Bangkok on His Mind

Political infighting and bureaucratic inertia needn’t be a reason for a city to suffer from inadequate infrastructure. In Bangkok, a city run by a governor who’s a member of the main opposition party, things still get done despite the partisanship and rancor in Thai politics.

Sukhumbhand Paribatra is the governor of Bangkok and there are over 8 million people living within his city’s 1,568 square kilometers. Another 6 million-plus people live outside the city but commute into the capital every day.

Sukhumbhand, who is also a distant cousin of the present monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is coming to the end of his four-year term. He’s not popular with the incumbent prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra and the upcoming election for the governorship early next year is expected to be fiercely contested. As Sukhumbhand said when I met him in his office: “I’m verbally abused every day. I guess that means they’re worried.”

Needless to say, rising urban incomes and aspirations have made city-hall politics increasingly complex and only two capital cities in the region -- Bangkok and Jakarta -- have directly elected governors, thereby creating an immediate source of tension with their respective national leaders.

Last year’s near-apocalyptic deluge brought the young prime minister Yingluck into direct confrontation with the aristocratic Sukhumbhand as they tussled over control of the city’s all-important flood-prevention infrastructure. Notwithstanding the floods and the political turmoil, Bangkok’s infrastructure with its elevated toll ways, monorail lines and subways would amaze a casual visitor from Jakarta.

But as Sukhumbhand explains, “Bangkok experienced terrible floods 27 years ago. As a result, the city developed a sophisticated series of prevention and mitigation measures; including our retention ponds or what His Majesty the King likes to call our ‘monkey cheeks,’ so named because when monkeys have extra food they don’t digest it all at once. Instead they keep the food in their cheeks to be consumed at another time.”

Bangkok faces twin perils: heavy rains and high tides. But as Sukhumbhand goes on to say, “The system can cope well enough. The problem is when there’s heavy rain in the north and millions of cubic feet of water arrive on your doorstep and has to drain into the sea. Bangkok stands in the way. It’s physics.”

When asked how it was that the city seemed to rapidly recover after last year’s deluge, his response was intriguing: “The key to a quick revival was that the Central Business District and the industrial areas weren’t damaged.”

But Sukhumbhand is less impressed by his predecessors’ neglect of mass transport: “Many decades ago we made the wrong decisions. We placed priority on facilitating traffic.” Having experienced his city’s appalling jams in the early 1990s, I can’t help but agree.

“Over the past 12 years we’ve gone in the right direction. We now have over 70 kilometers of mass rail transit. There’ll be 300 km in another 20 years and 500km in 30 years.

“While the Bangkok administration can pay for the extensions, the central government wants to take charge. I’m now focusing on feeder bus systems. Over 17 million trips are made every day in the city; 60 percent of which are in private vehicles and only 40 percent in public transport. We need to reverse this,” Sukhumbhand explained.

“In short, we need more authority commensurate with the responsibility we bear as well as the expectations of voters.”

On my return to Jakarta after Bangkok, I’m struck by Sukhumbhand’s methodical and determined manner. The man is focused on problem-solving, whether it’s urban transportation or the provision of government services.

(Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.His column also appears in the Jakarta Globe.)