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Taiwan gov't should focus on services, happiness may then follow
Publication Date : 05-09-2013
The Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS) recently released Taiwan's gross national happiness (GNH) index, which found that the nation is the happiest in Asia. The above-average result was widely dismissed by the media as yet more futile feel-good propaganda from the government.
The methodology of the survey also came under scrutiny. The public jeered especially loudly at the so-called “toilet index”, which measures the percentage of people with indoor flushing toilets at home, questioning the use of toilet availability as a benchmark for happiness. The unfortunately named index (toilet seat in Mandarin Chinese — matong — sounds the same as “Ma the president”) was also used by the media as a punchline to what they implied was a white-washing project by the unpopular Ma administration.
To be fair, the toilet index is indeed one of the criteria used in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Better Life Index, on which Taiwan's GNH index is based. Taiwan was not included in the 36 nations surveyed for the Better Life Index, and the DGBAS basically conducted its own research using the same criteria and compared the results against those of the OECD. The Taiwanese survey ranked the nation 19th among 37 nations (the 36 that the OECD surveyed plus Taiwan), above Japan and South Korea.
The DGBAS found that nearly 100 per cent of Taiwanese people have indoor flush toilets in their homes, putting it at the top of the OECD list. While modern people might not think much of a flush toilet, it is indeed an important indicator of personal well-being and public hygiene. The high accessibility of flush toilets is an important milestone for a developed nation as it is the symbol of a mature utility system and a key factor in the eradication of diseases such as malaria and measles in the developed world. Just imagine where your level of happiness would be if your home toilet stopped working.
That said, topping the toilet index is nothing to boast about for governments of modern developed nations such as Taiwan. First of all, the OECD's toilet index average is 97.8 per cent, which means that universal toilet access is pretty much standard for OECD nations. More importantly, Taiwan's governments in the 21st century can hardly take credit for a high toilet index — a decades-old achievement.
The core of the government's problem, however, is not the inclusion of the toilet index, which after all follows the OECD model — it is the trumpeting of the GNH index at a time when harsh economic realities are making people more realistic in their expectations of their government.
Even Bhutan, the nation that coined the GNH and which is widely known as the “happiest nation in the world”, faces a GNH backlash. As the global economic troubles trickle down to Bhutan, the nation is experiencing problems not unfamiliar to Taiwan, such as unemployment and growing government debt. Critics in Bhutan have mockingly dubbed “GNH” as an acronym for “government needs help”.
Apparently a substantial number of Bhutanese agree with such an assessment. The former ruling party, Druk Pheunsum Tshogpa (DPT), which trumpeted the gross national happiness idea after the party came to power in 2008, was routed by the opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) in polls earlier this year. Tshering Tobgay, the leader of the new ruling party, was quoted by the BBC as saying last month that “if the government of the day were to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH rather than delivering basic services, then it is a distraction.” He raised Bhutan's “ballooning debt”, rupee shortage, unemployment (in particular youth unemployment) and “a perception of growing corruption” as the issues to tackle.
Taiwanese people no doubt enjoy a relatively high quality of life, but as critics of the GNH have pointed out, happiness is often subjective and is therefore difficult to gauge. Instead of convincing Taiwanese people of their happiness, the Ma administration should work hard to provide the basic environment — a clean and efficient government, sustainable environmental policy, fair society and robust economy — for people to pursue their own happiness.