I had just bought my groceries from one of the four large stores in our small community and was pushing the trolley with its overloaded shopping bags to the car when it occurred to me how cheap the essentials of life are in Sweden. Now this was an unusual thought because I had just returned from Taiwan where everything is even cheaper than in Sweden. In fact, the cost of living in Taiwan is 29.28% lower not counting rent, which is even lower at 44.01%. All this was on my mind because I had spent the morning filling out my expenses for my latest trip and the local tax authority is a stickler for receipts. But do you know what: The contrast between the cost of living in Saint Lucia and the cost of living in Sweden is even higher. Groceries in Saint Lucia cost three times more than in Sweden.
But back to Taiwan! Let’s look at Taiwan restaurant prices in EC dollars: The cost of a McMeal at McDonalds is 9.95. A beer will knock you back 4.15. A Coke or Pepsi costs 2.26 and a bottle of water is 1.61. If you shop at the store a litre of milk will cost you 7.20, a loaf of bread about 3.98, a dozen eggs 4.89. Apples are 7.57 a kilo, bananas 4.82 a kilo, oranges 5.32, tomatoes 7.06, and potatoes 6.03. And if for some inexplicable reason you are a smoker, a pack of cancer sticks costs around 7.47 EC$!
Transportation in Taiwan is ridiculously cheap, although it must be said that wages are not particularly high. Somehow, the Taiwanese have managed to maintain a high level of productivity without paying sky-high wages. Gasoline costs 2.16 a litre, and you can get a brand-new Volkswagen Golf for as little as 58,066 EC dollars. The 25-minute taxi ride from the university to the railway station each morning cost me under 15 EC. The utilities didn’t kill me either: My Internet (10 Mbps, Unlimited Data, Cable/ADSL) was 64.33 EC$ a month. Without any discounts or plans, 1 minute of prepaid mobile cost 62 cents. And 153 dollars covered my monthly cost for utilities such as electricity, heating, water, garbage disposal, etc. in the 800 square foot apartment I rented. The monthly fee for one adult at the fitness club was 120 EC; the tennis court cost 27 EC an hour, and a seat at the cinema was about 25 bucks.
In Taiwan, the Average Monthly Disposable Salary ranges from EC$ 2,156 to 7,517. I have to admit that I have no idea what this figure would be for Saint Lucia. I only know that there are a lot of rich people in Saint Lucia, and certainly many more poor people who earn under $1,000 a month. Income inequality within our small island’s tiny population is horrendous, and my impression is that the gap is getting wider. The mortgage interest rate in Taiwan, as in most of the developed world, is a mere 2%.
The Tax Authority in Sweden publishes a list of per diem cost for business travellers to just about every country in the world. Travellers to Taiwan can claim daily compensation of 393 Swedish Crowns (SEK) per day, while travellers to Saint Lucia can claim a whopping 529 SEK per day, or about 30% more than to Taiwan, which shows how expensive Saint Lucia is compared to Asia’s Power House Tiger! (This according to the Swedish Tax Authority, which is not known for being generous!)
“So there we have it” was my thought as I loaded my groceries into the car. “Sweden is one of the most highly developed nations in the world where just about everything works as it is supposed to, and if it doesn’t, it is normally put right very quickly. The country has accepted hundreds of thousands of political refugees through the years and has successfully assimilated them (they are referred to as ‘newly-landed Swedes’) yet the cost of shopping for basics is way below that of Saint Lucia.”
“And then there’s Taiwan,” I thought as I drove home, “with its incredible transformation from an agrarian economy to high-tech powerhouse despite the ominous shadow of a giant neighbour that does its very best to cut off that tiny island-state from the rest of the world; they say families make the worst enemies! But you know, despite all the advances that Taiwan has made, the country retains an old-world charm, a reverence for the past, and a determination to succeed. It is an incredible mix of the past and the present. I love the place. You really ought to visit if you can or, better still, apply for one of the generous scholarships that country offers to Saint Lucians over and above the millions it pours into our economy. It’s a long trip, but well worth the journey. And shopping is much more affordable than in Saint Lucia! Even the airfare can be affordable. Recently I shopped on the Internet and found return fares to Taipei for as little as 5,575 EC dollars most of which you could recoup easily by buying top quality, but inexpensive, electronic goods.
Of course, honest as you are, you might end up losing your profits once you declared your purchases at Customs and paid all the horrendous taxes, duties and levies imposed. Now there’s a thought: why don’t Saint Lucia and Taiwan sign an exemption agreement on duties and taxes for exports and imports between the two countries? It would be a highly symbolic, if not particularly fiscally significant, step to ease individual and corporate trade and cement relations.