Spatial Economic Initiatives in Thailand

Last week I attended the International Conference on Thai Studies (http://www.icts13.chiangmai.cmu.ac.th/) held at the International Conference Centre in Chiang Mai (http://www.cmecc-mice.com/).

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(Walden Bello acting as discussant).

My paper was “Spatial Economic Initiatives in Thailand.”

Abstract

In common with other mainland Southeast Asian countries, Thailand has historically been dominated by a primate city, Bangkok, in which all principal economic, social, political, religious and monarchical institutions have been concentrated. Awareness of the problems that this concentration has caused has been recognised in developmental plans since the 1950s, when efforts at decentralization were first introduced. Assisted by improvements in transportation infrastructure made during the Cold War period, initiatives such as the creation of the Northern Region Industrial Estate have been intended to develop other parts of the country to modify migration flows and reduce income inequalities which have become more marked through the years. The Board of Investment has been instrumental in offering incentives to foreign and domestic investors in industrial estates to the north of Bangkok in Pathum Thani and Ayutthaya, where good roads link the places of production with the markets of the capital and the main port of Laem Chabang. Currently, the border special economic zone policy aims, insofar as its objectives have been coherently stated, to promote development in border regions which can take advantage of cross-border trade and investment. In these efforts, success has usually been achieved when public sector agencies have provided what private sector interests wanted and this is likely to continue in the future. This paper explores the various economic spatial initiatives that have taken place in the country and attempts to analyse when and where these have been successful and what lessons failures have been able to provide.

Keywords: Thailand, special economic zones, economic geography, regional development

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Review of Phongpaichit and Baker’s Unequal Thailand

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Phongpaichit, Pasuk and Chris Baker (eds.), Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, Nepalese Journal of Management Science and Research, Vol.2 (2017), pp.67-8.

Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power
Edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker
Singapore: NUS Press, 2016
ISBN: 9789814722001
XV + 186 pp.

Inequality has become one of the more urgent issues gripping the attention of the people of the world, especially since it became evident that the Crisis of Austerity was being used b representatives of the 1% to extract even more money from the 99%. Thomas Piketty’s epic Capital in the Twenty First Century (2014) demonstrated that intensifying capitalism strengthened control of money among the rich and the super-rich and prevented social mobility taking place. The importance of social mobility for maintaining a healthy and progressive governance system has been evident since the creation of the imperial examination system in the Han dynasty of China more than two thousand years ago (Min & Xiumen, 2010). In The Spirit Level, Pickett and Wilkinson (2010) show beyond reasonable doubt that those countries most unequal fare the worst in a wide range of societal indictors, ranging from educational outcomes to teenage pregnancies to crime rates. The best way to make any society happier and more stable overall is to reduce inequality and the best way to do that involves a combination of empowering the poor with shining a light on the possessions and lifestyles of the rich. The release of the Panama Papers, leaked from the legal firm Mossack Fonseca, very quickly showed how those who benefited from tax avoidance by using shell companies offshore tax havens could be brought to account when their activities came to light (e.g. Henley, 2016; MacAskill et al., 2016).

All in all, then, this would seem to be a splendid time to publish a collection of papers based on original empirical research into inequality in Thailand. After all, as a country that has undergone rapid economic development, urbanization and industrialization, Thailand has begun to embrace all aspects of capitalist development, for good or ill. Further, the country continues to suffer the drawbacks of Thai feudalism and the absolute blanket on any form of political dissent or even questioning maintained by the current junta. Such a book would investigate the roles and influence of powerful institutions set so implacably against progress such as the military, judiciary and network monarchy. It would question the role of the media and media ownership as an additional tool used as an intellectual state apparatus in promoting the concept of so-called Thainess (i.e. obedience, obsequiousness to power and unwillingness to question authority). Innovative attempts to identify the relationship between economic and social capital would have been welcome. However, unfortunately, this opportunity has rather been missed somewhere along the line of production, since too many of the papers veer towards the superficial and to lack firm supervisory guidance. The project was funded jointly by the Thailand Research Fund, the Bureau of Higher Education and Chulalongkorn University as part of the Distinguished Professor Scheme. It is certainly a good thing that only Thai academics were selected for this project, that they seem to have been well-funded and their papers extensively edited and supported for this book by near-legendary editors Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. The problem nevertheless remains that too many of the papers (and some from the original project have been omitted altogether) are just not quite up to the required level.

Some papers do make a positive contribution. For example, Duangmanee Laovakul’s “Concentration of Land and Other Wealth in Thailand” is based on ground-breaking research among the newly digitized records of the Land Department. This research indicates that the ownership of land and other assets is even more highly concentrated than the ownership of income. It is shown that 10% of all landowners own more than 60% of total land. Unfortunately, no useful implications or policy recommendations are derived from this research.

Nualnoi Treerat and Parkpume Vanichoka have an interesting paper in “Elite Networking through Special Executive Courses,” which itemizes the presence and nature of such courses and identifies those who have participated in them. It is made clear that course-organizers take steps to ensure that network opportunities are maximized at these times and it is very evident that senior-junior relationships are established which are of considerable importance and value to both sides in future careers. The authors conclude that this ‘personal cronyism’ perpetuates elite power by promoting good relations and avoiding conflict among the elite and accepted new entrants, thereby preventing unwanted outsiders entering and “As a result power over the economy, politics and resources is more concentrated and circumscribed within a small elite.”
As a research paper, the outstanding chapter is provided by Chaiyon Praditisil and Chainarong Khrueanuan, who are able to draw upon many years of inquiry to inform their “Inequalities of Local Power and Profit: The Changing Structure of Provincial Power.” This is a fascinating account of how Chao Por networks have developed in provincial Thailand, how they have developed over time and reacted against the threat of outsiders moving in to their territory. It is shown that such networks have diminished in value over time as various elements of globalization have meant that power and resources are generated more from without than within. The conclusion drawn is that “The inequities in power and economic opportunity at the provincial level will diminish significantly only when advances in the rule of law and democratic decentralization make single faction dominance no longer possible.”

Of course, this being Thailand, we wait for the inevitable paper explaining how it is all really the fault of Thaksin and the uppity residents of Isan. Here it comes in the form of a contribution from Ukrist Pathmanand, whose work I have seen elsewhere and thought reasonably sensible. Since I have worked at Shinawatra University for a number of years, it is probably better if I do not comment on this paper for fear of being thought biased. After this, the book peters out with a fairly shambolic look at taxation and possible reforms to the tax system. The editors have done their best to try to remedy the shortcomings exhibited by the authors overall by trying to create an inclusive framework on inequality in the introductory chapter but this is only partly successful. Despite being published in Singapore, the text occasionally veers into American spelling and the index needs attention. Overall, the text is notable more for its omissions than from that which it does include.

References

Henley, Jon, “Iceland PM Steps aside after Protests over Panama Papers Revelations,” The Guardian (April 5th, 2016), available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/05/iceland-prime-minister-resigns-over-panama-papers-revelations.

MacAskill, Ewen, Rowena Mason, David Pegg and Holly Watt, “David Cameron Left Dangerously Exposed by Panama Papers Fallout,” The Guardian (April 5th, 2016), available at: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2016/apr/05/david-cameron-left-dangerously-exposed-by-panama-papers-fallout.

Min, Han and Yang Xiuwen, “Educational Assessment in China: Lessons from History and Future Prospects,” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol.8, No.1 (2001), pp.5-10.

Pickett, Kate and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone (London: Penguin, 2010).

Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

A Study of Tourism’s Contribution to the Textile and Clothing Industry: International Consumer Buying Behaviour in Thailand

Yan, Zeng and John Walsh, “A Study of Tourism’s Contribution to the Textile and Clothing Industry: International Consumer Buying Behaviour in Thailand,” International Review of Management and Development Studies, Vol.1, No.2 (2017), available at: http://crcltd.org/images/A_Study_of_Tourism_s_Contribution_to_the_Textile_and_Clothing_Industry_International_Consumer_Buying_Behavior_in_Thailand%20(1).PDF.

Abstract:

This paper is aimed at exploring the impact of international tourism huge value consumption concerning the development of T&C (textile and clothing) industry in Thailand. The underlying concept is that stimulating the influencing factors of international consumer buying behavior will be another important “export” driving power. This study employs a quantitative approach to investigate the relationship between the three factors and T&C expenditure with respect to international tourist in a sample of tourist in Bangkok. The study concludes that tourism industry has significant impact on this T&C industry and marketing promotion or strategy will be important. It further concludes that the tourism industry will contribute to the development of T&C industry since the visitor export is increasing continuously in Thailand. Keywords: Service quality, SERVQUAL, Customer satisfaction, consumer behavior, Textile

Upgrading Employees’ Skills in Thai SMEs Sustainably

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Announcing: Ngaochay, Thanee and John Walsh, “Upgrading Employees’ Skills in Thai SMEs Sustainably,” Pacific Business Review International, Vol.9, No.9 (March, 2017), available at: http://pbr.co.in/March%202017/15.pdf.

Abstract: Sustainably upgrading employee skills in SMEs is a continuous process involving improving the ability of employees. It is an attempt to improve their current and future performance and employers should keep a track on their performance after receiving reports on training so as to enable assessment. The systematic process of adjusting the behaviour of employees should be one of the goals of any organization in a volatile environment. A training plan is an effort by employersto provide opportunities for employees to acquire job-related skills, attitudes and knowledge. In order to meet growing and changing demand, SMEs have to be dynamic and pro-active with respect to the environment in order to achieve success. Consequently, many if not most SMEs implement training and development plans at the time of orientation, promotion and in other situations. This research paper makes an attempt to study how Thai SMEs try to upgrade their employees’ skills sustainably and the impact of this in generating greater efficiency of the employees concerned.

Keywords: Thai SMEs, Employees’ skills, principles of Buddhism, Sufficiency economy.

Thailand’s Border Special Economic Zones and Precarious Life and Work

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I have returned from the NUS workshop on Living in an Age of Precarity, which was very successful.

This is the abstract of my presentation.

Thailand’s Border Special Economic Zones and Precarious Life and Work

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

ABSTRACT

Thailand’s proposed new special economic zone (SEZ) policy calls for more than ten projects in border areas across the country. After the military coup in 2014, it was stated that the SEZs would be used as internment camps for migrant workers as part of the campaign against the poor initiated by the junta. That policy has now changed to using day migrants in value-adding activities that will help lift Thailand out of the Middle Income Trap. These top-down approaches instil little confidence that genuine market demand or complementarity of production assets will lead to thriving SEZs with skilled and well-rewarded employees. Indeed, the presence of SEZs located across the Lao and Cambodian borders suggests there will be over-capacity of industrial space and, hence, under-utilisation of sites and the driving down of costs, including wages. Existing SEZs are already lying unused or, as in the case of Boten, stand as tribute to the damaging effects of cowboy capitalism. These examples suggest a flaw in the claim for SEZs in Thailand that they are different from industrial estates and not paces of pollution, contestation and social problems. This paper investigates the logic of the border SEZs in Thailand in the light of projects across the Mekong Region and, specifically, considers the extent to which they promote safe, decent and stable employment, in contrast to the precarious work and lifestyle of the factory hand and family members.

Keywords: employment, Mekong Region, precarity, special economic zones, Thailand

Review of Gittins: On Track

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Gittins, Paul, On Track: Henry Gittins – A Rail Pioneer of Siam and Canada, Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.2, No.3 (Sep-Dec, 2015), pp.66-8.

Bangkok: River Books, 2014; 151 pp.; ISBN: 978-616-7339-429

The decision whether or not to upgrade Thailand’s rail services to incorporate high speed links, double tracks and improved connectivity with all important places of production and consumption across Asia rather tends to cause people to disregard the existing system and focus on inadequacies and lack of investment. This is rather unfair as the original act of building the system was not just a significant feat of engineering through terrain that was in many places thickly forested and mountainous, together with the difficulties posed by monsoon rains in a muddy part of the world but, also, because of the persistence needed to overcome the high rate of fatalities among the labour force resulting from numerous diseases and dangerous wild animals. Those who participated in the work needed almost certainly to be young and fit and could expect a relatively short career before the dangers of working in such an environment required cessation before permanent illness or even death would be the result. There are many examples of records kept by western travellers in their explorations of the Mekong region, even into the twentieth century, that retell in prosaic terms the stories of individuals, local or international alike, who fell ill in the afternoon and then were dead before morning. It is hard to imagine that many people today would accept such conditions without duress.

The railway system that was built may have had its limitations but it did have a an important role to play in the modernization of Siam, under King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and notables such as Prince Damrong. Transportation infrastructure is an enabling technology and, as such, enables other people to do things which they might not otherwise have been able to do or, at least, with the same level of efficiency. There is a tendency to think about economic activities when talk of enabling begins – farmers able to bring their produce to market and consequently are able to move beyond subsistence forms of agriculture – but there are benefits to be had in terms of familial and social relations and, in a more modern country, benefits to a properly functioning democracy, as the example of independent India shows. In this memoir of the work of his grandfather Henry Gittins, author Paul Gittins includes extensive extracts from the diaries of the eponymous pioneer and some of these demonstrate his opinion that the ability of provincial governors and local rulers to kin muang (eat the state) had been reduced since the railroad linking their provinces to Bangkok:

“The governor … controlled the gang of thieves or if they did not control them, ‘twas their retainers, who never receiving any pay for their services, took to gang robbery to recoup themselves and the governor winked the other eye. The poor labourer in those days got little in the way of cash or anything else except stripes for his labour (p.104).”

However, in some ways, there has been precious little improvement over the course of a century: “… almost invariably it was useless for a poor man to bring an action against a rich one, as bribery and corruption was just as rife now as it was in the old days (p.109).”

A family memoir such as this relies for its interest and value almost entirely on the quality of the original memoir and exclusive access to it. Author Gittins seems to know very little about Siam or indeed Canada that is not revealed to him by his grandfather and if he has done any background reading then this is not evident in the text and there are very few citations of any other authors, whether for the purpose of comparison or triangulation. So, therefore, what is the quality of the memoir and the way it has been presented? In answering these questions, it is necessary to consider the purpose and objective of the book, the author and the publisher. The book intends, it may be deduced, to entertain and educate to a certain extent and not to outstay its welcome. The author clearly wants the chance to show the career of his grandfather to the world and not to write a serious piece of history. Everything told to him by his grandfather is presented seemingly at face value and, although the editing process might have been quite different to the way it appears, it looks like Gittins has used pretty much all the material he could reasonably hope to include. The publisher, meanwhile, is River Books from here in Bangkok is known for a range of publications on local interests, including memoirs and books based on photography. This book sits within that catalogue and it is notable how many photos are included, mostly from Henry Gittins himself but also from othr sources. An uplifting story from a good family man well-rewarded by his appreciative and wise Siamese hosts and employers would seem to fit the bill and, by and large, the text delivers this. There are some examples of comments about the rival Germans that test the limit of what an exasperated English person might reasonably make but there is nothing negative to be found on individual members of the establishment. The grandfather’s prose itself is a little plodding in nature and presumably not originally intended for publication:

“This consisted of laying logs side by side the full length of the bank and putting the earth on top as a sort of floating construction. As it slowly sank, more earth was piled on and eventually a good road bed obtained. These swamps had to be crossed slowly on foot, stepping from tuft to tuft of matted grass. If you stepped between, you might go out of sight, after the manner of a Dartmoor bog (p.46).”

There are some gems of information in this book but not too many of them. It would be interesting to know what a historian would have made of the original material.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Collaborative Provision of Graduate Education in CLMV: Case of Thailand’s Private Universities

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Announcing: Sujarittanonta, Lavanchawee, kittichok Nithisathian and John Walsh, “Collaborative Provision of Graduate Education in CLMV: Case of Thailand’s Private Universities,” Journal of Educational and Vocational Research, Vol.7, No.2 (2016), pp.49-57, available at: http://ifrnd.org/journal/index.php/jevr/article/view/1340.

Abstract

Education entails investments in time and money from the students and, therefore, the choices of degree programs and university names are critical for students and their future careers. The demand for foreign education in the CLMV (i.e. Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam) market is fast expanding, especially for international graduate programs. Equipped with foreign degrees, the human resources of the host CLMV countries are ready for international jobs with international standards. This situation attracts investments by foreign universities to enter CLMV countries to offer degree programs, such as MBA, MPA and PhD. While Western universities are internationally recognized, the success of Asian universities operating within CLMV has not been studied. Consequently, this paper reports on research examining the success of Thai private universities that operate in CLMV countries, in particular Mynmar, which has only recently opened up to the world, as well as the developing prospects for Vietnam. Lao PDR and Cambodia. Data is collected through in-depth interviews of managers and students of international partner institutions of the host countries, through which Thai universities offer graduate degree programs. It is found that private Thai degree programs are welcomed in CLMV countries, while Thai degrees are favored over international Western degrees in terms of economic affordability and preferred over Chinese degree programs due to the socio-cultural perception that Chinese products are doubtful in quality. This is not surprising, considering that a 2014 study by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) reported that among middle-income countries of Asia, Thailand and Malaysia lead the region when it comes to providing graduate education.
Keywords: Education, CLMV, private universities, quality