Why Bangkok, the city we love, is a messy pot of inequality and dysconnectivity


One can experience the heights of human material achievements inside luxury malls, condos, hotels, offices, and supercars.

Step outside, and it’s a different world. One would cough up dust, skip over potholes, dodge construction tools dropping down from above, run after buses, sidestep speeding motorbikes, look left and right warily at road crossings as if about to enter a war zone, and always have some cash in hand in case the police stopped you for any reason.

Privileged children spend their lives inside chauffeured vans, eyes glued to their iPads, while outside, unfortunate children try to sell flowers to apathetic drivers, who avert their gaze and move their cars away. Towering high-rises stand next to the poorest slums. The finest European sportscar races past some makeshift crossbreed of a motorbike and a wagon.

Bangkok becomes the poor man's Venice of the East when it floods, a paraplegic during rush hours, and a drowning paraplegic during rush hours in the rainy season.

In terms of material developments, to go out of Bangkok into the provinces is to enter a different world. In fact, leaving the city centre is already venturing into a different world. But the road quality is all the same.

On May 22, 2022, Chadchart Sitthipunt won the race for Bangkok governor by a landslide. Bangkok was gripped with hope and excitement of the wonders that may come. The provinces looked on with envy, “Why can’t we elect our own governor too?” which illustrates the nationwide inequality of the Interior Ministry's appointment of provincial governors. However, that’s a story for another day.

Nearly two years on, we realise little has been done to improve Bangkok. But this is no fault of the governor. The fact is Governor Chadchart doesn’t have the power to get anything done. Therein lies the problem: elections are democratic, but the power structure of the Thai bureaucracy is right out of a Cold War-era Third World banana republic (or kingdom, in this case).

Bangkok has 20 departments, while the 50 districts have their own departments. That’s 70 departments, with 86,415 bureaucrats. Approximately 77% of Bangkok’s budget is “locked” by the central government for specific usages, which means the governor only has 23% of the budget to implement his policies.

The BTS (Skytrain), the BRT, and some ports come under Bangkok. Public buses and vans, tuk-tuks, win-motorsai, the MRT (Subway), airport links, some ports, and speedboat services belong to other departments.

Traffic lights, footpaths, CCTV, sewage, crosswalks, minor roads, and trees belong to Bangkok. Electricity and electric poles, water, bus stops, telecommunication wires, major roads, and the police belong to other departments.

Some public schools belong to Bangkok, and the rest belong to the Education Ministry. Public services, emergency services, and utilities come under the Interior Ministry, which also has the power to dismiss the elected governor and elected Bangkok MPs and dissolve the Bangkok council. If Bangkok wants to raise funds by issuing bonds, it needs the Cabinet's approval. If it wants to revise neighbourhood urban planning, it also needs such consent.

There you have it. Bangkok’s democracy is wrapped in a straitjacket, wiggling helplessly in an insane asylum. The moral of the story is city reform isn’t possible without national reform.