In a wide-ranging interview with Sunday Star, the Thai ambassador to Malaysia delves into the need for ‘seamless connectivity’ between Malaysia and Thailand, what Digital Asean is all about and the latest in Thai politics.
NARONG Sasitorn never steps out – without his passport-size red notebook. In it, the Thai Ambassador to Malaysia jots down every plan that he wants to see through.
Since being posted here last June, the father of two has used up dozens of notebooks which he takes everywhere in his inner suit pocket.
Flipping through his latest jottings, the envoy declares: “One down, two more to go!” – referring to the full operations at the common border in Bukit Kayu Hitam effective June 18, and two other proposals in the offing.
The Bukit Kayu Hitam Immigration, Customs, Quarantine and Security (ICQS) and Sadao Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) checkpoints were scheduled to open round-the-clock to cargo traffic from April 1 on a three-month trial period but the move was put off with Thailand not ready to implement the change.
This was among the key decisions during Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s meeting with Thai counterpart Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha in Bangkok last October, when border connectivity topped the agenda.
Both governments had been working on extending the border’s daily 18-hour operations for several years without success.
The extra hours are aimed at reducing congestion at the border, where there are bottlenecks during peak hours.
The two pending initiatives are the building of a bridge to connect Takbai in Narathiwat to Pengkalan Kubor in Tumpat, Kelantan, and expansion of the Sungai Golok Bridge which links Rantau Panjang, Pasir Mas with Sungai Golok, also in Narathiwat; and constructing a carriageway to link the Bukit Kayu Hitam
CIQ to a new checkpoint being built in Sadao, which is the border town on the Thai side.
“We have almost three million people from Thailand visiting Malaysia every year. There is a potential to bring five more million people with better facilitation at the border,” says the Bangkok-born career diplomat.
Q: What is the impact of the Bukit Kayu Hitam-Sadao border being open throughout the day?
A: It’s huge. Businesses on both sides have complete flexibility to pick the right time to transport their goods and make sure that the logistics will be most cost efficient. They have the full liberty, whether it’s going to be 1, 2, 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. It will go a long way in reducing congestion at the border. And I mean congestion, in a good sense as trade between us is very good.
Last year, bilateral trade stood at over US$25bil which is over RM100bil, a 14% increase from 2017. A significant portion of this trade is happening between our borders. Border trade accounted for about 40%-45% of the total trade. So that’s about US$12bil or US$13bil happening at the border. That’s why we have to ensure better connectivity.
> What are the main factors to be evaluated in the three-month trial period?
I will leave this to the technical team. Of course, the Customs and Quarantine authorities will have to be involved. In fact, they are the main agencies. Also, the security agencies have to see if there is any sort of implication.
> What are the other matters pending implementation?
The two bridges over Golok River from Tak Bai to Kota Baru. It’s been long overdue. But there has been some tangible progress on the Malaysian side lately.
There is some progress and I’m really happy about it because the ECRL will start from Kota Baru to Kuantan port and then Port Klang. To make sure this huge infrastructure investment is economically viable, you need lots of cargo and people movement, from Thailand as well. And the bridge will bring in a lots of tourists and cargo for the trains. I think the ECRL is a great project to boost and stimulate economic dynamism in that part of your country. The bridge from Tak Bai and Pengkalan Kubor will be sort of an important jigsaw that will keep this huge project viable. So this is another thing that both governments should try to expedite. We call it the joint technical working group on the bridge. In fact, there’s an agreement that our Prime Minister (Gen Prayut) should witness the groundbreaking of the bridge this year.
> The border opening is done, the bridges are on the way. Any other must do?
There is the road alignment to link the new Sadao CIQ with the Bukit Kayu Hitam ICQS. This is perhaps one of the most important jigsaws in terms of connectivity between Thailand and Malaysia. Like I said, trade is increasing and there will be more trucks and lorries waiting to cross. The new Sadao CIQ is set to open in September or latest by the year-end.
> What is holding up the road project?
The distance is just a few hundred metres, not very far. But the new road alignment, cannot be a completely direct route. We are talking about 1 to 1.5km. This (alignment) is something that Tun Mahathir brought to the table when he met our Prime Minister in Bangkok. He saw the necessity for this new alignment. After all, he’s the one who has been calling for the expansion of intra-Asean trade. The governments have to facilitate and enable our private sectors to trade more easily. And the logistics, infrastructure and road alignment is very important in that respect. We hope that the joint technical group can meet, perhaps next month. To set time frame, to give a clear scenario and a certain degree of predictability which is very important for businesses. Because without this road, the congestion will be there, even though the border is open for 24 hours.
Without this link, if there is an increase in congestion, it might encourage some industries and exporters in Thailand to look upwards to Laem Chabang Port, a deep seaport in the eastern region of Thailand. It would cost more to transport their goods there because it would mean a few more hundred kilometres. But they won’t get that kind of congestion at Laem Chabang port.
>On the road alignment, should both sides pay for it?
Well, the road is within the territory of Malaysia. I don’t have the figure but there has been some preliminary estimates. It could be up to eight lanes. Some of the road will have to go through hilly terrain. This interconnecting route will be just for trucks and lorries. If you compare in terms of the cost effectiveness, I think it’s a long-term investment, especially if you want to support the Penang Port, and then you have the Kota Perdana development project in Bukit Kayu Hitam (to develop Kedah as a logistic hub), with a truck depot also planned.
So I think the present Malaysian administration has already looked into the future... that there will be a jump in terms of commercial traffic on the border.
> What about the single Customs inspection procedure being explored at the Bukit Kayu Hitam-Sadao border?
From the Malaysian side, there is interest in exploring a single inspection facility for all the trucks. Now these are randomly inspected at least twice - once in Thailand and in Malaysia. Even though the two inspection points are just a few hundred metres away, they have to stop twice for inspection. There’s an idea that why don’t we do it together once. And this would also facilitate in terms of shorter processing time at the border for both sides. There is more than one methodology to do this single-clearance mechanism.
This is something that we are happy to look into as well.
> Can you tell us more about the push for seamless connectivity?
We have to look into the future and digitalisation. We have to be prepared. We are talking about Digital
Asean, the digitalisation of trade that will save a lot of money for our businesses. The figure for intra-Asean trade is about 24% to 25% or 26% at most. Tun Mahathir wants to see this number go up to 30%. Within the EU, I think the figure is over 60%.
One way to do that is for the digitalisation of trade. This means that our businesses can apply for exporting their products to Asean digitally. It will be wirelessly linked to relevant agencies like Customs, Quarantine and Transport authorities. At the moment, with the exception of Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, the
Philippines and Brunei, the five others are already on board. We want to push for all 10 countries to be on this platform – the Asean Single Window, which is something that we will push for full operationalisation this year.
> What is Thailand’s own efforts towards this end?
There’s a proposal from Thailand to introduce a common platform to use QR codes. For instance, when you travel to Thailand, you don’t have to go to the money exchange and pay for money exchange and convertibility. You just bring your phone with your QR code, and you scan it everywhere including in hotels, restaurants and departmental stores. It will save a lot of money and provide a better sense of being in the same community for all the people. We always talk about people-centred community.
And this is one way that will help all the people feel that we are in the same region and same community.
> You mean paying for everything using your phone, like in China?
Yes. In Thailand, we have 67 to 68 million people, but we have over 100 million mobile phone subscribers. A lot of people have more than one mobile phone. And most of the phones are now smart devices. There’s a study showing that in Thailand, we have the most active e-banking users. We use smart devices to transfer money or make payment.
>What is Thailand’s contributions as chair of Asean this year?
Of course, digitalisation and connectivity is major, but sustainability and continuity, we will make sure all the good work done by the previous chairs will be continued. For example, last year under Singapore’s chairmanship, they’ve done a lot in terms of smart cities networks. The Asean leaders will endorse a number of documents (at the current Asean Summit in Bangkok), among others, to reduce, address and cope with marine debris. We hosted a ministerial-level on this very important issue, and the leaders are going to endorse that ministerial statement on marine debris. Another thing is on sustainable fishery or sustainable fishing practices. We organised a round-table with a high level panel on IUU (Illegal Unregulated & Unreported) Fishing Practices. We have been working on this issue with the EU for the past few years.
>On the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), can we expect any breakthrough yet?
This is like a free trade arrangement for a region of 16 countries responsible for over 40% of the world trade at the moment. Given the fact that there’s unaccommodating external environment for world trade as we are talking about the No 1 and No 2 economies having a trade war at the moment. So there is a very urgent need for the region to come together to send a very loud and clear signal that we are for the free trade multilateral trading system.
It was agreed some years ago that RCEP should have been concluded in Singapore last year. And then the summit last year said that we had to recommit ourselves to this effort and try to conclude it under the Thai chairmanship this year. And there had been some progress.
The RCEP is something that we try to progress as far as we can and hopefully, all will come to understand that this is a win-win situation for all the 16 economies involved and we should be able to conclude it by this year. There are 20 chapters in this agreement and in this trade pact for RCEP. Seven have been concluded with 13 remaining. The number seems to be a bit challenging. But under each of the 13 chapters, they already discussed and in fact, re-compromised in most parts of each remaining chapter. But we really need to push very hard at the top level.
> Your general election was recently concluded and former military coup leader Gen Prayut is now firmly in place as Prime Minister. How do you see this?
Yes. The good thing is that the Prime Minister will continue, he attaches great importance to the partnership with Malaysia. Thailand and Malaysia have always been a strong advocate for our regional integration from day one. The current administration has come up with a 20 year-strategic plan on what Thailand should be like in 20 years. So this will provide a good platform for continuity.
> But there seems to be a high level of political divide, especially in the way your PM was elected?
In a democracy, there is the government, coalition or non-coalition, and then there is the opposition. You know democracy in Thailand is functioning in the sense that there are opposition parties and the coalition government, and this will provide a good check and balance.
An effective and democratically elected government will need a good and strong Opposition to make sure things are not going out of hand. We don’t want to see those who command a majority in the house using that majority as a licence to do anything. That’s what happened in the past when we had some people who controlled and commanded the majority using it as a licence, without proper checks and balances. We believe we have a better mechanism in place now.
The House of Representatives and the Senate voted Prayut as the new Prime Minister.
And they have formed a coalition that commands majority in the House of Representatives. And now the process of vetting all the names to be in the Cabinet is being done, to make sure that everybody is constitutionally qualified to serve in the Cabinet.