What Thailand’s election of a radical new government means for science

What Thailand’s election of a radical new government means for science

The Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat waves to a crowd of supporters following his party’s victory in Thailand’s election.Credit: Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto/Getty

Thai voters backed radical reform at last Sunday’s general election, handing victory to the Move Forward Party, a youth-oriented party advocating for wholesale changes to the nation’s bureaucracy, economy, military and monarchy. The election result comes as the country is pursuing plans to move from a heavy-industry-based economy to one geared towards innovation, known as Thailand 4.0 — but what the new government will mean for those plans remains unclear.

Thailand has been under military rule since a coup in 2014. A subsequent election in 2019 resulted in a continuation of the military-dominated government. But on Sunday, Move Forward won 152 of the 500 seats in the lower house — ahead of the predicted front-runner, Pheu Thai Party and its prime-ministerial candidate, Paethongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Move Forward has indicated it will form its government in coalition with Pheu Thai and other smaller parties.

Thailand 4.0

A pillar of Thailand 4.0 is the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) economy concept, which introduced tax incentives for research and introduced special zoning to develop certain areas into industrial precincts. The effort is aimed at driving innovation in ten sectors, including agriculture, medical devices, energy and chemicals.

The programme received a boost in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic during which Thailand developed southeast Asia’s first homegrown mRNA vaccine, spurring the country’s ambitions to become a biomedical hub.

But according to Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu, vice-president and research director at the Thailand Development Research Institute, a think tank based in Bangkok, implementation of the BCG has been hobbled by inadequate workforce education and training and a lack of clarity about what projects are included in the plan, their targets and outcomes.

The Thai government has promoted the BCG internationally — and it has formed a centrepiece of the country’s relationships with the World Bank and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But as yet there is no publicly available list of approved projects or clear targets and benchmarks, according to Rattanakhamfu and various environmental non-government organizations, which have criticized the scheme’s implementation.

Push for innovation

Thailand introduced the BCG approach at last year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Bangkok, where it was formally adopted as a policy for further development.

Rattanakhamfu says that in Thailand, sub-committees covering the ten target sectors of the BCG are chaired by specialists, including from the private sector, but have too few resources and lack the power to drive projects forward. “They are limited to making execution plans and representations to the government.”

She says that attempts to innovate are stymied by inadequate training and education, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, from primary school through to university. “The key issue for Thailand’s future economy is human-resource development,” she says.

Changes to how research and development (R&D) grants are allocated, with clear targets and transparent reporting, as well as a whole-of-government focus on improving the quality of education and training is needed if Thailand’s innovation ambitions are to be realized, she says

Mark Cogan, a specialist in social movements in southeast Asia at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan, agrees that education and training are a barrier to economic development in Thailand.

Cogan says Thailand could draw lessons from Vietnam, which is investing in training and education, with a view to becoming a leader in electric-vehicle manufacturing. Many companies want to expand manufacturing in Thailand, he says, “but the workforce is simply not ready”. “The pace of science education in Thailand has not kept up with technological innovation,” he adds.

Administrative hurdles

Although Thailand’s investment in R&D more than doubled as a percentage of gross domestic product between 2014 and 2017, and the number of people employed in the sector increased by 65%, this has not translated into sustained growth in productivity.

Rattanakhamfu’s research shows that the number of innovative firms in Thailand remains small, with most patents being held by overseas companies. R&D tax incentives have had limited effect on innovation.

But she says that many of these problems will probably persist for the new government. “This is a problem both of administrative capability, and the nature of government,” she says.

The BCG and Thailand 4.0 got scant attention during the election campaign. Instead, most parties concentrated on issues associated with the standard of living.

External help

As Move Forward reached a coalition agreement with Pheu Thai and other parties earlier this week, the World Bank was busy on Tuesday launching a partnership with the Thai government to conduct a review into the quality of public investment in science technology and innovation.

“The expected outcome of this project will help Thailand to design relevant mechanisms and measures in science, technology and innovation that are suitable for building the innovation capabilities of Thai private sector on a broader scale,” says Pattamawadee Pochanukulin, president of the government’s Science, Research and Innovation agency. “This is the key factor in increasing Thailand’s economic competitiveness.”

But Cogan cautions that a new reformist government might find it difficult to shift how science and innovation policy works. “Industries that are dominated by the military, including science programmes … go ahead because the military has extraordinary influence. The military will probably continue to have huge sway over what outcomes occur.”

He predicts that Move Forward will “tread lightly” and “not be as ambitious as they promise” because wholesale reform “rarely goes well in Thailand”. “The elephant in the room,” he says, “is the possibility of another coup or the dissolution of political parties”.

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