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14 May 2004 00:00
Think Thailand and what comes to mind? Paid-for sex? Plentiful drugs? But Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra would rather the mention of his country evoked images of world-class football. To help us get the right idea he announced this week that he wanted to buy a significant stake in Liverpool Football Club.
The way the 55-year-old tycoon-turned-politician tells it, the acquisition of a global brand as powerful as Liverpool, albeit one that has been through a lean spell, represents the crowning glory of his country’s unprecedented makeover.
Out, or seriously suppressed, are the vices of illicit sex and readily available illegal drugs — which for years have been two of Thailand’s biggest drawcards as far as the legions of foreign tourists are concerned.
Bangkok’s nightclubs have had their closing time brought forward so it is now even earlier than strait-laced Singapore.
Meanwhile, Thaksin’s war on the ubiquitous methamphetamine — known as yaa baa or crazy pill — last year reportedly resulted in more than 82 000 villages becoming drug-free and the number of drug cases going to court falling by more than 50% in 12 months.
Replacing these two mainstays of Thailand’s international reputation are tens of thousands of football pitches. And inspiring Thais, and foreign tourists, to forsake the dimly lit strip clubs or drug dens for the wholesome fresh air will be Messrs Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Danny Murphy and the rest of the Liverpool squad.
‘Lots of our products need a brand and Liverpool is one that we can use on the world market,” Thaksin said this week.
‘It’s an established club with a lot of popularity in Asia.”
He has admitted that if Liverpool go for the rival offer of Merseyside businessman Steve Morgan he will not get into a bidding war but might turn his attention to other clubs in the Premiership.
His chief negotiator in the Liverpool deal, Deputy Commerce Minister Pongsak Ruktapongpisal, speaks almost lyrically as he imagines the impact the Liverpool brand will have on his country.
‘In Thailand there are a lot of Liverpool fans, close to one million probably,” he says. ‘So when we join up with Liverpool it will make many people alert to exercise and sport. It will point them in a better direction and protect them from drugs, especially people living up country in remote areas who might have nothing to do.”
Thaksin’s spokesman, Jakrapob Penkair, who has also been involved in the discussions with Liverpool, says his boss is skilfully manipulating the Thai psyche.
‘Thailand is a country where most people are attracted by good things,” he said. ‘They like to be associated with them. And Liverpool is exactly that. It is much more than just a team or a name. It is a management system, a symbol of gentlemanship [sic].”
It is unclear how Thaksin will finance the purchase of Liverpool shares (and specifically whether Thai public money will be involved) but, as the country’s richest commoner, he could do it from his own pocket and hardly notice. After 14 years in the police force, during which he obtained a PhD in criminal justice from a little-known university in Texas, he resigned in 1987, claiming to be burned out.
By then he had already engineered a deal to supply the police with computer software and soon after his retirement he established a software marketing company which he named after himself, the Shinawatra Company. Pager technology was the budding entrepreneur’s next experiment and this led into cellular phones and communication satellites.
By 1990 Thaksin was reportedly almost bankrupt, although he always appeared well off for a former police officer. But then he succeeded in obtaining a 20-year concession from the Telephone Organisation of Thailand and his future was secure. Having made his fortune, Thaksin turned to politics in 1994.
After becoming disillusioned with the traditional parties he formed his own, Thai Rak Thai, and in the 1999 general election propelled it to the first-ever absolute majority. —
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