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harlanwolff @ hush.com

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4 comments

  1. Doc Penguin says you would have an interest in doing something re my life in Brisbane Underbelly of the 60s / 70s
    But , I return to Perth this Friday evening

    John W Ryan

  2. Marcus Farrell gave me your book the other day. We both live on Punawithi. Living here in Bangkok I found it very,interesting,especially
    the second half of the book.
    I am an avid reader,King, kellerman,Baldacci,,Deaver,Koonnz and the Harry,Bosch books. Got over300,books and the expats use my library in exchange for their books or Leos.
    Never met an author before but would like to meet up some time to get an insight into how you accomplsh it.
    Yours Robert

  3. just finished Bangkok Rules, loved it, and posted a good review on Amazon.
    Question?
    while reading your book, I sent in several ‘report content error’ on my Kindle for technical errors I noticed, and I wonder if you actually get the comments on the typos I found.

  4. From Newsweek
    12th July 1999
     
    Beyond Sex and Golf
    Money is pouring in. But can Bangkok escape the low-cost trap and join
    the high-tech world?
    By George Wehrfritz and Paul Handley
     
    The faded billboard looms above shimmering rice fields about 70
    kilometers east of Bangkok. It heralds a cutting-edge industrial park
    called Alpha Technopolis, a dream city that vanished like a mirage
    when Thailand’s financial system crashed in mid-1997.
     
    The master plan called for scores of factories, research labs, a university—even
    California-style town houses and a strip mall. The brainchild of
    entrepreneur Charn Usawachoke, the industrial park went fallow when
    his dream of building a $1 billion silicon-chip plant crumbled under
    massive debts. They nearly destroyed his flagship chip packaging
    company, Alpha Tec Electronics, too.
     
    Tangled in charges of corruption,which he has repeatedly denied, Charn lost it all. Today his half-built plant bakes in the tropical heat. Down the road, Alpha Tec
    Electronics is controlled by new foreign investors and banks. Most of
    the park looks the way Thailand did a century ago: rice fields dotted
    with tropical birds. A local mechanic who once hoped to land a job at
    the futuristic complex now spends his weekends seated under an
    Umbrella near the main entrance—hawking fresh cockles by the roadside.
     
     
    Two years after the collapse of the Thai baht triggered the “Asian
    Flu,” such monuments to broken dreams are common across the region.
    But money is now pouring back in. In Thailand, foreign portfolio
    Investors have driven the market up 50 percent since January on the
    Expectation of imminent economic recovery. The evidence? A government
    claim, since proved wrong, that the ratio of bad debt held by Thai
    banks had peaked, plus an official projection that the economy will
    expand in 1999 by 1 percent.
     
    Foreigners have spent even larger sums in
    direct investments, buying Thai companies at fire-sale prices. They
    are gambling that Thailand will fix its clubby banks, rein in its
    family-run conglomerates, halt rampant cronyism and invigorate its
    impotent courts. But that process is halting, and the long-term
    prospects are iffy too. Spoiled for years by easy money, the
    government is losing low-tech manufacturing orders to cheaper
    economies like China’s, but has no apparent strategy for moving up the
    technology ladder. “Thailand has two comparative advantages,” says one
    Western diplomat in Bangkok. “Sex and golf courses.”
     
    The foreigners scrambling to get back in—investing $9 billion since
    the July 1997 devaluation—would disagree: they argue that the
    devaluation has cut operating costs, restoring much of Thailand’s
    competitiveness. But looking down the road, cheap labor, go-go bars
    and low greens fees aren’t much of a development model.
     
    For years,
    Thailand has been the West’s star pupil. Many Western economists
    praised the nation for rejecting the planned-industrial-development
    models adopted in Taiwan and South Korea. Instead, Thailand charged
    after foreign investment. Since the crash, the International Monetary
    Fund has praised Thailand for restructuring its finances and opening
    the door farther to foreign investors. But what, in the long run, is
    Thailand really getting?
     
    In one scenario, not much. If the government doesn’t focus on
    improving the country’s competitiveness, Thailand could well become
    little more than a slick, foreign-dominated export-processing zone
    that will fall farther behind its aggressive neighbors. It may be
    remembered not for its economic prowess but for the live sex acts of
    Bangkok’s Patpong district.
     
    Thailand is “squeezed” from below by
    low-cost competitors like China and from above by high-tech Singapore,
    South Korea and Taiwan. Says Finance Minister Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda,
    “We are caught in the middle.” Thailand hopes foreign investors,
    attracted by signs of recovery, will help pull the country out of its
    economic doldrums. The plunge in exports has stopped, and factory
    utilization is up slightly. “There may never be a better time to
    invest in Thailand,” argues Staporn Kavitanon, head of the
    government’s Board of Investment.
     
    The question is, will foreign investors share the goodies with locals?
    In its desperation to create jobs, the government has not insisted on
    technology transfers from foreign investors (a skill mastered in
    China, South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia). That means that many Thais
    will be stuck making primitive goods or farming shrimp for years to
    come.
     
    Thailand must “accept that foreigners will be dominant” in
    manufacturing, says a World Bank economist. Industry is operating at
    half of capacity, thanks to weak domestic demand and global
    overcapacity in virtually everything the country exports. Thai factory
    owners, still sinking in debts, aren’t about to invest in R&D that
    might boost competitiveness. While the money poured in, they never thought they had to.
     
    Until 1995,
    Thailand’s economy was red hot, with growth averaging 8.7 percent over
    a decade. Cheap labor and stable government attracted investors, led
    by Japanese companies fleeing high costs at home. But the government,
    paralyzed by bureaucratic infighting and corruption, failed to invest
    in the educational infrastructure necessary to compete in the global
    age. Unlike its neighbors, Thailand hasn’t backed up tax incentives
    with training and infrastructure needed for high-tech firms, or strong
    links to universities to boost the nation’s science base. The result:
    high labor costs and low productivity. “Ten-thousand-dollar-a-year
     
     
    workers with sixth-grade educations” is how one analyst describes
    Thailand’s economy before the crash.
     
    Thai businessmen, meanwhile, hatched unrealistic plans that went sour
    when the money stopped flowing. In central Bangkok, cluttered with
    empty office towers, Thailand’s industrial elite wasted vast fortunes
    in an attempt to create a financial hub to rival Hong Kong and
    Singapore.
     
    Typically, foreign partners managed factories and
    controlled technology, while Thai partners happily plowed their
    winnings into jet-set lifestyles or lavish office towers—often with
    loans from foreign banks.
     
    The extravagant environment left plenty of time for cozy deal making
    out on the links at expensive golf clubs that popped up across the
    country. With nearly 100 courses by 1992, there was talk of building
    500 courses for the millennium. So many courses were being built that
    farmers complained golf clubs were eating up their precious rice
    fields and irrigation water. But local golf courses weren’t good
    enough: Thai executives, studded with diamond rings, jumped on private
    jets for weekends of fine French wine and golf in Europe . “Koreans
    collect factories,” goes a popular Bangkok ditty, “Thais collect real
    estate.”
     
    In a swirl of irresponsible lending, collusive Thai bankers allowed
    the business elite to put off upgrading factories and cling to sunset
    industries. When the house of cards came crashing down, the banks
    allowed businessmen to cling to their crumpled empires. When
    Nakornthai Steel found itself tottering under hundreds of millions in
    loans, for example, owner Sawasdi Horrungruang outlined his survival
    strategy in a phrase that became a motto for debtors across the
    country: “Don’t pay, don’t close, don’t run.”
     
    The trick now is to change that mentality. But it’s proving extremely
    difficult. Despite new bankruptcy and foreclosure laws, bankers are
    reluctant to test traditionally feeble courts. As a result, borrowers
    don’t fear the banks: nonperforming loans are still growing, to some
    50 percent. The Finance Ministry is trying to coax businesses into
    paying off loans with promises of future loans. “Just as we use fear
    [to encourage repayment],” Finance Minister Tarrin told NEWSWEEK,
    “greed is a very strong impetus.”
     
    The case of Thai Petrochemical Industry, or TPI, shows how powerful
    businessmen still win the debt-settlement game. By 1997 the
    conglomerate, which built oil refining, petrochemical and cement
    plants, was worth about $1 billion but owed $4.5 billion to 148
    creditors—including $100 million borrowed from the World Bank. Prachai
    Leophairatana, TPI’s founder and chairman, declared a moratorium on
    the group’s debt. “We had to stop the bleeding,” Prachai told
    NEWSWEEK.
     
    He has since waged war against his creditors. A legislator, Prachai
    opposed efforts to tighten bankruptcy and foreclosure laws (which
    passed in March). He played creditors against each other, courting
    those most fearful of huge debt write-downs and berating the most
    aggressive, notably the World Bank’s International Finance Corp.,
    which favored liquidation. In the end, Prachai traded 25 percent of
    his conglomerate for a $450 million debt write-off, deferred debt
    repayments for five years and stayed at TPI’s helm.
     
    A lack of functioning bankruptcy procedures continues to hobble the
    financial system. TPI’s restructuring is typical of deals in the works
    to save thousands of small manufacturers. Across the country,
    companies are challenging banks to convert bad debts to long-term
    loans. That way they get breathing room to rebuild without having to
    restructure their operations. According to Banthoon Lamsam, president
    of Thai Farmers Bank, the country’s second largest lender, it’s so
    easy to avoid paying debt that the system effectively penalizes
    companies that are honest. The financial crisis has “exposed the dark
    side of Thai culture,” he says. Some of his own clients have pilfered
    “billions of baht” from their companies. Trade associations, he says,
    are threatening not to pay loans unless banks give them discounts.
    “Debtors think that restructuring means ‘free haircuts’,” he
    complains.
     
    Meanwhile, the government has done precious little to train the
    workers who have lost their jobs in the crisis—as many as 2
    million—with higher skills. Thai Melon, a huge textile mill in
    Bangkok’s gritty northern fringe, shut its doors last year and laid
    off 4,800 workers. Many joined the already crowded ranks of food
    hawkers. After the shutdown, the Labor Ministry unveiled a plan to
    retrain laid-off workers to make sweets and cakes. “The training was
    too far away, and who is going to buy sweets anyway?” asks a
    40-year-old woman. “They didn’t offer to teach us anything else.”
     
    The textile industry epitomizes Thailand’s lack of strategic planning.
    Many in the sector relocated out of Bangkok, rather than upgrading
    their plants. In Mae Sot, a trading town on the Burmese border, scores
    of sweatshops have sprung up since 1997. In all, some 60,000 illegal
    Burmese migrants work there for $2 a day. “The official policy is to
    push sunset industries overseas,” says a Western consultant in
    Bangkok. “But the unofficial policy is to turn a blind eye to illegal
    migrants.”
     
    In the meantime, tourism is up, and it’s helped Thailand through the
    crisis. Cheap rates and golf—down to $10 a round—have attracted Asian
    travelers. Many of the visitors are South Korean and Japanese
    families, but the raunchy strip bars of Pattaya are a big draw, too.
     
    Investment in training and technology, however, has lagged. A new
    study on Asia’s hard-disk-drive industry conducted by the University
    of California, San Diego, notes “significant weaknesses” in Thailand’s
    computer-drive industry, despite the fact that drives have been
    manufactured there since the U.S. firm Seagate opened a factory in
    1983. There are few Thai engineers, and the industry’s component base
    is almost totally foreign-owned. Seagate, which remains Thailand’s
    biggest employer, has no complaints—yet. But in contrast to Singapore
    and Malaysia, which have built sophisticated manufacturing
    infrastructure, the study points out that Thailand’s “capacity for
    production-related services is very thin.” The main Thai component is
    labor.
     
    Since mid-1997, foreigners have spent $7 billion on Thai manufacturing
    companies, many of them buying out their debt-laden partners. Ford
    Motors recently acquired a finance company to support a new network of
    dealerships established to sell its Thai-manufactured pickup trucks.
    U.S. sink giant American Standard took over its Thai affiliate.
    Japanese firms, which account for more than half of all acquisitions,
    have upped their stakes in autos and electronics. Such investments,
    some worry, could stir up anti-foreign sentiment if the benefits
    aren’t clearly visible.
     
    The hope is that foreign investors will shake Thailand into a more
    efficient way of doing things. They may not transfer technology, but
    the accounting standards, open business practices and hard-nosed
    realism that they bring may be an equally important kind of know-how.
     
    Take Alphatec Electronics, which is rising from the ashes in a more
    humble form. Not only have creditors driven out its founder (who, they
    allege, siphoned $300 million from corporate coffers—something the
    founder has denied), but banks have seized the company and delivered
    it into the hands of foreign investors. Two of these—one American, the
    other Swedish—injected $40 million into the electronics firm. Gone by
    the wayside is Thailand’s dream of getting a prestigious
    billion-dollar wafer-fab plant for Alpha Technopolis, which would have
    heralded the country’s entry into the ranks of electronic superpowers.
    “We’re trying to get this company on its feet,” says Robert
    Mollerstuen, the company’s top executive. He hopes to list his company
    on Nasdaq in three years. That could fix Alphatec’s future. But
    getting Thailand back on track may take a lot longer.
     
    Newsweek International, July 12, 1999
     

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