A timely book on the prime minister of Thailand.

PaulRen's picture
Book Review

"Thaksin, The Business of Politics in Thailand".

By Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker.

Here is an objective book review -and not meant to be political.

Here is timely book which reviews the trials and tribulations in a critical way of the Thai prime minister.  They explore the past, present and how they see the future. I would describe it as overly critical as while some insights are right on, it gives too little credit for what Mr.Thaskin has achieved.

It emphasizes a dark picture rather than balancing the good with the bad. I think it is far from objective by being overly critical and one-sided.

For example, the book again and again speaks rather critically about Mr Thaksin’s "growth above all else" belief/doctrine.  The authors here seem to ignore much solid literature in recent times that high growth rates do solve a lot of problems and help the poor as well as the rich; probably more than other policies.  The authors should/must read: " The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists" Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics"  by William Easterly, and then perhaps they would take a much humbler view on Thaksin’s policy.  Hence Thaksin’s "overriding objective" is not as incorrect as the authors hint at.  "The main agenda of the Thaksin government was to promote economic growth" and what is wrong with that I ask?

Below is a review of this book of The Elusive Quest for Growth, as posted at amazon.com:

"Since the end of World War II, economists have tried to figure out how poor countries in the tropics could attain standards of living approaching those of countries in Europe and North America. Attempted remedies have included providing foreign aid, investing in machines, fostering education, controlling population growth, and making aid loans as well as forgiving those loans on condition of reforms. None of these solutions has delivered as promised.

"The problem is not the failure of economics, William Easterly argues, but the failure to apply economic principles to practical policy work. In this book Easterly shows how these solutions all violate the basic principle of economics, that people--private individuals and businesses, government officials, even aid donors--respond to incentives. Easterly first discusses the importance of growth. He then analyzes the development solutions that have failed.

"Finally, he suggests alternative approaches to the problem. Written in an accessible, at times irreverent, style, Easterly"s book combines modern growth theory with anecdotes from his fieldwork for the World Bank."  (The italics are mine).

 Reading "The Elusive Quest for Growth" in entirety, I got a firm understanding and appreciation that no economic policy works better for a developing country than focusing on long term sustainable GDP growth!  Decades and billions of dollars have been lost on more nobler (but less effective) alternatives.

Another point of friction in my view is Baker and Co’s, critical view of Mr. Thaksin relationship with the Press. While it is true the prime Minister has taken some aggressive steps on these matters, the authors hardly give us the fair contrast needed. Like how often have the local and international press acted irresponsible by reporting one sided or outright wrong facts. Who is reporting on the press, when this occurs?  I for one did not cry when the Bangkok Post Business editor was removed a few months ago, as in my view this editor did not give a fair and representative view on how well Thailand was doing back then.

Another "faux pas" by the authors in my view was when they wrote critically on how Mr. Taksin got  upset with various authorities when they refused to upgrade forecasts of expected GDP growth for Thailand during the year 2003.  I know for a fact that expected growth rates here were continuously & regularly underestimated and underreported during that year; only the lonely voice of the Prime Minister got it right.

A lot of valuable time was wasted before Dr. Thaskin took over and got things rolling again. The authors clearly fail to contrast this stark reality. Would Thailand truly have been better off without his rise, with the old, stagnant, lax and indecisive way things were run before him?  I and many others don"t think so. Yet, as I read this book the authors must think not. They do this by pointing out the negatives and not balancing their arguments.

Most would agree that political indecisions and instability and outright mismanagement reigned far more in Thailand in the past. There is always some bad with the good, but to only point out the bad is incorrect. 

"The war on drugs was a response to a strong social demand" they rightly state -and indeed it took far stronger action than in the past to correct it. Before the Prime Minister’s strong hand on this horror, the problem was getting much out of hand and worse by the month. How can we forget the true accomplishments and only write about the violence incurred? What about the violence & horror on what the drug problem was doing to the Thai society before?

I don"t recall reading in the book that the acts of violence had much to do with drug lords going at each other when the drug payment chain was broken. Also, the authors state on page 158 "Marijuana is rather normal through much of rural society". Now please Baker & Co, what does this mean? Surely this statement is at the very least misleading and outright disturbing. As it indirectly leads the unsuspecting reader to think it’s use is widespread, like in some lax Caribbean countries. It is undoubtedly not. While no doubt there have been some human right abuses and questionable tactics used; to only point those out and for the most part ignoring the many positives is not objective. Non Monsieur.

In many ways the Thai bureaucracy is far better run and managed now than ever before. Also, all people from various different economic backgrounds can fly around the country for a fraction of the cost, before elitist Thai Air had a monopoly. Better run government services and cheaper flights for all, are just two positive examples, completely left out of this book.

Some Examples on the improved Thai bureaucracy:

--Transferring ones Tam Yan Ban (moving ones" official residence) is now available on Saturday and much easier to do than ever before. The book used for this is not much bigger then a bank book and looks like it comes from a fully developed country as it is slick and streamlined.

--Updating a Thai company’s paper of registration takes minutes vs. far longer before.

--Payment of personal taxes is faster and streamlined -on just about every level. Tax collection is better, broader and for the most part much fairer. (Surely the tax avoiders don"t like this, though).

-- All Immigration services to foreigners are a bit more expensive but faster, better and with far less ambiguities or local favoritism or tea money.

All in all the book left me cold in that it reports many of the negatives and omits the vast progress achieved on many fronts. In the various newspapers we read and see the daily pounding of the current government, yet few dare to expose the reader to the good accomplished since Mr. Thaksin took office. A book of this scope could have done a bit more justice by being balanced, rather than using their publishing power to just expand only on the negatives.

Best Regards,

Paul A. Renaud.


SilkWorm Books 2004-10-11.