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Sunday, 17 February 2013

Thinking outside the Box - Swedes Retiring in Thailand

Thinking outside the Box - Swedes Retiring in Thailand

Tom Tuohy Feb 18, 2013

Op Ed

What’s the first thing that comes into your head when you think of Swedes? I think of Bjorn Borg, the Swedish chef from The Muppets, and that famous Swede locked up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London – Julian Assange. You might think of SAAB, meatballs from IKEA and ABBA. You may even think of the Stockholm Syndrome where kidnapped prisoners, after a period of time in captivity, sometimes begin to identify with their captors. Whatever comes to mind, one thing is for sure – Swedes are able to think “out of the box” and come up with novel solutions to complex social issues. 
This was amply demonstrated this week when the Swedish politician, David Stansvik, made an interesting proposal. He suggested that it would be a good idea to give retiring Swedes an option of relocating to Thailand where there is an abundance of sun, the cost of living is much lower, there are many qualified healthcare workers, and many Swedes like to retire in Thailand anyway.
“It was a study group we had on health care needs in the future. We know that the number of elderly is increasing [in Sweden] and that recruitment needs are great. This is a way to meet the problems we face. Not this year, but maybe in five or ten years,” he said.
And when you think about it, it’s not such a bad idea. Sweden has one of the highest incomes per capita in the world. (According to the IMF, Sweden was in eighth place in 2011.) Sweden also has a very high tax system where both the employee and employer pay tax to three different levels of government: the municipality, the county council, and the central government. This means there’s an awful lot of money to go round for things like education and social spending e.g. healthcare.

The Swedish Problem
While it may seem more than a tad controversial, there are a number of problems that Sweden is facing along with other developed countries like Japan and S. Korea. It is something of an ageing time bomb with many from the Baby Boom generation ready to retire. With advances in medicine and technology, many of these people are living much longer than the “three score and ten” years of the bible. An added problem is what could be called a double whammy: because these people are now retiring, they will no longer be paying into the tax system which means less revenue is being collected while more and more people are drawing from the same funds e.g. for state pensions and for medical expenses. This is stretching the resources available for the elderly to the maximum.
“The elderly in Sweden are an increasing group that requires much, and expensive care. At the same time, recruiting manpower for the needed services is becoming a challenge. A study group in the Swedish town Nora that discussed health care needs in the future suggest that instead of importing labour, it might be easier and cheaper to simply export the elderly.” ( This doesn’t sound bad at all as long as it’s voluntary. (Nobody wants to have to visit grandma and grandpa in Bangkok or Pattaya once a year!)

The Thai problem
One wonders whether the Thai government will accept this arrangement should it be offered as it has benefits for both sides: the Swedes get to solve the financial problem of their ageing population by exporting grandma and grandpa, and the Thais get lots of Swedish Krone flowing into the country providing jobs for the local populace. Let’s be honest though – when it comes to thinking outside the box, there are some Thai government ministers not known for their clever and original ideas. As Andrew Walker wrote of one Thai politician, Mallika Boonmetrakul: an appalling Thai Politician
“This is good example of a bad Thai politician; the brain is never put into gear before the mouth is set in motion.” (
Only this week, the Deputy Prime minister said that policemen can ask for money from local Chinese merchants while on the street, thereby once again blurring the line between good honest police practices and rampant bribe taking. This was the same minster who, as Thailand’s representative, turned up to Malaysia the previous week drunk as a sailor thereby tarnishing Thailand’s image abroad. (A touchy subject if anyone saw the Saturday Night Live skit which has a man trying to learn Thai so he could get laid in Thailand!) It didn’t seem to occur to this politician that Malaysia is predominantly Muslim and alcohol is haram (forbidden) – or maybe he just didn’t care.
There was also the Thai minister who suggested the teachers in schools in the south be armed, so they could defend themselves against terrorists. And then there was the Thai politician who accidentally shot and killed his ex-wife with a submachine gun in a restaurant in northern Thailand. Oh well – as the Swedish chef used to say – “Den smakar skit på julbord. Bort, bort, bort!” (no translation available.)

The pot is empty
On a global level, there are other issues that need to be understood if this Swedish idea is to be put into the correct context. Nowadays, more and more people have less and less money to spend on retirement and the costs that go with it – healthcare, recreation, and travel. This is primarily because of the ageing time bomb mentioned above. It’s also because of the Credit Crunch of 2008 which saw billions of pounds that would have gone into state pensions and other social programs being diverted to cover the gaping holes in governmental budgets in order to e.g. prop up ailing (“too big to fail”) companies.
In America this was to bail out companies like Chrysler and Fanny Mae. In the UK, Northern Rock and the Royal Bank of Scotland were both bailed out by the British Government which still retains the majority shareholding in both banks. No doubt the repercussions of this will be felt for some time which will lead others like the Swedes to consider thinking outside of the box and coming up with novel solutions to these and other kinds of social problems.

Tom Tuohy is a teacher and writer. He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and websites including: The Guardian Weekly, the English Language Gazette, and the Bangkok Post. You can access Tom's blog here. Tom is also the author of Watching the Thais which is available in print, on the Kindle, and as an ebook.

(This post was originally published on the Chiang Mai City News website:

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