Corruption and political crisis threaten our chances of benefiting from regional economic integration
New Year is a good time to start anew, but the arrival of 2014 is a reminder that Thailand and our neighbours have just one year left before the Asean Economic Community (AEC) hits the launch pad. For Thailand, the ongoing political crisis makes the need for preparations more urgent. There has been a lot of talk, but now it's time for actions that embrace the AEC. The final countdown is approaching and any country with a good head-start will benefit from the regional pact.
Economic integration is expected to improve competitiveness by transforming the Asean countries into a single market and production base. If Thailand is to benefit from the free flow of goods, trade, investment, capital and labour, it needs improvements in key areas.
The challenge ahead has been made bigger by Thailand's ongoing political crisis, while the government has done far too little to pave the way for the AEC.
First and foremost, the country must sort out systemic corruption across business and in government. We also need education reform, as well as strong visions for business. All these requirements are interrelated and must be executed simultaneously if we are to be competitive enough to succeed in the AEC.
Corruption remains widespread and rampant, as Transparency International's most recent survey revealed. Thailand fell from 88th to 102nd this year and now languishes behind four Asean neighbours - Singapore (5th), Brunei (38th), Malaysia (53rd) and the Philippines (82nd). The rankings plunge is an alarm bell for Thai authorities, who must now take act serious actions to combat high-level graft. Among the most notoriously corruption-tainted last year were the water management and rice-pledging schemes.
Thailand could learn lessons from its neighbours' successful graft-eradication programmes. But without genuine political will, measures will remain ineffective. The anti-corruption drive must begin at a structural level: laws must be clear-cut, giving the least room possible for political exploitation. Graft-busters must be empowered, depoliticised and given society's full support. Otherwise, the opportunities that arrive with the AEC will pass Thailand by.
Like corruption, education in Thailand gets a poor review. We rank worst among the eight Southeast Asian countries evaluated in the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report for 2012-2013. The frequent change of education minister and lack of visions have taken their toll. Four ministers in the space of two years under one government has hardly helped launched reform, let alone continue it.
Obviously, education in Thailand needs to be fixed quickly and sustainably if we are to keep pace with our neighbours. That English will be the official language of the AEC should also ring alarm bells, with Thai students still lagging behind. Our future generations will need English more than ever when free flow of labour puts them in direct competition with their Asean peers.
More important still, our government needs vision. The government often allows the private sector to take advantage of mega-projects. Such practice breeds a vicious circle of nepotism, corruption and government incompetence. For models here, Thailand need look no further than Singapore and Hong Kong, where governments take the lead and gain great benefits from their development plans.
But first and foremost, we must put our political house in order. The consequences of failing to do so will be grave: Investors will be scared away, while local businesspeople will suffer from lack of guidance and support. It will be impossible for Thailand to take advantage of the free flow of trade, investment, production and human resources if it remains at its relatively low level of competitiveness.
Thailand has a mountain to climb. The AEC is a summit worth aiming for, but only the strongest "mountaineers" will reach the top and enjoy the great view. The question is, can Thailand shirk its "sick-man" status quickly enough this year to ascend to the summit and enjoy the benefits along with other Asean nations?
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