The government has been in office for a year, and given the current political circumstances, it is set to hold power for the next three years at least.
That is good news for Pheu Thai amid several unfavourable stories.
Political stability is one good thing we can expect. No country can prosper with frequent government changes, as that leads to discontinuity of policies. But then, no sustainable benefits can be guaranteed if a government completes its term only with policies that do not benefit the country over the long term.
The government has brought joy to a large group of voters through populist policies. It was amusing that in opening the “Government Meets the Public” fair last weekend, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said the fair reflected the government’s first year of success. Hmm, what success? A target provision of tax incentives to 500,000 first-car buyers scheme has drawn fewer than 100,000 purchases in a year. The rice price pledging scheme is plagued with corruption. The farmers’ credit-card scheme will lead to ballooning debts for farmers, as they can collude with merchants in exaggerating product prices so that extra cash can be used to buy “unnecessary items”.
The government seems to be focusing on schools, as the Education Ministry has won the biggest chunk of the national budget. Yet, much of the money goes on tools like tablets, not content and infrastructure. I don’t know if the education minister knows that over half of our textbooks are produced by outsourced companies, who come up with their own formats and content.
Recently, I came across a history textbook for Grade 3 Singapore students. It looks like a comic book, full of photos and cartoon characters talking about the subject in easy language. That simplifies the heavy content, which focuses on the Japanese occupation of Singapore during the Second World War. In one chapter, students are asked what Singapore, which surrendered to Japan, should have done. Wow!
Thai students also study about the time Siam lost land to the Western imperial powers, but only from texts and without any questions that could ignite a sense of patriotism or involvement in national affairs. That hasn’t changed for decades.
It is not surprising that Dusit Poll last weekend showed that about 50 per cent of respondents observed no distinction between the current or previous governments on education. The Abhisit government also claimed huge success from its education-related populist policy, aimed at providing free education up to Grade 12.
Development guru Mechai Viravaidya commented that free tuition fees cannot substitute for lack of good content and a proper learning environment. Sivaporn Dardarananda, chairman of Tisco Foundation which was among the first to hand out scholarships 30 years ago, also commented that schools are now encouraged to charge students on certain items, as parents are freed from tuition fees.
Their comments remind me of the words of an academic who attended a Nation seminar a long time ago: “Politicians want to keep people stupid, or they can’t buy votes.”
With economic prosperity, the number of Thais living below the poverty line declines. According to a CIA factbook, 9.6 per cent of Thais were below the poverty line in 2006, compared with 12.5 per cent in 1998. The percentage is lower, but the number of people has increased over the years. Unlike middle-income and wealthy people, the poor don’t mind free gifts. They don’t care if those free gifts come from a pool of tax money collected from those who generate income from limited national resources. They don’t care if free gifts mean fewer roads in some provinces or poorer training for teachers as a whole.
Since 2000, all governments have intoxicated people with free gifts. The military-appointed Surayud government reduced the cooking gas price in 2007; the Abhisit government reversed it. (I have to commend the Yingluck government for raising the gas price.) The Abhisit government waived diesel excise tax. It was thus funny that Korn Chatikavanij, then finance minister, said that the Yingluck government has raised sin taxes because it is broke, partly due to the diesel excise tax waiver.
Pheu Thai is moving ahead with more populist policies to win political support. Democrat Party members admit that the party can’t afford to stay still on this, knowing the extra burden to the national budget in the long term.
As soft loans may be no longer exciting, can we now expect a first-smartphone buyer scheme? Don’t laugh. As Africans now now, access to a mobile phone can lift the living standards of millions. To boost experience, there may be a fully funded first-overseas trip for all five-year-old kids. Automatic scholarships for Olympic medallists may not be so far-fetched.
This is the reason why Thais are getting more and more selfish. They live life today and don’t care about tomorrow. No surprise, when policy-makers do the same thing.