I am Dutch. I will always feel Dutch despite me leaving the Netherlands 7 years ago. I am proud of my former home country; but not proud of the Holland of today. The Holland of today can’t stand in the shadow of the Holland it once was.
Holland is actually the name of only a small part of the Netherlands, but to be honest: it sounds so much better than using the official name of this part of the world that is at some levels lying almost 16 meters below sea level.
This morning I felt my Dutch origins tickling my imagination when I visited the 130-year-old firm Wiener-Duyvis in Koog aan de Zaan, hometown to many cacao processing companies. Up to this day, Holland is still the largest importer of cacao in the world, and Wiener-Duyvis is the biggest cacao processing machinery builder in the world. I took a train ride and walked the last 850 meters from the train station to the headquarters of Wiener Duyvis. And during this walk I felt thrown back in history to the last glory days of the Netherlands. Typical Dutch houses and fabulous windmills that were there already for centuries, now forced to witness the decay of the once most powerful country in the world.
Holland started to feel and to act like Holland at the moment it freed itself from the suppression of the Habsburg empire reigning out from the castles in the almighty lands of Spain. We Dutch needed an eighty-year long war against our Spanish rulers. We were desperate sometimes, but we never gave up. And finally, we got our reward, becoming the first ever Republic in the world in 1648.
The whole feeling of liberation boosted the spirit of our newborn state. It already started at the beginning of the 17th century where parts of these Low-Lands already considered themselves separated from the Habsburgers. We built ships to sail out and discover the world. If we could defeat the biggest empire in the Western world, then for sure we could achieve much more; and like a rebelling youngster in his puberty, we Dutch went out. The world was our oyster. Our dreams were big. Nothing was impossible.
There was also a big difference with the sailing expeditions of the Spanish and the Portuguese. They were Catholic and they wanted to convert the world to their belief. We Dutch, however, embraced the learning of the -from origin humanist- Protestant John Calvin. We had no urge to impose our religious beliefs on others; we wanted to trade. And there we went; on tiny ‘Fluyts’ of no longer than 25 meters, crossing oceans for years before reaching the expected or unexpected destinies, fighting off storms, hunger, diseases, heat and cold. If you were lucky, you made it.
One of the most impressive journeys was the third attempt to reach China by a northern route, through the Arctic. The city of Amsterdam set out a competition with a reward of 25,000 Dutch guilders. Jan Cornelisz Rijp, Jacob van Heemskerck and Willem Barendsz took up the challenge and sailed out on two vessels. They got trapped in the ice off the island of Nova Zembla, and they got stuck in the freezing hell for the entire Arctic winter. They were attacked by polar bears and arctic foxes, some men froze to death, and eventually only 12 of them made it back to Holland at the end of 1597.
But it didn’t break the spirit. In those days we, Dutch didn’t give up. On the contrary: the discovery of, and the trade in expensive spices created the ‘Golden Century’. For a few decades, the Netherlands became the most powerful nation in the world.
This morning I had a lengthy discussion with Ronald Wilmink, international account manager at Duyvis, about the differences between Vietnam and the Netherlands. He knows Vietnam better than I do. He has seen the developments for the past seven years. Only seven years ago the only cars on the street of Ho Chi Minh were taxis and the first McDonalds just opened his doors. If I compare this with the Vietnam of today, it is impossible to explain the difference to outsiders. It is not an economic growth; it is an economic explosion. For Vietnamese, the future looks exciting. Vietnamese love to trade. In that sense Dutch and Vietnamese are similar.
So where did it go wrong for my beloved Holland? Last year the government of Vietnam announced that foreigners are allowed to buy apartments, and Ronald assured me that foreigners now also can establish their own company in Vietnam without being forced into a joint venture with a Vietnamese company. It seems that the more the economy is growing, the more the government is canceling regulations.
In Holland and Europe, it is the other way around. Everything is getting regulated. And the more debt and the slower the economy is developing, the more rules are imposed by the Dutch government in failing attempts to push the economy. When I arrived in Holland last September for the Elfia event, I heard a female minister on the radio talking about a new law to force Dutch farmers to get their cows out on the field instead of leaving them in the stables. It is a fantastic example of a panicking government trying to regulate her way out of a recession while killing every business initiative.
To be honest, I am glad I left Holland in 2009. In Asia, I feel the entrepreneurial spirit and my business initiatives are welcomed. But deep inside me, it hurts. My old home country is bleeding. And to my idea, it will take at least one decade or two before the Dutch, still living in the Low Lands discover that they took the wrong turn. It will be a very painful process, and it will be chaotic with a lot of social unrest, but I am sure Holland will become great again… some day.