How does ending poverty help Thai society?
This question was raised by one of my students in an English course titled “Social diversity and justice in Thai society”. It came along with a promise by the Prayut government to eliminate poverty in all provinces in just a few years, under its 20-year strategy.
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I answered the student’s question by saying poverty is a real phenomenon whose eradication was very good news for Thailand and its ambition to become a developed nation. I still remember my high school teacher saying 30 years ago that our country was a major rice exporter and the majority of our citizens were farmers living in poverty and scarcity. This seemed like a status quo that we were programmed to believe and from which there was no escape. The riddle proved difficult to solve as successive governments battled a paradox: how can we reduce social diseases such as corruption while at the same time increasing the number of wealthy people.
It is very challenging to maintain prosperity while reducing social problems like corruption at the same time. This is very much like an equation where values always stand opposite to each other. Nevertheless, solving the equation is the task of government.
These days, it is common to see huge asset declarations by politicians and high-ranking officials. The average asset declaration is around 100 million baht (US$2.5 million). This might not compare with the huge riches owned by wealthy people in the developed world, but it brings a lifetime of luxury for well-to-do Thais.
A close friend of mine who happens to own a multibillion-baht company has been telling me for some time that Thailand is full of rich people on every corner. “Don’t overlook an old guy who walks by – he might have a trillion baht [a billion dollars!] in his bank account.”
I didn’t really grasp what she was saying until I noticed several unfamiliar names spending large sums for good causes. For instance, Komol Juengrungroengkit, owner of Aerosof footwear, paid over 300 million baht in a last-minute deal to ensure Thai football fans could watch the Euro 2020 tournament on TV. Komol is the elder brother of a more familiar name, Industry Minister Suriya Juengrungroengkit. Also, recently Joon Wanawith, the owner of Hatari – a well-known multinational electric fan manufacturer – donated 900 million baht to Ramathibodi Hospital.
Another friend of mine who leads a famous public rescue foundation confirmed that every year her foundation receives large donations from anonymous wealthy people. “There are a lot of them out there,” she remarked.
I believe the reason why Thailand now has so many rich and successful people is not due to the government alone. Many Thai-Chinese citizens send their kids for international education and, with their good connections, they can retain their wealth from one generation to the next without trouble. Elite universities like Chulalongkorn are full of well-heeled students who can afford to go overseas to gain international experience and practice their language skills during the summer holiday. Those who are filthy rich can even join exclusive private clubs such as the Royal Bangkok Sports Club (RBSC), the Polo Club, the British Club, you name it. A membership fee of around 1.6 million baht gets them access to these playgrounds of the rich, where business deals and high-powered romantic matches are made. Seemingly, these people build and maintain their wealth without any direct involvement by government.
Let’s go back to the original question of this article: What will Thailand gain by ending poverty and creating more wealthy people?
I am not saying that the wealth of all rich people should be scrutinised. But shouldn’t the government’s efforts to eradicate poverty focus more on the quality of the rich than the quantity?
Is it worth joining the developed world if white-collar crime is rampant and corrupt individuals still easily escape the long arm of the law?
The majority should not be left to bear the cost in a society where the cunning get richer while law-abiding citizens are left behind.
Amorn Wanichwiwatana, DPhil (Oxon), is a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.