Thursday, 24 November 2016

Thailand 4.0 and Surin Schools

It was interesting to see Khun Pongpol Minister for Education in Thailand detail the aim of merging smaller schools, leaving only the smallest schools in remote provinces.

I raise the issue in my Surin School charity role of raising funds to build a school in Isaan for c.50 schoolchildren. And raising funds for further such schools: Buriram, Sisaket and Siem Reap and Battambang next, and eventually upto 1,000 schools per year in Asia and Africa.

Khun Pongpol is right to emphasise the department’s focus on teaching rather than infrastructure. The Surin schools use existing government teachers and curriculum simply providing a state-of-art building and satellite internet and computers (and even new toilets).

And the involvement of Kent schools such as Ellington High School helps with not just immediate fundraising but ongoing support and the finer details of cultural support. Learning English is that much easier with a class of English schoolchildren willing to help on Skype or email, while one day Thai may well feature in the curriculum of Kent schools.

The Japanese Foundation, the cultural arm of the Japanese government is active in seeking a Japanese lesson within every UK primary school for example.
And the first Surin School has bene so well-received by Thai parents and teachers and monks – a community centre and temple repairs managed to be squeezed form the budget - that only minor fundraising is now required to furnish the playground with new equipment such as swings and sports and musical equipment, possibly a swimming pool and minibus too.

But I raise one concern over the policy: placing children into existing schools will result in larger class-sizes. And as we see too often in UK, even pressure on school playing fields to be built upon to keep up with such larger classrooms.

While the children and teachers relocating to such mega-schools will have to endure both longer commutes (presumably public transport will need to be expanded or school buses provided) and greater traffic jams. Both are also factors in obesity that is a pandemic amongst UK schoolchildren – and beginning to affect Thai children -hence the UK drive to a sugar/soda tax and encouraging sports from the 2012 Olympics.

Clearly as in UK whole schools of c.20 schoolchildren are unsustainable and low value, but an expansion of more mini-schools of c.50-100 pupils may be more viable in many rural areas. And given the Charter referendum showing division form the North, Northeast and Deep South,, Thai education has the potential to tailor the curriculum to enhance Isaan or Moslem culture and languages?

And on a more positive note, such mini-schools could form the basis of Adult Education colleges – 40% of the Thai population have only a primary education. And especially, English language learning colleges, given the perennial debate and concern over language investment and learning in Thailand – and the vital role of English as the official second language of ASEAN.

While in my politics role here in Kent to build better UK-Thai relations it would be wrong not to mention our 4 universities, 400 schools and dozens of language schools all keen to develop teacher-pupil exchanges and increase international students as well as develop MOOC online courses.
While the British Council cultural organisation in Bangkok is second-to-none amongst the British Council network, and very active in promoting both British culture and education and verifying language colleges.

Chula and Thammasat and Kasetsart may well be overflowing with such links but there must be other Thai universities and colleges keen on such partnerships?
While in terms of education beyond academia, vocational colleges and programmers with say East Kent College or Discovery Park or Sittingbourne science parks would complement the tripling of Chevening scholarships in both Thailand and Cambodia as key UK allies and growth markets in Asia.

A focus on STEM ir relevant for most nations and UK and Thailand are no different in that respect, but a tailoring of that approach with Discovery Park for ay vaccines research whether TB or dengue or rabies would be fruitful for universities such as Mahidol or research groups such as TRF and TDRI.

And in my politics work if I’ve been shameless in stealing innovative Yingluck policies such as free computers for schoolchildren then surely UK and Thai colleges and schools could cooperate on IT and digital programmes whether educational software and apps or digital whiteboards or even space satellites.

A rash of Raspberry Pi computers and coding lessons and VR headsets and 3D printers – along with healthier schoolmeals, 10x a day fruit, and soda bans and Red Cross first aid training - are part of my Education policy for Kent schools and I can see no reason why Surin Schools should be deprived of such kit and life-chances?
It’s been a particular successful education year for UK with Oxford University now No.1 university in the world and launching its own MOOC programmes to rival Harvard and Yale and even part of the bid to reopen the Oxford-Cambridge railway link. The latter was a rather bizarre oversight until now to the growth of Silicon Fen with Cambridge University. And again relevant for TRF and TDRI activity in UK.

Indeed as with Philippines and UK NHS developing links in the face of the Brexit issue, the dynamic Thai medical schools and hospitals could link with the NHS for say graduate work programmes with English language learning before returning to Thailand with new skills?

The recent UK trade mission to India confirmed that nation’s fervent desire for access to UK colleges while Philippines combines its expat work programmes as a national income stream – as with the Chinese diaspora - with currency remittances of over $24BN, some 10% of GDP from 10M overseas workers..

And a recent Malaysian conference on medical tourism detailed their national plans to boost health skills.

UK and Thailand’s education networks could move beyond mere chalk and talk to delivering on Thailand 4.0 through all its schools.


Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Fort Mahakan and Chaopraya Promenade: a bridge too far for Bangkok, or an ASEAN Green Capital’s foundation?

The debate over preserving Mahakan Fort in terms of heritage architecture and community development, and desperately-needed green space and parks resonates across Thailand and here in UK.

Such issues within Bangkok also dovetail with the wider issue of the Chaopraya Promenade and improved public transport in BKK.

Personally I’m firmly in favour of the Chaopraya Promenade, a London Embankment alongside the klongs if you will, with river walls, ferry links and cycling paths as well as the unique buzz of Bangkok’s stalls and markets.

The fizz and excitement of the Pak Klong Talad flower markets and orchids – rivalling East Kent’s rare orchids, whether very early morning or at night, alongside the Memorial bridge, are one of the great undiscovered gems of Bangkok tourism.

And in my politics role here in East Kent, to “Stop the Pollution. Stop the Corruption and Stop the Construction”, and future ASEAN Trade Envoy roles etc, I’ve shamelessly stolen various innovative Yingluck policies – not just free computers for schoolchildren or the rice welfare and food management scheme – but also the emphasis on watermelon politics of green on the outside and red on the inside, balancing environment and social needs.

And beyond the narrow confines of colour-shirt politics – certainly those issues are ultimately for Thailand as a modern democracy to resolve - it’s reassuring that that such innovations as the rice pledge are being adopted and improved by PM Prayut’s government, as well as debate around the Chaopraya.

For the issue of the Promenade as shown with the recent ferry drownings and floods in Bangkok and Phetchabun, demonstrate the need for careful management. For example, some of the existing plans for mega-concrete riverbanks could be not only unsightly but cause problems further downstream.

And such straightening of the Chaopraya riverbanks will increase the tidal flow of the river, scraping ever more soil from its banks and depths and depositing it in the delta. Perhaps even destroying much of the work in restoring the mangrove forests there.

UK certainly too often plumbs the depths in flood management for example the lack of tsunami flood alerts in the North Sea – as Thailand has successfully introduced in Phuket – could repeat the damage an depths of the 1953 and 1978 floods for both Kent and Holland.

But in UK we’ve begun restoring bends into rivers to reduce the tidal flows. Even planting boulders in the river to help prevent floods as in the River Ravensbourne.

And here in East Kent, Margate has undergone bijou flood defences to protect the town centre and harbour from Climate Change floods while sensitively improving the ambience of the cultural quarter with promenades and steps for enjoying the sunsets of what the artist Turner, and Margate’s Tracey Emin, called “the loveliest skies in Europe”.

And this week the Medway region of Kent featured in parliamentary debates on flood prevention and regeneration of the Thames Gateway urban renewal projects. Almost $60M is pencilled-in for not just fairly minor defences, but a wider range of innovations, not just avoiding building on flood plains.

There are now 1,200 troops on UK standby for flood support rather than lounging in barracks, 40km of collapsible flood fences, and building tweaks such as solid floors and power sockets at least 1M higher up the wall. The latter handy too for an ageing population not having to strain their knees and hips and the NHS to unplug the telly, or plug in the heater for another cold winter.

But perhaps the world-class lead in flood management must lie just across the English Channel in Nijmegen in Holland. A country that needs few lessons in water management – it’s not called the Low Countries for nothing. And Dutch work in Vietnam’s delta – one of two red zones for danger highlighted by UNEP with Bangladesh – must also be key to Future ASEAN, whether tourism or rice production.

But Nijmegen particularly resonates as I’m a supporter of the Liberation Route Europe project that works with Dutch tourism and stretches across Europe form here in Kent with Operation Fortitude to Gdansk in Poland celebrating and commemorating the liberation of Europe with the end of WW2.

Nijmegen was one of the famous 4 bridges of the Market Garden, Bridge Too Far campaign, and movie, in the Arnhem conflict in September 1944 where British and Polish forces were overwhelmed at Arnhem the last bridge.

All the more astonishing bravery in the second wave of Polish parachute troops jumping into Arnhem to support their British comrades, landing days into the conflict to almost certain defeat and capture.

The Polish contribution of a Brexit at the plane-door wasn’t questioned then, nor the current contribution to the UK with 1M Poles and language a key social and economic factor, and also here in East Kent, with Canterbury’s two universities forming the largest group of Romanians outside Bucharest.

Much as a few days earlier with the Nijmegen bridge crossing by Major Julian Cook of the 82nd Airborne – a crossing of four waves of boat troops having seen the first gunned down.

But Nijmegen, despite its low-level and watery topography, now basks in what Churchill described as the sunlit uplands of peace and freedom – and will be the 2018 Green Capital of Europe, hard on the heels of the success of both Essen in Germany and Ljubljana in Slovenia.

And Nijmegen may be relevant for Bangkok as its water management innovations are a reflection of the monkey-cheeks aspect of King Bhumibol’s self-sufficiency programmes. For Nijmegen in its flood management work has created a sliver of the River Waal to create a 4km long new urban park and island. The island and new tributary serves as an overflow for any new floods.

And with, not one but count ‘em six, new bridges across the Waal and the island it creates a base for pedestrians, events and festivals and a country park linked to the town centre.

It won the 2011 Excellence on the Waterfront award in 2011 and in my tourism advertising and PR work with Sincerity I’ve rarely seen a more integrated solution.

While Green Capitals such as Ljubljana or Copenhagen lead the way in banning cars to emphasise pedestrians as well as electric car and bus infrastructure. Such sustainability is all the more important here in Europe with UK ending coal energy in 2025, France by 2023, and Stockholm by 2040.

The aforementioned Essen in Germany is already an urban park converting the coal and steel sites of the Ruhr.

While Spain is active in green regeneration with the Basque region’s Vitoria-Gasteiz town population living within 300m of green space, and even more so Almeria, with its EU regeneration programmes moving beyond the decline of the port and heroin trade, corrupt government and tax scandals to innovative programmes with its universities and colleges.

Certainly strong links between the Almeria Group of Universities and East Kent will be, with ASEAN links, a key part of Future Kent.

Britain needs to make further strides from Bristol’s Green Capital in 2015 with its solar levy, a poo-bus(!) running on human waste, electric car charging points and expanded tourism work.

Certainly the completion of the first Crossrail metro tunnel across London, Europe’s largest construction project, shows that mega-cement infrastructure has its place in say refurbishing UK’s crumbling Victorian sewers, and the need for desalination sites for drinking water given Climate Change floods.

The latter is also relevant for Bangkok in overcoming monsoon storms and land management for reservoirs, and in not allowing Singapore to remain as the only ASEAN capital with potable tapwater.

But if Nijmegen can in effect translate King Bhumibol’s self-sufficiency economy, why should Bangkok as an ASEAN Green Capital be a bridge too far?


Saturday, 19 November 2016

Cleaner Kent and Thailand?

Khun Ploenpote Atthakor as always makes some insightful points in her article “Battle against foam” on food and packaging waste from the Sanam Luang memorial event for King Bhumibol, and more generally in BKK.

Certainly the amount of Styrofoam containers and plastic bags blowing around roads and railtracks and caught in trees and electric pylons is an unpleasant sight in Bangkok and throughout Thailand.

But 76 tonnes of waste collected by volunteers of Thammasat University at Sanam Luang is impressive as is foam for Loy Krathong reduced to only 5% of floats.

And in Phnom Penh recently the Water Festival event also yielded tons of plastic bottles and bags – and these were merely swept into the Bassac River and Tonle Sap by refuse collectors. The Loy Kratong floats whether made of flowers or bread make a far less unpleasant and eco-friendly sight.

Hopefully too a little further upstream, the dustbinmen of Laos will be as protective of littering the Mekong.
And unfortunately here in Kent and UK we have a patchy record in waste disposal. Only in the last year has there been a UK-wide ban on plastic bags from supermarkets (or purchased for c.20THB), and it’s been a huge success with such waste being reduced by 90%.

Even the UK’s traditional water display of a supermarket trolley dumped in a canal or river is a thing of the past with a £1 deposit on the trolley.

And in Kent with its 1.3M population we are reducing landfill sites to just 5 in the next few years to help keep the Garden of England clean and tidy. But much more needs to be done to increase household recycling with the Reduce, Reuse and Recycle mantra, from 40% to nearer the 90% levels as in other EU nations such as Germany and Netherlands.

##Recycling and Public health##

Hopefully Khun Ploenpote’s points on water containers for large events could be developed in UK too. As could the converted toilet-bus that I’ve seen in Thailand, which is a terrific on the spot mobile initiative for large events.

Sadly too many Victorian public fountains and toilets, developed as public health initiatives from the cholera pandemic improvements by Jon Snow in 1854 in Soho in London, are still closed here in East Kent as a retrograde step.

Such initiatives are particularly relevant given World Toilet Day and the quick and cheap and effective public health improvements from reducing Open Defecation in India and Africa – that would be ripe for support in UK and Thailand with supermarket promotions in Tesco Lotus or Sainsburys or Asda along with Lucky Iron Fish or Lifebuoy products or health programmes such as Left is Life.

As with the rather shoddy state of UK’s Victorian sewers and drinking water infrastructure more could be done – and Thailand may have much to do to rival Singapore’s drinking water system. Especially with Cambodia water snapping at both nations’ heels with the Ramon Magsaysay award and ongoing work by water engineer Ek Son Chann.

And Thailand may well leap ahead in recycling plastic water bottles and coffee-shop cups that the UK still struggles with.

BPA and DEHP health hazards in food plastic containers are becoming more understood in UK and improvements beginning. Along too with product formulations and packaging branding around the sugar tax and HFSS foods (high in Fat Salt and Sugar) improvements.

The latter will be a key part of my KCC Leader 2017 election campaign and MP 2020 campaign (unless the Brexit silliness is cancelled before it results in an election next year).

##Thailand and UK rice dishes?##

But shouldn’t such initiatives be part of a wider Thai-UK food programme?

Certainly Thai cuisine culture can be better promoted with celebrity chefs for Thai restaurants, different Thai dishes and Michelin stars and so on. It would be wrong of me not to mention the Surin restaurant Recipe Book (try the sea bass!) available on PDF and all good bookstores.

And the wider rice crisis raises the issue of Thai exports to UK and Europe – as well as UK and EU support with the alphabet soup of organisations such as ADB and AIIB for greater access of Thai rice and superfoods to markets in not just EU but also India and Africa.

The new Thai rice standards upgraded the rice crop standards to 97% Hom Mali and 83% Jasmine and the rest as Broken Rice could mark the first step in such activity? Certainly the world of Kasetsart and Surin Rice Research Centre would help further develop Thailand’s rice offering and hard currency potential beyond ASEAN.

This week saw an extensive review with the UK celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on UK food waste still at an astonishing 30% of all food. Thai broken rice would fit in with such schemes as Asda’s Wonky Veg (perfectly-edible but cosmetically-blemished fruit and veg and rice) that has a price and branding differentiation.

Such activity would help position Thai rice as part of its premium cuisine culture, free up Thailand’s land and prevent waste and refocus on other food markets such as superfoods whether pineapple or mango etc.

And I’ve written before on the potential for Thai rice as part of an ASEAN food system to alleviate the shocking 40% Cambodia malnutrition as well as complement Khmer rice brands and even Vietnam and its FairTrade coffee potential.

Or Kasetsart and the Thammasat volunteers of Sanam Luang and pupil-teacher exchanges with Kent’s Hadlow College and Produced in Kent food brands here in East Kent and its four universities.

Food for thought or just so much waste?


Thursday, 10 November 2016

Lord Farage says The Economist?

Dear Editor

I was astonished to read in The Economist article last week that The Economist is calling for Nigel Farage of UKIP to be made Lord Farage. It was nearly as silly as your previous articles ruling out a National Basic Income or fixed interest rates now raised in many developed nations but not yet UK.

I think I can speak authoritatively on the merits of Farage and UKIP having stood against him in the 2015 election on my “Stop the Pollution. Stop the Corruption. Stop the Construction” platform, met and heard Farage speak, and live in East Kent, the district since 2015 with the UK’s only UKIP council.

I can assure you Farage as a Lord is an appalling idea.

But surely a peer in the Lords is someone who positively contributes to the UK in a major way for several years?

I appreciate, as pointed out in the article, that the Lords has its fair share of rogues and scoundrels such as Jeffrey Archer or Lord Grabiner of BHS and One Essex Court.

But Farage has contributed nothing to the UK except division and hatred. And that only recently. Before being beaten in Ramsgate in the 2015 election he stood in 2010 - to widespread apathy and derision as a chancer and carpetbagger, and gained less than 2% of the vote.

Hardly the result of a towering political figure – even without his other six MP defeats.

While in the 2015 election he made barely half a dozen appearances in the Thanet towns – and almost all hastily convened in secret and invitation-only to supporters.

And there were even fewer outdoor events and they were quick grip-and-grin poses with a pint and tame press phalanx in tow.

While in terms of actual policies, Farage himself admitted his 2010 manifesto was incoherent rubbish. And he refused to take questions on his 2015 manifesto and its Manston airport policy. That policy so idiotic given that the airport was on the East Kent drinking water aquifer.

I know, you couldn’t make it up.

Yet he persisted. And lost. And the UKIP council then dropped the policy within 6 weeks of the election.

Questions still remain for Farage over the Manston corporate manslaughter by owners Infratil and KCC/TDC councils removing the pollution monitors and faking the data and fines. And Thor mercury contamination with the banned factory not closing and continuing to poison its workers and neighbours.

While if Farage is known for crumbling with his repeated resignations-not-resigning farce, the rest of UKIP is as bad. Kent UKIP had characters such as Negro Roz and Golliwog Bertie and the Stolen Valour councillors all resigning and so awful as to be featured on Channel Four and the Sun. As did MEP Janice Atkinson for insulting her own constituent as “an Asian Ting-Tong” and her staff arrested for faking her expenses.

Perhaps it’s Janice who should be in the Lords with Lord Fraud Mountfield and Jeffrey Archer rather than booted out of UKIP as MEP but sidling upto the Le Pen far-right faction.

I hasten to add it’s not just a problem for Kent being contaminated by UKIP, for Lincolnshire UKIP the second UKIP council, has followed the same process of resignations and sackings.

Farage’s political legacy is laughable with only one Tory turncoat MP in Douglas Carswell who spends much of his time railing against Farage.

While with hate crime at record levels since Brexit, Stephen Woolf surely can’t be the only black man to be attacked by UKIP. It’s rather special though that the other UKIP MEP’s do it, and we have the familiar farce of Farage popping up from exile to try and excuse it.

For, Farage proved so toxic the rest of the Leave campaign refused to work with him – even before his NHS HIV comments, or posters of escalators at the White Cliffs of Dover. Or the farce of Diane James breaking his record for the fastest resignation as Leader defies comment.

The much vaunted 17M people voted for Brexit ignores the fact that 16M didn’t – nor the subsequent disaster and lack of any coherent meaning to Brexit.

Again hardly a towering political legacy for Farage.

And as the Economist points out, other brief vote gains such as Nick Griffin and BNP don’t result in Lords seats but rather arms-length opprobrium.
No, Farage doesn’t belong in the Lords.

Particularly with him scampering away from the train-crash of Brexit – but not his salary - and stirring up a stab-in-the-back ploy for his no doubt future career as a local radio shock-jock or merely grunting from the saloon bar with his bierkellar buddies or sucking upto Trump.

And even by UKIP’s own limited aims of protecting the pound he’s failed with the euro witnessing the pound fall to its lowest levels in 350 year. Not even an ideal legacy for a City trader.

And Britain under Brexit has become the laughing stock of the world with the worst foreign policy and economic disaster since Suez.

Rather as with another quisling, Lord Haw-Haw, Farage belongs in the Tower for the destruction he’s wrought on Britain.

Tim Garbutt, Ramsgate

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Ice Train - to Bering Tunnel and Shanghai?

The Chris Tarrant Channel 5 show “Extreme Rail Journeys” kicked off a new series with the Alaskan Ice train wending its way through avalanches and polar bears to the Arctic Circle.

The programmes are always interesting – the previous series showcasing the Kwai railway through Thailand and Myanmar - and this week the train route through Argentina and Patagonia, worth a separate article given the UK involvement in the Argentine railways and more recent decline.

Also the Argentine Train of Clouds and next week the Cape2Cairo route.

Last week’s Alaskan episode showcased just the most astonishing scenery and the incredible story of the railway being built through that wilderness before World War One with nothing more than pick and shovel and the occasional bit of dynamite.

A story as astonishing as the building of the Kwai railway through the jungles of Thailand and Myanmar with thousands of Allied POW deaths and 100k Asian labourers deaths.

But shouldn’t the Alaskan Train mark the beginning of the Bering Tunnel Route? The railway wends its way from the Canadian-USA border through Seward port to Fairbanks. A modicum of infrastructure would be needed for the last few hundred miles to the Bering Strait.

Here in East Kent we’ve seen the power of Climate Change storms with last winter’s destruction of the Dover railway alongside the Channel. And the astonishingly rapid repairs and even automated track-laying machines by the Dept of Transport, SouthEastern Rail and Network Rail.

And a road-rail tunnel no more complex(!) than the Channel Tunnel here in Kent would link not just Alaska with Vancouver and New York but also Santiago in the Americas. For the overland route from Vancouver to Shanghai would then be tantalisingly close.

Russia has already laid down detailed plans for a Siberian road, and the Trans-Siberian Railway is near and already links Vladivostock and Beijing and Shanghai through to Moscow, Rotterdam and Madrid.

The Bering Tunnel – along with the Gibraltar Tunnel and completion of the Cape2Cairo and Berlin2Basra routes – would draw down the curtain on the divisions formed from the two world wars and at last fully integrate the global economies for greater peace and prosperity.

The shift of economic growth to Asia in the 21st century would allow hispeed rail to knit together the Americas and Europe. The vagaries of Climate Change storms or typhoons and tides would be smoothed away for 24/7 rail.

Already the excess in global shipping and mega-tankers has seen the collapse of South Korea’s huge shipping line, Hanjin, and forecasts that 20 shipping lines will be reduced to 8, with billions of dollars and thousands of jobs lost in the next decade.

Certainly even more automation of mega-tankers and ports will further reduce job opportunities and displace then to rail hubs and end the monopoly of the Suez and Panama Canlas as trade bottlenecks.

The Saudi National Plan for 2030 also factors out any growth in oil making the Gulf and Suez somewhat redundant.

And why take containers off a railway at the port, to put them on a ship to another port, and then take them off, and put them back onto a railway? Not when you can put them on a railway to any part of the globe, and with day or night constant running on rails.

The Bering Tunnel would mark the end of the beginning of a global economy functioning as smooth as silk?