Korn Chatikavanij's Brave New Move
At a lofty six-foot-four-inches, Korn Chatikavanij is hard to miss. Born in England to a career civil servant attached to the Thai Ministry of Finance, he came to Thailand when he was three years old and completed his primary schooling at Pathumwan Demonstration School before returning to the UK at the age of 11 to study at Winchester College. From the prestigious boys' school he moved on to Oxford University and St John’s College to read philosophy, politics and economics, or PPE, the degree for those planning careers in government, civil service and big business.
Candidly, Korn admits he wasn’t particularly studious as a young man. “Academically, I probably peaked the week I sat the Oxford entrance exam,” he laughs. Once in he was determined to enjoy all aspects of university life—particularly sport and principally rowing, for which he had the ideal build. But rowing is tough and the backbreaking training is time-consuming and physically brutal. “I had aspirations to make the crew of eight in the Oxford Blue Boat and compete in the famous varsity race against Cambridge but the year I was trying to qualify there were some very experienced oarsmen about looking to become Olympians and I didn’t make it,” the 56-year-old explains. The commitment to rowing certainly impacted Korn’s studies and he graduated with a third-class degree. “A gentleman’s third, and no regrets,” he grins.
Putting the disappointment behind him he moved to London where he worked in the financial sector for two and a half years before finally coming back to Thailand to open his own business. “I was 23 years old when I set up my investment company in 1988,” he says of JF Thanakom, a joint venture with British firms. “I had a good nine years before the 97 crash,” he adds wistfully. In 1999, he sold out to Chase, which also acquired JP Morgan, and stayed on to manage the expanded business until 2004.
It was then that Korn decided he wanted to serve the public in some capacity. Although he was elected an MP for Bangkok in 2005, his Democrat Party lost out to Thai Rak Thai but in 2008 he eventually served as finance minister in the administration of Abhisit Vejjajiva, a good friend from his Oxford days. During the following years out of politics, Korn co-founded award-winning fintech company Refinn International and championed English language education for all, among other things. Then, at the start of this year, following 15 years with the Democrats, he surprised many by announcing his resignation.
The reason becomes clear when he says, “I think we need a different approach to politics, so in February I began forming a new party called Kla, meaning bravery or daring.” Asked about its manifesto, he barks a laugh. “We don’t have one yet, but I’m a policy wonk so we’re working hard on one that will benefit the whole country.” He adds that among other things it will focus on re-skilling the population to take advantage of technology and tackling climate change and issues of sustainability.
On this last topic Korn has some personal form. His Imm Rice programme promoting sustainable rice farming is helping Thai farmers eschew chemical use and assuring them of a fair price for their produce. “They effectively double their income per ton and are seeing more fish and crab in their paddies.” A tall order, but he will be hoping to have a similarly fecund effect in the field of Thai politics in years to come.
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