INTERVIEW WITH DUTCH AMBASSADOR LAETITIA VAN DEN ASSUM
Laetitia van den Assum - Dutch Ambassador
* Why does the Netherlands place so much emphasis on foreign investment and trade?
"We don't invest all our resources in our own country because we are small and much of our potential has already been realized. So we are like Singapore in this region in that we tend to go outside with whatever funds are available.
"If you look at Germany, for example, which was re-united a few years ago, you'll notice that a lot of German investment goes into building up what was former East Germany, that's where they are spending their money. But we are a more settled country and although we are constantly improving on our performance as an agriculture based and service economy, we cannot expand geographically and therefore funds are available to be invested elsewhere.
"Its very different from the US and Germany where they have huge territories and can still explore further domestic investment. Remember, many Dutch companies are already established in Europe and for a long time the Netherlands was the number one investor in the US, so we are well established throughout the world.
"It is ironic really because everyone thinks that because we are a small country (we rank 134th in terms of land mass) that we are not important economically but we rank sixth in terms of global investment and eighth in terms of trade flows."
* Please tell us about the Dutch presence in Thailand?
"Last year, we were the fifth largest investor in Thailand (after Japan, South Korea, the US and Hong Kong) and the largest of the fifteen member EU countries.
"And there are 120 Dutch companies established in Thailand and with one or two exceptions all of the major Dutch firms are operating here. Companies such as Philips, the electronics giant, Unilever, Royal Dutch Shell (which is 60% Dutch and 40% English), Makro Siam and Ahold (Tops Supermarket) and ABN AMRO to name a few.
"And how do these companies affect people in their everyday life? Well, people eat Wall's ice cream, Foremost milk, Yomost yogurt, and they shop at Tops and Makro, they put Shell in their cars, they use Philips electronics, they bank at ABN AMRO and the Bank of Asia, they use Omo washing powder, Lux soap, and many other products of Dutch origin, you can really just go on and on. Unilever is a good example as it is now seen as being a 100% Thai company but it has Dutch roots. With the upswing of the Thai economy, we think that its now time for us to focus on the potential for Dutch SMEs to set up shop here and venture into partnerships with their Thai counterparts.
"In May, we had a trade delegation travel here and it was led by our Minister of Foreign Trade, Mr Gerrit Ybema. He was accompanied by a group of Dutch companies, but especially a large number of SMEs, even some very small ones, who are now trying to venture outside of the Netherlands and who are especially interested in striking up partnerships with small Thai companies who would for example help them export Thai food and popularize it in the Netherlands. We think there is enormous potential in this and other areas.
"We took this trade mission to meet various government officials and businesspeople in Bangkok and then we took them to the Chiang Mai area where there are a number of SMEs in the agriculture and food processing industries which the Dutch have a lot of expertise in. We arranged meetings for them with the Chamber of Commerce in Chiang Mai, established contacts with various Thai companies as well as some Dutch companies that are already operating in the region, so they could get a better feel of what its like to do business here. Then afterwards, if they want more information, we can help them learn more about Thai legislation, rules and procedures."
* How have Dutch companies reacted to the economic crisis?
"Even though Thailand and the other countries in this region have suffered a great shock due to the economic crisis, we cannot ignore the future potential of this region. With 400 million people, South-East Asia is such a big market. That is why I was not surprised that just after the crisis more Dutch investment actually came in and Dutch investors (like Tops and Makro) which had plans to initiate new investment didn't back down but continued on with their projects. They have thirty to forty year prospectives and they look at the long term trends in the region, and although the crisis was serious, it was seen as a temporary disruption. So if the tough conditions of financial reform continue to be met, there is tremendous potential for co-operation between Thailand and the Netherlands."
* Tell us about the Dutch community in Thailand?
"We have about 4,000 people living in Thailand which is quite sizable and again an indication that the Netherlands is a small country, and a lot of people leave because they find it too crowded. But it's also an indicator that we have strong economic ties with Thailand, because many of our nationals in Thailand work for Dutch companies. And we also have many people working with UN agencies: whether it's with UNICEF, ESCAP or FAO.
"Basically we have a geographical concentration in Bangkok; then the Rayong-Pattaya area where the Shell refineries are located; then Chiang Mai and the north where there are an increasing number of agri-businesses; and the fourth concentration is in Phuket, but that's more retirement and leisure oriented.
* How can the Dutch help the Thais in the area of agri-business?
"What Thailand and the Netherlands have in common is that agriculture is the backbone for both our economies. We are, despite our small size, a huge exporter of agricultural produce, and not just cheese and milk powder, but many horticultural products (flowers, tulip bulbs) as well.
"We are very happy to see the government and the Thai people are starting to realize that perhaps in the euphoria of the first boom agriculture was overlooked. Basically Thailand is still a very rural based society, that's where the bulk of the people live and make their living, so it's very important to try and modernize agriculture methods and to try and build up agri-based industries so there is more added value, and that's something that we in the Netherlands have a lot of expertise in.
"Its not only how you produce your rice, potatoes and tomatoes. It's how you market them and bring them to the consumers and how you can add value by processing them. When you look at Thailand, that whole area of how you get from the small producer to the small consumer is not very developed yet.
"I know one potato chip manufacturer who has to deal with 10,000 different farmers in the north who all grow potatoes in different ways yet he has to make sure that the potato chip found on the supermarket shelf is consistent in quality, appearance and taste. That's extremely difficult. It's very important that these farmers co-operate and work together.
"The government must also make sure that there are sufficient access roads, and that there are transport systems so that the produce can get to market on-time. You have a good international airport here in Bangkok and plans for another, but if you are in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai and you have to truck down your wares to Bangkok, twenty to thirty percent will be wasted before you even get here. And when you add up all those individual pick-ups, that's a huge amount of wasted produce.
"Our Ministry of Agriculture is working with the Thai Ministry of Agriculture to see how this whole chain from the small producer to the consumer can be made to be more efficient, so that ultimately what you can have higher incomes in rural areas."
* What about the embassy complex itself?
"Foreigners aren't allowed to buy land in Thailand but embassies can. So we bought this in 1946 and it was crown property back then. The first tenant was the personal physician of King Rama V, Dr Alphonse Poix, and he moved out in 1917. Then Prince Bovoradej lived here, but he had to flee to Cambodia because of the political events of 1932. After that it was leased and it belonged to the British Club and when we bought it (we were on Suriwong Rd. before) we took it over from the Salesian Fathers."
* Any Prominent Dutch people living in Thailand you would like to mention?
"Sister Jeanne who is 90 and lives in the Mater Dei complex.
She's the oldest person in the Dutch community, and she's been here since 1938. She has done a lot of great work with slum communities and the hospitals for the mentally retarded.
"Also, the artist Jan Montyn (profiled in Siam Trade, Vol.8 #87). He is not only an artist but he also visits secondary schools throughout the Netherlands to talk about his experiences in WWII and the Korean War and he discusses the dangers of fascism and totalitarian regimes and the importance of democratization. He lives here for about nine months of the year. He's quite well-known and his work sells well here, in the Netherlands, in France and in Japan."
* You have extended your appointment for a year, is that correct?
"Yes, a normal tour of duty is four years, but I asked to stay for one more year. I came in late '95, so I was here for the good times, now I have gone through the crisis, and it will be good to experience some of the upswing as well. I continue to learn everyday and my curiosity is not yet satiated."
* Thoughts on Thailand?
"It stimulates your curiosity and constantly triggers your senses. As you walk around and see people mingling about, you ask what are they talking about, what are they doing, what are they cooking? It's never boring, there are so many things happening, it's a very dynamic society."
For further info contact the ambassador c/o:
106 Wireless Rd
P.O. Box 404
Tel: (662) 254-7701(5)
Fax: (662) 254-5579