The TDRI has shown rational debate is the key to healing a fractured nation
Last year, the Bangkok Post nominated flood volunteers as our ‘Person(s) of the Year’, for the selfless acts which they performed in helping the many thousands of people hit by the big floods.
This year, the second time we have named anyone for their outstanding contributions to society, we again name not a single individual, but the collection of academics and thinkers who make up the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). The think-tank shows we can still agree to disagree on the big issues confronting us, as it puts forward competing ideas for the public to debate.
Over the past six years, social divisions among Thais have widened, particularly when it comes to political and public policy issues.
People seem to have a tendency to act emotionally and base their actions on already formed prejudices when dealing with differences, rather than using rational debate, resulting in frequent street protests and even violence. And the situation seems to be getting worse.
But amid the widening social conflict, there is cause for hope. Over the past year, some important academic works on controversial issues were widely discussed and able to get the attention they deserved, thanks to the efforts of the institute.
The TDRI’s studies on the government’s rice pledging scheme and 3G auction are eminent works which gained wide attention from the public.
Whether the TDRI’s conclusions are right or wrong is up to the reader, as all academic works can be challenged.
But the institute’s working approach and its impact on our society encouraged an intense debate among members of the Bangkok Post’s editorial committee before it voted the institute as the “Person of the Year” for 2012.
Established in 1984, the TDRI is an independent research institute focusing on economic and public policy research.
The organisation provides research, information and recommendations to the government, private sector, the public and international organisations.
The intellectual debates that took place between leading academic Nidhi Eoseewong and fellow TDRI academics over the institute’s study of the rice pledging scheme is a prime example of how our divided society should approach issues we disagree on.
The TDRI opposes the scheme, while Prof Nidhi supports it, but both offered well-researched reasons to back their arguments.
The study on the 3G auction which was held by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) this year is another good example of how to scrutinise controversial issues.
The study, which argues the NBTC deal benefits private operators more than the public at large, was widely used as a basis to engage in discussions about the auction by many people at various levels of society.
The TDRI’s studies have not only gained attention from academics and policymakers, but also members of the public.
This is because the works, despite being academic papers, are presented in layman’s terms which are easy to understand.
As a result, the studies have helped educate people about controversial subjects and enable them to debate complicated issues based on rational and academic grounds instead of emotional prejudice.
The TDRI’s research gained limited recognition in the past but a shift in its approach to reach out to society by using various media this year enabled a larger number of people to gain access to its research works.
This change became more apparent after the institute appointed Somkiat Tangkitvanich, formerly its vice-president, as its new president on Oct 1.
Dr Somkiat, a prominent researcher in the telecommunications field, announced that with the support of renowned economists and former TDRI presidents – such as Ammar Siamwalla, Chalongphob Sussangkarn and Nipon Puapongsakorn – the think-tank would offer more research written by strong academics while at the same time trying to attract the public’s interest.
Responding to the Bangkok Post decision to choose the TDRI as its “Person of the Year”, Dr Somkiat said the institute will focus on cooperation with the public, private and civic groups to conduct public policy research to push the country forward.
The institute will focus on four areas: economic reform, education development, anti-corruption policies and fiscal discipline.
However, the agency has also faced criticism that some of its research, particularly its work on the rice pledging scheme, is politically motivated.
Based on its study, the TDRI has criticised the Yingluck Shinawatra administration’s rice scheme, claiming it is wasteful and will harm the country’s finances.
The TDRI says the rice pledging scheme will swell public debt and cause the government to suffer a financial loss of up to 300 billion baht.
The government has said the TDRI’s response is predictable, as the think-tank backed the previous Democrat-led government’s rice price guarantee scheme. It had expected the institute would criticise the policy that replaced its project.
Dr Somkiat said he welcomed criticism but insisted that the institute’s studies are not politically motivated.
“Since the TDRI concentrates on public policy, we inevitably criticise the policies of every government and, more importantly, we also recommend solutions on academic grounds,” Dr Somkiat said.
He admitted the government might not always follow the TDRI’s suggestions.
For example, despite the public attention paid to the TDRI’s studies about the rice scheme and the 3G auction, the institute’s proposals were ignored by the government and the NBTC.
The government is still intervening in the rice market under its pledging scheme, and the NBTC has completed its 3G auction.
However, Dr Somkiat said this does not mean the TDRI has failed in its mission.
“That [rejection] doesn’t matter. Our goal is to present more public policy choices to society. In the long run, the public will know there are more options, not just what the policymakers offer to them,” he said.
Dr Somkiat concedes it will be a challenge for the think-tank to meet public expectations through its work.
“Public expectations for the TDRI are always high, particularly when the country is dealing with complicated economic, social and political problems. We must rise to the challenge and meet those expectations,” he said.
First published: Bangkok Post website on 31st December, 2012