Should a rock star be raising money to improve healthcare services?: The Nation

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaks to media during the announcement of his government's achievements over the past two years at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sept 15, 2016. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

In its editorial on Oct 17, the paper says the debate over hospital fund-raisers boils down to getting the government to spend less on defence purchases and more on improving medical services.

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK)- Maybe Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha felt embarrassed when rock star turned running enthusiast Toon Bodyslam announced he was going to jog across the country to raise money for hospitals so they could buy much-needed equipment.

It was embarrassing for all the rest of us, though, when Prayut praised Toon's plan - ignoring the fact that his government is buying submarines in peacetime instead of medical equipment that's needed all the time.

Artiwara "Toon" Kongmalai, singer of the band Bodyslam, plans to run more than 2,000 kilometres, from Thailand's southernmost district, Betong, to its northernmost, Mae Sai, and hopes to raise at least US$21 million (S$28.47 million) for 11 hospitals lacking the equipment they need.

All he needs is for every citizen to donate US$0.30 to the cause. This is the second time Toon has put both feet forward in aid of public healthcare. His 10-day, 400km run last December earned more than Bt85 million (S$3.48 million) for Bang Saphan District Hospital and praise for him from all corners.

Toon's latest outing, though, has social activists fuming - not about his generosity of spirit, but at the need for yet another celebrity effort to cover costs that the government should be covering.

While the military junta directs its puppet government to endorse multibillion-baht expenditures on weaponry, at a time when Thailand is under no external threat, Toon is making the rounds once more begging ordinary people to help his cause.

And these are the very people whose taxes are already supposed to pay for whatever hospital equipment is needed. Instead, those taxes are buying tanks, helicopters and submarines.

Toon's response to the debate raging on the social media - between outright supporters of his efforts and critics of a short-lived "stunt" amid government mismanagement of the budget - has been just as admirable as his charity runs. His has only one intention, he says, and that's to help the hospitals, not engage in political argument. "I prefer doing more than talking."

There is no debate, in fact. While Toon deserves praise, his high-profile fund-raisers do not address the root of the problem.

Healthcare should not rely on public donations. Prayut praised Toon as well, and urged citizens to support him with donations.

It was an appalling thing to hear from the leader of a government failing to do what a pop star manages to do. This is a government whose top spending priority is the procurement of military hardware.

The financial shortfall in the healthcare system has been described as severe, and with Thai society rapidly ageing, we need a far more sustainable way of bridging that gap.

Too many hospitals depend on donations and philanthropy to meet their patients' basic needs. For fiscal 2017-18, the Public Health Ministry has Bt136 billion in taxpayers' money to spend. For many years, the Defence Ministry's budget has typically been twice the size of the Health Ministry's.

It has Bt222.5 million to spend this fiscal year.

With that kind of spending on defence, you'd think there were heavily armed barbarians at the gate, but Thailand is at peace with its neighbours and there is no peril in the foreseeable future.

Genuine threats are more likely to take the form of natural disasters and cross-border epidemics, both of which would place greater demand on the healthcare system.

That's where the government's top priority should be.

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

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