Alter Ego

The Singapore Class

A senior lawyer was recounting his conversation with a junior lawyer recently. Whilst discussing about cars, the junior lawyer remarked to his senior that he should upgrade his car to reflect his lawyer status. “He said that I must show that I have arrived. I wonder what status he was talking about,” the senior lawyer remarked to me.
One of the by-products of the growth of Singapore into a developed country is materialism. Positive economic growth has created status consciousness in Singaporeans. The 5Cs are still very prevalent in Singapore. The younger generation of today has grown up in different circumstances. Their clothes, food, toys and leisure activities place them in a certain class before they even enter the workforce. Many of the students in the law schools come from upper middle class families. They drive to campus, wear expensive clothes, carry the latest handphones and handbags. When they begin their law careers, their lifestyle also flourishes. In that sense, what the junior lawyer said is not surprising. 
The effect of materialism in a person’s life depends on two main factors – upbringing and individualism. Should parents provide all the children’s wants? Many parents today provide more than the children’s needs because they can afford it. What parents give to their children are expressions of parental love and not the children’s entitlement. The distinction between needs and wants has to be taught to our young. Values such as thriftiness instilled from young are likely to last into our adult lives.
For many, lifestyle tends to change in accordance with earning capacity. There is no issue if we can afford the lifestyle. Some of the lawyers who have been caught mishandling clients’ monies are probably examples of individuals whose lifestyles did not match their incomes.  The senior lawyer also shared about the dreams of one such lawyer at large. This recalcitrant lawyer had dreams of owning expensive cars and holiday homes which he could ill afford.  He used to brag about non-existent possessions. 
Greed is the cause of many problems. Some forms of greed create liabilities which lead to potential bankruptcy. A lawyer friend had difficulty obtaining a practising certificate due to a bankruptcy petition he was facing. He blamed certain phases of his life for his debts. He tried to borrow to settle his debts.     
All the talk about how Singaporeans should not be materialistic or status conscious is good subject for social discourse. You cannot avoid the proliferation of such values when our policy makers aspire Singapore to become a world class nation. Would our Government decide to slow down our national growth so that we can keep a check on our values and lifestyle? The answer is obviously in the negative. Materialism assists a country in its economic growth. Its citizens will work harder so as to afford better lives. Their pursuit of material wants will increase the country’s gross domestic product.
So, issues such as concerns over such citizens as verbalised by our senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew, the lack of babies or even emigration have to be grappled with and solutions would have to be sought by the Government. The problem is we try too hard to have everything we want. There is no point in having the cake and eating it at the same time. To have something, you have to give up another.
There is a rising number of Singaporeans who are different from the rest. They are professionals who live simple lives and focus on goals which are important to them such as volunteer work, their family and religion. I have many such friends who prefer not to chase materialism or keep up with the Joneses. One of them is an architect in his 40s whom I have known for more than a decade. During one of our many long conversations, he turned to me and said, “It is so difficult to be different in Singapore, you know. Family, friends and society have certain expectations of you. They think you are weird when you do not drive cars or live in large homes or have expensive hobbies. I feel awkward being in their company. I wonder whether I am doing the right thing,” he ended with his usual laughter. People like him may not have many worldly possessions to compare with their friends. But their deep insight on life, their concern about the less fortunate and issues affecting the world we live in are their invaluable assets. Their quiet and unassuming lives are an inspiration.
Between the materialistic and simple classes of Singaporeans, there is another class of Singaporeans. This hybrid class consists of individuals who wish to reward themselves with some creature comforts such as the occasional fine food, wine, comfortable holidays and indulging in a pet hobby. The direction they lean towards would depend on the stage of life they are in. When they are young, they seek the life of the materialistic class. After growing older and having met their needs and having “seen and done it all”, they seek a slower and quieter pace of life.
The objective for each and every one of us must be happiness. What is happiness? This elusive state of mind has different meaning to each one of us and this often dictates the journey we take to reach that goal. Knowing what it means to us often takes a whole lifetime to understand. But one thing is certain – it is the feeling that we wish to experience each day when we wake up and go to bed.  
Happy Lunar New Year.      
Rajan Chettiar
Rajan Chettiar & Co
E-mail: [email protected]