A Kingdom in a Modern Light

Thailand is world-famous for exotic temples, expansive rice fields and lush tropical forests. It is also admired for the beauty of its handicrafts, the charm of its people and the continuity of its unique traditions. And yet, there is much more.

Situated in the Southeast Asian peninsula, and once known as the Kingdom of Siam, modern Thailand has enjoyed a thousand-year history of independence and integrated cultural development.

The only country in the region never to have been colonized by the West, Thailand is able to look to the world and interact in it with confidence. There has been political unrest and social turbulence, but far less than in other nations at a similar stage of development. Today, the nation looks to a stable future of growing prosperity and justice under a democratic system within a constitutional monarchy along Western European lines.

Despite a reputation for tranquility, rooted in its Buddhist heritage, Thailand has been living a dramatic period of economic growth. Over the past decade, real GNP increases have reached as high as 10% per annum, and today, while Europe and the United States struggle to rebound from recession, growth is expected to be at least 8%.

As everywhere, such rapid growth has brought with it stress on the social structure and the environment: people have been moving from rural areas to the cities in search of higher incomes and increased consumption has depleted some originally abundant raw materials and increased pollution. This has been the price, now being faced, for putting Thailand on the path to industrial and post-industrial development in very fast order. In the past decade, the nation joined the "mini-dragons" of the Far East, with industry overtaking agriculture and a steady upgrade of industrial product lines, from foods to fiber to footwear. In fact, the majority of recent Thai industrial concentration has been far from agriculture, in electronics and chemicals, with Made-in-Thailand products for world markets like televisions, ceramics, air conditioners.

The open nature of its society and economy, a still comparative advantage in raw materials and labor together with a fast-upgrading physical infrastructure (Bangkok has also become a city of construction cranes and crews) comprise important ingredients to attract foreign investment. The country merits the description "Open Society, Dynamic Economy".

Old Science, New Science

Thai traditional culture has created a vast reservoir of knowledge about living with nature and making one's livelihood in it. The pre-historic Ban Chiang people achieved one of the world's earliest bronze civilizations some six thousand years ago. Written records of the Kingdom of the Thai go back almost a thousand years; two capitals, at Sukhothai and Ayudhya, rose and fell before Bangkok. Skills in indigenous technologies, no less than in arts and crafts, are reflected in houses and objects for daily use, to say nothing of impressive know-how in the construction of temples, Buddha images and other religious objects. Based on logical reasoning, the Buddhist philosophy is akin to science and many parallels can be found between modern science and accounts in the scripture.

In contrast to indigenous "science" derived from religious teachings, technology was accumulated by the Thai by practical experience, refined and passed on in areas like traditional medicine, horticulture and food preservation. In these stocks of knowledge lie the potential for drugs of use to man today and new fermentative microorganisms yet to be exploited by modern science.

Important though the traditional knowledge was to the old way of living, the Thais embraced Western science with avidity when it arrived. This transformation can be dated to the time of the famous King Rama IV, or King Mongkut, who is known as the Father of Thai Science. He correctly predicted the time of the total solar eclipse in the south of Thailand, which he went to observe on August 18, 1868. Although he fell ill and died of malaria soon after this journey, the date has come to symbolize the embrace of modern science by Thailand and has been designated National Science Day. In our own time, the King maintains the role of leader in science and the arts. The present monarch, King Bhumibhol (Rama IX) has long taken an active role in using science and technology for rural development and for the improvement of the livelihood of the entire population.

Science in the Universities and the Public Sector

By the beginning of this century, modern science, as distinct from traditional knowledge, had taken root in Thailand, coinciding with the development of the universities which grew with reforms in the educational and public service sectors. Faculties of Medicine, Engineering, and Arts and Science comprised three of the four first faculties of Chulalongkorn University, the nation's first, established in 1916 and named for the king who initiated the reforms.

In 1921, the first American aid program for national development was started with the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation to the Royal School of Medicine. This became the first degree-granting body of the university and the nucleus for a second university, Mahidol. The fifties and sixties saw the establishment of universities outside Bangkok at Chiang Mai, Songkla and Khon Kaen, all with science and technology teaching and research as integral parts. These decades also saw the upgrading of technical and vocational colleges to university status; the prime examples of success are the three Kong Mongkut's Institutes of Technology.

Despite this development, the training of engineers and scientists still could not keep pace with the faster-growing demands of industry and the economy in general. Thailand now faces a need for more engineers and scientists and is responding with the founding of more universities, both public and private, and expansion of programs in existing institutions of higher learning.

Among the new universities, the Suranaree University of Technology in the Northeast provides a potentially sucessful model for new state universities, operating through a grant system rather than the usual cumbersome one of the civil service budget. Faced with growing demands and steady internationalization of the system of Thai higher education, it is to be anticipated that the next phase will be establishment of even more programs that cross national boundaries and integrate Thai students and professionals into the world R&D system. The field is wide open for setting up "international universities", in which the medium of teaching is English rather than Thai and students and faculty come from not only Southeast Asia but beyond.

In addition to producing scientific and technical manpower, the universities are by far the major performers of scientific research. Major achievements from indigenous research include those on both basic and clinical aspects of tropical diseases like malaria, genetic abnormalities in structure and production of hemoglobins, and physiology and immunology of malnutrition. According to a survey of Science Citation Index, some Thai papers on these topics are among the most cited from the developing world.

While medical science is the strongest research area at international level, Thailand also has considerable achievements in R&D in agriculture, engineering and other fields, mostly at adaptive or trouble-shooting levels.

Many government institutes conduct research and development as well, including the Department of Agriculture and the Thailand Institute for Scientific and Technological Research, a broad-based industrial and general research entity.

Recently, the Chulabhorn Research Institute, under the directorship of Princess Culabhorn, a chemistry professor with wide-ranging research interests, was established with government support. Its emphasis is on research in natural products, life sciences, environment and toxicology.

The government has increasingly realized that crucial for the success of scientific development in Thailand, in addition to adequate manpower, is financial support for research. Although it set up the National Research Council (NRC) specifically to fund research as long ago as 1956, the level of support was too low effectively to meet the need. In the eighties, this shortfall was addressed by the creation of special funding programs administered by national centers established for specific areas, as well as by creation of the US-Thai Science and Technology for Development program.

These initiatives were the predecessors of those now administered by the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), established by a special law in December 1991. NSTDA supports both public and private sector agencies, and conducts its own research in those areas of science and technology deemed to be of strategic importance, including biotechnology, materials science and electronics/computer technology.

Another new development is the establishment of the Thailand Research Fund (TRF) for support of work in wide-ranging areas including basic science, social sciences and the humanities.

Science and Technology in the Private Sector

The private sector is responsible for most of the present economic growth phenomenon in Thailand. Its investment overall is currently five times that of the public sector. While Thai industries have traditionally relied on abundant raw materials and a cheap labor force, these two factors are now losing their positions of advantage. Many companies are therefore reconsidering their structure and approach, and attaching more importance to technology as a factor in competitiveness. Technology licensing and transfer from abroad are speeding up, a crucial trend which will increase with the strenghtening of intellectual property laws, a legislative reform now underway.

Some major firms, such as the Petroleum Authority of Thailand and Siam Cement, have made major investments in their own R&D units. Both government-run and private industrial estates geared for high-technology, export-oriented production have sprung up, mostly around Bangkok and the Eastern Seaboard Development zone.

The Board of Investment (BOI), which has the power by law to promote investment through tax con-cessions and other privileges, has re-cently moved to put more emphasis on strengthening of technology, especially by providing incentives for import of new and more efficient machinery and technology, transfer of technology to Thai personnel and establishment of R&D programs. Other incentives for technology development include an increased depreciation rate for imported machinery for R&D purposes. Low-interest loans for R&D are also available from the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) and the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment.

A major project recently launched by NSTDA, in collaboration with the internationally-known Asian Institute of Technology and Thammasat University, will create a Science Park, complete with research laboratories in selected areas as well as technology and business incubators for rent. This will encompass an 80-acre site north of Bangkok, and serve private sector needs for technology development and services.

Science and Technology for and Open Societyand a Dynamic Economy

In spite of recent actions to provide the base for sustainable development, especially through science and education, Thailand still has a long way to go from the stage of being an off-shore factory to that of fully mature partner in global production. Until it can reach that more mature stage, it will be too much at the mercy of a world economic situation beyond its control, one that presently (but perhaps only transiently) favors Southeast Asian countries as production sites, mainly to reduce manpower and material cost. And this, sadly, in some cases also at the cost of the environment.

The open society and dynamic economy of Thailand are indispensible ingredients for long-term, sustainable development. If human capability in general, and the capacity in science and technology in particular, can be upgraded to match increasing needs, then Thailand will be able to face the next century with confidence.

Next Chapter: National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA)