By Bruce Bickerstaff
Healthy relationships feature compromise, mutual respect and trust ... but when viewed as a partnership, rather than simply a transaction, foreign investors in Thailand - particularly resident expats - seem to be copping the rough end of the stick.1
Countless foreign individuals and organisations choose to invest in Thailand each year, including many thousands of resident expats. This is a diverse partnership of people drawn from across the globe with a shared goal of economic and other benefits. This got me thinking about the nature of the relationship between Thailand and its foreign investors.
Most people would agree that healthy relationships - true partnerships - are characterised by features such as balance, compromise, mutual respect, and trust. Is this what we see when we look at the relationship between foreign investors and the Thai government, civil service and academia?
I had a hunch that this was a relationship that could do with some help, so I went looking for answers and happened upon the web site of helpguide.org.2 The good folks there suggested, "To determine whether your relationship is abusive, answer the questions below. The more "yes" answers, the more likely it is that you're in an abusive relationship."
Does your partner:
Ouch, a few tics there. By now I’m getting worried and looking over my shoulder. Let’s look at a few of these points in more detail.
Criticize you and put you down
In May 2009 Land Department Director-General, Anuwat Meteewiboonwut, was alleged to have issued directions concerning the common practice of Thai wives buying a home to live in with funds provided by foreign husbands. This situation arose largely because Thai law prevents foreigners from owning most types of real estate in Thailand. Khun Anuwat appeared to suggest that all such transactions were highly suspect and frequently involved deliberate attempts to circumvent the law, and that the likely outcome of investigation would be the forcible revocation of the land titles in question.3 As I am unaware of any revocations subsequently occurring I can only assume that either the Land Department is desperately incompetent, or the assertions reportedly made amounted to little more than irresponsible scare-mongering.
More recently Dusit Nontanakorn, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, was quoted in the Bangkok Post as having stated, "Foreign investors have for too long taken advantage of Thailand . . . The latest strong antidote at least makes foreign investors think twice before investing easily in the Thai bonds." In the same article Chookiat Ophaswongse, honorary president of the Thai Rice Exporters Association, went on to exhort: "The tax exemption on the income that foreigners earn from investing in Thai bonds has pampered foreign investors too much. They need to be kept in check."4
In many other countries one might have expected a subsequent public correction (perhaps even rebuke) from higher authorities, in response to intemperate statements such as these. This is all the more curious given that Thai Cabinet meeting minutes from that time suggest that such anti-foreigner sentiments were certainly not shared by all, including then Prime Minister Abhisit. One can only speculate that there is more political mileage to be gained in Thailand by appearing indifferent or negative towards the interests of foreigners, rather than to be sympathetic or supportive towards them.
[Addendum: As of mid-2012 this xenophobic foolishness continues. In March 2012 certain inflamatory comments were attributed to Auditor-General Sriracha Charoenpanit and published in the Nation newspaper. Khun Sriracha is quoted as having said that land ownership by foreigners constituted a major security threat, adding ... "if this situation was unsolved, it could lead to later generations of Thais having no land to live on" (see http://nationmultimedia.com/national/Foreigners-own-100-million-rai-30177804.html). In June 2012 the same gentleman continued to 'stir the pot' with comments along the same lines (see http://www.thaivisa.com/forum/topic/566181-new-draconian-property-law-to-deport-foreigners-who-owns-land-illegally).
Ok, so Thai politicians don’t want to be seen as soft on foreigners because there’s currently little support for pro-foreigner positions amongst the general public. I get that. But perhaps they could demonstrate leadership by using the education system to foster a more informed and outward-looking orientation amongst the next generation?
Anyway, so no outward support for foreigners from those in high places. Quite to the contrary in fact, as in March 2011 we were treated to some illuminating comments by Thailand's (then) Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban. Whilst discussing the issue of independent election monitors, Khun Suthep informed the world that he didn't respect foreigners … setting off a predictable fire-storm within expat forums.5 Nice.
Limit your access to money, the phone, or the car
Well how about limit your access to something even more important, your own home? Foreigners cannot own house in Thailand despite the fact that the Thai constitution guarantees that:
Section 33. "A person shall enjoy the liberty of dwelling. A
person is protected for the peaceful habitation in and for possession a
Section 34. "A person shall enjoy the liberty of travelling and the liberty of making the choice of the residence within the Kingdom."
Oops, sorry, I just remembered that the provisions of Chapter III of the Constitution only guarantee rights for Thai citizens and not the several million others who live in Thailand. My bad.
My wife recently attended a guest lecture by a Thai real estate expert at a major university. The speaker asked the audience (who were mainly post-graduate business students) "Who thinks it would be a good idea to allow foreigners to buy a home in Thailand?" No-one raised their hand. He then asked "Who thinks that it would be a bad idea?". Most of those present then raised their arms.
With such an obviously polarized topic one would have thought it was incumbent on the visiting lecturer to provide background information, and to set his question into some sort of context. None of us foreigners expect Thai people to roll over and unquestioningly agree to such a proposal, but we do believe that the issue at least warrants an informed debate. After all, we are not talking about lines on a chart, this issue concerns the welfare and happiness of many families.
The type of information that the guest lecturer might have shared with his audience – but chose not to - could have included:
When the Thai media discusses the value of foreigners it normally focuses just on spending by international tourists. That, however, is just one component of a much larger picture. Indeed, in 2010 alone in excess of 14.26 trillion baht was either brought into the country by foreigners, or could otherwise be attributed to the actions of foreign interests. The details are set out below:
Type of capital contribution by foreigners (Value in Thai baht)6
Annual spending by international tourists in Thailand (592,794,090,000)
Annual spending by resident foreigners in Thailand (164,250,000,000)
Annual investment by foreigners in Thailand (7,272,005,000,000)
Annual purchase of Thai exports by foreigners (6,176,302,050,000)
Annual remittance by Thais living overseas (55,792,000,000)
Total 14,261,143,140,000 baht
Now this is only a rough estimate by a non-economist, and we can debate the finer details of such data until the cows come home. But my point is that the financial contribution by foreigners each year is such that it exceeds the size of size of Thailand’s GDP. We are not talking about ‘chump change’ here. This is serious money, and without it flowing in year after year, Thailand would be a rather different place to what it is today.
Look, please understand that most of us expats love the food, love the place, and love the people. If we didn't, we would be outta here. Wouldn’t it be great though, if, for example, the Thai Prime Minister, an MP, or even a Department head, said something, anything, in defence of, or positive towards, foreigners the next time the spotlight was shone our way? It would be such a pleasant change from an endless succession of big faces blaming foreigners for every ill that befalls Thailand, each one helping themselves to a popularist ‘free-kick’ at our expense.7
To underline this point, even just whilst writing this paper I came across comments by a Thai academic who asserted that the enormous disparity between rich and poor in Thailand was attributable to the influence of foreign investors.8 Please, what next? Foreigners as the vector for transmitting Dengue Fever? It’s a sad state of affairs if forging Thai unity demands the demonization of people from other places, and it is one that has dangerous historical parallels.
At this point some readers may be thinking "How naive for this author to add a personal dimension to things that are just part of the normal rough and tumble of politics and trade". To which this author might respond, "But how do you reconcile that view with every serious discussion of Thai business culture that stresses that it is relationships, rather than outputs, that are paramount?"
In the manner of the Thais we continue smiling outwardly, but many are not comfortable with the status quo. The big foreign corporates, whose voices might be heard, don’t dare say anything negative as it might obstruct the serious process of 'sucking-up' that is part and parcel of their sphere of endeavour. Meanwhile our embassies, Chambers of Commerce, etc, remain silent – at least publicly – out of consideration for the sensibilities of our hosts. And perhaps it's also partly due to our PC-inspired western overblown sensitivity towards saying something that someone, somewhere, might perceive as being racist.
Now don’t get me wrong, foreign investors and foreign residents neither want nor expect Thais to get down on their knees and high wai as we stroll past with parasols in hand.
What would be appreciated though, would be for our hosts to apply the brakes to the rhetoric and instead provide just a little public recognition for our place as (mostly) worthy individuals, valued guests and investors in a shared future.
For further details: Bruce Bickerstaff - thaiinvestbook at gmail dot com
Bruce Bickerstaff is the author of "Your Investment Guide to Thailand" which is available in both hard-copy and e-book format. Details at www.burning-bison.com
3. http://www.thaivisa.com/forum/Illegal-Thai-Spouse-Nominee-La-t268608.html; http://www.thaivisa.com/forum/Illegal-Thai-Wives-Foreigners-L-t270261.html; http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/17797/xenophobic-nonsense-from-the-land-dept; http://www.bangkokpost.com/business/economics/18514/no-witch-hunt-says-lands-department
6. The various individual sources of this data are identified in www.burning-bison.com/capital.htm