A woman carries home peach blossoms as people do last-minute shopping ahead of the start of the Lunar New Year in downtown Hanoi on February 7, 2013. Vietnamese have a nine-day Tet holiday this year. PHOTO: AFP
A government decision to allow a long nine-day Tet holiday, January 28 to February 5, has prompted me to speak out on an issue that I have long been concerned about.
A long Tet holiday, considered a move to encourage consumption, can do more harm than good.
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A long holiday surely encourages consumption and promotes some businesses. But it should be considered carefully. It encourages consumption for the rich while further impoverishing the poor.
According to the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, eight percent of Vietnamese people are considered poor.
But that statistic is based on our low poverty thresholds, a monthly income of VND400,000 (US$19) in rural areas and VND500,000 in the cities.
If we apply the World Bank threshold of $60 monthly, Vietnam has up to 17 million people (18 percent of population) under the poverty threshold and 23 million others living near the poverty line. In total, nearly half of Vietnamese people are either poor are nearly poor, who have to struggle every day to make ends meet.
Only 20 percent of the population have real disposable income.
It may be reasonable to encourage this group to consume in some other countries, but not in Vietnam where many people consider it a loss of face if they can't do something others can. Those on top take pride as though they are superior to others if they have things others don't.
With this way of thinking, consumption encouragement will affect the whole society and not just 20 percent of population. The rich spend their own money, but the poor spend borrowed money, which can have harmful consequences.
We are no longer living in a time when people are worried that they do not have enough food. Poverty now means a lack of money for other demands like recreational activities. But watch out if we want to encourage spending for these demands.
With a majority of people having monthly incomes of VND1.3 million ($62) or a little bit more, encouraging consumption is harmful. Many people have already gone deep into debt with their Tet spending. Swindling and robbery are only one of the results of these debts.
When writing the script for the movie Lay chong Han (Marrying Korean Husbands), I was really surprised by related statistics. Nearly half a million Vietnamese women have married South Korean men and some 100,000 women are marrying foreigners every year. I guess many of them do so because of poverty and the common but incorrect perception of loss of face. And encouraging consumption plays an indirect role in this.
Frequent encouragement of consumption when a majority of the population is living near the poverty line can significantly affect society. It can impoverish a major group of people and weaken the country generally.
I think we should instead curb holidays and encourage people to curb their spending to stabilize their lives rather than encourage consumption.
For the entrepreneurs, they should focus more on international markets rather than earning on local people. Because actually, encouraging people to spend more on holidays is getting them to waste money on things they don't need.
Like any other Vietnamese, I understand that the Lunar New Year is a holy tradition. But it is a cultural event. Economically, we should reconsider the celebration.
In the old days, when Vietnam was an undeveloped agricultural country, people farmed for their family's demand. They could take a long Tet of up to two months without affecting the society as a whole. Each family spent the holidays however they wanted as long as they could produce enough for their own demand.
But things have changed. If an economic sector stops, the whole society is affected. We have an open economy now, and each sector affects another. But instead, we still maintain the long-time tradition of our Tet holidays without improving on the tradition.
How can a long Tet holiday affect an economy? I'll just list some of the many ways that it affects development.
First, many urgent tasks will be delayed.
During the last month of the Lunar Year before Tet, workers think about the holidays and do not focus on work as the celebration draws nearer. They often delay important tasks until after Tet: from small things like internal affairs to more important things like signing contracts and breaking ground for major projects.
Second, many people do not return to work with all of their productivity after Tet.
It is clear in governmental offices, when many people do not work seriously during the first weeks after Tet. Many bosses leave the office at noon or at around 2-3 p.m. for year-end and new-year parties. Many workers who want to work seriously do not have the chance to do so, as they may have to wait for orders or approvals from these bosses.
Such a lazy working attitude affects the whole economy.
I think Tet is not suitable for the modern economy. Remove it or modify it to be suitable with the current situation! Otherwise, it will be a major hindrance to the country's development.
By Tran Dinh Thu*
* The writer is a lawyer, journalist and film director who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.