Thai tablet project is in jeopardy

The Pheu Thai government's ambitious but troubled plan to hand out computer tablets to nearly a million schoolchildren is in danger of collapsing because the Chinese suppliers are reportedly putting off the signing of the contract, sources told The Nation yesterday.

Even if the contract does get signed eventually and the plan goes ahead, it is now almost certain that the government will miss its deadline by weeks, if not months, of delivering tablets to Grade 1 students. The Yingluck Shinawatra administration was planning to hand out tablets to 900,000 children when schools reopen mid next month. However, this timeframe is very unrealistic now due to a tug of war over the signing of the contract.

"If this project had been initiated by the bureaucracy, it would have been scrapped already," one source said. "But this is an election promise, so the government has no choice but to muddle through it," a source said.

The sources are blaming the Shenzhen Scope Scientific Development for the escalating uncertainties. The Chinese supplier has reportedly backtracked on a previously agreed two-year guarantee on its products, claiming that the battery could not possibly last that long. There have also been other instances of backtracking, like the firm cutting down on its post-sale service centres from 30 to just 12.

As it will take about 90 days after the contract is signed for the first batch of tablet PCs to be delivered, the government could miss its deadline by several weeks. And this is assuming the contract will be signed soon.

"Bureaucrats involved in the acquisition process are becoming doubtful," one source said.

When asked if it would be better for everyone if the project was just scrapped, he replied: "In that case, the whole government will be hurt."

The acquisition process has been plagued by problems from the very start. First the Information and Communications Technology Ministry announced that the bidding for the project had been completed, before denying it and then blaming the media for misinterpreting its first round of screening as the final outcome. The murkiness of the deal then intensified speculation about why a giant Chinese firm, an initial favourite to win the contract, had not won the bidding. Then the signing of the contract kept getting delayed. The initial explanation was that Shenzhen Scope Scientific Development was unable to get a bank guarantee in China. Yesterday was the first time that information emerged about how the Chinese firm and the Thai government were locking horns over contractual details.

"The Chinese have been seeking to make a lot of changes," the source said. "Some of these changes are acceptable, but others are simply not consistent with our requirements."

According to the source, the Chinese have been going back and forth with different annexes, making it difficult for the Thai negotiators to catch up. At one point, the Chinese firm sought an advance guarantee from the Thai side so as to facilitate their quest for a bank guarantee. Then they demanded partial payment and called for some of the production burden to be absorbed by the government.

The sources said they had no idea how these differences would be ironed out in such a short period of time. Plus, the Thai side is getting restless now because the price of computer tablets is starting to swing considerably due to growing competition and new inventions are coming out virtually on a daily basis.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was given a Scope tablet to try out during her visit to China this week. It was a scene that belied the problems mounting over the project, which critics have dubbed wasteful due to the very young age of recipients and the short-life of technology gadgets nowadays.

Information and Communications Technology Minister Anudith Nakornthap yesterday said it remained unclear as to when the purchase contract for 900,000 tablets would be signed. "The attorney-general has not yet approved the contract draft," he said. "We have to prepare all the necessary documents before the signing can take place". Anudith expected the first lot of tablets under the government's much-touted One Tablet Per Child project to reach schools in July.

He said although the contract would require the Chinese supplier to deliver all 900,000 tablets within 90 days, he believed the delivery of all tablets would be completed within 60 days after the signing of the contract.

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