Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

One week in “Digital Thailand” — Observations & Thoughts

On invitation of the Royal Thai Embassy in Berlin and Bitkom, I had the chance to visit Bangkok in September 2017. Together with Dr. Christina Schmidt-Holtmann from the BMWi, we could gain an insightful view of the vision, digital agenda and the startup scene in Thailand. We visited the ministry of digital economy and society (its maybe not needed to have such a dedicated ministry, as all aspects of life will be affected by digital technologies), the depa, the ministry of industrial economics and the Digital Thailand Big Bang.

(On a side note you should know that Thailands government is at the moment based on the power of the military. Some could argue, that this is a bad thing but a lot of Thai people argue its a good thing as they see them now as a time of stabilization and on the other hand the government is very much interested to create a sustainable future for Thailand. I didn’t saw any military in public and never had the feeling that people are repressed. Anyway, time for democracy will come in the future, I’m pretty sure.)

Thailand or Southeast Asia, in general, is full of opportunities for digital products and services and local markets are conquered now. From food delivery to fintech to gaming to mobility to healthcare I have seen a lot of “me-too” products, not only in digital health on the Digital Thailand Big Bang. Those companies are trying to occupy the local markets before some Chinese, Japanese, American or European player can do this and I encourage everyone to do so and to be fast, as the Samwer brothers proved that this concept can work. But one key element which is missing to tackle those opportunities (also in Germany) is venture capital. Even the Thai society has a lot of very rich people and they know Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, there is too less awareness about investing into startups and digital products and services. One good thing is that the government has set up a big venture fond recently and wants to co-invest some serious money.

When it comes to people and skills in the digital industry Thailand is facing similar problems then we do in Germany. As Thailand is also an aging society, they are in need of scalable tech solutions and skilled people. They have to support people to shift from old to new skills, but the how is still a big question mark. The concept of competence centers in Germany is maybe one way, adapting to online education tools maybe another way. But it starts already with a simple thing: speaking English is not very common among the majority of people, as the subject “English” in school was only introduced 10 years ago. Anyhow, they are aiming to train and educate an ambitious number of 500.000 “Digital Minds” / STEM people in the next 5 years as the approach of “Thailand 4.0” aims to transform the old industry into an industry4.0 straight away. But the thought leaders are complaining as in Germany that there are not enough lighthouse projects and that the SMEs are not really listening when it comes to the digital transformation of businesses e.g. agriculture or manufacturing. The SMEs still ask why should I do this and how? But there is no doubt, that it is very crucial for Thailand to support companies to become local success stories and that those inspire others to follow. (If you are interested how the Berlin startup ecosystem has grown, read this piece of German history.)

The government and administration try to boost the digital industry massively, but they are not communicating close enough with each other. Remember Berlin 3–5 years ago? Remember that discussion by startups like Wooga or Zalando, complaining about German bureaucracy, that it is too hard to get talents into Germany, that there are just promises by the government and administration to change? Christina and I had the impression this discussion needs to be happening in Bangkok, now. Because on the one hand there is a huge stress with regulations and laws for the industry, e.g. the labor laws in Thailand are not very inviting and flexible enough to attract talents and companies from outside (laws, in general, seem to be very old and chaotic). But on the other hand, there is a big will by the administration to support digital transformation projects through the Digital Economy Promotion Agency (DEPA). A good public-private partnership works with ongoing empathic conversations about each other needs, this is the way to go.

One thing, for example, is that they want to create a Digital Park Thailand, 2,5-hour ride southeast from Bangkok and are giving away huge incentives for companies who are settling down there. Honestly, I have my doubts, that it will work because the park-idea feels a bit “artificially constructed”. Back in the days, the government initiated also such “Gewerbeparks” in Germany, with the result, that half of them were abandoned over time. I wonder if those areas really serve the needs of the companies and the people working at those companies. I am sure they will have problems to get talents away from Bangkok into the rural regions. “Why should I move into an industry park?”, is the question to be answered. Start with what you got and embrace and cherish that, instead of planning and constructing things, which often don’t work out.

Well. The last thing I was thinking about is Thailands USP in the world (and besides that Germany’s USP). I believe its more than technology parks, great incentives and digital infrastructure. This is something, every country will potentially do and has to embrace. I believe in a global and connected world, it’s also the culture, the food, nature and the weather that makes a country unique and attractive for people to work there. Today you can do a lot if you got wifi and in the future, we will see more climate migrants, those who can work remotely from somewhere. Bali is already one hotspot for European digital nomads, and people are seeking for great places to live at. Some of you might know: Berlin winters ain’t fun and summers won’t happen anymore! ;) So if you seek for new opportunities look to the far far east!

Thank you Thailand for having me for a week, it was an inspiring and great visit.

Thanks to: Theeraphat Trangkathumkul, Dr. Christina Schmidt-Holtmann, Christine Falken-Grosser, Dr. Roland Wein, Markus Lorenzini, Supakorn Siddhichai, Pratak Sikkhamonton, Katiya Greigarn, Danairat Thanabodithammachari, Passakorn Prathombutr, Jan Scheer, Atsuko Okuda, Carl van der Elst, Siriuj Chulakaratana, Katrin Bannach, Wichulee Chotbenjakul, Kasititorn Pooparadai, Pagaval Ratpanpairoj, Sebastian Justus Schmidt, Markus Waidelich, Tanapat Rerngjakrabhet, Sven Ernst, Dr. Volker Treier, Martin Venzky-Stalling, Raschada Jiwalai, Anja Heck, Thanon Panyadaechanan, Pratana Bunyarit and everyone else I could meet!

Back soon,
Sà-wàd-dee kráb!