Thailand has guidance as it sets its course

  • Article by: ROBERT MACGREGOR and ALEX MAVRO
  • Updated: January 30, 2011 - 4:24 PM

Minnesota influence is at work as business and political leaders seek to improve education and government transparency in Thailand.

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Author Robert MacGregor, left, talked with Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, during a business meeting in Bangkok last year.

Photo: Photo provided by Robert MacGregor

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If you can remember hearing anything about Thailand recently, it probably has to do with street riots, department-store torchings, or record-breaking floods. All of which have happened over the past 12 months, supplanting images of the kingdom as the "Land of Smiles," whose capital city, Bangkok, was the "Venice of the East."

Something else has also been going on during this past year that's less conducive to juicy headlines. But for Thailand -- and for Asia generally -- it is much more significant.

The Thai economy is on a roll. So, too, are the economies of their ASEAN counterparts (ASEAN being the Association of Southeast Asian Nations composed of Thailand and nine of its neighbors.) All save Myanmar are in the early stages of a business boom.

In the case of Thailand, despite its recent travails, tourism in the first nine months of 2010 was up 12 percent over the same period the year before.

The Asian Development Bank and other reputable observers predict a minimum of 7 percent growth in the country's 2010 GDP. Even 2011's projected expansion of 4.5 percent is healthier than most western countries.

The biggest challenge for businesses operating in Thailand is governance. That means governance, from the standpoint of a level national playing field, and governance, from the standpoint of internal corporate transparency and consistency.

Both attributes of governance are addressed by a set of precepts, newly introduced to Thailand, developed by the Caux Round Table, a global business leadership group with deep Minnesota roots that promotes the best of stakeholder-responsible values management.

Founded in Switzerland in 1986 upon a foundation of principles compiled right here in Minneapolis, the CRT has devised a seven-point code of conduct called the "Principles for Responsible Business." Since then, the organization has drafted parallel codes for government agencies, for nongovernmental organizations, and more (see www.caux roundtable.org).

These businesses subscribe to the wisdom of Ken Dayton, one of the founders of Target Corp., who famously rejected the notion that the business of business is business. In fact, he was fond of saying that the ''purpose of business is to serve society; profit is our reward for serving well.''

This telling quote is embodied in my work as I travel to Lebanon, Africa, Europe and Asia to preach the gospel of ethical business. Thailand provides a very receptive audience with practitioners like Alex Mavro. There is now an active Caux Round Table chapter in Bangkok under the able leadership of Nick Pisalyaput, a successful entrepreneur and role model.

One of Thailand's fundamental strengths that does not receive due attention is the current leadership team headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva [Ah-pee-sit Way-jah-jee-wah]. Abhisit and members of his cabinet are familiar with the mission and objectives of Caux Round Table and many are supportive.

Abhisit also recognizes Thailand's regional leadership responsibilities. To better prepare the country for its future role, the prime minister (an Oxford graduate) is passionate about the importance of education. The official language of ASEAN is English, and business skills and languages are critical to the region's future.

Business leaders have for years lamented the quality of Thailand's education system. As critical as Thai-based businesses can be of the education system, they have made few efforts at intervention, either on the side of suggesting curriculum or on the side of funding support, including needed endowments. But fortunately these needs are now being addressed by business groups, such as their prominent Institute of Directors.

All of this bodes well for a country that seems to be thriving despite its daily challenges. Thailand's and the ASEAN countries' growth rates outpace the West's. With continued responsible business leadership -- eventually, to include partnering with governments -- ASEAN countries will have a bright future to look forward to in 2011 and beyond.

  • Robert MacGregor is president emeritus of the Center for Ethical Business Cultures at the University of St. Thomas Opus School of Business and a visiting professor at Assumption University, Bangkok, Thailand. His e-mail address is robertmacg@msn.com. Alex Mavro is a corporate social responsibility consultant, guest lecturer, and writer with many decades of work experience in Asia.

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