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.

Rich heroes show wealth can have a kindly face

Rich heroes show wealth can have a kindly face
By The Nation
Published on June 27, 2011

Thai philanthropists reveal, by example, good causes bring generous returns to business and community

The four wealthy Thais listed as Heroes of Philanthropy by Forbes Asia should set an example for local businesses to return something to society. Boonchai Benjarongkul of Total Access Communication, Tan Passakornnatee of Mai Tan Brand, Bilaibhan Sampatisiri of Nai Lert Park Hotel Co and Thongma Vijitpongpun of Pruksa Real Estate made the list of 48 philanthropists in Asia who are doing good, from helping earthquake victims to sending poor kids to college.

According to Forbes' release, Forbes Asia has tried to include mostly people who gave away their own money and not their companies'. Sometimes philanthropists do both, and sometimes they own such a large share of their company that corporate giving is personal giving.

It's welcoming that these business people have supported the cause that they are passionate about. And we hope to see more of them.

Boonchai has been devoting himself to supporting education and culture since selling control of his company in 2005. He plans to open the Thai Contemporary Art Museum in Bangkok this year to showcase his collection of Thai art.

Bilaibhan's interest is obviously in art and conservation. The president of the Siam Society is helping to lead efforts to conserve the nation's fast-disappearing architectural heritage. She also serves as president of a Thai fund involved in protecting wild elephants, and runs the Lert Sin Foundation, which supports healthcare and education.

Tan pledges half of his net profits to his Tan Pan Foundation, which works to improve education, the environment and tourism. He gave US$67,000 (Bt2.1 million) from his TV appearances for new buildings at Bor Thong KinderEdugarten in Chon Buri. He has also contributed to Japanese earthquake relief and raised more money for a total of $143,000.

And Thongma donated some $660,000 to hospitals, Buddhist organisations and schools in 2010 and 2011. A civil engineer by training, he has also channelled most of his education-related giving to the engineering field.

Growing at the expense of consumers

What these business people have done was part of a pledge to give back. After all, many businesses flourish by successfully coexisting with the community. They can enjoy real business by spending their money for a good cause by providing people with access to opportunities to elevate the wellbeing of the community all together.

Unfortunately, many businesses have expanded at the expense of consumers. For instance, their growth has harmed the surrounding environment by polluting the air, water and soil. Some companies expanded by weakening farmers through their massive bargaining power. Some businesses grew by suppressing fair competition at the expense of consumers.

This trend must be stopped. And these exploiting businesses should review their strategy to see what they should have done.

Local businesses can also take a cue from the US where top billionaires are campaigning to encourage their affluent friends to do good for the community.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett recently joined forces to prod other billionaires to publicly pledge to give away at least 50 per cent of their wealth during their lifetime or upon their death for good causes as part of a campaign called "The Giving Pledge".

This is because business people have to fulfil their obligation as good citizens in the community.

But it does not take a billionaire to make a social contribution. In fact, everyone, big or small, can get involved in philanthropy work by simply doing whatever they can in their capacity. Everyone can be a social changer.

In fact, the value of the donated amount may not be as powerful as each individual's will to be more selfless and mindful of what they can do or the negative consequences that they can leave to society.

For instance, every citizen should be mindful of the environmental impact that their business may impart, or whether they have looked after their customers by providing them with safe and non-hazardous products, or whether they have taken the best care of people living in their factories' neighbourhoods.

It will be useless for a corporation to donate zillions after its business has damaged the environment or caused casualties to the people from its operation. No charity money will be able to offset the bad consequences that a company has caused because of its carelessness and selfishness.

Handout Policies could lead to a bigger crash

Handout policies could lead to a bigger crash
By The Nation
Published on June 23, 2011

If voters become so reliant on populist promises, they will be unable to deal with the effects of any future crisis without the help of the government

Local industrialists recently indicated they were not enthusiastic about the economic policies being offered by the major political parties because there is nothing innovative about them. But a lack of innovation on the part of political parties is not a surprise to local businesses.

While the business community is not happy with the economic platforms on offer, some business people and economists are also concerned that if the future government implements these promised economic policies, they could drag the nation downhill in the near future.

Undisciplined populist spending programmes could lead to fiscal disaster, while the promises of low tax rates and wage hikes could add pressure on inflation. In addition, an unreasonable wage hike would affect the country's price competitiveness.

During this election campaign, the political parties have aggressively marketed their policy offers and tried to trump rival parties with amounts of giveaway money and handouts. The Democrats have proposed increasing the minimum wage by 25 per cent over two years. Pheu Thai has offered Bt300 per day. Fierce competition between the two largest parties has encouraged a smaller party, Chart Pattana Puea Pandin, to offer a Bt350 minimum wage.

While the Democrat Party offers to guarantee the rice price for farmers at around Bt11,000 per tonne, Pheu Thai upped this offer by proposing to pledge rice at Bt15,000 per tonne.

These are only a few examples of what the parties are now offering, including a credit card debt amnesty, low-interest loans for cars and houses, and an iPad for every student.

These populist offers have unfortunately framed the political debate into what each party can gain instead of tangible and effective economic platforms to promote capacity and competitiveness in the long run.

The business sector has never been enthusiastic about these promises because they know that most of it is simply rhetoric to attract voters.

While political parties in the past tended to outline their policies in broad terms, such as "the party will promote rural empowerment" or "strengthen business competitiveness", they now treat voters as consumers and customers. They offer aggressive marketing gimmicks and extravagant promises which could be a recipe for disaster if actually implemented.

The problem with these gimmicks is that they specify the exact amount of money each party will give, so voters can calculate the gain. Politicians now treat voters not as dignified citizens who cast ballots to take control of their future, but as customers who base their decision on how much they will receive.

It does not take a rocket scientist to realise that the business community and ordinary voters now do not set high hopes for creative or innovative policies. But if the political parties continue to lure voters with cash and handouts, they will simply lead the country to disaster. If this happens, a future crisis could be worse than the financial crisis of 1997 because people will no longer be equipped to overcome difficulty on their own, but will desperately wait for the government to rescue them.

Nong Nunt's story is an inspiration to all Thais

Nong Nunt's story is an inspiration to all Thais
By The Nation
Published on June 19, 2011

Instead of whining, the teenager who lost her legs has shown indomitable spirit and her beautiful smile

By simply smiling her high-spirited smile, Nong Nunt has shown all of us how to keep our head up. No lecture. No teaching. Not even advice. The smile just spoke volumes. It tells all of us that if she can do it, so can we.

Over the past weeks, the story of Nong Nunt, or Nitcharee Penekchanasak, became the talk of the town because of her characteristic good spirits and poise beyond her years. Her message to the audience was clear: don't try to avoid the truth, accept the reality and then, smile and make the best of your life.

It is unfortunate that Nong Nunt, who just celebrated her 15th birthday last week, lost both of her legs because of an accident on the Singapore mass transit system. While on her way to meet friends at Singapore East Coast Park in April, she fell onto the tracks and was hit by a train.

Nong Nunt nonetheless came back to Thailand last week not as a victim but as a triumphant young girl who still determines to pursue her dream as a psychiatrist.

"Don't get too caught up on what you don't have now, but instead look to what you can have in the future," she said to The Nation during a recent interview.

Over the past few days, Nong Nunt's story seems to be the only inspiring story amidst a crowd of political verbal exchange and non-sense celebrity gossip stories.

Otherwise, the media has devoted a lot of airtime to a recent cat-fight between a middle school and high school students. A certain morning TV news talk show programme took this catfight seriously as it aired the clip in full, even though this high media exposure could leave a lasting impact on the young students on both sides.

Amidst the desperate and gloomy mood, Nong Nunt story has a different message to the audience.

Nong Nunt could have easily portrayed herself as a victim. But she projected herself as a hopeful young girl. She chose to take the audience through her journey as a protagonist who managed to overcome the odds with good spirits and lack of self-pity. She thought of others even during the moments which could be her darkest hours.

During a TV interview, she told the reporters that she had to console her tearful mother and relatives when they found out that she would lose her legs forever. Nong Nunt said: "I had to be strong because I don't want my mom and visitors to feel depressed with my plight. I told them although I lost my legs, my spirits remain the same."

It's hard to comprehend how a young girl with a bright future ahead of her actually took the news that she would not be able to walk normally for the rest of her days. It must be a painful and emotional experience.

But Nong Nunt framed her story, albeit unintentionally, as an example of the hopeful young girl whose spirit is unaffected by any circumstance.

Nong Nunt won the hearts of many even though she never asked anyone to shed tears for her plight. This strong young woman never cited her gender or young age to ask for any sympathy, while many adults shamelessly try to portray themselves as being victimised. Otherwise, these adults tend to blame the others for whatever went wrong in their lives without any will to fight to overcome the odds.

Her authenticity gave many hopes. While her story was on air, several running SMS messages flooded in, thanking her for showing an inspiring story of how a person can overcome a painful experience. People are cheering for her and want to see her succeed in life in whatever endeavour she plans to take.

It is sad that it takes this desperate nation the tragedy of a young girl to give us hope.

Free Treatment, But where is the medical staff

Free treatment, but where is the medical staff?
By The Nation
Published on June 18, 2011

Populist health schemes sound good but cannot work unless the government helps to provide enough doctors and nurses to run them

During this election campaign, politicians have promised voters free or virtually free medical services. However, they are missing the point, as the real issue facing Thai public health is not the cost of service but whether we have sufficient personnel to care for those in need.

The Democrat Party has promised voters it will increase the universal healthcare budget to Bt130 billion per year, while the Pheu Thai Party says it will continue the Bt30 universal healthcare scheme initiated by its predecessor Thai Rak Thai Party.

Some politicians may argue that the public wants the populist approach offered by all the political parties. But the parties still do not understand that all governments have failed to address the root causes of the public health problems.

Regardless of how excellent a healthcare programme is on paper, the public will not be able to benefit from it if there are insufficient health personnel.

Any government can claim that it will provide free medical treatment. But this will be useless if hospitals, especially those in the provinces, are desperately short of physicians and nurses.

The understaffing situation at some public hospitals has become worse partly because of the government's extended healthcare programme, which puts more pressure on public hospitals, which are already short on government-provided resources.

Many physicians have left the public hospitals in remote provinces to work in private hospitals in Bangkok and other big cities where they have less work load, better support facilities and more equipment to perform their duties.

The shortage of staff is seen in recent statistics from Medical Council records. It shows that 39,395 doctors are practising around the country, but at least 9,772 more are needed to fully serve the public health system. Dr Chanvej Satthabhud, president of the Trauma Association of Thailand, was recently quoted as saying that there was a critical need for extra physicians to perform emergency treatment for accident victims.

He added that the Medical Council's records also show that we have only 300 emergency surgeons and neurological surgeons working at hospitals across the country, and only 50 of these are now working at rural hospitals nationwide.

The situation in the nursing profession is no better. Thailand needs 180,435 nurses to provide adequate coverage, but the Kingdom now has only 130,710. Again, the shortage is more serious in rural provinces.

The ongoing social division is a result of inequity in our society. Many people feel they have been unfairly treated in a variety of ways. They feel they have been denied access to public services and education opportunities. People in the countryside certainly don't have fair access to quality schools, hospitals and clinics.

These are the issues that the new government must tackle. But so far the candidates have focused instead on populist economic approaches. Promises of free medical treatment are fine, but the quality of such a service is very much in question.

The other issue that politicians conveniently forget is that better public health can be achieved through prevention. A proper public healthcare policy needs to work from both sides: prevention and treatment.

The most effective way to promote good public health is to ensure that the public is educated and encouraged to be mindful of their health. A substantial effort should be placed on how to teach people to stay healthy by eating vegetables and fruits. Thailand is already beginning to face the serious obesity problem that has afflicted developed nations for decades.


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Farm policies can only lead to more government debt

Farm policies can only lead to more government debt
By The Nation
Published on June 17, 2011

Farmers are being short-changed with subsidy promises that will only reduce productivity, competitiveness and long-term sustainability

Political candidates have so far failed to offer farmers any platform that would help them improve their productivity. The promises made by the two key parties are only short-term solutions to poverty and debt.

Recently, Pheu Thai and the Democrats announced their farmers' assistance programmes in the run-up to the election. The two key parties clearly differ on what they plan to do. Pheu Thai has offered a pledge programme, while the Democrats have announced a price guarantee programme should either party win the election on July 3.

The farmers' vote is important as the sector employs 14.69 million people from a total 38.97 million workforce in Thailand. Although people in farming account for a majority of voters, many of them still live in poverty. But this group is a powerful force politically.

The Democrat Party says it will continue with its income guarantee plan of the past two years. Under this scheme, farmers receive the difference between the insured price and the benchmark price on their rice produce. At present, the insured price is Bt11,000 per tonne of rice while the market price is around Bt8,000. That means the government has to spend around Bt2,100 per tonne in subsidies. It is also estimated that the government will have to spend around Bt40 billion to Bt50 billion each crop season to subsidise the rice price.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said recently he believed the Democrat Party's income guarantee plan would be more effective in addressing farmers' needs because the payments would reach small farmers directly. Also, he said, every farmer, including smallholders who don't produce substantial amounts of rice, would be entitled to this income guarantee plan.

However, there is a problem with the income guarantee plan. Because farmers realise they will receive the insured price anyway, they have less incentive to improve their productivity. This can only result in a greater number of inefficient farmers in the future.

Another criticism of the income guarantee plan is that the government would have no rice in stock for market intervention if it felt the need to use the rice stockpile to control market prices in the future.

But Pheu Thai's plan is no better, and probably worse. The party's rice pledging programme has also been criticised by economists and some farmers' representatives because it would lead to a windfall for rice millers, not the farmers.

A Thailand Development Research Institute study shows that the rice pledging programme may not benefit farmers because the majority of them do not have the facilities to store their rice to pledge with the government. Farmers are expected to receive only 40 per cent of the money spent on this programme. The remaining 60 per cent is likely to go to rice millers.

The rice millers stand to gain from the programme because they can provide warehouse space to keep mortgaged paddy, as the government also does not have facilities to store the supply from farmers.

In addition, Pheu Thai has promised to accept rice from farmers at Bt15,000 per tonne, which is 40 per cent higher than the insured price of Bt11,000 offered by the Democrat-led government over the past two years. That would mean even higher spending on subsidies.

Even worse, history shows that a very low number of farmers redeem their rice from the mortgage programme. Therefore, the government would also carry the burden of a high loss from the plan.

But Pheu Thai may prefer the rice pledging plan because it could command the supply of rice through a huge stockpile, which it could then use to intervene in or manipulate the market.

At any rate, both the income guarantee plan and the rice pledging programmes are far from perfect. These schemes will distort market prices and very likely lead to corruption.

Neither party has offered any real solution to the problems faced by farmers. In fact, the fundamental issues for Thai farmers are the lack of access to opportunity, education and financial services. At the same time, Thai farmers and consumers will be challenged by the price fluctuations in agricultural produce. Severe weather and global warming could reduce farm output in the future.

Instead of focusing on giveaway subsidies, the future government should work to improve the competitiveness of our farmers to ensure the sustainability of our farm sector and to ensure long-term food security.

Thailand ignores education reform at its own peril

Thailand ignores education reform at its own peril
By The Nation
Published on June 14, 2011

The call for meaningful change in our schools goes unheeded by politicians and bureaucrats who cannot think further than their own pockets

Voters have yet to see the political parties' educational platforms, even though the general election is only a few weeks away.

Although politicians often use children to solicit votes - using them in all available photo opportunities - they have so far failed to come up with any policies to ensure the younger generations will grow up enjoying a quality education and supportive learning environment.

Major political parties simply outline their education plans broadly. For instance, the Pheu Thai Party says blandly that education is at the heart of every solution to achieve future prosperity. The Democrat Party says it will create incentives to attract qualified persons to become teachers, as well as continue the free education programme. Neither gives any specifics. The small and medium-sized parties, meanwhile, have not said anything about education.

It is not surprising, as education has never been a priority for political parties, especially now, as they are only interested in announcing short-term policies to attract votes.

The ignorance and inefficiency of our decision-makers has resulted in the falling rank of the Thai educational system in a global survey. A number of weaknesses have been pointed out. For instance, the Thai labour force fails to accommodate the needs of the business sector. Thailand lacks industrial technicians to keep up with increasing demand. The level of English proficiency of Thai students is at the lower end of the survey.

The challenge for educational reform is how to provide equitable access and quality education to all children. Thailand has so far failed to achieve in both areas.

Hundreds of thousands of children are denied educational opportunity for various reasons such as poverty, lack of family support, homelessness or non-citizenship.

The lack of a supportive environment can also contribute to the dropout rate of Thai students. More than 2 million children drop out of middle school to go into unskilled jobs every year.

There are various options to assist these children. Schools and educational institutes could provide a support network to assist with after-school programmes or mentoring programmes. But the existing education system is too rigid. While the resources in public schools are limited, it is difficult for outside organisations to provide supplementary programmes to assist students. Without sufficient assistance to encourage underprivileged children to stay in school, they are prone to various risk factors such as crime and drugs.

Much has been said about Thai students' need to use English properly. But a more fundamental issue is whether the Thai education system teaches students to think, analyse and communicate effectively. Has the Thai curriculum made students understand themselves and their environment? Has our school system enabled students to develop based on their skills, instead of moulding them to certain norms?

Most students aspire to study in a field that will provide them with a high return in an industrial society. Curricula encourage them to follow a mould in which a desirable goal is to gain employment in a company. Rural graduates move to Bangkok every year because they are not instilled with ambition to use their talents in their own communities. Many of these graduates end up working in mediocre jobs.

The current schooling system ignores students' special skills or potential to develop, and does not encourage them to be innovative or think outside the box. Students are judged by their ability to remember the correct answers in multiple choice questions instead of their ability to write good essays or to express their thoughts.

Unfortunately, political parties have so far failed to recognise the imperative of meaningful educational reform. They only focus on flashy advertisements which fail to address the real challenges of educational reform. The Cabinet every year approves a massive budget for education. But most of it is stolen or squandered by politicians and bureaucrats at the expense of our children.

The future is not promising. In spite of the widely debated issue of education reform, politicians have nothing to offer except giveaway gadgets. This is not a solution for the future of our country.

Perhaps, instead of creating a new breed of teachers, our priority should be to re-educate our politicians.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

This Greek Tragedy has a lesson that Thailand must heed

This Greek tragedy has a lesson that Thailand must heed
By The Nation
Published on July 20, 2011

New government's pledge of massive spending on public projects is an eerie echo of what happened in Greece

There are grave concerns across Europe that the possible default in Greece will drag other countries into financial crisis. European leaders are this week discussing steps they hope will control the region's debt crisis, after the situation grew more severe than they had predicted.

Although the European Union and the International Monetary Fund approved a bailout for Greece worth around US$160 billion in May last year, Greece is still in deep trouble and Athens urgently needs another rescue package.

The region's failure to fix the Greek crisis could create repercussions that affect the financial stability of the whole euro zone, and possibly spread to other parts of the world.

The seriousness of Greece's troubles should now serve as a lesson to other countries of the sanctity of fiscal and monetary discipline.

The Greek crisis came about as a result of years of unrestrained spending and the country's failure to reform its public sector. The government borrowed heavily on the international capital market to finance its bloated budget and current account deficit. The crisis was also a result of the Mediterranean country's entry into the euro zone, which enabled Greece to access capital at a lower interest rate.

In the meantime, the Greek government saw weaker revenue collection than it had expected.

The Greek debt debacle should serve as a warning for the incoming Thai government, which is now burdened by populist promises it made in the run-up to the election. These pledges of massive spending not only pose a risk to fiscal health but also to monetary discipline, because they threaten to push prices up further.

Many economists have warned that the second half of this year will be crucial for the Thai economy. Thailand will face both internal and external threats. Externally, the economy will be affected by the global financial recession. Internally, the expected massive government spending to realise Pheu Thai's populist policies will apply severe monetary pressure.

The decision of the Bank of Thailand's Monetary Policy Committee last week to raise the policy interest rate by 25 basis points was a message from the central bank that fiscal and monetary discipline must be adhered to for sustainable growth.

The Bank of Thailand was attempting to use the policy rate to curb the upward trend in prices.

Unfortunately, the Bank of Thailand, the guardian of monetary stability, is unlikely to get help from the fiscal side. The politicians have instead tried to seduce voters by offering an unrealistically high minimum wage and massive populist programmes, without considering the consequences.

Additional inflationary pressure could be a result of the incoming government's massive spending, especially incoming Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's plans to spend more than Bt1.8 trillion - or 16 per cent of the nation's GDP - over the next five years to finance 13 infrastructure projects.

The politicians often claim that these policies will have a "multiplier effect" to stimulate the economy. But if massive fiscal spending fails to yield the expected result for Thailand, just as it failed for Greece, we could run into a similar pattern of crisis.

The government must take into consideration the consequences of whatever policies it plans to implement. If it turns out that their pre-election promises will damage fiscal discipline, then the government must rethink its plans carefully.

The Yingluck government must also have the courage to tell the public the truth concerning the consequences of badly thought-out policies, rather than insisting on going ahead with unnecessary massive spending.

Thailand was able to recover from the 1997 financial crisis within just a couple of years because the country at that time did not have the kind of fiscal problems that Greece is now experiencing. The Thai financial crisis of 1997 was a result of excess borrowing in the private sector, not the public sector.

But if Thailand suffers a financial crisis due to an irresponsible fiscal policy platform, we may not be so lucky this time.

Public not off the hook over phone hacking scandal

Public not off the hook over phone hacking scandal
By The Nation
Published on July 22, 2011

Reporters' greed for scoops was fed by readers' greed for sleaze

The story behind the media phone-hacking scandal, which has led to the demise of the News of the World, can be summed by one word: greed.

Of course, the kind of physical attack perpetrated against News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch on Tuesday must be condemned, regardless of how serious the allegation is, but the words of the pie-thrower at the UK parliamentary committee summed up the cause of the scandal overtaking his empire. The attacker was quoted as saying to Murdoch, "You are a greedy billionaire."

Now, the idea of greed is certainly not a taboo for business people. Many have managed to gain enormous wealth, driven by their desire for more money. These greedy folks often make successful businessmen on Wall Street.

But the scandal at the now-defunct News of the World exposes an alarming collision between greed and journalistic ethics. Needless to say, the ethics came off worse.

There is nothing wrong with an ambitious business mogul building an empire, but if that empire is built on unethical practices aimed at satisfying a public appetite for salacious scoops, then action has to be taken.

Early this month, the British public was outraged by reports that News of the World had hacked into the voice-mail of an abducted teenager, who was later murdered.

It was just the start of a string of allegations that have followed, involving the illegal attempt to obtain personal records from politicians, royalty and celebrities.

In fact, the allegations should not have come as a shock to News of the World readers. The paper has long been known for scoops gained by questionable means, and these have fed its robust sales figures over the years.

The paper assigned reporters to pose as sheikhs and coax Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, into the belief she was negotiating a business deal. Ferguson was embarrassed, but the story saw sales for that edition of the paper soar to more than 7 million. In that case, the paper defended its reporters' tactics by claiming the scoop was in the public interest.

But this time around, the public has been outraged by reports of widespread phone hacking to obtain personal information to sell stories.

The media mogul might deny any knowledge of such malpractice, but the News of the World seems to have encouraged this invasion of privacy in a desperate attempt to stay ahead of the Fleet Street competition. The bottom line was: As long as they sell, it doesn't matter how we get the stories.

The press can claim its right to freedom of information, regardless of the means. But in this case, the audience has voiced its strong disapproval over how the reporters got their stories. While some of these scoops were undoubtedly entertaining, there is a limit of appropriate or legal means beyond which journalists should not go.

Moreover, the News of the World can hardly claim that invading the privacy of celebrities, for example, was done legitimately in the public interest. Rather, they were treated as fodder to increase the profits of the tabloid paper.

The image of Murdoch Snr and his son James being grilled in the House of Commons was welcome as it showed that even in the UK, where freedom of the press is sacrosanct, media governance is essential. And the investigation also serves as a reminder that the media, too, is subject to public scrutiny.

With investigations ongoing, the phone-hacking saga has already claimed many casualties. Former editors have been arrested and two senior policemen have resigned. Murdoch himself has seen share prices for his News Corp empire plunge sharply since the scandal broke, but he has also been forced to abandon his ambition to take full control of British Sky Broadcasting Group.

Murdoch may be forced to review the strategy for his media empire after suffering "the most humble day" of his life. But readers may need to reflect on how their hunger to be entertained has also contributed to the journalistic malpractice they are now outraged over.

Populist promises could open door to economic reform

Populist promises could open door to economic storm
By The Nation
Published on July 27, 2011

Though Thailand's finances are relatively strong, shock waves from crises in US and Europe are a worry

Thailand should be able to withstand the financial turbulence caused by the current international economic whirlwind.

Although the Southeast Asian region is likely to enjoy a strong performance compared to other parts of the world, the crises in the euro zone and the US have affected capital flows in recent weeks.

While euro-zone finance ministers are battling to fix the Greek crisis, US President Barack Obama earlier this week warned of a "deep economic crisis" if Washington fails to raise the US debt limit.

If the US Congress does not reach an agreement to raise the debt ceiling by Tuesday, America faces potential economic disasters that include higher interest rates that could dampen consumption.

Thai stock and currency have been in an upward trend recently, partly because the financial problems in other countries have encouraged foreign investors to deem Thai assets safer than others.

Financial ratings agency Standard & Poor's predicts that the fallout from the US debt ceiling stand-off will have a limited impact on banks in Southeast Asia. The S&P report forecasts continued robust economic conditions in Southeast Asia and strong domestic saving rates.

The baht, according to Bloomberg, will likely strengthen 0.8 per cent against the dollar this week. Thailand's currency may match a 13-year high of Bt29.46 reached in November. "We will probably meet substantial support for the dollar at 29.46 because we are going toward territory we have not been in since 1997," Kobsidthi Silpachai, head of capital-markets research at Kasikornbank, was quoted by S&P yesterday.

But the appreciation of the baht, which recorded an eight-month high this week, does not translate as good news for everyone. Thai exporters may lose some price competitiveness due to higher costs as a result of the stronger baht.

However, though it is generally good news that the region's economic health should give us stronger immunity than others, it would be wise to guard against complacence. Financial woes elsewhere could add to the pressure on the Thai economy.

How to withstand the financial turbulence will be the challenge for the incoming government. Although the robust performance of Thai stocks in recent weeks reflects overseas investors' optimism that the new government's policies will spur the economy, accelerating inflows can also add pressure to the value of the baht.

Of late, the baht's gains have been highest among the Asian currencies. Analysts expect it to appreciate further to Bt29.50 over the next two weeks.

The Thai economy will likely face inflationary pressure, spurred also by robust demand as a result of the new government's policies to boost domestic consumption. Local demand is likely to increase after implementation of the increased minimum wage and other populist policies.

In the meantime, the Bank of Thailand is likely to tighten monetary policy to boost the country's immunity to possible crises.

Although the economies of Thailand and Southeast Asia are considered to be healthy so far, shock waves from the crises in the West could change that picture quickly.

This being the case, the incoming government needs to exercise discretion in its economic policies so as to avoid overburdening the public finances.

Before acting on its election promises, the government should consult with all agencies and carefully weigh up the pros and cons before deciding on critical policies that could otherwise wreck

Thai stability and upset both the monetary and fiscal sides of the economy.

National Parks are under attack - we must defend them

National parks are under attack - we must defend them
By The Nation
Published on July 29, 2011

Authorities must give the public answers over what happened in the forest reserves of Prachin Buri, Saraburi and Nakhon Ratchsima provinces. The violators should also be brought to light in order to send a message that society will not tolerate the exploitation of our preserved wilderness areas.

It is a mystery as to why so many resorts have mushroomed in the forest reserves over the past few years under the noses of officials. After all, the construction of these luxury properties would have required many rounds of transportation and gangs of construction workers commuting into the area.

Now that the scandal has made it into the headlines, the issue should not be allowed to disappear without clear explanations given to the public.

This land-grab story is important because it involves authorities' abuse of power, illegal encroachment and exploitation of the environment.

The Nation's latest survey of the area found that large swathes of trees have been cut down, and some sections have been prepared for large-scale construction projects.

Although high-ranking officials and politicians continue to preach the importance of conserving these National Parks, our latest fact-finding mission to Saraburi and Nakhon Ratchsima showed that huge spaces of forest reserve are being shamelessly exploited, with a large portion turned into luxury resorts.

Nation reporters visited the forested area straddling Saraburi and Nakhon Ratchsima provinces after village leaders and members of the local community complained of encroachment into their forest reserves. The villagers are concerned that such massive encroachment could have a potentially disastrous affect on the ecosystem of the mountainous area. With so many trees cut down, they say the stripped mountainous area is now vulnerable to landslides.

The local villagers have identified three types of violator: First, those illegally grabbing land in the forests; second, those encroaching on the natural park and; third, people seeking to benefit by bending the rules on what the land can be used for.

Based on the findings of The Nation's fact-finding mission, a large amount of area under the Sor Por Kor 4-01 land title deed has been transformed into a number of luxury resorts. This is despite the fact that the Sor Por Kor 4-01 area was preserved for farming and not supposed to be transferred to resort investors.

Even worse, parts of the mountainous terrain with at least a 30-degree slope that were supposed to be preserved as pristine forest to maintain the ecosystem, have also been turned into resorts. We also found uprooted trees and construction materials, which had apparently been abruptly abandoned. The culprits must have known that they were engaging in an illegal practice. They apparently left shortly before the survey team arrived.

Unfortunately, this land-grab is not an isolated case in Thailand. Every time the government grants ownership under its land-reform programme, scandals over the abuse of land titles seem to follow.

Last year, news broke of a large area at Suan Pung being turned into luxury resort despite the fact that the land title deed was supposed to be given to farmers for farming. The news made headlines for roughly a week, and then it disappeared. Nevertheless, Suan Pung is still being exploited.

As for the controversy in Saraburi and Nakhon Ratchsima, the authorities have reportedly given the violators a couple of months to dismantle their properties. The public will be watching to see whether that deadline is met.

Guarding against forest encroachment is not the sole responsibility of any individual. Instead, we have to share the responsibility to protect our resources together. It would be doubly sad if society turns a blind eye to this encroachment given that only recently, we lost soldiers whose helicopter crashed while they were on a noble mission to save the forest area in Kaeng Krachan National Park.

The sacrifices of these men should be a reminder that our National Parks belong to us all and that the national attempt to achieve land reform for the wellbeing of the majority of Thais must not be exploited.

Graft is Good: a wake-up call to take issue seriously

'Graft is good': a wake-up call to take issue seriously
By The Nation
Published on July 26, 2011

Poll's shocking finding shows we are all responsible for moral slide towards culture of corruption

A new survey by Abac poll on how we perceive corruption, produced the alarming finding that the majority of Thais, especially young adults, believe graft is acceptable.

The survey released last week found that 64.5 per cent of respondents said they had no problem with government corruption in certain cases: first, if the corrupt government could make the country prosper, second, if corruption promoted people's well-being, and third, if corruption benefited the poll's respondents.

The percentage of those happy to see a corrupt government as long as they themselves benefited was particularly large (70 per cent) among respondents aged under 20 and between 20 and 29.

If this survey proves to be an effective measure of our moral judgement, we have to acknowledge the sad fact that our ethical standards are deteriorating, especially among the young generation. And who else is there to blame for this deterioration but we adults, who set the standards for youngsters?

It is a universally held belief that corruption is evil. Corruption is the enemy of development and good governance. It is absolutely wrong for government agencies or officials to abuse the system for their own material benefit at the expense of the overall benefit to society.

However, it seems the majority of Thais now no longer have a problem with corruption if they also benefit, albeit in the short-term, from the abusive practices. These citizens could live with corruption as long as they can get a "slice of the cake".

The graft-happy respondents have apparently quantified their moral standards into the amount of money they would earn. Their moral judgement is based on the material benefit they would receive, not on selfless values for the greater good. It begs the question, are we reaching a point where we are accepting corruption as a social norm?

But these 65 per cent of respondents are not totally blameworthy (and at least they were honest enough to say what they thought). Rather, corruption has become so pervasive in our society because everyone shares the responsibility for letting the disease grow to such a chronic and almost incurable level.

We must all accept a share of the blame for creating the environment in which graft has flourished. First, corruption has increasingly become acceptable at an individual level. Second, in spite all the anticorruption rhetoric, Thai society has cherished people who achieve material wealth while ignoring the means - too often questionable - by which they amassed their fortunes. Third, our system of governance has failed to punish politicians or people accused of corruption, even when we see their scandal-mired names in newspaper headlines on a daily basis.

In addition, many of us have voted back to power politicians who have never cleared their names after corruption scandals. This is despite the fact that in other Asian countries such as Japan, a single, minor corruption charge can end a politician's career.

We like to casually discuss how bad corruption is, but we have become complacent about it. Now, this Abac poll should serve as wake-up call for everyone to act and address the issue seriously.

For those who might not care about the ethical side of the issue, here's our argument: pervasive corruption will also wreck the country's competitiveness and the ability of the common man to earn more money. Dusit Nontanakorn, chairman of the Board of Trade and Thai Chamber of Commerce, recently warned that corruption would be the biggest obstacle to Asean Economic Community integration. The cost of business would increase because of the large amount of money allocated for bribery.

Corruption robs people - especially the have-nots - of the opportunity to better themselves, because they do not have the money or power to engage in bribery.

Some may be happy to receive short-term benefits from corruption but, ultimately, graft undermines the fair and just environment that gives them, along with the rest of us, the opportunity to prosper.

We are all responsible for corruption, even the 35.5 per cent of respondents who said they would not tolerate it. We have been deprived of our voice to say the right thing and, for a long time now, we have failed to raise our voices against this evil.