A born leader: UW–Madison alumnus Varawut “Top” Silpa-archa builds on legacy of public service in Thailand

Varawut Silpa-archa, Thailand Minister of Natural Resources and Environment
Varawut Silpa-archa, Thailand Minister of Natural Resources and Environment (Photo credit: MONRE)

Editor’s note: As of September 1, 2023, Silpa-archa has assumed a new position as Minister of Social Development and Human Security under the coalition government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin.

Varawut Silpa-archa was born with great expectations.

The son of Thailand Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa, he grew up in a world of leadership and politics. Both his mother and father saw great things for Varawut, with his mother even nicknaming him “Top” as a young boy, because she wanted him to be at the top of everything. It is a name that has continued to suit him for decades as he works to better Thailand and the global community.

Silpa-archa’s impressive resume includes serving as the elected member of his home province of Suphan Buri in the Thailand House of Representatives in 2001, 2005, and 2007. He was Deputy Minister of Transport under Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and is currently Minister of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) for the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

His role in MONRE is expansive, including oversight for national parks, forest and biodiversity management, marine and coastal resources, and wildlife conservation. In managing this portfolio, he has developed goals around waste management, improving and expanding forests and green spaces, and decreasing pollution. This includes plans to free Thailand from single-use plastic, expand forests across an additional 23% of the nation, and restrict the production of greenhouse gasses to name just a few of his initiatives.

“A wise man once said we didn’t inherit the Earth, we just borrowed it from our future generations,” Silpa-archa said. “When you borrow something from someone, you look after it well. And then you return it to them in mint condition.

It is work he sees as carrying a common thread—to ensure a stable and sustainable future for the Thai people.

“The crown jewel of Thailand is more important than our nature and our natural resources,” Silpa-archa said. “The crown jewel of this country is the people itself.”

Alongside his role in the MONRE, Silpa-archa leads the Chartthaipattana Party (Thai Nation Development Party) a position he was selected for in 2022.

“At this point I am confident to say that I was born and bred a politician. It was the way my father groomed me,” Silpa-archa said. “But the day my father passed away, the 23rd of April in 2016, that’s when I realized that I was born for this, and I actually kind of enjoy it. I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I think it’s my purpose.”

While Silpa-archa’s early education took place largely in Thailand, much of his academic career took place abroad. He attended high school in England before continuing on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from University College London. After, he enrolled at UW–Madison, where he earned his MBA in finance and banking.

Silpa-archa honored by WAAT as 2023 Badger of the year award
Varawut Silpa-archa honored by the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Thailand Chapter with the 2023 Badger of the Year Award (From left to right: Derek Kindle, UW Vice Provost for Enrollment Management; Varawut Silpa-archa; Lora Klenke, Managing Director–International Alumni Relations, Wisconsin Alumni Association; Barry Gerhart, Interim Vice Provost and Dean, UW International Division)

“My sister, who had an MBA in marketing said that I had to do an MBA to see another side of the world,” said Silpa-archa. “Though she was not an alumna at UW–Madison and went to UW–Milwaukee, she strongly recommended Madison. I had never been to Madison before in my life. I didn’t have the luxury of visiting. So, I took my sister’s word for it. And I went and I just fell in love with place.”

While he considered focusing on marketing, Silpa-archa ultimately decided on finance, finding the field interesting. Through the challenges of the coursework, Silpa-archa developed an adaptive way of thinking through problems that differed from the practical approach he had learned while studying mechanical engineering.

“What I found while working on the MBA was a different frame of thought. They are two absolutely different fields: engineering is a practical field, where you go back to square one, you go back to the principle, you quote the principle, and you apply those principles to problems. Now on the other hand, when you go to the financial sector, everything is all about the assumption. You’re trying to make scenarios—the best-case scenario, optimistic, pessimistic, most likely scenario—and consider what would happen in different cases. And in running a ministry for example, sometimes you have to assume the best case or the worst case.”

Silpa-archa still holds many close ties with the university. His son is now a student at the university, and he also stays connected through the Wisconsin Alumni Association Thailand Chapter, which recently honored him with the 2023 Badger of the Year award.

In considering his accomplishments so far, and what may be on the horizon, he encourages future generations to strive to work to make a positive impact in their own way.

“Be the best that you can be. In order to do something for the country, you don’t need to be a politician. You can be anything. Be the person who your organization cannot live without. It doesn’t matter what you do, because every single occupation is a cog in the huge machine called the world.”