Bangkok - The Thai government is obsessed about Thailand 4.0 - making the Thai economy to become a digital economy. Is this possible? In the past Thailand succeeded in labor intensive manufactured goods against its competitors India, China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In the future Thailand has to move to higher value-added activities and therefore move up in the global supply chains.

Thailand should not focus on productivity and efficiency anymore instead of concentrate on stability, infrastructure, education and entrepreneurs.

What is Thailand 4.0?

A survey from 2016 has shown that most firms have little idea of what Thailand 4.0 really means. Thailand 4.0 is the fourth economic model that aims to unlock the country from several economic challenges like leaving the middle-income trap[1] and today’s topic which is to digitalize and connect the industry.

What must be done to achieve Thailand 4.0?

Firstly, it must begin with the government. Thailand faced natural and political problems such as floods and several coup d’états in the last decades. Besides that, bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption are concerns which have a negative influence on the business climate. With changing governments, there was no steady policy for innovation which results in slower processes needed to achieve Thailand 4.0.

Secondly, Thailand needs to focus on Research and Development (R&D). Thailand’s gross expenditure on R&D was only 0,21% of the GDP which is far below its competitors (e.g. Singapore, Malaysia) and will be increased at least to 0,5% of the GDP even it is questionable if this amount will push innovation forward. The issues of government and research are related. Thai Government may have started too late to give incentives for the industry to adapt with latest technology and developed countries have for sure a time advantage.

Thirdly, Thailand needs to develop digital infrastructure. The OECD claims that the Ministry of Industry prioritized the growth of incoming FDI and export growth instead of the development of technological capabilities. Digital infrastructure starts with availability and accessibility of the internet. In 2015 nearly 40% of the Thais had access to internet which might be good for a developing country but competitors like Vietnam (52%) and Singapore (82%) fulfill the starting criteria for digitalization more. It will take time to bring broadband to every village but Thailand is on the right path to fulfill this requirement.

Fourth point is about how easy it is to start a business in the country. Top performers like New Zealand and Singapore get the first places in the 190-country ranking by the World Bank. Thailand performed well in the past but cannot hold this good position. In contrast to others Thailand has still a good score but unfortunately Thailand keeps a very corrupt country.

Fifth issue is related to education. Even though the increased Government spending for the access to secondary and tertiary education was leading to adequate expenditures compared to competing countries, the graduates are not competitive and therefore get a low rank in Asia. The outcome shows that Thais are lagging in mathematics and science and innovate less than countries with comparable education. Thailand’s universities show persistent quality weaknesses, especially in the R&D field which is important for new thinking and therefore for Thailand 4.0. The result is a skilled labor supply shortage and just a few start-ups from university graduates. Another reason is little communication and collaboration between universities and the industry.

Sixth point concerns the industry. Most of the workers only learn how to work efficiently at their working station but do not get the chance to gain more knowledge of modern working processes or R&D methods (lack of technology transfer). The Government supports the digital development of the industry but they often do not see opportunities from collaborations with one of many public research institutes. Entrepreneurship and the creation of innovative SME’s have not been supported for a long time. On top of that many firms have a traditional thinking and do not see a need for improvement. As result, patents per capita are very low and only 12% of the firms invest in R&D.

Finally, Thailand 4.0 might be out of the countries league because the requirements to reach Thailand 4.0 are not fulfilled and Thailand 3.0 is not fully transformed. Although the targets might be too hard to reach, it is good that the country is striving for competitiveness in the future instead of taking the risk of falling back.

© Bangkok Post on May 15th, 2017

[1] The middle-income trap is a situation in which a country’s GDP growth slows after having reached the middle-income level. Middle-income countries like Thailand are squeezed between their low-wage competitors that dominate the mature industries on one side and the rich-country innovators that dominate industries of rapid technological change on the other side. (Languepin, Oliver: Thailand 4.0, what do you need to know? (2016))

Tassilo Habig

Tassilo Habig (21) studied at Thammasat University in Bangkok for his exchange semester in 2017. Pforzheim University in Germany is a partner university of Thammasat and is Tassilo’s home university where he studies business administration with logistics and supply chain management in his major.