By Warawita Yaemsuda
(19 September) For decades, millions of Thais have endured the abysmal state of underdeveloped public transportation – buses, boats, and trains – which is notoriously out of sync with the ever-expanding urbanisation of the Kingdom.
To escape from the deeply-rooted problems, many Thais seek to buy their own cars as fast as they can, and opt to travel on the more reliable (but limited in routes) Skytrain and subway services, leaving those without the adequate income to own a car to endure the inconveniences of the public transports.
Few, if any, high-ranking official tackled the issues directly. Indeed, Thailand has not seen a major investment in the public transports for at least a decade or so; the last mega-project on the national transport was the construction of Suvarnabhumi Airport, which took around 40 years to complete.
However, Transport Minister Chatchart Sittipan has changed the trend (or at least has shown an attempt to). He′s been there and experienced the worst of Thai public transports, from troublesome bus routes to canal boats and third-class trains, recording the problems he encountered.
"Transport is about service" said Mr. Chatchart during his exclusive interview with Khaosod last week, which he gave during a break from a meeting at the Ministry of Transport with a representative from the Japanese Government about a planned rail service.
"It is the last link connecting us to people", Mr. Chatchart spoke of his ministerial responsibility. He explained, "no matter how much we invest in facilitating the transportation, if it does not serve the people′s best interest, then it means nothing."
Mr. Chatchart gained his popularity from being the least popular minister according to a survey in 2012 to the most popular in 2013, after he started using the social network as a platform to interact with people about various transport-related problems.
"Before this I never had faith in Facebook. I believed it was a place for people to argue about abstract ideas" he said, "but as we are marketing the 2 trillion baht scheme, the Prime Minister told me that I should communicate more with the people," referring to the grand infrastructure overhaul, which includes an inter-regional high speed rail project.
He started his hands-on experiment with the public transport by taking the number 509 bus from the Government House to catch his flight at Don Mueang Airport. That adventure ended with Mr. Chatchart being forced to phone his driver, after having spent 40 minutes waiting for the bus, to pick him up at Victory Monument because he realised he would never get to the airport on time.
Mr. Chatchart has been using his Facebook to advertise his missions ever since. For instance, he conducted a poll about the least satisfying bus route in Bangkok (the answer was the number 8 bus), then went on to catch the bus himself in order to observe its problems and instructed the authorities to resolve the issues.
His practices have attracted much attention from both the public and the media. By publicising his activities on Facebook, Mr. Chatchart had placed many swept-under-the-carpet problems on the table. Facebook also allows Thai citizens to interact more directly to the minister.
Mr. Chatchart described his habits of "exploring the problem by myself" as a method he learned from his academic career. Prior to taking the position as Transport Minister, Mr. Chatchart worked at Chulalongkorn University as a lecturer in Engineering.
"I want to lead by setting an example" said the former lecturer , "Now that the officials in my ministry are being more energetic about their work". Clear frameworks are implemented after the he had investigated many transport problems long complained by Thai people, he said.
Asked if the problems have been perpetuated by the laid-back culture of Thai bureaucracy, Mr. Chatchart replied, "I do not think it is the culture that prevents us from the development. We got to believe in the capability of our officials".
He explained that previously, many ministries had been unresponsive to the problems, as the government did not provide specific funds and framework for each project. Now that he is in charge, Mr. Chatchart said, he wishes to demonstrate to other authorities how to push for success.
Mr. Chatchart has certainly been a busy man. He was touring Europe with the Prime Minister, but he was back early on 11 September, a day before the interview.
He has been studying the problems about ?Easy Pass? cash card for tollways, which many people complained that their money had not been deducted correctly. Mr. Chatchart decided to drive to Prachachuen Tollway Exit himself to talk to the staff at the tollway booth about it.
"I tried explaining them how the system is supposed to work," said Mr. Chatchart, "Some of them who recognised me took the advice. But the ones who did not know I am the Minister of Transport just asked if I work for the Expressway Authority".
When Mr. Chatchart said no, "those people just replied, then stop wasting our time", he recalled.
Later that day, he also travelled – he claimed – on a motorbike, to investigate the flood on Ngarmwongwan Road, which caused severe traffic in northern Bangkok that day. According to Mr. Chatchart, the Governor of Nonthaburi Province was also at the scene, and they had some discussion about how to solve the frequent floods.
The reporter asked why he did not look more into the chronic traffic problems in downtown Bangkok. The Minister replied that he is only responsible for the outer rim of Bangkok, under the jurisdiction of Transport Ministry, whereas the heart of Bangkok is under management of Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.
Mr. Chatchart then turned the conversation to the 2 trillion baht loan for the infrastructure investment. The bill is vehemently opposed by the Democrat Party, who argued that Thailand would be saddled with debt for many years to come because of the bill.
The Minister, however, sees the bill as "a suggestion on how to finance the projects", explaining that it represents guidelines and frameworks for the development, particularly to welcome the emerging of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which might be "a good opportunity, as well as a threat".
As for the question of public hearings on the projects, the Minister insisted he will visit the provinces, where the rail is planned to pass, to inform the citizens about the pros and cons of the project and to listen to the opinions of local people, who would be "inevitably affected" by the new development plans.
"This is not the magic plan that will make the whole country richer", said Mr. Chatchart "It is more like a platform for future investment in each region" of the country.
He added, "We expect that the investment should influence urbanisation of cities, and thus we need to discuss how they want their cities to be developed into and how the investment [from the government] could facilitate their expectation".
Nevertheless, Mr. Chatchart acknowledged the government must make sure to present transparency and budget-time control over the construction of the project.
Though the scheme had been attacked by many anti-government groups, Mr. Chatchart firmly believe that it will not be used as a political tool.
"The plan has been there all along. [The dual-rail] has been discussed since Mr. Chuan Leekpai′s administration" Mr. Chatchart pointed out, referring to the former Democrat Prime Minister, "We are merely trying to make it happen".
He said he is confident the mega project can be finished within 7 years.
Concluding the interview, Mr. Chatchart also commented about the current political atmosphere of the country, saying that "I understand that Thai politics now based more on emotion that rationality. Emotions can get under your skin, while rationality is more objective".
According to the Minister, the media should also take part in reinventing the rationalistic space between two political camps.
"We need to reinvent the space where people can be fairly unprejudiced about the politics, and media also need to do the job, too" said Mr. Chatchart, "but I also understand that emotion sells, but rationality does not"
When the reporter mentioned the speculation that Mr. Chatchart is taking all the limelight because he is merely expanding his political capital, the Minister replied that he is "quite bored of politics".
"It is not me who controls my own political destiny" said Mr. Chatchart
Asked if he might become Deputy Prime Minister in the near future as some have speculated, Mr. Chatchart gave an emphatic "No".
However, just before Mr. Chatchart made his way to the door, the reporter asked whether he would run for the office of Bangkok Governor. The Minister weighed his answer and replied, "Maybe".
Teeranai Charuvastra contributed reporting.