Singapore-style school in Thailand under fire over IPO listing

A private school based on the Singapore curriculum is facing possible court scrutiny in Thailand after the recent debut of its shares on the local stock exchange.

The Singapore International School of Bangkok (SISB) launched its initial public offering (IPO) last Thursday amid criticism that it was seeking profit at the expense of education. It is the first educational institute in Thailand to go public.

Private schools in Thailand do not need to pay taxes as part of a government bid to attract investments to raise educational standards. SISB's critics argue that the school should be taxed if it wants to be listed.

Mr Juti Krairiksh, secretary-general of the Democrat Party, has filed a petition at the Central Administrative Court to suspend the trading of SISB shares. Tomorrow, the court is due to hear more information from the Securities and Exchange Commission before deciding if it will proceed with this case.

Mr Juti told The Straits Times he filed the petition in his personal capacity to prevent the worsening disparity in Thailand's education.

"After you raise funds (from the stock market), you hire good professors to teach, and you can raise your fees. This would raise the inequality in institutions, and the poor will have fewer and fewer choices," he said.

"It's not the company that I am targeting. It's symbolic. If this one gets through, many other schools may follow."

According to the Ministry of Education, about 3.5 million students were enrolled in 12,743 private schools in the 2017 academic year.

FOLLOWING THE RULES

We have complied with the regulations. Currently, people have a misconception. We are investing. We are not taking profit first.

SISB CHIEF EXECUTIVE KELVIN KOH, on the school's initial public offering.

Educationists say Thailand's public school system has suffered from years of neglect and mismanagement, pushing parents with the means to send their children to private schools.

In the 2015 round of Programme for International Student Assessment, which tests the skills of 15-year-old students across 70 countries, Thailand ranked 54th for mathematics and 57th for reading, far behind Asian countries like Vietnam and China.

SISB chief executive Kelvin Koh told The Straits Times that it got the green light from both the Education Ministry and the securities regulator for its listing.

"We have complied with the regulations," he said.

"Currently, people have a misconception," he added. "We are investing. We are not taking profit first."

The SISB is seeking funds to expand and improve the quality of its teaching and learning, he said.

The school, set up in 2001, currently has five campuses in Thailand, including one in Chiang Mai province. About 85 per cent of its 2,400 students are Thai.

"We need funding to continue growing," said Mr Koh. "We make a lot of investments, like performing arts centres and sports complexes."

He denied the allegation that fees would spike because of the listing.

"We are trying to be affordable for the community. Every time we increase fees, we need to send it to the Ministry of Education for endorsement."

SISB shares closed at 4.44 baht on Tuesday, down from its IPO price of 5.2 baht. Its listing comes on the heels of similar efforts by other educational groups in Asia.

In Singapore, the Overseas Family School, which caters mainly to expatriates, is owned by Overseas Education Limited, which listed on the local bourse in 2013 to raise funds for a new campus.

China Yuhua Education Corporation, which owns institutes taking a student from kindergarten to university, listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange last year. But Beijing last month said it would not allow kindergartens to go public.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2018, with the headline 'S'pore-style school in Thailand under fire over IPO listing'. Print Edition | Subscribe