Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is desperately rallying the public to get behind the Pheu Thai Party's controversial digital wallet scheme. Known as the "helicopter money" scheme, the plan — which will see 10,000 baht in digital cash remitted to all Thais aged 16 and above — was one of the policies the party had promised its supporters ahead of the May 14 election.
A big question mark looms over the scheme, however, as a group of prominent Thai economists, among them former deans of economic faculties in prominent institutions and two ex-Bank of Thailand governors, has come out to urge the government to drop, if not revise the giveaway criteria to make it more specific. They say that under its current terms and conditions, the scheme isn’t worth its 560-billion-baht budget, given its potential long-term effects on the economy.
When Mr Srettha visited Phitsanulok on Saturday, he said while he disagrees with critics who have panned the scheme, as the head of the government he must listen to all dissenting voices and adjust the scheme to make it acceptable to everyone.
Desperate for public approval, Mr Srettha went on to cheer on those who supported the scheme, egging them to speak out openly so their opinions aren’t drowned out by the voices of the scheme’s opponents.
The 99 economists, former deans and central bank governors who signed the joint statement which explained their disapproval of the scheme are all respected and knowledgeable people who are concerned for the country’s future and have no vested interest in the scheme.
They aren’t politicians keen to curry favour with the people, hoping to secure a seat when the next election comes.
Nor are they tycoons, manufacturers of consumer goods and retail giants who would directly benefit from the 10,000-baht handout, which would be given to over 50 million Thais, regardless of their financial status, and whether or not they want it.
“We are humans like you. We want moral support like you!” the prime minister said to the people of Phitsanulok. Mr Srettha went further by saying that his staff too, wanted to be with their families during the weekend, but they must visit the people in the province to listen to their grievances.
There is no questioning the PM’s tireless dedication to his job, as he has worked seven days a week without a day off since he assumed the post in September.
His work ethic, and the zest and passion he injects into his work has dazzled many observers. But that is irrelevant to the digital wallet issue or with the opposition to the scheme by the scholars.
Those scholars have raised a valid question. Above all, their campaign shows their good intention for the country.
They wanted to warn the prime minister of the risks or consequences he may face if the scheme backfires, like the infamous rice pledging scheme carried out by the previous Pheu Thai administration under Yingluck Shinawatra. Instead of going on the defensive, PM should take heed of their comments to plug any loopholes in the scheme.
There are some burning questions that remain unanswered. First and foremost, where is the 560 billion baht needed to fund the programme coming from?
The government has also just launched a three-year debt moratorium for about 2 million farmers who owe the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Co-operatives a maximum amount of 300,000 baht.
Again, the programme has also come under fire from critics, who noted that over the years, the government has launched about 10 similar schemes, none of which have addressed the underlying problem. A debt moratorium will only offer a temporary respite for the farmers. Unless farmers earn more from their crops through increased productivity, a drop in production costs, or by getting a fairer deal from rice millers, they can hardly free themselves from the vicious debt cycle.
Opposition to the schemes should not be seen as an obstacle for the government to implement its promises, but an opportunity for it to review the schemes. For instance, the government should downsize the handout to target only those who are in need of financial support. Honestly, I wonder what was the rationale for thinking that anyone over 16 should receive a 10,000-baht handout?
The prime minister has three years and 10 months left before his tenure ends, and during this period, unforeseen events may affect the country and the government’s plans. For instance, the Siam Paragon shooting has affected Chinese tourist arrivals, and then there’s the potential impact of the war between Israel and Hamas.
Dear prime minister, the opposition to the digital wallet scheme is just child’s play. Don’t feel demoralised just yet.
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.