Chadchart Sittipunt, Bangkok’s visionary governor, is using his position to root out corruption and clean up the Thai capital.
Bangkok City Hall looks out at a 21-metre-tall religious structure known as the Giant Swing. Nicknamed the “bellybutton of Bangkok” due to its central position, the historic landmark is a useful reference point for the city’s governor, Chadchart Sittipunt. The athletic 57-year-old, who was swept into office last May in a landslide election win, views his hometown as a human body made up of arteries and capillaries. The major arteries are the lines of the extensive subway network that has transformed Bangkok this century, elevating it in the eyes of business travellers and tourists above Southeast Asia’s other congested capitals. The capillaries, meanwhile, are what happens at the end of the line; the parts of the city that most visitors don’t encounter, where crowded communities lack access to quality education and healthcare.
“Our philosophy is to focus more on capillary issues – the small things that make a big difference to people’s day-to-day lives,” says Sittipunt from his office at City Hall in Bangkok’s Phra Nakhon district. “You are happy if you can afford to live next to the train. It’s the grassroots people on the periphery who really need the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority [bma].” His proudest achievement so far is the launch of a platform called Traffy Fondue: city residents can report an issue via an app, see who at City Hall is dealing with it and keep track of how long they are taking to fix the problem. The system crashed on its first day under the weight of 20,000 complaints. Most items relate to pavements, lights, rubbish and street-food vendors. “These are all minor things that can have a big effect when they are never fixed,” says Sittipunt, a former academic and businessman who landed in politics a decade ago when prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra asked him to be her transport minister. “I told my team that 250,000 complaints are not our weakness; it just shows that people are starting to trust us. They are complaining because they feel that we will fix it for them.”
Traffy Fondue was originally created by the national government but left idle. Sittipunt is open to using what’s already available and getting the most out of his 79bn baht (€2.13bn) budget. Other examples of his pragmatic policymaking include designating seven existing sites across the city for public protesting, including “People’s Square” in front of City Hall, and spreading outdoor music beyond Bangkok’s central Lumpini Park. Performances now happen all over Bangkok, throughout the year. “We have artists who need venues to perform, we have audiences who want to listen to them, and we have so many beautiful places left unused,” he says. “Bangkok is just incredible and it’s a big return for minimal investment. People feel that the city is changing when they feel that there are other things to be doing than simply going to shopping malls.”
Sittipunt began formulating his anatomical approach to Bangkok, focusing on lots of little problems rather than a few big projects, when he stood for prime minister in the 2019 election – his first time running for public office and the first free vote in Thailand since the 2014 military coup. Pheu Thai, his party at the time, won the most seats but was kept out of government by a coalition led by former army generals. Three years later, he decided to run in the gubernatorial election as an independent. In doing so, he not only ousted the military-appointed incumbent, foreshadowing similar results in Thailand’s general election this May, but won in every one of Bangkok’s 50 local districts.
The campaigning might have finished but he continues to visit a different district almost every weekend. It’s an exhausting schedule but his commitment to being a leader for the whole city instead of just the privileged centre has kept his approval ratings sky high; mention of his name elicits almost universal approval veering on fandom. Can he keep up this blistering pace for the rest of his four-year term? Yes, he says, smiling and wearing a black campaign T-shirt that has three Thai words emblazoned on the front in bright green: “work, work, work” (pictured). “When I ran for the campaign, I put one motto up on the whiteboard: ‘It has to be fun.’ If it’s not fun, then you’re doing something wrong and you won’t be able to carry on.”
Bangkok tends to rise early and the governor leads by example. Before sunrise, Sittipunt can often be found jogging around Lumpini Park without security. These dawn runs are characteristic of his energetic style of leadership. His accessibility speaks to his reputation as a man of the people. Bangkok-born and raised, Sittipunt grew up in the Thong Lor area of the capital when the land, which is now populated by expats and wealthy Thais, used to be crisscrossed by canals (khlongs) and cows; cattle from a nearby farm would wander into the family’s garden. Half a century later, quality of life is one of his key priorities and bringing greenery back to Bangkok is a central part of this.
Although 15-minute cities are all the rage in Europe, Sittipunt is “starting small” with 15-minute parks. His team has secured more than 100 plots of land and finished 26 parks. “We are trying to create a green space or sporting area near every community,” he says. “We want to make people healthier and this way they can walk or exercise close to home instead of having to travel to a big park, such as Lumpini or Benjakiti.”
Despite the focus on making thousands of small changes, collectively they add up to a big ambition. Sittipunt’s goal is for Bangkok to break the top 50 in the world’s liveability rankings. He devours books on the subject of leadership and brings back lessons from benchmarking visits to other cities around the globe. “You can’t make a city more liveable by regulations alone,” he says, citing What We Owe Each Other, Minouche Shafik’s book about social contracts and the importance of civic responsibility. “Many of Bangkok’s problems, including corruption, come from thinking about yourself and not about public property.” Mild mannered and seemingly unflappable, selfishness makes him angry but he is optimistic about the future. “Right now we are trying to do some garbage separation,” he says. “About 10 per cent of the population are part of the programme and it is gaining momentum. The new generation feels more social responsibility and our role is to make it easier for them to make a change; if we want them to walk more, we need to improve walkways and air quality.”
Pollution has become a major talking point too. Thailand and its neighbouring countries were blanketed in smog at the start of this year with worse-than-usual levels of harmful particles in the air. The regional health crisis brought home the environmental challenges facing most city leaders and underlined the particular limitations of the Bangkok governor. Powerless to stop farmers burning fields in the borderlands, Sittipunt’s hands are also tied by a series of overlapping roles and responsibilities. The bma controls the pavements, for instance, but not the roads, traffic lights or notorious overhead wires. An unconstrained Sittipunt would like to relocate the port of Bangkok and bring in a London-style congestion charge, both of which require approval from his boss, the prime minister. Bangkok is the only city in Thailand with an elected leader and the governor falls under the purview of the central government. Though Sittipunt claims to have a good working relationship with the outgoing military leaders, the appointment of a new government this summer, involving democratic parties such as Move Forward and Pheu Thai, would provide fresh opportunity for collaboration and reform. “It’s possible for us to have more authority so we can deal with issues such as traffic jams and pollution levels more efficiently. But it might take years to expand the governor’s authority and it has to be passed by the national parliament,” he says, diplomatically. “I became governor, so I have to accept these constraints.”
For now he is focusing on what he can fix. The bma is responsible for educating half of the children in Bangkok. “People are the most important asset for us, not buildings or roads,” he says. “Improving the quality of teaching will make the future better.” Some 80,000 employees are on the bma payroll and the governor wants to shift their focus away from pleasing him to serving the people. Having inherited “a typical Thai bureaucracy” with a traditional mindset, he has spent his first year trying to speed up decision-making and root out corruption, which he describes as “the elephant in the room”. Clearly not afraid to ruffle feathers, he is also pushing ahead with a long-proposed plan to move the bma to another part of Bangkok. It might not have been his idea to relocate but he certainly has the energy, determination and political capital to see it through. Just before speaking to monocle, Sittupunt was chairing a committee meeting about the future use of the current 1950s building in Phra Nakhon. A new museum has been mooted. “This is the centre of Bangkok and it was founded by King Rama I,” he says. “If we can turn this place into a public space for everyone, not just our staff, then it becomes more valuable.”