From ‘Guard against rising materialism’, 17 April 2013, ST Forum
(Anuradha Singh): I WAS disgusted to read the description of real estate developer K.P. Singh’s birthday celebrations in India (“India: Get Shakira to perform or fly in snow for birthday party”; Monday), as well as the descriptions of the excesses in China and Indonesia (“China: Showing off a sport for the wealthy” and “Indonesia: Enjoy party and go home with iPad gift”; both published on Monday).
It is a sad fact that there is no sense of decorum or noblesse oblige among today’s rich, since most of them do not have the inherent – and inherited – sense of responsibility that comes from being well-bred. People who display their wealth so lavishly used to be sneered at as being arrivistes and social climbers, but they are sadly becoming the norm today.
Their excesses are disgusting, given the dire poverty of their countries. How can anyone living in a country like India, where children are pressed into construction work, live with themselves if they flaunt their wealth like this?
Unfortunately, the same is happening in Singapore as it, too, is an aspirational society – a father dropping off his son in a Ferrari convertible at my daughter’s school; secretaries who spend more than they earn on designer bags; and tai-tais who seem to think their only social responsibility is to single-handedly support the Louis Vuitton empire.
I wonder if Ms Singh has heard of the Jewel of Pangaea cocktail worth a whopping $32,000, or Perm Sec Tan Yong Soon’s $42,000 cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu, Paris. Or that Facebook billionaire Eduardo Saverin has made Singapore his home, an ‘aspirational’ country where there are 17 millionaire households out of 100 who live in $1 million HDB flats and $300 million bungalows, drive $3 million Pagani Huayra Italian supercars, or eat lobster mee pok for over $200 a bowl. If Phua Chu Kang can own a Lamborghini Gallardo worth $800,000, so can you!
What else but extravagant displays of ‘disgusting excesses’ can you expect from a country that prides itself as a shopping paradise, promotes a casino as a national icon and ranks among the most affluent nations in the world? Obscenely rich people exist whether we like it or not. Some choose to flaunt and brag about it, while others wear rags and hug big bags of gold bars to sleep with one eye open. If a rich man wants to fly in an international superstar to entertain his guests and hire naked supermodels so people can eat expensive sushi off their torsos, if a father wants to fetch his daughter in a Ferrari to a $500 K-pop concert, even if there are children dying of starvation in the streets, what can we do about it short of hiring Robin Hood, or summoning the Ghosts of Christmas Past,Present and Future to scare some ‘noblesse oblige’ into rich folks?
We tend to blame the media for promulgating dreams of easy riches. Movies like The Social Network exalt the self-made below 30′s billionaire. We are entertained by opulent grandeur, decadent travelogues, 3 star Michelin dining and vicarious lavish living through local shows like The Finer Side (starring Dick Lee and Denise Keller), which drew similar complaints for being ‘self-indulging’ and ‘obscene’. We also hear of MPs who flash their Coach bags, CEOs of charities installing gold taps in their bathrooms, and millionaire singing pastors who live in Hollywood. We’re constantly bombarded by updates of our friends ‘living it up’ through Facebook postings of fine dining and luxury possessions that we’ve all become rather numb to their ‘excesses’ by now. Having caviar and champagne by MBS Infinity Pool? Meh. Bought a new Chanel bag for your anniversary? Hallelujah. Bean sprouts, sardines and rice for lunch? OMG YOU POOR THING YOU!
‘Materialism’, like ‘noblesse oblige’, seems like such an outdated concept for a nation where almost everyone owns a smartphone, has broadband internet at home, and some take leave just to queue overnight for the latest iPad. Wanting, lusting after the best stuff that money can buy isn’t a lack of social responsibility (unless you’re a collector of rare leather made from baby seals) but a sense of transient wish fulfilment and personal entitlement, a natural reward response to long hours of slogging at the office. We use words depicting gluttony like ‘binge’, ‘splurge’ and ‘retail therapy’ as easily as we use ‘broke’. In fact, what’s deemed as ‘materialistic’ in the past has become today’s necessity. In 2001, a Today contributor branded the handphone as nothing but an empty ‘status symbol’. There were even times in the past when you may be condemned as an ‘arriviste’ and show-off if you owned a Discman, karaoke laser disc player or even a colour TV. The audacity to sing karaoke when you should be helping the poor! Shame on you!
So perhaps one day anyone can invite Shakira to their party to perform Waka Waka, or drink the Jewel of Pangaea when toasting your bride instead of cheap champagne. But until then, no one can agree on what living ‘modestly’ means. Buy a Merc and you’re materialistic, go to a barber instead of a salon and you’re called a cheapskate. So go ahead, join that queue for the next Samsung phone. Go for a spa holiday in the Maldives. Because you’re worth it.