August 19, 2016

Good Old Days: Why People Were Happy Then?

An old house and antique car.
An old house and antique car.

People normally think old days were better than now. Many would say it was so good when we were young. Everything seemed to be pleasant, affordable and people had less stress. It refers to an era considered by the elderly people to be better than the current era. It is a form of nostalgic romanticism. Is it however real one or fallacy? We old people reminisced the good old days whenever we had gathering with old friends and classmates. Nowadays we have seen many groups of classmates who had attended together in the schools, universities, military & police academies, training courses, colleges in foreign countries are making regular gatherings sometimes together with their family members. We also have formed an informal alumni group who had attended a university four and a half decades ago in the then Rangoon. Since 4 years ago, we have been regularly meeting at a restaurant every last Sunday of the month to chat, revisit events of the old days, and share different experiences. Most of us are in mid sixties now and almost all are retired persons, except some who still advise to the private companies, NGOs and who are running own businesses. We will collect monthly contribution from the classmates and save in a bank to offer our donation to our elderly teachers and professors who are now in late seventies and in eighties. Most of the long retired teachers, lecturers and professors are in frail health and we all agree to support them every year by organizing a ceremony where we give homage in respectful ways to them for their selfless teaching and guidance to us.  We actually owe our teachers a lot. With higher education knowledge, professional competency and guidance provided by our teachers, we have been able to stand tall and perform our tasks in our various careers in the country and abroad. Several decades ago, the pace of the life was steady. But things worked perfectly. We send letters to our parents, friends and employers by air-mail. Postal services were used worldwide quite efficiently. When I was in Africa in early 1980s, for 2 years, I used to send and receive letters to and from my family by air-mail postal services. One letter from the family in Myanmar took 2 weeks to reach me in Africa and vice versa. We submitted our monthly, quarterly and annual reports in hard copies and by air-mail to the headquarters in other countries.
I passed matriculation examination in the education year of 1966-67 from an up-country town and was selected to attend at a university in Rangoon. My elder sister, who was 2 years senior to me, was already attending the university in Rangoon then. My parents therefore had to sell their gold saving, which brought about 1,000 Kyats for 4 tical of gold ornaments to fund for initial requirements of a new university student who also had to go to Rangoon. Imagine that the cost of 1 tical of gold was then only 250 Kyats! My elder sister during her undergraduate study at Rangoon Arts and Science University (RASU) received a government stipend at 75 Kyats per month while I didn’t, because 2 students from the same family were not entitled to the government stipend grants. My father’s salary as a government employee was then only 320 Kyats per month. We had 4 brothers and one sister. I used to receive 125 Kyats monthly from my father for the university classes fees (15 Kyats/month), hostel fees (15 Kyats/month) and food at the university hostel (47 Kyats/month). The remaining 48 Kyats was for my monthly pocket money, which I would spend on soap, hair cream, tooth paste, hair cut, coffee & snacks, going to the cinema and to have some nice food in downtown, such as ice cream and Chinese fried noodle. At the hostel we had no breakfast but we were given very early main meal, rice and curry at 7 am and after the morning meal, off we went to the classes. Dinner was served at the dining room of the hostel from 4 to 6 pm. Before dinner, we used to play volleyball, football, badminton, karate and body building according to one’s preference. Majority of hostel students made their own laundry, washing clothes, ironing etc. mainly during the weekends. From our hostel in Insein township we took number 8 Hino bus to Hledan to visit our friends at RASU or went straight to downtown to watch famous movies such as “Fistful of Dollars”, “Diamonds are Forever” and “Planet of the Apes” at President cinema hall. Then, there were famous cinema halls in downtown Rangoon such as Pa Pa Win (Pledian), Globe, Royal, etc. President cinema hall is still there with the name changed to Thamada though. But Sule Shangrila (previously Traders) hotel is now in the old site of Pa Pa Win cinema hall. A cinema back stall ticket cost 4 Kyats and a dress circle (DC) ticket cost 5 Kyats then. When we went out from the hostel, we paid the bus fare of 15 Pyas (0.15 Kyat) from Insein to Hledan and 30 Pyas (0.30 Kyat) to downtown. During that time the salaries of government employees were very competitive, I would say. People may question how come, as a senior assistant teacher (SAT) then received only 320 to 440 Kyats per month and the salary was competitive? A gazette officer salary was 350-25-700 Kyats. 25 Kyats was annual salary increment. A director or general manager of the government department received flat 1,200 Kyats monthly salary. Mind boggling for the new generation young men and women, isn’t it? This writer mentioned earlier that salaries of old days were competitive. So I have to prove my claim at least mathematically even though it might not be taken into account several other political, trading & business, security factors and changing global socio-economic situations.
We in Myanmar have been having a traditional norm set by our ancestors since many decades ago. The price of one tical of gold is generally equal to the prevailing price of 100 baskets of rice. One is free to disagree by saying that the expression is an out-of-date method of ultra simplification. Could be! But let us look and make an analysis at the real figures then. Perhaps we look back at the gold price in 1972, which was around 400 Kyats per one tical of gold, My father’s salary was 400 Kyats which is 100% of a value of one tical of gold in that time. In an imaginary way my father salary could have been equivalent to 795,000 Kyats per month in current value (current one tical price of gold 795,000 Kyats). Let us look at the salary of senior assistant teacher (SAT) who was receiving a ceiling salary 440 Kyats (1.05 tical of gold) and now it could have been equal to 834,750 Kyats. The salary of a general manager or director of a government department then was 1,200 Kyats (3 tical of gold) and now it could have been equal to 2,385,000 Kyats per month. In addition, the prices of consumer goods, rice, fish, meat, vegetables were also very affordable then. A cup of tea cost 0.25 Kyats, one serving of lunch with rice, meat, vegetable and soup would cost 1.5 to 2 Kyats maximum. One Pyi of rice (8 empty condensed milk tin cup of rice) costs 75 Pyas to 1.5 Kyats depending on the quality of rice. In old days a daily unskilled labour got 3.15 Kyats per day which could have been equivalent to current 6,260 Kyats if one converts with current gold price. As mentioned before, there are of course other factors affecting the prices of basic goods and services. However, one may conclude that the salaries of old days are competitive because the salaries received by all sector of nation work force well covered the basic needs for the family and even people could save a small part of their monthly salaries. Then, the government employees were very honest, respectable and no need to look for bribes, illegal income, corrupt practices and misappropriation of public funds and budgets. They were quiet happy with their legal and official income and salary. A teacher did not need or insist to receive gifts and presents from the students and work extra time on private tuitions. The responsible officials did not need either to misappropriate the budgets allocated for the various state owned projects by using many wicked ways to enrich themselves and so on. I sincerely hope in writing this article that all stake holders to look at & revisit the values of the basic principle laid out by our ancestors “the price of one tical of gold is generally equal to the prevailing price of 100 baskets of rice”.  Perhaps this brief reflection of life of the good old days could remind all of us that what we basically need is to review the salaries (and income of self employed people, small traders as well) whether those are actually sufficient for the decent living, food, clothing, education, leisure, for religious affairs and saving for the families in our country. It is quite apparent that the current official salaries paid to the employees in public as well as in private sectors are very low compared to those of our neighboring countries. Therefore, it is and will still be very difficult and challenging to fight, minimize and eradicate the corruption and bribery with existing official salaries structures in our country.   By the way current 2015 October market price of 100 baskets of good quality rice is between 700,000 and 900,000 Kyats. On 16th October 2015 it was reported that “the price per 100 baskets of Manaw Thukha old crop in Nay Pyi Taw has raised from under 700,000 to nearly 900,000 Kyats as of the second week of October, said a paddy trader in Pyinmana, on 13 October”. On the other hand on 21st October 2015 another online news reported that 1 tical of gold price in Yangon was 796,000 Kyats. Interesting, isn’t it?  This trend reminds me an old Myanmar saying “Do not ignore old tradition and likewise do not spend carelessly in shopping”. “ ေရွး ထုံး လည္း မပယ္ နွင့္ ေစ်း သုံး လည္း မလြယ္ နွင့္”


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