Interview: Anutin Charnvirakul
How can public infrastructure projects address productivity bottlenecks and facilitate growth?
ANUTIN CHARNVIRAKUL: Infrastructure investment should go to secondary cities instead of Bangkok. The capital has seen the development of so many mass transit lines and expressways that it has become even more congested and is suffering as a result. At present everything is centred on Bangkok and the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), while other cities lack proper infrastructure development. Secondary cities should become the foundation of wealth distribution, because even if we complete our public transport system, we will need a wider network to connect with the rest of the country.
The people of Thailand are not accustomed to trains and the rail network. Considering the money we have spent on high-speed trains, we could have built motorways and safer roads throughout the country, thereby addressing the needs of the people. Looking at the double-track rail projects, do we even have the space to build them? We already have so many modes of transport that we do not need another one to congest our transport networks – it is the wrong response. The country’s development has suffered not because of a lack of infrastructure, but due to red tape and bureaucracy. There is a lack of overall planning and we need to start solving these primary issues before thinking about improving regional connectivity.
What can be done to incentivise private sector involvement in large-scale projects?
ANUTIN: There are a lot of Thai contractors that are willing to take part in infrastructure development, especially for the high-speed systems, but the current administration does not provide sufficient support for local businesses. This is the result of hastiness and how expedient the authorities have been with a $6bn budget for such a short term of reference.
Although the administration issued a special law for this EEC development, they did not consider whether or not the law could be implemented while taking social and environmental factors into account. For instance, the reclamation issue will affect many individuals, and the government will need to find new locations for them. However, there is currently no plan for this.
Where would you like to see deeper engagement from the current administration to boost private sector investment in the EEC?
ANUTIN: Since the 1980s the economy has grown substantially. The reason for this is that we invited the world to come and manufacture high-quality goods at competitive costs in the EEC. Geographically, this area has advantages for manufacturing activities that produce goods for export. In conjunction with the Thailand 4.0 vision, logistics and innovation should be able to catch up by creating value-added products.
In order to move forward with the EEC, misunderstandings must be corrected. If we deliver a product based on loyalty, regional and global firms will not relocate. Unfortunately, the government has overlooked Thai businesses, which has led to a discontinuation of support for original equipment manufacturers wanting to establish themselves in the country. Nevertheless, Thailand has a resilient private sector despite recent political turmoil and disputes among people in the country, and most domestic companies can sustain themselves and expand in an eco-friendly manner.
However, if policies are not amended we will not progress – we need strong planning and somebody who understands business. Furthermore, I would like to see the country move ahead with further deregulation. We need to change the mindset of our civil servants so that they know how the world accommodates the business sector, thereby allowing us to better compete on an international level. We are not a developed centre of finance whose economy can be turned around with financial products. Therefore, our first priority must be to connect our cities using domestic contractors.