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Better IT investment the key to transparency

IMD Business School (photo credit: IMD)

IMD Business School (photo credit: IMD)

Thailand was ranked 47th for technology infrastructure among 60 economies included in the IMD's 2013 World Competitiveness Ranking.

That was shockingly low for a country that sits among the world's top five for numbers of Facebook users. The figures show that Thailand has a long way to go before it makes full use of technology to support its long-term competitiveness.

Thailand's technology infrastructure was among the weakest of the 333 criteria, stalling the improvement in our overall competitiveness ranking. Overall we were rated the 27th-most competitive economy, a big improvement on 30th the previous year. The surveys began in 1989 and the latest ranking is close to Thailand's best so far - 25th in 2005 - and a considerable improvement on our low point of 41st in 1998.

But poor IT infrastructure is dragging the economy down, and few policymakers and politicians seem to realise it, let alone be taking remedial action.

It's true that several have personally embraced new technology, launching their own Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. But few have floated ideas on how IT could benefit the country and the economy as a whole.

One example stands out: Thailand has been plunged into a political impasse by the polling blockade and subsequent scrapping of the February 2 election results, yet few have put forward the idea of electronic voting or other technological means to ensure smoother future elections. And this is despite suffering our longest period for decades without permanent government. Perhaps policymakers are focused on calls for pre-election reforms. But if turns out that no better political solution exists than elections, maybe they should start thinking harder about ways of ensuring smoother polling. Elections might not fix political conflicts, but they obviously can fix other problems, including delays to budgeting and other planning vital to national wellbeing.

It also surprises me that no government in the past decade has made a serious attempt to register farmers, despite campaigning on platforms designed to attract their votes (farm-workers constitute the majority of the country's workforce).

Each government has enthusiastically launched subsidy programmes for farmers. But it has neglected to adopt a comprehensive system for registration of those eligible.

Investing in a centralised IT system to smooth registration would be a good first step. Imagine we had a system that showed the names of all rice farmers entitled to benefits under the rice-pledge or price-guarantee schemes. Imagine the system was accessible to everyone, enabling us to check on how much was being given to whom. This way, they, along with the general public, would have rightful access to details of how their taxes are being spent. A farming family with the same-sized plot as their neighbours could check on whether they were receiving the same subsidy. In short, such a system would enable better public scrutiny, which should cut corruption.

This fiscal year, the Yingluck government has pumped in Bt84 billion to stabilise prices for agricultural products - a huge drain on government finances. Under the Bt1.4-trillion Thai Khemkaeng (Thai Strengthening) scheme of the Abhisit government, only Bt24 billion was spared for upgrading telecom infrastructure with the 3G mobile-phone system.

Indeed, amid poor budget allocation, I have been surprised at the lack of progress made by government agencies in making use of advanced technology.

For Thais, no piece of plastic is more important than their ID card. With your ID card number, you can fill your tax form without your taxpayer ID card. Likewise, credit-card companies seek no other verification if they have the client's ID card number.

This system could be rolled out across the whole sphere of bureaucracy. We could extend what we have done at www.gprocurement.com.th, where all government auctions are posted for public reference. While the government would gain access to more complete data, the general public would be allowed to trace information.

Thais love to talk about corruption, but few attempt to find the proof. Here, better IT infrastructure would aid transparency and the public's trust in officialdom.

Current cinematic hit "The Lunchbox" centres on lovers who exchange notes hidden in a lunchbox. That surprises the protagonist's friend, who points out that most people these days use e-mails.

Well, without bigger and better investment in IT, Thailand will remain in the same position: resorting to old-fashioned means in a digital world.

Announcing the 2013 rankings, IMD Business School Professor Stéphane Garelli said: "In the end, the golden rules of competitiveness are simple: manufacture, diversify, export, invest in infrastructure, educate, support SMEs, enforce fiscal discipline and, above all, maintain social cohesion."

He went to report that the US had regained the No 1 spot, thanks to an abundance of technological innovation.

Next month we will learn how Thailand has fared in the 2014 rankings. With poor infrastructure that will only get poorer amid political instability, brace yourself for some bad news.


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