Farewell MICT, thanks for all the memories

16 Sep 2016

Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology is no more. Henceforth it is consigned to the history books and replaced by what a strict translation would be Digital Ministry for the Economy and the Society, though everyone is (thankfully) calling it the Digital Economy Ministry.

I must admit the passing of the MICT brings a tear to my eye. I was part of the MICT from day one, no from day zero. I remember being introduced to its first Permanent Secretary back when it was still run out of the Office of the Civil Service Commission. About a month later in 2003, I was a civil servant there, earning the princely sum of $220 (7,780 baht) a month.

Even by Thai standards that was a joke. I remember a newspaper article about how street beggars got by with only 12,000 baht a month, or nearly 150% of my salary.

I was in my official bureau for less than a day. I was supposed to be a computer technical expert level 4 (whatever that was) in the ICT Promotion Bureau. I ended spending the next few years writing speeches for the Minister and other senior staff as well as getting into all sorts of trouble.

On my first day on the job I changed the ministry’s name. It was the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology. I was the one who told the Permanent Secretary to cut out the s and rename it the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. A small change, but it was my change. So in a way, it was very much my ministry from then on.

The first year was the most fun. We had zero budget and I mean zero budget and we had to beg for pennies from CAT and TOT to get by. But somehow that was the most innocent of times. I remember writing many speeches about how we were going to use technology to bridge the digital divide and the goodwill we had was amazing. Microsoft, Oracle, HP, AMD, Intel, you name it, they all came knocking on our door with projects and ideas. We had ideas and goodwill and it was an amazing time to be in Thailand’s best startup ever.

Budgets were so tight we had to improvise. I remember one event where we needed a posh venue. I suggested instead of doing the usual and asking CAT or TOT to “help” arrange it, we use the CAT Telecom helipad instead. For me, that was the most awesome cocktail reception in my life and the view of Bangkok at dusk from the helipad was breathtaking. For the women the wind totally ruined their hair and I think most of them had a terrible time. Thankfully, nobody fell off the building that day.

Being at CAT Telecom the internet was very fast. If you could get in. We were plugged right into the backbone of the Internet with I think it was 100Mbps of pure unadulterated International bandwidth. However, what we did not have was DHCP. Yes, every morning we had to rush in and ping various IP addresses to get a vacant space in order to get some work done. We had a list of IPs belonging to senior staff but the rest was essentially a first-come, first-served approach.

There was one day that the Minister’s computer was infected with a spam-blasting virus and nobody could get any work done (well, except the people in central admin who do work in paper). The Minister was away and nobody was willing to go in and yank the Ethernet cable from his PC. So instead of actually fixing it, CAT turned up the bandwidth until the Minister’s computer was incapable of saturating the link so that everyone could get some work done and for a day Bangkok became spam capital of the world.

The MICT had a lot of hand-holding from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. MICT was supposed to be a new, lean ministry without the bloat of bureaucracy. We were supposed to outsource everything except policy making to the private sector. Not that it ever happened.

We even got half a million dollars of bank funding to work with Booz Allen Hamilton. Yes, the same BAH that employed Edward Snowden. The idea was to uplift rural Thailand. How? Well, by uplifting the ICT capacity of the ICT Ministry (ok that was a stretch, but after a few rejected projects I was willing to go with anything). By ICT Ministry I thought we were going to get help and perhaps finally get a DHCP server but I was mistaken. Snowden’s colleagues spent only the briefest of glances at all the information I had prepared for them on how totally messed up we were. Instead they spent virtually all their allotted time looking at two other parts of the MICT - CAT Telecom and TOT Corporation - and came up with a report that was not what I expected.

In hindsight, knowing what Booz Allen Hamilton is, it makes perfect sense. I wonder if the NSA still has a file on me and if they are updating it as I have transitioned to the world of journalism.

On another occasion I gained the wrath of many senior staff when I suggested that instead of setting up committees to do an emergency website for some ASEAN event, I said that if the minister could take one of his staff off their assigned work for a week, I could get it done without spending a single baht extra.

Apparently the idea of civil servants actually doing things rather than twiddling their fingers, outsourcing everything and acting all high and mighty was such a novel and radical idea that once the website was all up and running, someone decided to pay my desk a visit and made sure that the server found its way to the floor in pieces.

Oh, well. At least we had the best website in all of the Thai government while it lasted.

Low points? There were many.

One of the most embarrassing days in my career was when we invited Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to talk at ICT Expo. Tickets were all sold out and I had people from Nectec calling me up begging for seats.

Come keynote time, the auditorium was deserted. Jimmy Wales delivered a keynote to an almost empty room. What happened? Well, we had CAT and TOT help sell the tickets and they managed to sell every last one. We got the money for every last ticket. Only the people CAT and TOT sold (or gave) the tickets to had no idea what Wikipedia was and who Jimmy Wales was and did not bother to show up.

Another disaster was the Thailand Institute of Knowledge (THINK) or the Knowledge Institute of Thailand (KNOW-IT) - we never really pinned down the English name. Two awesome acronyms for an awesome and noble project. Tacit knowledge was dying as people migrated to the big cities and old people were dying. The MICT needed to act immediately and hire an army to go out and digitize and preserve that knowledge before it disappears forever. We had a huge event, chaired by Thaksin Shinawatra himself who gave his full backing to the project.

Only a few months later the project suddenly was taken from MICT and given to the Education Ministry and morphed into a living library. Yes, it turned into the OKMD (Office of Knowledge Management and Development) at Central World. Their acronym was nowhere nearly as cool as ours and in the end it was a library with computers thrown around the room and nothing, back then or to this day over 13 years later, was done to preserve the tacit knowledge that is fading away as we speak.

Then there was the Shinsat incident at the Distance Learning Foundation. As a civil servant there are strict protocols on tea and cake in meetings. Level 4 people are treated to cheap coffee and biscuits. Level 6 and higher and you get better cake. Normal non-civil servants are equivalent to 4. If you have a PhD you are equivalent to 6 and the list goes on.

So we had a meeting with a team from the DLF and I had to do the cake paperwork. I grilled them on their ranking to which I got an answer - director. But I then asked is it a bureau director (level 8) or an autonomous organization director (level 9)? In the end after a lot of frustration I found out that nearly all the staff at the DLF were on the Shinsat payroll and were on loan to the Distance Learning Foundation - so that makes them eligible for cheap coffee and cookies only. Needless to say I did not make friends digging that information out as they were demoted from level 8 or 9 to just 4 for that detail.

The DLF also marked the beginning of the end of my civil service career. I made the mistake of going to a meeting at Hua Hin without filing proper paperwork first. Big mistake. There is an ancient law that says civil servants cannot cross provincial borders without permission from their Director-General or Permanent Secretary. In the end I managed to get retroactive pre-clearance for that event but the way I was treated as a criminal by central admin helped me make up my mind to leave.

After that I joined a local newspaper full time and the rest, as they say, is history.

Farewell, MICT. You will always hold a special place in my heart.

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