Lao PM's call for 'open doors, minds and barriers' is opportunity for change: Vientiane Times columnist

Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith waves to the crowd upon his arrival to attend the Asean Summit and related meetings in Philippines on Nov 12, 2017.
Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith waves to the crowd upon his arrival to attend the Asean Summit and related meetings in Philippines on Nov 12, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

In his commentary, the writer hopes that the new policy will encourage a new spirit of openness in the country.

VIENTIANE (VIENTIANE TIMES/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - In the grand ballroom of the National Culture Hall in Vientiane, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith announced an inspired initiative.

He told a crowd attending a conference of the information, culture and tourism sector last month that it was time for Laos to implement the "three opens" policy.

The first open policy that he wanted all ministries and state agencies nationwide to take into consideration when developing public policy, laws and state interventions, is that of an "open door". The second and third "opens" are an "open mind" and "open barriers".

Laos' seventh prime minister did not elaborate further on his vision and its implications in the meeting.

But this directive has captured my heart and inspired and awakened me, so that I am now motivated.

I am now totally convinced that what the premier said is a significant signal that positive change is coming to my beloved country.

To my knowledge, the premier delivered a carefully designed speech, which encapsulated the ambitious political ideology and resolutions of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, which has ruled the country since 1975.

Based on my own analysis of the past and current political and public administration context, I assume the prime minister did not actually initiate any new political directions but wanted to strengthen the opening-up policy and market-oriented economic mechanism that was initiated in 1986.

This economic development mode of transformation was aimed at ending unproductive collective businesses and farms, and at giving birth to diversity of business ownership.

Lessons learnt from developed nations convinced the government that business ownership diversification would accelerate economic development and free Laos from Least Developed Country status by 2020.

Unfortunately, the translation of this political objective and opening up policy was very slow and unresponsive to the pressing needs of reality.

Although Laos has achieved remarkable success in maintaining strong economic growth, the country is under pressure to diversify its economic base.

The country currently relies too much on the resource sector, and needs to boost the knowledge-based economy.

Failure to achieve this mission will place Laos at risk of economic and financial collapse.

The Party and the government are aware of this challenge.

To remedy the situation, in 2011 the Lao People's Revolutionary Party adopted four breakthrough approaches, aimed at accelerating and sustain economic development.

This resolution, which was adopted by the 9th Party Congress, stated that the first approach was to change the mindset of government officials by removing old stereotypes, complacency, and extremism.

This change was aimed at enabling government leaders and public administrators to apply development theories that were better suited to the reality of Laos, rather than copying from lessons in textbooks.

This implies that research should be done to develop policies that are applicable in the current context.

The second approach was the development of human resources, which are essential to the socio-economic development of Laos which is entering a new era of the intellect-based economy.

The third approach sought to address administrative procedures and management that hamper commercial productivity and services, and the final breakthrough is to reduce poverty.

Although the ruling Party introduced these resolutions nearly a decade ago, I assume that many find the four breakthrough approaches sophisticated and difficult to understand and apply.

From this perspective, I understand that the prime minister, as the head of government, wants to translate this resolution into practice and make it simpler for common people to understand.

This is one of the reasons that the prime minister's "three opens" policy appeals to my heart.

Analysing what the prime minister said, I understand the reason why the premier wanted to open the door - to make it clear that Laos is no longer closed to the international community.

Of course, different people interpret this differently and may look at it from a different angle.

From the perspective of economic development, Laos would be ready to integrate itself into the world community.

Instead of introducing protectionism to support domestic firms, the government should empower its businesses to compete with foreign rivals.

Many business operators, especially those who enjoy a monopoly in the Lao market, want the government to introduce a protectionist policy to protect their businesses.

As for the "open mind", I understand that the prime minister wanted to send a message to the people, public administrators and the business community that they should be ready to welcome comments and suggestions from others.

Never before has a Lao prime minister acknowledged a report from the World Bank on the country's business climate.

I would like to express my strong support for the prime minister as he seeks to fulfil this visionary statement.

I believe that in this era of globalisation, we should open our minds - the more we open, the more we learn and the more we learn, we can see mistakes and correct them.

Many people, particularly public administrators, do not open their minds. One indicator of this is that they do not want to admit their errors and make suggestions.

They like to make reports that talk only about positive developments, and flowering reports not problems.

This is dangerous, for if we do not acknowledge our errors, we cannot identify problems and resolve them.

As for the "open barriers", I understand Laos needs to eliminate administrative barriers that prevent economic development.

Many people find it difficult to run a business because they need to get approval from many officials.

But in order to operate a business it should only be necessary to register, not to seek permission.

In conclusion, while people will interpret the three opens policy of Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith from different angles, I believe that most agree that the policy is a chance for us to incrementally improve our policies and be innovative in running the country, and not just stick with the traditional ways of doing business.

Vientiane Times is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.