In the past few months, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had been on many overseas trips, and welcomed leaders and officials from countries like Germany and South Korea. The highlight was, of course, the visit of re-elected US President Barack Obama, which brought Thailand to the world’s attention.
Experts believe that after all the upheaval and misfortune we have seen, Thailand stands to gain when the 600 million people of Asean further integrate under the Asean Economic Community. Our geographical location suggests we could be a centre of prosperity. As a friendly neighbour of Myanmar, we can also be a trusted friend to help the resource-rich country screen best investors.
Yet, before we fall victim to illusion, let’s face the truth.
Last Friday, CNBC hosted the 11th Asia Business Leaders Award (ABLA) in Bangkok, and reminded us of some realistic facts that show old ghosts still can haunt us, even when we are fully in the sunlight.
The first fact is that the TV channel planned to host the ABLA in 2008, but our guests – CEOs throughout the Asia-Pacific region – could not get to Bangkok as the airport was shut down. The awards were announced, but without a presentation ceremony.
The second fact is that Bernard Lo, the Hong Kong-based anchor, brought up painful recent memories.
Praising Thailand’s economy for rebounding strongly after the floods, he said that Thais still smile. He understood that the “Land of Smiles” is just a slogan drummed up by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, but when he came here he understood, “after upheaval and disasters, all you can do is smile”.
However, in the event, taped for worldwide broadcast, he opened the programme with scenes of Bangkok while saying that Thailand was the only country in the region not to be colonised and, despite setbacks, the young democracy has showed resilience.
To the delight of Charamporn Jotikasthira, president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET), who was among big wigs invited to the dinner, there was praise for the expansion of the SET, whose market capitalisation is over US$300 billion.
A journalist sitting beside me was agitated by the phrase “young democracy”. Patriotically, she felt that it was not right for Thailand. I personally felt that the phrase was appropriate, if we take into account over 10 successful coups in the past seven decades since the absolute monarchy ended.
Most Thais are also apparently cool about coups. As witnessed in last one in 2006, tanks became a popular backdrop for photos.
Planned anti-government protests also attracted interest because they are being organised by a group of retired soldiers calling themselves the Pitak Siam Group.
I also feel sorry that some Thais are now so divided that they do not feel sorry for the deaths of people who do not share their political views.
After the dinner, taking a cab from Udomsuk BTS Station, I heard the driver complain about “red” protests. “Wait till there are deaths again.” He said it as if people deserve to die, as if people do not have relatives. He also warned that there are many “red” cabs. “They can brainwash you. They are good at that. Many passengers tell me.” He kept on talking even when I said that people should stick to what they have to do, to earn a living. I have to admit that I’ve had no experience of that kind of brainwashing.
I didn’t feel offended when hearing negative things about Thailand at the CNBC dinner that night. I was glad to be there, to hear nice words from those who won awards.
On stage, N. Chandrasekaran of Tata Consultancy, who was won the Asia Business Leader Award, dedicated the prize to all employees around the world who provide insight and contribution, who “make the company what it is today”.
He was not alone in feeling that.
Dhanin Chearavanont of Charoen Pokphand, who received a lifetime achievement award, thanked all 280,000 of the company’s workers around the world.
Aswin Techajaroenvikul of Berli Jucker, winner of the Thailand Business Leader of the Year Award, said “I’m here on behalf of employees” who helped him make the dots to link Thailand with Asia and the world.
Indeed, we all need support from others. CEOs can’t achieve anything without employees. If I’m not mistaken, all the Thai business leaders at the dinner feel ashamed about the setbacks that have held Thailand back from its full potential. It is a shame that all these setbacks were shared with our peers across Asia.
These Thai business people should be praised for their concern about employees. Yet, whatever was said during the dinner is a reminder that we still have to address many issues at home if we want to be more prosperous.