Online Extra: "Love Me, Love My Dog"

Two and a half years into his four-year term as Thailand's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra is enjoying approval ratings of around 70%. The secret to his popularity: economic reforms that have helped boost gross domestic product and enrich the working classes. Yet the outspoken telecom tycoon has his detractors, who question whether he's leading the country back toward authoritarian rule.

Relaxing in a silk-upholstered chair in Bangkok's Government House, Thaksin talked with Asia Regional Editor Mark L. Clifford and Singapore Bureau Chief Michael Shari on July 10. Edited excerpts follow of their conversation follow. Note: This is an extended, online-only version of the interview that appears in the July 28, 2003 issue of BusinessWeek.

Q: You came to office after several years of very tough times for the Thai economy, and you promised the people better times. What's your economic outlook for this year and next year in terms of GDP growth?

A:

You know, under my government, gross domestic product growth is quite a good figure.... Next year, I don't know, I think it will be more than 7%. But I will target it at 8%.

But there's still a trade surplus. In the past, if there was GDP growth like this, we would be faced with a trade deficit and also...skyrocketing external debt. But now external debt is down, foreign reserves are up, and public debt has increased a little bit but...not as fast as...GDP growth.

Q: What's going to account for this acceleration?

A:

Well, you have to work hard. You don't just sit there and let things go and let God predict what you're going to grow. You have to work for it. Go for it, and you get it.... We're going out and searching for a new market, expanding the market for Thai producers through both negotiation and free-trade arrangements, and clearing all the trade barriers.

Q: Thailand is currently negotiating a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the U.S. What are your hopes for bilateral relations with the U.S., and when do you think you'll sign the FTA?

A:

It depends on both sides. I think it will be probably somewhere in April.... We were the first treaty ally of the U.S. in Asia. We have very good and strong relations with the U.S. so we cooperate with each other in every dimension -- not just economic [relations] but also security.

We already have Trade & Investment Facility Arrangement (TIFA). On the Thai side, we need to do [our] part. One example is customs valuation, which will be finished in October. After this I think things will be moving ahead.

Q: How do you respond to critics who worry that Thailand will face a debt bubble due to all the money you're pumping into the economy?

A:

We are trying to increase revenue by giving more opportunities to [the people].... We pump the money to create income and jobs. If they have jobs, they have income, they have enough to spend. When they spend, the economy is growing.... We do understand the proverb that says, "Don't give them fish. You have to teach them how to fish."

Under the capitalist economy, without capital, how can you create wealth? The poor in rural areas never have had access to capital, so they end up with loan sharks for their entire lives.

Q: Yes, but what message are you sending by giving farmers a three-year moratorium on debt?

A:

Some people don't understand the poor. They think the poor are those who never honor loans. But actually the [poor] are much better than the businesspeople.

I believe in human capability, in human performance. If [people] are poor, if they don't have the heart and soul to work, they become robots.... So I'm trying to bring back the soul to the poor [so] they have hope. When they have hope they will produce, they will be good citizens.

Q: How much are you involved in deciding and implementing policy?

A:

I'm involved in almost everything that drives policy. I set my vision with my experts. I assign my ministers to work with the government officials, and we bring the private sector in to help them. We regard ourselves as a major shareholder of every business entity because the government collects tax at every step.

Q: Did you personally involve yourself in the Thai Petrochemical Industry dispute?

A:

We have worked closely with both sides to be sure that everything is moving ahead.... We are not trying to save any particular person. But if we save the company, the whole system is going to work. As long as there's a fight between the creditors and the shareholders and the fight is never-ending, it will ruin the company. When the company fails, no one benefits. And finally it will hurt the banks. If it hurts the banks, it will hurt the economy.

Q: Have there been any excesses in your war on drugs and crime?

A:

We have been successful, and we have done everything according to the Thai constitution.... The large operators [i.e., drug dealers] are afraid of being prosecuted, so they are trying to do everything to cut the evidence leading to them.

Our strategy is this: We want them to stop their activities.... They still influence the gunmen to kill others, they still influence gambling dens, they still influence bidding collusion. They're going to be in trouble. But everything [we do to combat this] will be according to [the] law.

Q: Some say you have abused your position to benefit your family business.

A:

No way. That's not a fair question. Very few people say that.... Many people understand very well what I'm doing here. I will make the whole system transparent. You wait and see.

Q: Other critics say that you're intolerant. Do you agree?

A:

Those who criticize are those who know very little about the situation and the facts and figures. When they criticize me wrongly, I have to criticize them back. This is a democratic society. Democracy is the means to an end. The end is to improve the lives of the people for their well-being and the peace in the society and also progress for the country. But democracy is not the end itself.

When someone creates a lot of confusion, I have to clear the air. But I'm outspoken. Sometimes people may not be familiar with my style. Love me, love my dog.

Q: Who is your role model?

A:

No one person is my role model [just as] there is no one medicine that cures all diseases.... Dr. Mahathir [Mohamad] has his own way of making decisions.... Lee Kuan Yew is very visionary. And General Prem [Tinsulanonda, Thai Prime Minister from 1980 to 1988] [was] very committed to the country.

Q: How long will you stay in office?

A:

Two terms. No more.... I will contribute everything for my country for eight years, sacrifice my whole life. But eight years is enough for me to do a lot of things for the country.

When I do things successfully, no one praises me.... I know that public work is thankless. I understand, I don't care. But I have done a lot to change what they're familiar with.

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