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Thailand's Social Policy: Vision and Direction


Speech by
H.E. Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva
Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand
"Thailand's Social Policy: Vision and Direction"
Tuesday 18 January 2011, 15.00 hrs.
Vithes Samosorn, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is a great pleasure for me to be at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs once again and to have this opportunity to speak about the vision and direction of Thailand’s social policy. I have had many occasions and opportunities to meet and to speak to those of you present in the room over the past two years, but rarely do I have the opportunity to speak about social policy and social issues.

Obviously, the attention of much of our society and yourselves has been on the global economic crisis which unfolded just over two years ago, and of course the political problems that Thailand has been through. On the many occasions that I have met you, usually we talk about the economy, politics and not nearly enough on the social policy issues. Maybe because on social matters, in trying to effect changes and put policies forward, these policies are structural in nature and take time and maybe a lot of you around the room thought that we were not going to be around for long enough to think about these issues. But I have, since day one of assuming office, maintain that despite the circumstances where the urgent issues of the economic crisis and the political troubles would have to be dealt with, I saw it as a very important task of the current government to also pursue some fundamental structural changes and deal with social issues.

Many of you may not know that these issues are very close to my heart and if you looked at my political career, when I was elected member of parliament for the third term and had the opportunity to actually chair a parliamentary committee, it was the education policy committee of the House that I chaired. Also during my time as Minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office, I was also put in charge of education reform, as well as issues such as decentralization.

When I became Prime Minister, one of the things that I did which apparently is not a usual thing for many prime ministers, was that all the committees that dealt with social policy, I decided to chair myself rather than delegating that to a deputy prime minister which has been a standard practice for as long as almost anybody can remember.

So from issues ranging from health to education, to the elderly, to gender issues, they are policy committees which I personally chair. Over the last couple of years, I have put into effect some key policies which I think will establish a very clear direction for our social policy for the future. That direction, vision and set of policies very much governed by what I see as key challenges that not just Thailand but the whole world faces. The idea that I have pounded and have also insisted should be the center of our social policy is putting people right at the center of our approach -- putting people first, which in fact was the slogan that we ran during the last election campaign. Here we are talking about human development, human security and human rights -- challenges which just not Thailand, not just the region of Southeast Asia, but I think, the whole world faces together.

Over the last two years, the emphasis has been just that -- making sure that we put people first in our decisions. The way we approach the tackling of social issues is not to isolate these problems and deal with them individually; rather what I have told the cabinet is that we should always take into account the social impact and design our policies so that we deal with the social challenges and issues directly and in all that we do.

A clear example of that approach was the way we tackled the economic crisis itself. When we were faced with a very rapid slowdown of the economy, it was contracting by 7.2 percent during the first quarter since when I assumed office, the stimulus package we designed was very unconventional and it was clearly aimed at helping the least fortunate, the most vulnerable people. This was to make sure that we do not have people put out of jobs, lacking income, lacking opportunities which would then lead to social and other problems as a direct impact of the economic slowdown. Likewise, in our decisions on industrial policies and other policies, the main thrust of the approach of the current government is that we are not going to think about social issues as an after thought -- fall into the same trap that many people have fallen into in the past where they deal with economic problems and political problems, they say that there will be social impact and then repair the damages after.

The approach you want to take is a holistic one that takes into account all dimensions of the problems that we face and take an integrated approach towards policy-making and I think that has paid-off. It is one of the reasons why unemployment in Thailand never rose much above 1 percent during one of the severest economic crisis that we have faced and indeed it has now dropped below 1 percent. It is also the reason why our domestic economy was able to recover faster while we waited for our trading partners to recover so that our export and tourism income can pick up. It was one of the key reasons why we were able to stabilize the economy as quickly as maybe two or three quarters into the financial crisis and then began to see stability and subsequent positive growth; and of course, that provided a foundation for the very strong 8 percent growth in GDP last year.

As far as social policies are concerned directly, when I say we put emphasis on people, there are three main aspects: creating opportunities and empowerment, looking at the quality of our people, and also providing security or welfare for our people. The reason we needed to do this was simply because the country, like many others in the world, is also facing some fundamental changes in the structure of our society.

First, clearly we have a more competitive environment as far as economic competition is concerned. It means there will be more volatility, more changes and more risks for ordinary people; therefore there is an absolute necessity of making sure that we provide some kind of security and some kind of mechanism that will allow people to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

You will see the diversity in Thailand where people in the agricultural sector, still the majority, are subject to all kinds of volatility in terms of weather patterns as well as price of agricultural goods. We see the continuous relocation of industries moving from one location to another, sometimes within the region, sometimes to other regions; which means that our workers have to be ready to adapt and acquire new skills.

We, like many other Asian societies, are about to transform into an aging society, where the proportion of elderly people as the proportion of the population is going to rise very rapidly. Currently, we have people over 60 making up about 10 percent of our population, but it will soon be 20 or 25 percent, and this change will come a lot quicker than many industrialized economies had gone through.

The first thing we needed to do was to make sure that we create opportunities for our people; and one of the key policies that we quickly adopted was to make sure that the 15 years of free, basic education are truly available to everybody. Free, basic education is something that has been in our Constitution since 1997 but had been neglected for so long so that, in fact, a lot of people, particularly poor people, still suffer from a lack of opportunities because they could not afford to send their children and keep their children in school. As soon as we came in, we had clear provision for the basic needs: tuition fees, uniforms, textbooks as well as other supplies, made available free for 15 years of basic education.

We also created opportunities for handicapped children, now actually they get opportunities to go right through to university. You will see that this programme, in fact, has been the most popular programme whenever a poll is taken and asked people to cite what they feel has been the biggest achievement of this government. We are talking about a very meaningful programme for 12 million children and many more parents around the country and it is also one of the best investments that we could make in our society.

But more needs to be done. When I announced a new reform programme on New Year’s Day, we recognize that there are still people that fall through the cracks. For instance, there continues to be a number of remote areas, rural areas, where children may not have access to schooling, where they still have a very high rate of dropouts -- from primary to secondary schools. These children can become problems for their communities and societies as they grow up. We still need to provide more for handicapped people. And so what we did in our reform programme now is to make sure that we identify these groups and also provide alternative education; this will be one of the key supplementary programmes to the 15-year free, basic education that will be driving forward this year to ensure that all Thai children have the opportunity to acquire schooling and skills.

We also know that, before they get to schools, there continues to be lack of opportunities and great disparity. We have undertaken some programmes that many of you may have been involved, for instance, now there is a clear programme to tackle iodine deficiency, right through from pregnancy and then early childhood. Also, we are now making sure that there will be childcare centers that will be spread around in all tambons or sub-districts. We have surveyed, and there are 481 sub-districts out of 7,000 that do not have these childcare centers; they will be set up in this reform programme within this year; and we are going to provide tax incentives also for private companies to make sure that there are childcare centers in the workplace so that this will not only help the children but also the careers of many women.

There will also be other measures to make sure that opportunities of our people are really enhanced. At the same time, we are addressing the issue of quality of the education. The reform programme which has been undertaken is in

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