Thailand hopes to enhance trade ties with Sarawak — Thai envoy

Narong (seated centre) who is on a two-day working visit to Kuching pose for a group photo after addressing a press conference. Also seen are (seated from left) Liong, Patcha and Deddy.

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By Karen Bong

KUCHING, Nov 22: The economic partnership between Thailand and Sarawak is not quite there yet, notably due to a missing direct ‘link’, but Thai ambassador to Malaysia Narong Sasitorn emphasised that both countries must keep going as well as stay committed and engaged to succeed.

Highlighting this, Narong recognised that Sarawak is a vital business partner and neighbour to Thailand, which is exactly the reason for his working visit here.

“Creating a new partnership and business is not easy as it takes time, where potential partners from both sides have to meet and talk. (It) takes many, many visits before any real businesses and projects can take place,” he pointed out in a press conference yesterday.

Having assumed office barely four months ago, this is his first working visit to Kuching. His delegation included Minister Counsellor (Commercial) of the Office of Commercial Affairs of the Thai Embassy Patcha Wutipan, Tourism Authority of Thailand Malaysia director Ahman Mad-Adam and first secretary Louismongkol Sapkul.

He noted that many discussions had taken place between the two countries in the past, led by former ambassador Damrong Kraikruan, particularly in areas of mutual interests including tourism and agriculture, especially fishery and food processing.

Touching on the missing direct connectivity that is crucial to open up Sarawak to the rest of the world, Narong said if a direct flight between Kuching-Bangkok or other cities in Thailand like Phuket and Chiangmai could be established, it would be a game changer for Sarawak to promote business and trade.

Describing the direct flight issue as a chicken-and-egg situation of either to open a flight to attract traffic or have enough traffic to sustain a good business, he, however, shared the concerns of airlines, in which business was becoming more competitive nowadays.

“It is difficult to stay afloat, but I think many airlines, including Thai Airways and AirAsia, are all looking at the possibilities. I would very much be thrilled and delighted if a direct flight can be established. But then again, they (airlines) are the one who can make the decision,” he added.

Narong noted that the missing direct link became a key challenge to establish trade with Sarawak as trading was now done through middlemen via Peninsular Malaysia or Indonesia or Singapore.

On trade volume between Thailand and Malaysia, he revealed that the bilateral trade recorded positive growth of 16 per cent in the first nine months of this year. Last year, it was about USD25 million.

“Malaysia is Thailand’s largest trading partner in Asean. We are your (Malaysia) second largest trading partner in Asean and, of course, Singapore is the first. The volume is huge if compared with volume with Indonesia, for instance,” he said.

Logistics and load factor, he added, were very important components in trading, and the Thailand government wanted to see a two-way traffic, where Thai goods could go into Sarawak and vice versa.

Today, Narong is scheduled to call on Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg and Head of State Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud to discuss potential areas of cooperation between Thailand and Sarawak.

“We already have projects going on here with regards to oil and gas, where a Thailand company known as PTTEP has secured contracts in oil field exploration and production.

“Things are looking very well, and there are many potentials to expand, from the exploration stage to the production stage in a couple of years,” he shared.

Apart from oil and gas, Narong hoped to understand in depth some of the exciting projects in Sarawak, like the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (Score) and its digitalisation plan, which Thailand is keen to get involved or participate in.

As Thailand will helm the chairmanship of Asean next year, Narong informed that the theme of its chairmanship will be ‘Advancing Partnership for Sustainability’.

“There are three components in the theme, in which advancing aims to prepare the Asean community of some 640 million population to be more ready for the future in trade, disruptive technology, fourth industrial revolution and so on.

“We also want to forge closer partnership not only within Asean but also with countries like Japan, China, Korea, United States, European Union, Australia, India, Pakistan, New Zealand, Canada, to name a few, while sustainability will be another focus,” he added.

Thailand, he assured, was looking to work very closely with Malaysia, which is now led by an experienced Prime Minister in Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whom he said is one of the founding fathers of Asean.

“Asean is not only about government-to-government or business community as we want to move Asean to become a people-centred community and encourage meeting among civil society, NGOs, youths and so on,” he said.

He, thus, called on Sarawakians, including the media, to strengthen and increase engagement and participation in the Asean community building processes.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sarawak Regional Office director Deddy Faisal Ahmad Salleh and Asean China Entrepreneur Association (ACEA) vice president Michael Liong were also present.