Wednesday, June 02, 2010

My house is shabby but it is comfortable

A major contributor to Singapore’s remarkable development success story is a unique political economic philosophy that combines aggressive state planning for the long-term with free market capitalism. Singapore’s Prime Minister of many years, Lee Kuan Yew and its Finance Minister, Goh Keng Swee (who recently passed away) were among the most influential architects and implementers of this philosophy. Like some other aggressively planned societies, Singapore has essentially ended homelessness (a moral blight on America’s economic success story) and provided high quality health care and education for all its citizens. But Singapore’s leaders and its people struggle, as do leaders and peoples in all capitalist societies, with providing financial incentives for the most able citizens, while keeping the gap between rich and poor between within reasonable bounds - and even deciding what is reasonable.

I have wanted to write about this visible dilemma that Singapore faces but puzzled how to do so. I still know so little about this fascinating, engaging, sometimes paradoxical society. If years of studying and writing about Sri Lanka have taught me anything it is is that foreigners should not express facile generalizations about a society in which they are guests without several years - perhaps many years - of experience and study.

For me, however, the puzzle was solved when I encountered a moving essay on the subject by a highly respected Singaporean physician. It first appeared in a professional newsletter during the 2007 recession, to which it refers. Two years later it was reprinted in Singapore’s leading daily newspaper, The Straits Times. I encountered the essay in journalist Tom Plate’s new book, Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, to which I introduced Dormgrandpop readers a few days ago. The essay is entitled “My House is shabby, but its comfortable.”

While I worry about the poorer Singaporeans who will be hit hard, perhaps the recession has come at an opportune time for many of us. It will give us the incentive to reconsider our priorities in life.

Decades of the good life have made us soft. The wealthy, but also the middle class in Singapore, have had it so good for so long, what they once considered luxuries, they now think of as necessities...

A mobile phone, for instance, is a statement about who you are, not just a piece of equipment for communication. The same attitude influences our choice of attire and accessories. I still find it hard to believe that there are people carrying handbags that cost more than thrice the monthly income of a bus driver and many more times that of the foreign worker laboring in the hot sun, risking his life to construct luxury condominiums he will never have a chance to live in. The media encourages and amplifies this ostentatious consumption.

My family is not poor, but we have been brought up to be frugal. My parents and I live in the same house that my paternal grandparents and their children moved into after World War II. It is a big house by today’s standards, but it is simple - in fact, almost to the point of being shabby. Those who see it for the first time are astonished that Minister Mentor LKY’s home is so humble, but it is a comfortable house, a home we have got used to. Though it does look shabby compared to the new mansions on our street, we are not bothered by the comparison.

Most of the world and much of Singapore will lament the economic downturn. We have been told to tighten our belts. There will undoubtedly be suffering, which we must try our best to ameliorate. But I personally think the hard times will hold a timely lesson for many Singaporeans, especially those born after 1970 who have never lived through difficult times. No matter how poor you are in Singapore, the authorities and social groups do try to ensure you have shelter and food. Nobody starves in Singapore...

Being wealthy is not a sin. It cannot be in a capitalist market economy. Enjoying the fruits of one’s own labour, is one’s prerogative and I have no right to chastise those who choose to live luxuriously. But if one is blinded by materialism, there would be no end to wanting and hankering.

After the Ferrari, what next? An Aston Martin? After the Hermes Birkin handbag, what can one upgrade to? Neither an Aston Martin nor a Hermes Birkin can make us truly happy or contented. They are like dust, a fog obscuring the true meaning of life and can be blown away in the twinkling of an eye.

When the end approaches and we look back on our lives, will we regret the latest mobile phone or luxury car that we did not acquire? Or would we prefer to die at peace with ourselves, knowing that we have lived lives filled with love, friendship and goodwill, that we have helped some of our fellow voyagers along the way and that we have tried our best to leave this world a slightly better place than we found it.

We know what is the correct choice - and it is within our power to make that choice.... We should not follow the herd blindly.

The essay’s author is Dr. Lee Wei Ling, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s Daughter and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s sister.

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