Thailand’s human resource slump

ComWorld Expo Thailand

This year’s Comworld show, which was staged at the Siam Paragon shopping centre in Bangkok earlier this month, received a fairly reserved welcome from Thailand’s ICT Minister Sithichai Pokaiudom. The minister who had been newly appointed by Thailand’s “transitional” government, was one of the key note speakers at the opening of the exhibition on February 8th. In his speech he said that it is wrong for Thai people to admire modern technology which was not developed by Thais. He stated: “It is a fake development because the country is now getting worse as almost everything at the exhibition here is imported and nothing is made by Thais.”

The minister said that the term “Thai computers” should mean Thai made computer components and Thai design, not just imported components assembled in Thailand. “It is sad that today we cannot find any Thai products. The technology show here provides foreigners an opportunity to take money from Thai people. To be truly proud, it should show technology that has been developed by Thais,” the ICT Minister said.

As a foreigner living in Thailand and working in Thailand’s IT industry for more than 10 years, I find the minister’s statements curious. First of all, the opening of an IT sales fair seems to be an awkward occasion for such criticism. Second, the implicit demand that all parts of a complex technological product such as a computer should be domestic made strikes me as fairly unrealistic. I wonder if any country in the world produces a 100% domestic made computer. Finally, the protectionist anti-foreigner undertones in this speech, which we have recently heard more often from this government, are somewhat worrying.

The truth is that Thailand does produce quite a few components from hard disks to chips which are used in today’s computer products all over the world. Seagate, Western Digital, Microchip all maintain manufacturing facilities in Thailand. However, the engineering that goes into making these components is almost exclusively imported. The research and design necessary to develop competitive high-tech products is something that Thailand cannot currently provide. I certainly agree with the minister that it would be very desirable for Thailand to have its own engineering force to compete with the likes of Intel and Seagate in future. Alas, this is presently not the case, and one should perhaps examine the reason for this.

The reason is that Thailand lacks several important prerequisites for becoming a major player in information technology, a situation which is unfortunately not new and which has never been remedied by the Thai government. One of the major causes is the poor standard of IT education in Thailand. An information technology degree is still a rarity, and IT students do not receive the same standard of education as in other countries. From my own experience, I can say that the majority of computer science graduates from Thai universities cannot be employed productively in a commercial environment. It takes one or two years of training on the job until they stop being a cost factor and start to perform in a way you would expect them to perform as fresh graduates.

Perhaps the most important factor is culture. Thailand does not seem to provide a culture that fosters research and development in the high-tech industry. If you speak to local engineers, it appears that the majority is perfectly happy to apply existing technologies instead of inventing new ones. This may be the result of an education system that rewards rote learning and reproduction instead of creativity and “thinking outside the box”. As a consequence, the innovation rate of Thai companies is low and the Thai engineering industries have staid comparatively small and ineffectual.

Finally, there is a consistent lack of government support. IT was probably never a priority topic on the agenda of the Thai government, which is understandable, since the country has many other important issues to solve. However, the multitude of enthusiastic announcements of previous governments to support the national IT industry is in stark contrast to what has actually been done. In spite of proclamations of Dr. Sithichai’s predecessors to make the Thai IT internationally competitive, surprisingly little has happened. So, instead of reproaching the industry for building computers from imported components, it would be much more interesting to hear from the ICT minister how he thinks the situation can be changed for the better and how he plans to implement actions to that end. Alas, there was silence.