Originally published 22 July 1997 in Nexus, the University of Waikato student magazine, as part of a regular series I wrote under the banner of “Postcard from Hong Kong”
What is the “New Zealand dream”? One could be forgiven for thinking that the answer is to simply leave this earth in no worse state than that in which it was found. David Lange’s leadership from 1987-1989 and Jim Bolger’s in the last four years seem to have been geared towards this aim.
I asked myself the above question after reading an interview with Guy Nicholls, a successful Hong Kong entrepreneur. In it he recalled a conversation he had with a Briton shortly after arriving in the territory. The Briton told him, “You know the thing about Hong Kong is that there’s no envy.” Nicholls agrees. He said that if a hawker here sees a Rolls Royce he doesn’t feel envy, he says: “If I work harder, one day I’ll have one of those.”
It struck me that this sort of sentiment is rarely found in New Zealand and, unfortunately, the green eyed monster is alive and well throughout the shaky isles. Buzz words such as “big business” and “private enterprise” strike fear into the hearts of many and there remains a remarkable mistrust of the market in providing the goods and services required in a modern economy.
In part, this type of reaction has almost certainly been perpetuated by those with a vested interest in the public sector. Here I am thinking of university academics, school teachers, nurses, firefighters and certain student politicians. Most are quick to label as greedy those with high salaries who have worked long and hard to succeed in the private sector – the American dream, as it were.
Attitudes in Hong Kong are perhaps the exact opposite. In a poll which asked respondents to “name a Hong Kong person outstanding for creativity” the largest category of respondents selected a business figure. Surprisingly, artists, scientists and inventors picked up less than 2 per cent, just ahead of one-off categories such as “my husband” and “my sex instructor”. You might say that this astonishing reverence for business is a little unhealthy, but when beggars routinely collect more than NZ$30,000 per annum on the streets from the prosperous residents of this booming economy, it is easy to understand why it exists.
Maybe attitudes in New Zealand are changing, and one would hope so considering that more than a million New Zealanders are employed by the private sector. But the critics are still loud and vociferous, which will make it all the more difficult to catch this tiger as it continues to move forward in leaps and bounds. Unemployment recently fell to 2.4%, economic growth is still expected to be in the order of 5.5% this year and incomes have been increasing at around 10% per year.
New Zealand can easily achieve these sort of figures. The recipe for success has been spelled out by the tigers of South-East Asia. But to get there, first we need to unshackle ourselves from our envy complex and start encouraging entrepreneurial success.