiced concern that many Thai soap operas are broadcast too early, and that most of these soaps have content that is not appropriate for children. For instance, many contain graphic or violent scenes of sexual assault on women. In addition, the theme of these programmes doesn't offer anything to provoke constructive thought, as most of them are about female characters cat-fighting over a man.

If we agree with the values that these soaps portray, then here are the characteristics they will promote, based on what we have watched:

We will tend to make decisions from emotion instead of rational thinking, as virtually no Thai soaps show how protagonists overcome a difficult situation by rational judgment.

Most soaps are about people who seek an easy fortune, because that's what many Thais desperately wish for. Thai soaps don't value hard work, either, as virtually none are about how a hard-working person can become rewarded or successful at the end of the story.

We should not continue to be complacent about this. These soaps have a strong influence on our children, especially with television now accessible to almost every household.

The seminar panellists voiced concerns that children under the age of 8 are most vulnerable. Children at this age cannot properly distinguish drama from real life, and many will imitate what they see. If these children are allowed to watch programmes with violent content or verbal abuse, day in day out, they will eventually come to believe that this kind of behaviour is acceptable. Under such circumstances, it doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to realise what will happen to these individuals and our society. In a recent incident, a student hanged himself after copying a scene he saw on a TV show.

This is not to suggest that Thailand should employ rigid censorship on television. But what we are asking is that the appropriate rating system is applied and more space is allocated for children's programming.

TV producers tend to claim that they cannot produce quality, or children's, programmes because these types of shows cannot attract sponsors, unlike the soap operas with their emotionally-charged themes.

The only solution therefore, is that the rating system be strictly enforced to ensure that adult soaps are aired at appropriate times. If we let the free market rule on TV, people will have a tendency to watch lurid, low quality programming.

Low quality TV may be a factor in our increasing cynicism and inability to tolerate others or to articulate arguments or express our opinions. We are an attention-deficit people who seem to prefer punchlines and sound bites that we agree with, rather than facts, information and alternative opinion. Much has been said about how this medium can have a bad influence on us. Now it's time to look at what other options are available for audiences.

Ironically, while Thai censors are highly sensitive about the content of certain movies, they allow Thai soap opera producers to air inappropriate scenes direct to young viewers at home every day, even though these soaps are more influential than movies. They let TV producers get away with such content, but censor thought-provoking themes that feature in many movies.

Surely this should work the other way round: Low-grade TV programmes should be subject to more scrutiny because they appeal to a mass audience that is impossible to regulate.

Parents should be vigilant in controlling what their children are watching. Sadly, many parents let their children watch these soaps because they themselves are addicted to them.

Producers have a responsibility too, to write scripts that instil desirable values such as honesty and hard work. Many Korean and Japanese soaps have successfully done this, through smart story lines. It's about time that Thais followed suit. Otherwise we may end up becoming what we watch.
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August 29, 2010 09:26 am (Thai local time)