* 2012 Southeast Asian Philanthropists

Philanthropists from Southeast Asia–Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand–are building universities, developing youth basketball teams in remote communities and helping with flood relief. more

I was a contributor to this annual philanthropy issue of Forbes Asia.

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* Coupon clash

By Susan Cunningham
Southeast Asia Globe

As discount deal websites explode in the region, a Thai company shows how it’s done.

Deep-discount deal sites have been surging throughout the United States and Europe for almost three years, but they were late off the starting blocks in Southeast Asia – arriving only in mid 2010. Since then, they have moved and morphed, bought and sold themselves.

In June 2010, when Tom Srivorakul and his two younger brothers launched Ensogo, the first deal website in Thailand, they employed five people and had a single offer: a 60% discount at ice cream chain iBerry.

A year later, when Ensogo was bought for an undisclosed sum by LivingSocial–the second-largest US deal company with a monthly revenue of $50m as of the start of this year–the start-up had 430 employees, 17 city sites in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia and more than two million subscribers to its daily discount deal e-letter … MORE

* The Crowning Fortune

By Susan J. Cunningham
Forbes Asia

The king of Thailand controls vast wealth. Just how vast wasn’t clear, until some sleuthing by a Bangkok academic and some new openness by the monarchy’s investment arm.

The Thai monarchy’s family fortune has always been shrouded in secrecy. Last year FORBES ASIA valued it at a conservative $5 billion. Other estimates have put it at $8 billion. But this year–using an exhaustive academic study of the monarchy’s investment arm, the Crown Property Bureau–FORBES ASIA now values the fortune at at $35 billion. This new estimate easily puts King Bhumibol Adulyadej atop our annual list of the world’s richest royals. Last year we ranked him fifth.

The bulk of the bureau’s assets lies in its vast real estate holdings, which make it the country’s largest landowner and include roughly one-third of Bangkok’s central business district. The bureau also holds a 30% stake in the Siam Cement Group and a 25% share of Siam Commercial Bank . The bureau granted an economic historian who is writing a history of the bureau, Porphant Ouyyanont, unprecedented access to its files in 2005. His paper, which was published in the U.K.’s Journal of Contemporary Asia in February, pegged the value of the bureau’s assets at $27.4 billion as of the end of 2005. Since then the assets and the baht have appreciated (though the baht has fallen recently). “Sure, [the estimate] is enormous, but it’s reasonable,” he says. “We know the price of land. We know [the market] capitalization [of the companies].” An adviser to the bureau, Aviruth Wongbuddhapitak, said by e-mail that “generally, there is no major inaccuracy” in Porphant’s paper. … more

* All about Thai caves

Some of Thailand’s biggest and most beautiful caves are all the more intriguing because they have been discovered only in the past decade. Yet all the superlatives must be couched in tentative terms (such as the “tallest known column”) because there are certainly more caves to be unearthed.

“Discovered” may not be the most accurate term. Frequently local villagers have known for countless generations that a nearby cave existed, but they had never ventured very far within because they feared ghostly occupants or lacked proper lights and equipment. The recent teams of foreign cavers therefore have often found themselves to be the first people to enter an underground chamber with a 15-metre high ceiling or to gaze upon a thousand-year-old flowstone resembling a frozen waterfall. Continue reading

* Prostitution in Thailand: Her fate, or choice?

Thailand has a prostitution problem. It is of neither recent nor imported vintage. Nobody really knows quite how big the problem is or how many Thais are involved in the industry because, contrary to the impressions of many tourists, the sale of sexual services is illegal. Social scientists estimate that the number of prostitutes ranges from 500,000 to 1 million within Thailand. Tens of thousands of Thai women also work overseas as prostitutes, mostly as illegal migrant workers in Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and other countries.

The 500,000 figure works out to be 10 percent of all Thai women aged between 15 and 25. When the large numbers of children, older women and men (the latter including transvestites and transsexuals) are considered, the estimate doesn’t seem far-fetched. After all, a well-known Thai journalist, Sopon Ongkara, a few years ago pointed out that in Bangkok there was only one neighborhood, the old royal city area, where sex was not for sale.

He was wrong, though. Continue reading

* A History of Thailand

A History of Thailand
By Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit
Cambridge University Press, 2005, 320 pages
$60.00 (hardcover), $19.99 (paper)
Reviewed by Susan J. Cunningham


Be wary of promises on book jackets: A History of Thailand  by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit is not the first new history of Thailand in English in 20 years. First of all, although there has been a muang thai in the Chao Phraya River basin since at least the 16th century, the state’s first 300 years are compressed into two brief chapters. By chapter 3, we’re already embedded in the 20th century and the much-studied “modernization” era of King Chulalongkorn. Even so, the book doesn’t quite qualify as a history of Thailand in the 20th century because some of the most significant events of the last three decades barely rate a mention.


This is disappointing given the authors’ track record. Ms. Pasuk is a political economist at Chulalongkorn University. Her husband taught Asian history at Cambridge University in the 1970’s, then spent most of the next two decades in business in Thailand. Beginning in the 1990’s, they co-authored lively books, such as Thailand’s Boom and Bust (1998) and Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand (2004), that made economic and political trends comprehensible to a wide public.


Instead of a strictly chronological approach, here they attempt to frame the 20th century as a series of contests to define and control the nation-state. The contestants have included royalists, commoner intellectuals, generals, students, communists and agrarian leftists. Yet the character of the struggle has remained between absolutist, centralized rule and an inclusive, egalitarian vision that would allow even peasants to participate in politics and define progress for themselves. The reign of Chulalongkorn, from 1868-1910, is pivotal. As is well known, the clever king fended off the designs of the French and the British by launching massive infrastructure projects, sending his young relatives to study in the West, and acquiescing to demands for geographical borders. Yet Chulalongkorn, like his father, realized it was just as important that the colonialists perceive Siam as a “civilized” nation. That required a unified, formidable heritage that would be respected and feared. Continue reading