27 Aug 2016

Each year, students from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Master in Public Administration programme undertake a year-long Governance Study Project (GSP) as part of their curriculum, to prepare them for policy work. This year’s students focused on policy ideas to improve the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, and they presented their findings to Thai officials and other guests at the GSP Conference organised by the school on July 4, 2016.

Change is afoot in Chiang Mai, which is Thailand’s second-largest city and one of the most important cities in the Asia Pacific region. With a population of more than one million people and a history that spans 720 years, Chiang Mai is striving to protect its heritage and culture while embracing new technologies and a more modern way of life.

To realise its full potential, however, it should take bolder steps to transform itself into a creative city focused on tourism and the arts, and improve its poor public transport network, which is limiting its development, said two groups of students in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Master in Public Administration programme. They had focused on the city for their capstone Governance Study Project (GSP).

The one-year, full-time programme prepares students for senior management roles in the public sector, while the project is a year-long module that requires them to work in teams on public sector problems in the region. The 2016 cohort conducted research during the year and spent weeks in Chiang Mai interviewing policy-makers and other stakeholders to understand how it could be developed sustainably as one of Thailand’s secondary cities.

A Creative Transformation

One team, whose project was titled “Chiang Mai: Creative City, Creative Economy” and focused on the city’s economic prospects, noted that its economy remains disproportionately small. Chiang Mai contributes less than 2 per cent of Thailand’s Gross Domestic Product despite being its second-largest city, after Bangkok, and its Gross Provincial Product per capita was also less than 60 per cent of the national average in 2013.

Agriculture, hunting and forestry remain its main industry, and there are few value-added industries. “While Chiang Mai produces 100,000 graduates from its local universities each year, many end up pursuing career opportunities elsewhere, typically in Bangkok. Chiang Mai needs to reinvent itself to create jobs that excite the young and attract talents from elsewhere,” the team wrote in its 102-page paper.

The city already has the building blocks of a creative city. It is home to a large number of digital content designers, and has the potential to attract more by capitalising on its rich history as the seat of the former Lanna Kingdom, which spanned most of Northern Thailand as well as parts of Myanmar, China and Laos.

Chiang Mai can build up its nascent media industry by developing original content in different genres, focused on the Lanna Kingdom connection. These could include pairing local media companies with internationally-established ones such as the Discovery Channel and National Geographic to produce documentaries on the kingdom’s history, culture and lifestyle.

Another option is to create new stories from the myths and folklore about the Lanna Kingdom, for film and television. South Korea, for instance, has been very successful in boosting its media industry by spreading K-Pop culture around the world.

By focusing on its history as capitol of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai can also sharpen its tourism brand, create new cultural products and boost the sales of existing ones. The kingdom, for instance, was famous for its Khun Tok Dinner. This could be revitalised and shared around the world as a form of cultural influence, just as Thai cuisine is currently found in many parts of the world.

Looking Farther Afield

The team’s research showed that other towns and cities such as Kumano Town in Japan, Paju in South Korea and Beirut in Lebanon had reinvented themselves as creative cities by focusing on specific products or industries. Some of them had translated historical strengths into new economic opportunities while others filled gaps in their national markets.

Kumano revitalised its declining, traditional calligraphy brush-making industry by moving into cosmetic brush manufacturing. Paju branded itself as a Book City, while Beirut united public and private resources behind its plan to become a hub for digital and media content creation.

To follow these examples and secure its future as a creative city, however, Chiang Mai needs to implement measures such as a one-stop Internet portal to help potential investors navigate the city and its laws. It should also create a dedicated service to help local companies promote themselves overseas, consolidate its multiple and confusing tourism websites into one user-friendly site, and introduce relevant curricula in primary and high school.

The Transport Conundrum

More importantly, it has to retool its public transport network, said another team whose project, titled “Urban Transport for Secondary Cities – Case Study of Chiang Mai”, focused on ways to diversify and improve the city’s poor public transport options.

There is no mass transit system in Chiang Mai, and its public transport is limited to a handful of buses and taxis and a fleet of about 2,500 songthaews, which are modified pick-up trucks. The songthaews are run by a cooperative which has resisted previous government attempts to introduce more public transport options, fearing a loss of jobs.

“Over the past two decades, Chiang Mai’s streets have become busy and sometimes congested. The bulk of the public transport is unregulated, especially the songthaews, and the outmoded transport does not sit well with Chiang Mai’s aspirations to become a heritage and creative city and magnet for tourists,” the team wrote in its 48-page paper.

They outlined a three-stage plan to build an affordable, modern public transport system centred on cycling and walking for short distances, songthaews for medium-distance travel and last-mile connectivity, and trams for long distances.

Better Transport: The 10-Year Plan

Trains and light-rail transit systems, while able to transport more people, are unlikely to be unsuitable for Chiang Mai due to the prohibitively high costs of underground routes and the need to keep Chiang Mai’s historical landscape and skyline intact.

The first part of the three-stage plan would last one to three years, and involve forming a government-linked company to manage Chiang Mai’s transport system in partnership with firms; building and repairing walkways in the central business district; creating a legal and institutional framework to reform songthaew operations; and developing a comprehensive city mobility plan in consultation with all stakeholders, including the songthaew operators.

The second stage, to last three to ten years, would see the phased introductions of tram services, walkways and non-motorised lanes throughout the entire city and a public bicycle sharing system. After that, in the final stage, all transport infrastructure would be completed and a mobility plan drawn up for the next 30 years, including a study of the feasibility of a train network.

The team said that other initiatives, such as getting the songthaew operators to sign onto a ride-sharing system and creating an app for that system, are also crucial: “It is undeniable that the songthaew is now a specialty in Chiang Mai for foreign tourists, but the business model has to be improved. It is better to encourage all songthaew drivers to use a ride-sharing app so that it is easier to oversee all drivers’ performances and improve market efficiency.”

The trams and their routes could even be designed to highlight Chiang Mai’s Lanna Kingdom history and aspirations. After all, Chiang Mai, being a heritage tourist city, requires a special kind of transport which is reliable, efficient, physically less invasive, tourist-friendly and suitable as an ambassador of her creative city image.

A City of Possibility

Mr Martin Venzky-Stalling, a member of the Chiang Mai Creative City organisation which includes private and public sector representatives and seeks to develop Chiang Mai into a creative city, said that the students’ ideas were well-articulated, insightful and based on good analysis.

“In addition to focusing on big issues, the students also had the courage to bring some inconvenient but important issues and their root causes to everybody’s attention,” he said. “The presentations helped me and others to consider some issues in a new light. The GSP is a remarkable programme.”

The LKY School’s Dean Kishore Mahbubani added that policymakers have to balance many considerations in their work. He said: “A governance study project like this one is extremely important because it allows students to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to a real challenge.

“Chiang Mai can become a major tourism destination, a creative city, a convention city, a medical city, and more. It is a city with tremendous potential, and I hope that as a result of the conference we will suggest new possibilities for Chiang Mai.”