Thailand: Public Debate About 'Futures'


Dr Craig J. Reynolds

Futures' is a term most often heard in stock markets to describe contracts for commodities or shares made today for delivery at some future date. The term also has other meanings for Thailand today. Despite the downturn in the economy since mid-1997 those in the fortune-telling business are not doing too badly, as rich and poor alike turn to the 'mor du' (astrologer) to find out what the future holds for them.

Another sense of 'futures' is the several paths that the country may take in the years ahead. Public debates in Thailand thrive on such things as 'the economic crisis' and what is best for the country as a whole or for the privileged or for disadvantaged groups. Participants in these debates include academics, NGO workers, some of whom have academic credentials, journalists, and prominent public figures such as the former PM Anan Panyarachun. These public debates about the impact of the crisis and the wisdom of unbridled 'development', conducted in the press, on talk shows, and in seminars, canvass future prospects as the country recovers from hard times. To be sure, there is often stringent criticism of government policy. Celebrity public intellectuals also expect to find their reputations held up to scorn or ridicule. The cartoonists have a field day.

The king is an active participant in these debates. Last year the king in his birthday message on 5 December addressed the issue of self-sufficiency. He was trying to clarify comments he made in December 1997 when he said that it would be satisfactory if Thailand could attain just one-fourth of the self-sufficiency it required. This note of self-sufficiency has been struck often since the crisis began, because the country's overseas borrowings were overexposed in American dollars, and some financial institutions were badly damaged by the investments they made.

An even gloomier assessment of the country's prospects is presented in a book entitled THAILAND: THE AGE OF CULTURAL ENSLAVEMENT. The author predicts that if something isn't done to correct the situation, 'Western thought will come to replace the pre-existing thought of individual nationalities. Most of the world's humanity will think like the West. Western consciousness will be established through education, especially via the power of media that knows no borders. This will eradicate a nation's thought to the point where "farang-ism" reigns throughout the world'.

Thailand's futures, however, may not be so bleak. Despite the passionate rhetoric and the knowledge of the economic, political and cultural forces that the public intellectuals command, the choice they put before the Thai people of self-reliance vs. dependence sometimes lacks imagination. The choice is not a simple one between self-sufficiency on the one hand, or takeover by international financial institutions on the other. The fact that Thai television producers like to use Eurasian actors does NOT mean that the country is being taken over by 'Western capitalists,' as one public intellectual has argued. Instead, the new conditions call for interdependence and negotiation within strict and unpleasant parameters. Thailand's business community has always been able to navigate its way through the most difficult economic conditions. The futures open to Thailand are more numerous than one might think.

WATCHPOINT: Thailand's outlook depends on its continued capacity to develop self-sufficiency along with globalisation.


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