The first time I visited a developing country as an adult was Thailand on my honeymoon. To say it was an extremely different experience to the life in Perth I was used to, was a vast understatement.
So much was different – the culture, the infrastructure, the people, the politics and the economy. One of the most striking features was the relatively low cost of living (food, accommodation, transport and utilities). It was great, as an Aussie a paycheque that could be stretched really far in a place like Phuket. We could live like a king with a regular middle-class Australian wage.
This probably was the first time I had considered a life outside Australia. It was a passing dream which I disregarded as fanciful at the time, but something had started nonetheless.
I found the people in Thailand, across the board, so warm and friendly. The customer service I experienced and shops and restaurants wasn’t something I was used to. They would really bend over backwards to please a customer. I recall purchasing some DVDs from a shopkeeper and for me the price was extremely low already and I felt a little bad for haggling with him. Why was that? I was so used to the standard of living in the “lucky country” that anyone else who lived in circumstances that I perceived less than that evoked in me a sense of sympathy. It sounds all soft and cuddly, but in hindsight, it was a bit arrogant actually.
Flash forward to Bali in 2005. It was just 2 weeks after the 2nd Bali bombings and Erin & I had booked in a holiday several months prior. We had considered cancelling our trip, but decided that we’d go anyway. The airline was only refunding flights within 2 weeks after the event, and we fell outside that by just a couple days. We figured, we were just as likely to die in a freak accident in Perth as another terrorist attack.
This was another occasion we really noticed the difference in the lifestyle of folks in a developing country. The tourism industry in Bali was devastated by the bombings and walking the main streets in south Kuta was like a ghost town, but we decided to enjoy ourselves anyway. Again, I found myself in a number of situations haggling with shopkeepers, and feeling a bit sorry for their plight, I gave them a higher price than I might have done otherwise. I can be a tough negotiator, but I can also be a bit of a softie.
But after a few more visits to Bali I started to notice something that I overlooked before. So many Balinese spend such a relatively small time each day actually “working”, by what I mean in Australian standards. If you get a paid to a do a job, you better do it full-on for 8 hours of a the day and then you go home, watch TV and put your feet up. The Bali folks were spending a lot of time talking to each other, sitting around, eating, laughing and talking some more. I wondered in the back of my mind why they would be so lazy. What was it about their culture that encouraged that? I was used to working 40+ hour weeks and I felt anyone doing less (much less in their cases) was slacking off. Perhaps if they worked a bit harder, they wouldn’t live in such poor quality housing and wear such poor quality clothes. Again in hindsight, this proved to be a bit of arrogance. I had just assumed that my way of living was right and they were living a sub-par life.
It turns out I was wrong. They had it right all along.
It took me many years, but eventually I had an important shift in my awareness about what it really means to “work” and what kind of things were really important to me to live a fulfilled life.
The turning point began when we started to travel and live in developing countries and I had a crisis of conscience. How could I live in an area where the relative cost of living was so low that I could live like a king, on the backs of the lower class who made that kind of thing possible? Wasn’t that exploitation? It really made me think.
I like to look to history to see how things have been done. It seems in every developed culture since the earliest records, there has always been an echelon of society who lives at higher standard than the vast majority. There’s a disproportionate distribution of wealth and power. I looked at the cause of my perspective on this topic and it was highly influenced by Australian culture. If you’re not familiar with it, you could summarise it as “tall poppy syndrome”. Those that stand out get cut down to size. The left-leaning side of politics would call it a “fairer” country for all. Their policies have introduced things like:
- Tiered taxation (so the richer folks pay a substantially higher rate of tax)
- High levels for the compulsory minimum wages (to protect the workers from unscrupulous employers)
- The dole (regular payments to those find themselves unemployed)
- Medicare (public government-subsidized health care)
- Forced superannuation (similar to 401k in the US, but the employer has to be an additional 8% on top of the employee’s wage to a superannuation fund)
- Paid sick leave (at least 2 weeks per year, cost covered by employers)
- Paid annual leave (at least 4 weeks per year, cost covered by employers as well)
- Compulsory school education (for children ages 6 to 16 - grades 1 to 10)
- Aged pension (regular payments to all residents once they reach 65)
- Public housing (free or highly discounted housing for low income earners)
- HELP (Higher Education Loan Program for tertiary students so they can go to university for free and pay back the loan when they have a job)
- Carbon Tax (taxation on the major carbon pollution contributors, which just ends up raising the cost of living)
Some of those things sound nice on the surface (and don’t get me wrong, they can have their place), but what they breed is a culture that despises and discourages excellence and de-emphasizes the importance of the family unit. I know, it sounds pretty harsh and I’m sure I’ll get some negative comments about that, but they’ll probably be Labor or Greens voters, so I won’t take it personally.
If you work hard in Australia to build a successful business and make more money than the average Joe, you have to work even harder to pay your extra share of taxes. Many of the financial incentives and benefits either don’t exist for higher income earners or are substantially reduced, such as:
The “baby bonus” (payout when a baby is born – the federal government thinks adults need to be paid to make babies because of the pending population shortage – otherwise there won’t be enough folks to pay taxes)
Subsidized daycare (when a mother returns to work and puts her young child/ren in daycare, she ends up almost paying her full income to cover the daycare costs, defeating any purpose in returning to the workforce)
Even better, as a business owner no one will pay for you to take holidays or if you’re sick. But if your employee wants a holiday or has the sniffles, then you lose productivity AND also pay their wage. A double whammy. When you also take into consideration the cost of running a business – bookkeeping, tax, workers compensation, superannuation, insurance and more. Why would anyone want to bother starting a business? It’s no surprise 80% of small business fail within 2 years in Australia. Folks just give up and go back to being an employee of someone else. It’s so much easier!
The essence of the leftist policies may have all the best intentions, but the end result is a culture that wants equality at all costs, even when it undermines the family or personal sovereignty. This is a relatively new concept by historic standards, with the Marxism only being developed in the 1800s, but what does equality really look like? How does it compare to most other South East Asian cultures? And how does it compare to my first-hand experiences?
Perhaps it means older folks won’t be left alone in the twilight years? That seems like a good reason to provide pensions. Many SE Asian cultures encourage children to support their parents as they get older, both financially and practically. This builds a stronger family unit and provides other benefits like free care for young children if the parents have to work. Even better, the children and grandchildren can learn from the experience and wisdom of the older generation. Compare that to how many older folks in Australia are tucked away in a nursing home separated from their families, just counting down the days before they croak? How many old people live alone, disconnected, with little or no contact with their children and grandchildren? How has this affected society?
Maybe giving handouts to people who can’t find a job means they won’t starve? Ask a Balinese person what they will do if they don’t have enough money to eat or pay the rent and they are likely to give an answer like “I’ll set up a food stall”, and the incredible thing is because of the relative lack of bureaucratic red tape compared to most Western countries, they actually can – probably even the same day. Albeit, the food hygiene standards are a lot stricter in Australia, but you understand where I’m coming from. When the consequence of no employment is taken away, the drive and ambition to fill the need is diminished. I know first-hand when I was on “John Howard’s surfing team” for 3 months after finishing university. It was so hard getting the motivation to keep looking for a job, and I’m a pretty motivated guy. The Australian education system doesn’t really encourage entrepreneurship or innovation. It’s designed to pump out more taxpayers who will do what they are told. So it’s no surprise that a significant percentage of Australians only live from week-to-week, a slave to their job. If there was no unemployment payouts, how would that change the attitudes of Australians?
The idea of high minimum wages is where most of my issues boiled down to. We can thank Bob Hawke for that. At the end of the day, it is illegal for an employer to an employee less than what a defacto government agency determines is “fair”. I thought we lived in a free economy where prices were based on supply and demand? But I guess that isn’t really “fair”. When you couple this with the option for an employee to say goodbye to their boss because they can join the unemployment queue at Centrelink to collect their regular payments, you don’t have to work for pittance anymore. That’s good news! After all, if employees have more money to spend, they will buy more stuff (they don’t need), which creates more jobs and even more people have more money to spend (on things they don’t need), so it is good for the whole economy. Yay! Rainbows and lollipops!
But what happens after that? As an economy gets stronger (in a free market), the currency of that country also tends to get stronger. But while that’s good for employees spending their money on imported products (like electronics, TVs, computers, clothes, cars… actually, almost everything in an Australian house is made overseas – probably from China), that’s bad for manufacturing, exports and tourism. So parts of the economy will have less money to spend and others will have more. But Australia is the “lucky” country! It sure is. Thanks to China’s extremely high demand for resources such as iron ore (which Australia has plenty of), mineral exports will do well – sorry tourism, not much luck for you.
So back to minimum wages - this affects everything from food in grocery store to food on a restaurant table. Any time an Australian hand is involved, the cost goes up and up and up. This means the awesome minimum wage job which just got an awesomely high paycheque suddenly isn’t so high after all since the spending power is greatly diminished.
It is simply unnatural to try and force financial equality on an entire country or culture. And already Australia is fragmenting into a “2 speed” economy, with some people doing well financially, while others suffer, regardless of what strategies the government uses. Why is that surprising? It is simply a way of normal behaviour that a group of people will gravitate to. This is the premise of a free economy anyway – that people will find a way to do things in the most efficient way naturally.
Compare this with what I experienced in Bali. Yes, the class gap was noticeable, and very wide by comparison to Australia. We met people earning $3 per day and others earning $700+ per day. The difference between the two? An employee in a fixed income job compared to an entrepreneurial business owner who took a risk, made an investment, and was benefiting from the rewards. That seems sensible, doesn’t it? If the person earning $3 wasn’t willing to take a risk or put their own money on the line, they shouldn’t benefit from the spoils to the same degree.
The broad range in income levels also makes some things possible that are simply not possible in Australia, particular in service-based in industries. One example that jumps to mind is food deliveries. When we stayed in Bali we really enjoyed getting delicious dinners delivered to our door. One phone call and 30 minutes later, it arrived. It was so convenient, especially with 2 young children. This kind of thing is almost unheard of in Australia (except for pizza deliveries) because of the relatively high cost of labour compared to the cost of food.
Before you compare Indonesia and Australia and say they are just too different and there’s much more than the low cost of labour between the two, consider Malaysia. This is one of our favourite countries for many reasons. It’s got the equivalent quality of infrastructure – roads, power, water, electricity, internet. But because the entry level tertiary-qualified jobs start at just $20 per day and retail-level jobs are even less, so many more businesses can be viable. This is not only good for the economy, but also to the overall quality of life because more competition and options is better for the consumer, and more competition which drives innovation. Compare this to a retail-level job without any tertiary education in Australia that would pay at least $120 per day. No wonder why so many Aussie business close within 2 years. Staff wages are the highest cost for most business, so it’s so darn hard to make a profit with costs like that!
It is the very gap in incomes that make business start-ups possible. And it’s these businesses that improve the quality of life, not only for consumers but also employees. Increasing the base wage of the employees just stifles the economy. Maybe there aren’t many slums in Australia, but is that worth the cost of what is being forfeited?
Financial inequality shouldn’t be confused with lack of empathy. The solution to the social issues the government is trying to resolve is not dealing with them at the federal level, but rather strengthening and empowering families to work together for a more sustainable future. For example, it makes a lot more sense for a husband and wife to care for their parents, rather than a government agency.
So my experience has lead to me to understanding that inequality in income is a natural and positive dynamic and shouldn’t be battled in the name of “fairness” where everyone loses.
The 40+hr work week
I touched on the topic of work-life balance in my previous blog post. I think it’s also worthwhile mentioning that while in Bali I found the pace at which many people worked was rather confronting for me. As first I found it painfully slow. But after a while I began to appreciate the speed at which life moved. It was actually more enjoyable and sustainable. There was time to smell the roses, time to enjoy the most of every experience, time to invest in my family.
This is an ongoing focus point for me as I’m naturally a very motivated person. I like things to get done and get done quickly and efficiently. So I actually have to work on slowing things down in order to squeeze the most out of life, otherwise I run the risk of letting it fly by and 80 will come along before I know it.
What is so sacred about the 40 hour work week anyway? Who decided that was the right amount of time? In the 1950s, the average white collar would work less than that, and at the time it was expected to drop even further with improved technology. Gee, they were wrong. With our mobile phones, laptops and other gadgets today we are more connected than ever, needing to cram even more work into a limited amount of time to stay one step ahead of the competition. We’re not working less because of technology, we’re working more! Hang on, that doesn’t make sense does it? What do you think further improvements in technology will bring - less work?
When I watched the Balinese work and socialise, there was something natural and organic about the whole process. After immersing myself in the culture for 2 months I found the secret to enjoying work more is to do less. I realise there’s countless motivational and self-help books out there, and I’m not trying to sell you something here. And I’m not saying work is bad or we shouldn’t work at all, what I’ve found though is doing too much of a good thing isn’t good sometimes.
After all, it’s important to have a clear idea of the “why” behind what we do to generate an income. And if you’re not enjoying it, really enjoying it, then something isn’t right. Reducing that magic number from 40 and slowing down the pace of life is a good place to start.
I wanted a clearer, more sustainable “why” behind the reason for working. I wasn’t satisfied with the subconscious Australian pattern of getting a job to pay the bills and afford the dream house. When trying to decide what is the best amount of time to work each week, questioning the reason to work in the first place also goes hand-in-hand. The obvious reasons were to provide for my family and also because I enjoyed my work. As a human I’ve also been designed to be productive, from the cellular level up to my thought patterns. But sometimes it so easy to get caught up in doing the work, that you never stop to think “why am I doing this?”. It’s a simple, yet profound, question.
By using ones God-given talents and gifts to help others, a deep sense of fulfilment can be achieved. It partially answers the deep question of “why am I here on this planet?”. Doing something of value also provides a feeling of self-worth and makes up part of an individual’s identity. It also helps strengthen our society. Men in particular, gain deep fulfilment in doing something productive. It’s hard-wired and demonstrates itself from an early age.
We found that many Balinese who live in a traditional family compound grow their own food on their property. This means they don’t heavily rely on outside food sources. Apart from the health benefits, there are also substantial cost benefits. In some cases, they could even cook every meal with the produce from their gardens and rice fields. So if they didn’t need to pay for housing or food, why else would they work? In their case, a significant portion of their income went to pay for religious ceremonies (up to 45%). That gave them an answer to their “why”, something I found fascinating.
But the lesson I’ve taken away from this is looking at the reason for working in a different light and realising the typical Australian perspective of “paying the bills” isn’t the only option available. And many of the things I thought were absolute necessary for daily life really weren’t. Seeing the world from someone else’s perspective can be one of the best gifts, an absolutely essential ingredient in developing understanding and empathy for your neighbour.
Quality of life
This made me question exactly what do I need physically to live a fulfilled life. It’s so easy in Australia to get used to things that are considered normal, but never ask the question “why”? Are they really valuable? Do I really need that? Well, based on the Balinese we visited, many things I thought were so important, really aren’t that important at all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to ditch all my modern conveniences and move into a mud hut, but the situation encouraged to me to challenge the value of material possessions and see the merit in alternative lifestyles.In my travels so far I’ve been privileged to get to know so many fantastic, interesting people. One of my favourite experiences in Bali was visiting the homes of regular Balinese folks. We went to a couple homes that demonstrated the broad difference in incomes in Indonesia.
The really fascinating thing is that both the poorer and richer Balinese were very content with their quality of life. They didn’t have a big flat-screen TV and it didn’t bother them. Instead, they spent the time talking to their family and friends. And I’m not talking about Facebook or Twitter – real, in-person conversations. What a novel idea.
I realised that the quality of life for each person is very much a relative concept. It really comes down to expectations. If the poorer family expected to have a few chickens and couldn’t afford or find them, they’d be upset. I couldn’t really care less for chickens though. The amazing realisation is that I have complete control over the expectations I set. As long as you allow TV shows and magazines to set your quality of life expectations, you’ll be slave to the next fad or fashion accessory. When you realise you don’t really need much to be happy, then anything you do get is a bonus. That’s the secret to contentment.
Who is taking advantage of who?
Back to my original thought of exploitation, I initially felt bad staying in developing countries with a relatively high disposable income by local standards. Perhaps I should have given some of my money away. What would have that achieved? A “fairer” country? Was it right for me to take advantage of these poorer folks and life like a relative king when they lived in very modest houses?
Having processed the thoughts discussed so far, I’d like to share an example of something that changed the way I looked at this question. When walking the streets of Ubud, Bali there are so many shops selling similar products or services. I asked the question, how do they all stay in business, the competition must be fierce. Well, not really. The answer is simple. Their cost of living is relatively low, so they don’t need to earn a huge amount to live a satisfied life. In a shop selling wooden ornaments, a shopkeeper may simply sit in the doorway all day and have 1 or maybe 2 customers – some days no customers. But the 1 customer would spend what would appear to be a modest amount by their standard, but it represented a full day’s income to the shopkeeper. Keep in mind the average Balinese person earns AUD$3.30 per day. So a tourist spending $20 in one shop without a second thought means almost a week’s required income in just a few minutes of work. Every so often a tour bus would come by and several dozen or even several hundred new, fresh tourists would descend on Ubud. Just imagine an hour’s worth of those kind of customers means the shopkeeper’s entire month’s income is covered.
This was the answer to the question – how do they work so little? When I thought about the number of hours I had to work each week before starting our travels, I felt a bit ripped off. I’d work 50+hr weeks to live a comfortable lifestyle, but it was hard work. Yet this small business owner could work just a couple hours a month by comparison. I think they were smarter, not me! My university degree and technical knowhow didn’t make a difference. They were working smarter, not harder. In fact, I almost felt like I was being taken advantage of, mainly because I was conditioned to think that you had to work a certain number of hours to be useful and not lazy. How untrue!
So the outcome of my ponderings on the great equality myth is that I no longer feel bad about having a relatively high disposable income in developing countries. I’m grateful for being blessed by growing up in a country that would give me this kind of opportunity. And I know how much benefit I can be to a small business owner when I visit their store. It also means I don’t feel too bad when haggling the price down, after all it’s a win-win situation.
So far this journey has encourage me to ask questions that I hadn’t done so before and expand my thinking further. For that I’m a better person, a better husband and father, living a more fulfilled, enriched life. And the best is yet to come.
is the better half of Travel with Bender. A Web Designer & Internet Marketer he has the most lateral & logical thoughts. Josh constantly educates himself not just in his industry, but every area of life. His deep thoughts will add a depth to our blog you might not get from me. I thank God for this amazing man and hope his incredible insight will be of some benefit to you.