Interview: Teeranun Srihong, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners

How are the Digital Economy Master Plan and the development of the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) helping to modernise Thailand’s economy?

TEERANUN SRIHONG: The EEC is one aspect of the Thailand 4.0 strategy, whereas the Digital Economy Master Plan addresses the country as a whole. The government has put the infrastructure in place to begin building a digital economy through a reliable and accessible connectivity network. By early 2019 we will have rolled out 25,000 broadband connections. This, coupled with the migration to 5G, will be the core of Thailand’s infrastructure. This infrastructure revamp will digitalise communities, state and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to make them more competitive.

The EEC is in the middle of Thailand’s manufacturing hub, where removing technological limitations is critical to sustaining growth and innovation. In the short term we will build in the EEC an internet of things institute and a digital park linked to a science and technology innovation hub, where digital, physical and biological technologies will be interconnected, completing Thailand’s fourth industrial revolution.

However, the lack of a digital workforce remains a major hurdle. Even with the SMART visa scheme in place, there are still legislation issues. We are putting different promotional schemes in place to invite private sector players to match skills and certifications to the needs of this new digital space. In addition, Thailand has been cooperating with other countries to reverse the brain drain by creating opportunities for Thais willing to return home. Moving forward, Thailand must sell itself as the hub of the Greater Mekong Subregion to help build talent and bring new industries into the EEC.

In what ways are foreign companies encouraged to take part in the seven targeted smart cities?

TEERANUN: We always welcome foreign firms to participate, however, we are still working on the ideal framework to facilitate this. Currently, the government has a smart city committee, which is handled across ministries. We are looking for more clarity in the governance of this project, as a centrally controlled smart city project may not be sustainable in the longer term. However, when it comes to choosing projects and partners, we would rather invite the private sector to collaborate with cities and local businesses directly. Phuket is well ahead, having set up Phuket City Development, which is focused on enhancing infrastructure for the tourism sector. Khon Kaen is focusing on mass transit, while Chiang Mai is directing its attention to traffic management and the agriculture sector. There are different angles from which to approach a smart city; businesses and local administrations must be clear on priorities so that a framework can be laid out for investors.

How do you see the role of data and analytics in the economy evolving?

TEERANUN: Currently, SMEs do not have the resources to move into the digital space. This is partly because they present higher risks for banks, a complaint across many countries. We are hopeful that technology can allow SMEs to move forwards, but first, Thailand needs to capitalise and build stronger analytics capabilities. While there is a push from the government to move towards big data, we need to be fair to data owners. There needs to be incentive for them to provide their data to other parties. Furthermore, there are resources other than banking data that is available to propel the digital and e-commerce economy forwards. For example, we could also secure data from mobile operators. However, even if we see efforts from the private sector to open up access to their data, the decision will ultimately remain with the regulators. Therefore we need more clarity on the ownership of data. The other challenge is that consumers are reluctant to share their data. Overcoming this obstacle, while also preventing any potential abuse of technology and data, will take some time, but with focused efforts, we’ll get there.