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Thailand 4.0 hits a dead end

The clampdown on innovative taxi operators flies in the face of the government's stated aim to embrace the digital age.

lead-in: Caption photo: andrew biggs

Last Tuesday the inaugural Thailand International Business Awards were held in a glittering ceremony at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, celebrating innovation and excellence in local businesses.

Winning the award for Most Outstanding Company was Grab Taxi (Thailand). It was accepted by the executive team, a dynamic group of young Thai professionals. In front of a cheering crowd of expats and Thais they mugged for the camera, they held their award high in the air, then bounced off the stage.

How ironic it was that the exact same day the Land Transport Department declared Grab Taxi illegal and threatened those innovative executives with jail if they didn't shut down their company.

Grab Taxi and its competitor Uber have been declared persona non grata by the department. A sting operation on Monday netted 18 Uber drivers. A further 12 were nabbed on Tuesday when the net widened to Chiang Mai. Forget drug dealers and weird abbots … let's draw and quarter the taxi drivers.

Three years have passed since Uber set up shop here, with Grab following. Even back then the Land Transport Department quickly declared Uber illegal and threatened fines for anybody even thinking of dressing up nicely, combing their hair and offering their spotlessly clean new car as a taxi service.

Three years ago I wrote a column explaining why Uber was so wrong for Thailand, and I have summarised those reasons in a box on this page.

But we are in a different Thailand now. Now we have a new mindset and it even has a name -- "Thailand 4.0".

This is a government-led initiative to push Thailand into the modern era. Apparently (though we didn't know it at the time) Thailand 1.0 was when the country was primarily agricultural. Thailand 2.0 came about with light industry, and then the heavy industry of Thailand 3.0 of the last two or three decades.

We are now in the digital information-based era. The catchword of Thailand 4.0 is "innovation" -- the kind Grab Taxi displayed in their business and for which it received an award. It is encouraging to have a government set on steering the ship away from the glacier, but clearly the left hand is not in tune with the right.

Over the last week Thai authorities took a break from trying to chase that ex-abbot hiding out in the Rangsit spaceship and turned to a much easier target, namely Uber taxi drivers.

It's understandable. The Land Transport Department is a little like Fagin from Oliver Twist; it has to keep the best interests of its drivers in mind. And if I were a cop I'd much rather entrap a taxi driver than spend days under the hot sun seeking out a fugitive monk, fighting his throng of adoring, albeit deluded, followers.

How much of a threat is innovation to Thailand? The department announced it would seek to invoke Section 44 against Uber drivers. Up until recently such talk would have elicited gasps of horror, but we must thank that elusive monk for showing up Section 44 as a toothless tiger.

A more sensible idea may be wielding Section 44 to close down the Land Transport Department itself.

Start from scratch; rebuild a new regulating department that ensures passengers, as opposed to drivers, receive fairness and protection. And it should be a department that embraces the innovation that is being pushed within Thailand 4.0.

The genie will not go back into the bottle. These are new times that require us to incorporate Uber and Grab into the system rather than outlawing them. How innovative is it to ban a new innovation? How innovative is it to push for a single gateway to enable authorities to stop innovations that run contrary to its own ideas and perceptions? And while we are on the subject, how innovative is it to push for a fossil fuel power plant in Krabi that uses technology thought up in the 15th century?

Uber has faced criticism overseas for questionable business practices, including discrimination against women and an obnoxious CEO who shoots from the lip. This is not a column supporting the company. Nor is it a column defending a foreign company's right to break the local road transport laws -- that behaviour is the exclusive domain of the Thais.

Rather, it is a column supporting innovation and fairness. Bad systems need to be broken down, not defended. Thailand 4.0 will never happen while we remain Mindset 1.5.

For Grab executives, my hearty congratulations on winning your award for outstanding innovation. And take heart: when you do get locked up, CNN and BBC will have a field day.

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