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Ora-orn Poocharoen, the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore

Planet Phuket Project: How Phuket Went Wrong

Sunday, March 6, 2011
HELP may be coming Phuket's way from an unlikely but highly regarded source - the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

Ora-orn Poocharoen, the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, believes that Phuket's problems could be an ideal challenge for the double-degree scholars who come to study at LKY, named after the man who is credited with obliterating corruption and giving Singapore its start as a nation.

Here's the conversation with Alarn Ora-orn as Phuketwan tries to describe Phuket's problems to her. (The answers come in the next article.)

Phuketwan: We didn't come here with any specific ideas but in the back of my mind was the thought that Phuket is an interesting exercise for people who want to examine the solutions to all kinds of issues.

Ajarn Ora-orn: It's kind of like a mini-world.

Phuketwan: It does have lots of positives and a number of negatives that are now taking the edge off the positives rapidly, so solutions are needed to all kinds of political and social and environmental issues quickly, and there are all kinds of exterior pressures and pressures from the inside as well. For a journalist, it's a perfect place, because there is always something happening. But we don't have enough time to look at issues thouroughly enough to get on top of them and to be able to draw people's attention to potential solutions. So it's very frustrating for us to not have that aptitude or capacity to deal with these things on a different level, other than just recording events.
Sometimes we can make the point repeatedly to the level where others get the message, but it's a soulless existence in many ways. There are some people who are sympathetic to what we are reporting, some people in quite senior positions, but there is not enough energy going into developing role models and sensible ways of retaining the good aspects. Phuket is constantly under pressure from tourism and the constant efforts to increase tourist numbers. But of course, that has a detrimental effect on lots of other things.

Ajarn Ora-orn: Everything.

Phuketwan: Yes. So much is unregulated and not controlled in any way that Phuket is a basket case in many senses. And corruption is one of the huge underlying issues. I think corruption, greed, and lack of foresight - short-term thinking - are the three overriding issues, and they affect everything, everything. There are so many issues that are there to be resolved that any help we could get would be appreciated.

Ajarn Ora-orn: The issues are huge and complex. It's all complex in Thailand. All these uncontrollable factors . . .

Phuketwan: We thought that Phuket, because it is the largest island but one of the smallest provinces, and because it's so international in many ways that the rest of Thailand isn't . . . I wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister saying, ''Dear Prime Minister, Please make Phuket a test case for correcting corruption . . . ''.

Ajarn Ora-orn: Phuket could be a model if enough effort was put in. It could be a model city in the sense that it has good balance between tourism, environmental protection and developing sectors of the economy. The whole bottom-up approach to more participation by more people on the ground . . . I agree with you that Phuket would be a challenge, yes, but it's one of the urgent cases, compared to other places in Thailand, looking at the way that it's going now. And because it is kind of adored by the international community as well, Phuket can gain help from the international community easier. A lot of tourists relate to Phuket. Singaporeans going on vacation in Thailand go to Phuket, or shopping in Bangkok.

Phuketwan: It has become a brand in its own right. And certainly the other issue that we tend to promote as strongly as we can is the relationship which is developing rapidly as a city - and a lot of people talk about it being like Singapore eventually, although it will be a very different kind of Singapore, I am sure - and also the relationship between Phuket and Phang Nga and Krabi. There is a need to throttle back on development to the same scale in those two provinces to keep them natural and at the same time if you are going to have Phuket as a hub for the region, as a city-island, then you need to make sure that what's around it is kept natural and attractive. So there's no sense that this is something that anyone is trying to achieve.

Ajarn Ora-orn: How about the current governor?

The governors are not as effective as they would like to be, and need to be. The current governor was appointed with one year to go to retirement, the previous governor was appointed close to retirement, the governor before him was there for six months.

Ajarn Ora-orn: So inconsistent . . .

Phuketwan: It's not that there isn't some sense in them of what the problems are. They just have no . . .

Ajarn Ora-orn: No motivation to do anything because they are not there for the long run.

Phuketwan: They need a Lee Kuan Yew. They need someone who understands what the long-term can deliver if you get rid of greed and corruption and protect the good things you've got. Everything Phuket needs in the sense of future direction, it hasn't got. Someone said just the other day, ''We need a hero,'' and this came from someone we think could be corrupt. On the one hand, he is probably taking money, on the other hand, he understands the need to preserve the environment. Because corruption is so entrenched, it tends to be unavoidable.

Ajarn Ora-orn: Have you followed the debate of trying to get the governor of Phuket to be elected?

Phuketwan: We helped to promote the concept a little bit but the concern among a lot of the leaders on Phuket is that that will only intensify the problem. Elected leaders are not necessarily incorruptible. Some have even been accused of being part of the problem. After 200 years of corruption, it's not easy to change the model from a corrupt model to a different kind of model. There is one elected representative who we think we can be certain is not corrupt. Having now devoted himself to local politics, he sees the difficulty in chipping away at the barriers that exist. He says ''Phuket needs role models.'' And that's probably true. As much as people can push and push, on Phuket we do need heroes or role models to stand up and take a lead. There is little sign of that at the moment. There is no sign of positive role models - there are plenty of negative ones. So . . . I wouldn't say it's depressing but it's sad to see a beautiful place without a real future beyond maybe 10 years, when all the negatives will advance and it will be a very tacky place for mass tourism.

Ajarn Ora-orn: So how about the NGOs? Are they active? Is there a strong presence of civil society?

Phuketwan: We don't hear from any NGOs really, most of them are based in Bangkok and I guess these issues . . .

Ajarn Ora-orn: There isn't a 'We Love Phuket' group or something like that? In other parts of Thailand there are groups. I imagined there would be a 'We Love Phuket' group somewhere.

Phuketwan: By comparison - your knowledge is probably better than mine . . .

Ajarn Ora-orn: I guess universities would play a role.

Phuketwan: Phuket has two universities - Rajabhat and Prince of Songkhla - but they are not strongly involved. There is no sense in them being active in issues within the broader community.

Ajarn Ora-orn: I know a bit about Chiang Mai and universities play quite an important role there. They play a role in linking with the civil society of Chiang Mai. They give an alternative voice to the local municipality, especially on environmental issues.

Phuketwan: A lot of the locals on Phuket have acquiesced or been beaten into submission on issues like public transport, which is appalling on Phuket. You have the tuk-tuks charging extortionate rates and Khun Paiboon Upatising [chief executive of the Phuket Provincial Administrative organisation] is trying to establish a bus service in Phuket City. Even he says you can only take it so far, so fast. And you've got the two sides to the island,
Phuket City which is much more traditionally Thai and not as outrageously expensive as Patong on the west coast, where prices and greed have just gone crazy. It's not just one island, it's an island with two sides, really.
You would think that the international brands operating resorts would be anxious to correct some of these issues but they are very complacent and self-satisfied. They are happy to have guests come and pay five-star and four-star prices, and be contained within the resort, but beyond the boundaries of the resorts, within the broader community, they don't do anything.

Ajarn Ora-orn: They don't do anything?

Phuketwan: They don't see it as their job to do anything. So . . . it's a funny place. It's a fascinating place but we really wish . . . .

Ajarn Ora-orn: Phuket does have the characteristics that reflect problems in general, wherever you go. The balance between preservation and development, the difficulty of urbanisation, transportation. I guess within the context of Thailand and the political structure, governing structures that we have in place of four-year governors and the municipalities, we have orborjor, orbortor, we have all of that. It makes it much more complex than it used to be for a seemingly small little island. That's my view. So the administration is not so straightforward. Because of the design of these different agencies, you have representatives of the central government who have their provincial offices, and you have the local government who have their offices, and you have the ports authority and so on. So the coordination for the seemingly small little island is going to be so complicated that nobody really knows who is doing what and who has the ownership.

Phuketwan: Which is why it's such an issue. The governor is the person who tries to coordinate a lot of these different aspects, sometimes without success. Fifteen years ago, Thailand devolved control to local authorities, which may have worked in other parts of Thailand, but on Phuket it has been a disaster. The beaches are now being commercialised by every local corrupt official, as much as they can be. It has been a disaster for Phuket, even though it may have worked in other parts of Thailand. In Bangkok, there have been fingers in the Phuket pie as well when it comes to corruption, so it's very difficult to gauge who in Bangkok is positive about Phuket's future. It's a crazy place.

Look for the next article on 'The Planet Phuket Project,' coming soon.
The Planet Phuket Project: Hunt for a Lee Kuan Yew Solution
The Search for Answers Phuket and its melting pot of people and problems may become a study case for some of the brightest public policy students in the region. We'll tell you what happens next.
The Planet Phuket Project: Hunt for a Lee Kuan Yew Solution

Planet Phuket Project: How Phuket Went Wrong
The Quest for Answers Clarity is being sought to solve Phuket's problems with some help from scholars at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
Planet Phuket Project: How Phuket Went Wrong

The Planet Phuket Project: Crunching Island Corruption
The Quest for Answers Phuket has the offer of expert help now to prepare the island for a corruption free future, necessary to achieve fairness and balance for future generations.
The Planet Phuket Project: Crunching Island Corruption

Planet Phuket Project: Making Tuk-Tuks, Taxis Fair
The Quest for Answers Phuketwan's Planet Phuket Project, with Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, aims to find ways of solving corruption and other problems on the holiday island.
Planet Phuket Project: Making Tuk-Tuks, Taxis Fair

Dear PM, Please Make Phuket Corruption-Free
Latest Happy Birthday, Mr Prime Minister. Here's a gift to you, an idea that could make Phuket and perhaps Thailand better places. Start your fight against corruption here, on one small island.
Dear PM, Please Make Phuket Corruption-Free

Phuket Corruption: Enough, Say Patong Victims
Photo Album A public seminar on Phuket has senior officials revealing the scale of existing corruption among 14 government bodies - and attempts by more to join in.
Phuket Corruption: Enough, Say Patong Victims


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