Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Fourth World Attitudes in a Third World Country 

I hope everybody had a good holiday weekend for Workers' Day, or Labour Day, whichever it's called in your part of the world....you Yanks have to wait until September for your watered-down version...

Whereas the holiday is meant to honour the contributions made to the world by the workers who actually do most of the work that spreads prosperity through a nation, a region (such as, say, South-East Asia) or the world, it's obvious to even the most casual observer that people at various levels in various societies work harder than others, and consequently their society reaps the progressive benefits - or lack thereof. While the Japanese salaryman is probably the best-known stock example of this in the last fifty years or so, he had the benefit of at least living and working in a nation whose Government was (mostly) just as committed to the progress and increasing prosperity of the country. Therefore, although he worked hard and made what others would consider great personal sacrifices on a routine basis (think "family time"), he and his family did not seem to feel that that effort went unrewarded.

I have never in my life seen harder-working, more self-disciplined people than the Thais as a whole, with the Vietnamese giving them strong competition. Several people I know who are with multinational corporations (MNCs) of one sort or another routinely remark that their operations in Thailand are much more productive, often by an order of magnitude, than their operations in South Asia or in Africa. The Vietnamese have, in living memory, fought and won a decades-long war for independence, unification and self-defence against not one but four local or global superpowers (Japan, France, the United States, and China). I observed while living there that people there had a strong sense of pride and accomplishment in their country; they were keenly aware of the limitations and failures as well as the successes, and people were (again, mostly) working themselves to death trying to make life better for themselves, their family and their country. In a year's time, I saw exactly two people who appeared to be begging: on further inquiry, one appeared to have fraudulent intention, while the other had obviously (and apparently temporarily) fallen through the cracks in a "perfect storm" of highly unlikely, interacting events. Business in Vietnam was a bit of a different story - few of the independent artists and consultants I knew there were paid regularly for work done - but again, there were strong indications that that sort of treatment was not acceptable to most of society.

Then you have two other countries in the region which do things a bit differently. One is in the final throes of the run-up to an election; during the run-up, a senior minister was quoted by foreign press giving the apparently routine threat that 'districts which vote for the Opposition candidates to Parliament can expect to remain last on the list for "Government monies for housing and neighbourhood development and opposition. The party which has monopolised power in that country since before its independence is apparently upset that the Opposition has not been sufficiently cowed, having the unprecedented audacity to have candidates standing in over half the country's districts. So, depite the considerable best efforts of the party and its Governmental rulemakers, many people will have an almost unprecedented opportunity to cast votes against the one-party state.

That country's nearest neighbour, of which it was in fact once part, is faring little better. Having just announced the latest in the country's Soviet-style Five-Year Plans for a command economy, the country does in fact have an active private sector. Largely dominated by ethnic and cultural minorities, the private sector is growing rapidly, bringing foreign commerce and ideas into the country and trying hard to make the country a regional force in agriculture, manufacturing, information and technical services, and other areas. While the majority has a reputation for avoiding risk, either by doing Government projects (for which they are strongly preferred to minority-led companies), or by following the lead of minority-owned companies that pioneer new areas. While this has been moderately successful in lifting a large number of the majority culture out of the most abject poverty, questions are now being delicately raised in some quarters about whether the current way of doing things is the most effective way to bring greater economic power to the majority, to match their current and historical political power as constitutionally-mandated controllers of the Government. While the Government continues on its course of favoritism and growing "multiculturalims" through strict racial separation and mandated superiority, the minorities - who are carrying the economic risks and workload of the country far out of proportion to their numbers - have been growing increasingly dissatisfied. Not among their ethnically-oriented representatives in a "coalition ruling party" dominated by the majority and their interests - those politicians are as sleek and comfortable as their majority counterparts - but among the actual workers on the ground, there is a palpably increasing discontent. The majority is, not without reason, petrified at the idea of losing exclusive power - before independence, they were stomped on egregiously by various colonial powers. Be that as it may, they have singularly failed, to date, to rise to the level of transparency, openness, and freedom from corruption and from hypocrisy necessary to ensure that all benefit from the country's progress, and that individuals, of any ethnic or cultural background, can fairly reap the rewards of their labours without having to give large percentages of the rewards to Government-mandated "partners" who contribute little or no value to the actual operation of a company (besides links to the ethnic Government, of course).

This last country, the only country to ever have successfully crushed a Communist insurgency (with massive foreign "assistance" and at great and lasting costs to freedoms). With a command economy, and an educational system purpose-built to erase the individualism and creativity needed to compete effectively in the modern global workforce, one almost wonders why they bothered. Perhaps the leaders are familiar with the most famous passage from The Communist Manifesto: "Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains" - and they are petrified by the idea that someone might ask how to go about losing those "chains" on their freedoms without becoming a socialist in name as well as deed.

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