‘What guides me in my decisions is the best interest of the people; my reward is the happiness my policies bring to the majority of Bangkokians’ – Gov. Sukhumbhand.
By Laurence Civil
Mom Rajawongse Sukhumbhand Paribatra was elected governor of Bangkok for the first time in January 2009, and then re-elected for his second term in March this year. A graduate of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Pembroke College, Oxford University, and holder of a master’s degree in International Relations from Georgetown University, Washington D.C Sukhumbhand pursued an academic career upon his return to Thailand before entering politics as a Member of Parliament from the Democrat Party.
But even with all his aristocratic pedigree, academic credentials, and political experience, he says nothing can prepare anyone for the job of governing Bangkok. “The job is both interesting and challenging,” Sukhumbhand told Lookeast Magazine, “but nothing can prepare anyone for the tasks it requires to be done.”
“What is in the best interest of the people is what guides me in my decisions. My reward is the happiness my policies bring to the majority of Bangkokians,” he says, acknowledging that the best for the majority does not always please all.
He admits there are days when the job puts him under considerable pressure. But he remains calm and realistic. “Remaining calm is something that comes with age, and I must remain realistic in that all I can do is my best,” he says. “There are times when I have to make hard decisions despite the sometimes unpopular feedback they generate.”
Like all politicians with the nothing but the best intentions and true interest of his people at heart, he presses on. That Bangkok is being recognized as one of the top modern metropolises of the world today – TripAdvisor just recently recognized Bangkok as the most popular city in the world – is a testament that he and his team are on the right track.
Among the nagging issues that Sukhumbhand and his team have to face are the city’s notorious traffic congestion and the lack of proper infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists in the capital. The sad reality is that Bangkok is still a very car-centric city, and again, not everybody can be pleased. “Politically its okay to spend money on roads, but there is an outcry when equal amounts are spent on pedestrians,” he regrets.
“Under my administration we have built 3.3km of walkways under the sky train because it is easier and safer for people to walk there,” he says. “I am embarking on a Bt10 billion project to build another 20km of safe walkways — and not just under the BTS.”
“About 300,000 Bangkokians live within a 2-3km radius of the Bangna intersection,” he continues. “My plan is to build up to 12km of walkways around the intersection to make it easier for the people to go about their daily working lives.”
Sukhumbhand also promised to make Bangkok more bicycle-friendly, and he’s making good with his promise. “We have steadily increased bicycle lanes on 30 roads. We had promised to make 10,000 bikes available, but so far the actual number is only a few hundred. We still need to do more for cyclists. It’s popular culture, not just as a means of transport, but also as a recreational sport,” he says.
The interest group at the opposite side of the table is the car-owners. According to OICA (International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers), Thailand was the largest automotive industry in Southeast Asia, and the 9th largest in the world in 2012. What has boosted this growth is the Thai government’s first-time car buyer scheme, introduced in 2011, which had since been offering tax rebates of up to Bt100,000 per vehicle for new car-buyers.
This however, has not been the ‘all-in-one’ answer to Bangkok’s traffic problems – but rather the opposite. “I am reluctant to blame the car buyers as owning a car is a dream for a lot of people,” he says. “I blame the material world; that’s not sustainable. Many have dumped their cars and are defaulting on the payment.
“The real solution is an effective, and reliable public transport system. It would ease the financial burden of the middle-class families that currently need a car to go to work, and take their kids to school,” he sums up. Effectively, the BTS-line now extends in many directions at the time of writing.
Then, aside from the never-ending push-and-pull in the traffic, there is another curious and important interest group in (his) this city: the tourists.
What would Sukhumbhand like to show to tourists in Bangkok? “As I am effectively the ambassador of Bangkok, there are three places I would recommend as a must-visit,” he says. The first is the Grand Palace, which includes The Temple of the Emerald Buddha. “It’s the best of old Bangkok,” he says.
Another highlight is the area of Khudichan Lane, which he says, “gives an example of the religious harmony which exists in the city. Santa Cruz Catholic Church, Wat Kalayanamit Buddhist Temple, and Bangluang Mosque, show how respective different world-views can peacefully live close to each other.” Third on his list is the Chatuchak Farmers´ Market (Ow, Taw, Kaw), “where they sell fresh and cooked food, which present the flavors and smells of the foodie city.”
Of course, there’s more to be done. Like the concern about the repeat of the 2009 Bangkok flooding, the dilemma over the street vendors, and then with what to do for the “spaghetti cables,” which are eyesores in an otherwise lovely cosmopolitan city – all still work in progress.
Promotion of Bangkok as a “City of Life” has given the metropolis a very positive outward image. This is proven by the ever-increasing number of tourists visiting the city, the busier airports, and the numerous accolades the city is getting from several travel operators today. “It was an honor when TripAdvisor recognized Bangkok as the most popular city in the world, indeed,” the governor reiterates. “I have always thought that Bangkok could have been a city in Europe.”
With initiatives proving to be successful, Bangkok might indeed become as progressive and advanced. Even now, Bangkok is already regarded as ‘the business card’ of the country. The city is better known globally than the country, a favorite setting for many media works, such as movies and novels (the last being one of his main personal hobbies).
As Governor, Sukhumbhand is the living equivalent of the city – one with exceptionally many wishes for his people, and arguably even more substance to offer.