Academics exchange salvos: Let the real debate begin

opinion November 29, 2012 00:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

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When the country's leading intellectuals debate the most controversial economic policy in public - instead of pontificating in their ivory towers about theories and ambiguous issues - you know there might be light at the other end of the tunnel.

It doesn’t matter where you stand. You don’t even have to take sides. The fact that the nation’s best-known academics are ready to take off the gloves and argue the pros and cons of a hot story in broad daylight certainly contributes significantly to the atmosphere of informed debate. This has been the exception rather than the rule over the past several years.

It all began with an article penned by Nidhi Iewsriwongse, a noted Chiang Mai University lecturer known for his outspoken views on national issues. He wrote in Matichon newspaper on November 5 that the government’s much-hyped rice-price guarantee policy is an admirable one. 
The policy, he wrote, is a sound one that will help raise farmers’ standard of living, as repeatedly claimed by the government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party. Nidhi went so far as to declare that this policy to subsidise the paddy price will change Thailand in a meaningful way. In other words, he is suggesting in no uncertain terms that the policy will transform Thailand in an important way.
He then hit out at critics of the Pheu Thai platform by arguing that their criticism has been based on flawed logic and unproven facts. He declared that the rice pledging policy will strengthen farmers politically – and will in turn allow Thailand to move on to a new stage of development.
On November 26, two equally prominent academics from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) – Nibhon Puapongsakorn and Ammar Siamwalla – hit back with an equally strongly-worded article to underscore their stand against this “expensive, wasteful and dangerous” policy.
Nibhon and Ammar took on Nidhi point by point – which I am sure was quite enlightening for those who have been confused by the arguments from both sides all along.  
Point One: Nidhi said that those opposed to the policy on the ground that only middle-income farmers and rice mill owners stand to benefit from the scheme cannot back this up with facts. “Their opinion is not based on research. It’s all guesswork.”
The two TDRI academics insist that Nidhi is wrong. The critics’ position has all been based on research work from both government and private sources. There is nothing nebulous about it.
Point Two: Nidhi says the financial losses from the project are minimal and these are intentional – and therefore manageable. 
Ammar and Nibhon couldn’t take this sitting down. They retort that the loss of about Bt1 billion isn’t peanuts by any means. “That’s because this loss represents lost opportunities that affect other major policies by the government. And the loan made to implement this plan without limit has already negatively affected other loans made by the government for other purposes,” they write.
Perhaps, the most heated point was the third one, in which Nidhi claims that the scheme will strengthen farmers politically, which in turn will put the country on a transformative track.
Nibhon and Ammar ask: “Can we accept this so-called political strength of farmers if it is based on a weakened economic production base that puts the whole rice industry at risk?”
Does this mean that the rice industry will have to rely on largesse from the government indefinitely?
The two academics insist that they have taken the issue public because they are concerned about “the blind spot of populist democracy” which has become the policy of every Thai government. 
A sound democratic system isn’t just “edible”. A good democracy must be one that is responsible for whatever damage it causes or incurs along the way.
Great minds don’t have to think alike. In fact, the more they engage in a real exchange, the better they serve the country. It’s ten times more enlightening than a lecture series in the classroom.