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Where Thailand still trails behind

Apr 26. 2018
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Alibaba’s expanding presence should spur policymakers to ready the skilled troops for a digital future

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has hyped up Thailand’s economy with an Bt11-billion investment plan for the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), where a digital business hub and logistic centre for Thai and neighbouring markets will be set up.

Thai rice, durian and other farm produce, as well as tourism packages, are among the items to be promoted by Tmall and other Alibaba online platforms, which currently have 1.4 billion users in China and elsewhere.

There are both Alibaba supporters and critics in Thailand. The former point out that the Chinese giant’s inroads will help upgrade the country’s digital economy, while the latter worry whether its larger presence here will lead to a predominant online market position at the expense of smaller Thai competitors both online and offline.

But, more importantly, Alibaba’s further inroads into the Thai market after it earlier acquired the controlling stake in Lazada, the leading e-commerce platform in Thailand and other Asian markets, have served as a wakeup call for the country, which suffers from a wide range of domestic weaknesses.

For example, the Thai public and private sectors have not done enough to prepare manpower to take advantage of business opportunities arising from the advent of the digital economy and society. Current shortages of people who understand data analytics, artificial intelligence and other key specialised technologies are becoming a serious challenge.

So far the EEC programme, covering parts of Rayong, Chon Buri and Chachoengsao provinces, has been touted as the country’s most important magnet for a new generation of investors. The programme is 

attracting a growing number of multinational investors, but there will not be enough qualified local workers to fill the jobs. This issue stems from the lack of public- and private-sector coordination involving universities and state agencies in human-resource management.

In addition, there are skill shortages in the high-speed train sector as the government plans a Bt120-billion investment project for construction of a system linking Suvarnabhumi, Don Mueang, and U-Tapao airports. The project will create a huge demand in coming decades for railway and related personnel with skills in high-speed train technology. 

In this context, Thai policy-makers need to learn from their counterparts in China, whose government has successfully developed a vast domestic high-speed train network. In terms of research and development, top Chinese universities were separately engaged in a wide range of specialised research for different components of the system, ranging from rail and rolling stock to passenger cars and signalling equipment. In the end, they played the crucial role in turning China into an exporter of high-speed train technology by first using foreign technology and 

then modifying it to suit Chinese 

and other market requirements.

Thai Post is another instance that the government should turn into a powerhouse for the digital economy. The state-owned agency has been highly profitable due to its leading market position in the e-commerce logistics business over the past several years. But its future would be brighter if it could capitalise on big data. Thai Post’s database on parcel senders, for example, is huge and national, making it an ideal tool for the government to further develop other potential business opportunities in connection with data analytics.

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