No Man Is An Island
It's been said that the human species neither thrives, nor flourishes when living a isolated or secluded existence. This concept is a particularly strong Buddhist belief, but it also a popular notion within other religions – the popular quote, "no man is an island" is attributed to John Donne, a Christian.
That said, many foreigners living in Phuket might require a reality check from time to time to remind them of Mr Donne's sentiments, because, although they might forget it, we are not alone.
I recently read an issue of this newspaper and, flicking through to the always entertaining 'letters to the editor' section, found my name connected to some scheme by some developers wishing to deforest the island in the name of progress.
Writing this column, along with one in The Nation and thephuketinsider.com blog, I don't think I'd be able to make it through one day if I hadn't developed an outer skin like an overgrown, weather-worn iguana. The phrase, "you gotta be able take it, if you want to dish it out" always lingers somewhere in the dark, murky corners of my psyche.
Over the years, I've learned that you have to accept opinions which differ from your own and celebrate the diversity and often seemingly impassable divide between your own beliefs and those of the people around you. Unless you fancy engaging in nightly Muhammed Ali v Joe Frazier-esque bar room brawls, you learn to use seemingly harsh words as a stimulant, provoking thought on a subject. It's what keeps us going and the quickening pulse is a tell tale sign that we are indeed alive.
This past week, in one of this newspaper's daily flashes online, I came across a quotation by a local business leader in Thalang, claiming foreigners owned 60 percent of the land on the island and soon locals would be renting land and homes from foreigners. At first, my initial reaction lead me to disregard his statement, but as I mulled the idea over in my head, it became clear that, like it our not, these are the thoughts shared by more than a few of our hosts.
My 'inner logic guy' stands at the ready for situations like this, and came off the bench to tell me that this statement made no sense whatsoever. How could it be true? Phuket covers approximately 570 square miles – comparable in size to the entire nation of Singapore – and, with the exception of Board of Investment (BOI) projects such as hotels with considerable investment of which there are very few, foreigners cannot own land in Thailand.
Aside from that, I knew that only 49 percent of the gross floor space of condominium projects can be owned by foreigners. It was at this point my 'inner math guy' started counting these type of developments and came to be very abrupt end.
More confusion reigned when another voice in my head piped up, this time my 'inner Thai guy'. Fighting his and his nation's corner, he insisted that all I had to do was just drive around Phuket and look at all the hotels, spas, restaurants, shops and businesses that are owned by farangs who drive around in new Fortuners, acting as if they own the place.
Shouting ensued as 'logic guy' started arguing that the majority of these people lease their shops from Thais, pay rent, employ local people and pay VAT and taxes which go back into the local economy. Sure, there is the occasional abuse of land ownership but for the majority the rules of engagement are clear.
Fearing violence, I went down to the beach and stuck my head in the ocean, hoping for a moment of clarity, sanity or, at the very least, that my inner people would find some common ground. Unfortunately, I found none of them. Looking around at foreigners and locals alike, I understood that this debate over land ownership is emotionally charged, highlighting the growing divide between rich and poor, Thai and foreigner.
While I could lambaste Thais for being anti-foreigner, that would be about as successful as resurrecting my golf game, which I'm happy to say has been firmly placed on an indefinite hiatus, much to the appreciation of those who have witnessed my errant shot making.
Land rights are, and most probably always will be, a subject of contention that ranks alongside national pride and sovereignty. I always appreciate the raft of ill-advised optimism from my real estate cohorts, who believe that foreign ownership of land is just around they corner. Yes guys, and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny just drove past my office in a Honda Civic.
My inner guys finally calmed, and it was nice going down to the beach, taking a walk along the sand and hearing the soothing rhythm of the breaking waves. Hey, we didn't really resolve anything, but it's good to celebrate the diversity of thought and the freedom to speak out, no matter how wacky or off course it takes us. Tomorrow is always another day here on the island.