At a glance, it is ridiculous to propose to average Mr Somchai or Ms Somsri that they should start to think about how their country will look in 2065 - in 50 years time.
As we have witnessed in our daily lives, we – as Thais, as individuals and a nation as a whole — are unable to think too far ahead – be it for the next 50 days or better still, the next 50 minutes.
We all know, sometimes with a high sense of self-indulgence – that we are a nation of survivors, engaging in a day-to day contest. The world “Tai” means freedom. Some would say this present paradigm is just of hardships, while others think it is karma – whatever, it seems to be our destiny to live this way. Come what may and whatever we are, we are very good at tackling and overcoming challenges at hand — bit by bit on a flexible timeline.
With a fast changing world that is filled with unpredictability, Thailand will not be able to survive with the same mode of rationale and attitude, especially with the thinking of knuckleheads running the country, as it is today.
Within Asia, we are not a country of long-term vision – like China, Japan, South Korea or Singapore – when it comes to broad vision and planning. These countries have a far greater grasp of what the future holds.
Take Singapore as a case study; after much fanfare commemorating the country’s independence 50 years ago, its leaders have been on full throttle planning its future in 2065.
For the past several months, all the island’s leading scholars and intellectuals have been discussing ideas and plans on how to make Singapore great, without increasing the island’s size, in the next 50 years. They already have some good and broad answers: Singapore has to be more open and imbued with multiculturalism, as well as with smarter citizens along with better and affordable public housing (above ground or underground) and other social safety nets. The most important thing, though, they have to make sure that all Singaporeans do not come out of their housing units and stay on the ground at the same time, otherwise their 5.34 million people will not have enough space to stand.
The way Singaporeans organised and opened this debate on their future must be noted. They went on so well because they did not begin by asking the question whether the People’s Action Party, which has ruled the island’s politics since independence in 1965, would still be in power for the next 50 years. Of course, that would have been a bad way to do start it.
They talked about what matters the most to all Singaporeans — housing, social welfare, education, child?care, cost of living, et al. Now, the island is more open, even civil society organisations are encouraged to pitch in ideas. Thais can learn a few lessons from Singapore’s experience — debate on issues that really matter to the Thais — not falling for ideologue-led intellectuals with the heavy mix of demagoguery and fallacy. We have, of course, to be open-minded in discussing our future over the next 50 years. But often times, leading Thai intellectuals have reversed gears to move forward. Anyway, some of these ideas should be on the table.
First, most important is how to educate our people to use their heads instead of their emotions. We need new ways of thinking, which can only come with a better education system. At the moment, the current system is not suitable to ensure that Thailand survives till 2065. We need younger people to plan our learning experience — educating people with ideas they will need and be eager to learn, so they have skills and understanding of their country and its surroundings.
At the moment, the Ministry of Education has all kinds of plans – from nearly retired bureaucrats with little knowledge of the mindset of young people. Worst of all, many education plans have not been carried out through to the end. With a new administration comes new ideas and so on — but no continuity.
Second, we have to make Thai farmers smarter – over 60 per cent of the population are farmers. They are the people who have made Thailand what it is today and obviously will do so in the next 50 years. Such an education scheme may sound ambitious, but we must do it if we want to survive as a nation.
Decentralisation and community-based decision-making will be the key. Smarter farmers can make smarter decisions about their lives and communities. Many pilot projects that involve indigenous stakeholders work better although it can take time.
With digital connectivity and social media, farmers must be taught to use the new tools wisely, otherwise, they could easily become victims of rumours and foul play. With new technology, they can be better farmers and enjoy better yields and income. Most of all, they need to be able to find good information and an ability to know the “good” or “bad” guys are — no more being pushed around. More than ever before, Thailand needs smart farmers. The idea that we can abandon farming and go for hi-tech industries alone is a bad and unfeasible.
Our bureaucrats need to be giving a better life support system — they are the country’s driving force. But how can they become dynamic and public-minded if their concerns daily are still very much about their own survival? Teachers, police and local officials — many heavily indebted — must have healthy lives before they can make the rest of society healthy. Thailand needs dedicated people who work and serve the country. They must also be highly articulate in identifying issues and solutions. One Thai minister asked recently: Who is Thailand’s equivalent to Thurman Shanmugaratnam — the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Singapore?
There are still millions of ideas to pick up and discuss. We have to rise above the current social shenanigans, or malaise, and the half-empty bottle outlook. It is better to start now to figure out, even in a most opaque way with a “half-full” approach, what the future for Thailand will be like in 2065.
In the end, it will be through this kind of debate and consultation that we can get the best ideas and plans — maybe not for next 50 years but the next 50 days — if we are lucky. Well, nonetheless, if that is the case, it would be a success.