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Vision into action
2017-09-18, YANG HAN in Hong Kong

In the course of a lifetime, many people may rise to expert status in one or two fields, but this Thai man has managed to master six, and in seemingly perfect balance.

Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, president of the Institute of Future Studies for Development in Thailand (IFD), wears hats in academic, business, political, international, civil society and media spheres.

Previously an adviser to a Thai prime minister and an elected member of parliament before the country’s 2006 parliamentary dissolution, Kriengsak holds a range of titles. These include academic dean of the Thailand Centre at the University of London and a director of Singapore-listed semiconductor equipment manufacturer ASTI Holdings. He is also a prolific writer, having published more than 200 books on various issues.

With little time left to himself, Kriengsak is devoted to national development and always encourages people around him to do the same.

The IFD was founded 37 years ago when Kriengsak returned to Thailand from overseas. He noticed that most development being discussed or happening within the region had only a short-term focus. “Especially in Thailand, there is no one really looking beyond the horizon into the future,” said Kriengsak.

After high school in Thailand, Kriengsak pursued his studies in three countries — Monash University in Australia, Harvard University in the United States, and both Cambridge and Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Aiming to help guide the direction of Thailand’s future, Kriengsak established the IFD together with some high-level people he knew from politics and academia. It remains the first and only institute in Thailand focused on future research — encompassing economics, human resources and national development, especially within the country and the region. 

Kriengsak has always wanted his institute to be action-oriented, so that its ideas can become both policy relevant and implementable.

“It has to be very much linking the present and the future,” Kriengsak said, referring to a framework that continues to this day, which has made the IFD influential in policymaking in Thailand and elsewhere in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). 

For decades, the IFD has advocated the implementation of bilingual and trilingual education in Thai schools, believing that teaching only in the national language would not be sufficient for the future. Many schools have started to take this approach in recent years.

The IFD has also advocated many policies in Thailand that have since been adopted by the relevant ministries. 

According to Kriengsak, the Ministry of Finance is now looking into a negative-income-tax deal as a means of helping the poor — an idea that the institute has supported for a long time.

He described the IFD’s work as “meaningful” because, besides being a policy think tank, it is also a research and training institute. He explained that it works with the public, private and social sectors, educating people from politics, business and the wider community about nation-building. It is also working to move Thailand forward from a middle-income to high-income country.

Kriengsak believes that more and more people will start to appreciate the importance of long-term planning. Already, various Thai ministries have turned to the IFD for help, and even a friend of Kriengsak’s from the African Union has requested his expertise to start a similar institute there.

For now, Kriengsak sees major hurdles that Thailand must overcome. These include finding ways to help the millions of people still living in poverty, mitigating the wide economic disparity, and moving to high income quickly.

The Asian Development Bank forecasts Thailand’s GDP growth to be 3.5 percent this year — the third lowest within ASEAN, followed by Singapore and Brunei.

Kriengsak cited democracy and the huge societal gap in Thailand as other challenges that must be tackled over the long term.

He feels optimistic that opportunities exist for Thailand as a key member of ASEAN. Being the central country in the region, it shares borders with four of the bloc’s nine other members — Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. “Thailand could play a big role as a gateway for ASEAN,” he said. 

As an economist and former politician, he became acquainted with the China-led Belt and Road Initiative from the very beginning during his previous participation in the World Chinese Economic Summit and the Boao Forum for Asia. 

The initiative was introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping as an economic belt reminiscent of the ancient maritime Silk Route to connect Asia and Europe. It will bring mutual benefits to Thailand, China and the rest of the region, Kriengsak noted. 

The historical ties between China and Thailand can be traced back 600 years, when the great Chinese navigator Zheng He and his fleet made a stopover in Bangkok, marking Thailand as an important destination on the ancient Maritime Silk Road. 

“We are naturally within the region of Belt and Road,” Kriengsak said. He suggested that continuous cooperation between the two nations can take on a more modern form under the new initiative.

“Coming through Thailand is natural,” he said, adding that a logistics route passing through Thailand will be convenient for traders to reach the middle and southern parts of China. “You can link all modes of transportation — river, ocean, rail and road.” 

Being president of the IFD is just part of Kriengsak’s multifaceted life, and he admitted it is “unusual” for someone to operate in six different fields.

“All you have to do is to think very fast, work very fast, work very hard and work wisely,” he said. “How could you do it if you don’t plan your time well? It’s just a lot of planning, a lot of dedication, a lot of training.”

He believes there are no shortcuts: Achieving his goals has required diligence.

But, to allow him to do the things that others cannot, he systematizes methods and trains those he trusts to accomplish the more “mundane” tasks. “I make myself not to do the same old things all the time.”

And yet he is always challenging people, stretching their capabilities and pushing them to rise. Many of those he has trained have become young leaders in their own right.

As passionate as he is about the IFD, Kriengsak is not at all reluctant to plan for leadership succession at the institute. “You need to make sure that it continues to serve the purpose of the country without me around,” he said.

 

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