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Affluence, with Strings Attached


Affluence, with Strings Attached


Possessed of a strong sense of self-reliance and personal responsibility, the Swiss live direct democracy, taking their destiny in their own hands. They must also keep scrambling to meet the challenges that affluence presents.



Affluence, with Strings Attached

By Isabella Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 484 )

"I have a suggestion for Taiwan," Felix Addor says with sincerity. "Taiwan should develop its geographical indications, like Switzerland does. There are many similarities between Taiwan and Switzerland."

Under Swiss law, products that carry a geographical indication – a reference either direct or indirect to their origin in Switzerland – are automatically protected without prior registration.

Addor is deputy director general of the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property. On a cabinet in his office Addor has displayed a vast array of fake Swiss products such as Swiss army knives and cosmetics, gathered from around the world. All these counterfeit goods bear the trademark Swiss cross – a perpendicular white cross on a red background - which is meant to indicate that a product originated in Switzerland. As long as consumers believe that a product "comes from Switzerland," it can be sold with a 30 percent markup.

Addor believes that tea with the label "Taiwan" could be sold for a higher price too.

Wedged in among the much larger countries of Germany, France and Italy, Switzerland has always kept a low profile and a pragmatic attitude. Meeting someone as outspoken as Addor is a rare opportunity.

Taiwan and Switzerland have certain things in common: Both boast natural environments with plenty of mountains. Geographically insulated. And both have been influenced in their development by large neighboring economies.

In its ongoing series examining countries around the world and the paths they have chosen to follow, CommonWealth Magazine took a close look at the Swiss model in the hope of learning some lessons for Taiwan from the decisions Switzerland has made during its course of development. That is why, while doing interviews for this article I often asked people, "What does the Swiss government do?"

I asked the same question of students and executives, and brought the topic up during chats in cafes. But I discovered that the Swiss people shoulder most of the responsibility for the country's growth and development, not the government.

Democracy Comes with Responsibilities

Instead of answers, I often got counter questions such as, "How could it be that the government understands business management better than companies themselves?" or "Why do you think that the government can make better decisions than ordinary people?"

Direct democracy has a long tradition in Switzerland. As a result the Swiss display a strong inclination toward being their own master. They do not rely on the government and do not put politicians or their wisdom on a pedestal. In a nutshell, most Swiss would sum up the role of government as follows: "The government has only been given a mandate to execute the decisions we make, that's it."

The Swiss believe that the more an issue has to do with ordinary people, the more it should be decided by ordinary people. It is the right of the people to make such decisions, but this also entails responsibility.

Should tax revenue, for example, be used to increase the number of classes per grade level in schools? Or should taxes be used to repair roads instead? Before voting on such decisions, Swiss citizens receive a pile of information brochures from the government providing explanations and statistics about the measure in question.

Swiss democracy actually means assuming personal responsibility, a responsibility that weighs heavily.

The Pressures of Affluence

The Swiss also display their sense of responsibility at work.

Thanks to the appreciation of the Swiss franc, Switzerland is now enjoying a period of great affluence. But for export-oriented Swiss enterprises, these are extremely difficult times.

Private-sector employees feel that competitive pressure is building and have already begun to face this severe challenge. At some companies the employees have agreed to work longer hours to help the company save recruitment and personnel costs. They fear that higher costs could further undermine competitiveness, ultimately forcing the company to cut jobs.

Some white-collar workers pursue specialized training after work or take classes to learn new skills, acquire additional certification or earn advanced degrees.

Switzerland has just one tenth of Germany's population, but its continuing education market for working managers is as big as Germany's.

Switzerland is widely perceived as a prosperous country where people live well in picturesque surroundings. But while white-collar workers earn comparatively high salaries, they are far from living the easy life.

Like the highly paid managers of multinational companies, members of the middle class who need to make ends meet on their monthly salaries are critically aware of their vulnerability in an increasingly competitive international economy. People are nervous, feeling chased by the numbers. They constantly remind themselves of the need to be better and faster than others, or else they might be made redundant.

Although Switzerland is a small and geographically closed-off place, the Swiss people are very much aware of what's going on worldwide and consciously compare themselves to other societies.

But thanks to the country's beautiful scenery and unspoiled nature, they still find time to relax and forget about competitive pressure, at least temporarily.

In the fall it is easy to fall in love with Zurich, Switzerland's largest city, which sits on the northwestern tip of Lake Zurich and looks out over a majestic mountain panorama.

Switzerland treasures its scenic views and restricts development to preserve the pristine character of the natural environment. The water of Lake Zurich is so crystal clear that one can spot the veining in rocks on the bottom of the lake. A ten-minute tram ride takes people from the city center to the lakeside. After work, young Zurich residents like to meet with their friends at the lake for a beer or a quick swim.

Here, the enjoyment of life is something that common folk find easily accessible. Isn't that the kind of affluent society we all yearn for?

Yet we should not forget Switzerland's prosperity also comes with strings attached – self-reliance and personal responsibility.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz