Monday, October 31, 2011

Are Singaporeans Really Materialistic? (Part Two)

Why Do Singaporeans Place So Much Emphasis on Material Things?

(Part One can be found here.)

Most Singaporeans One Generation or Less Removed from Poverty

My father once told me that when he was a boy, his family was so poor that they lived in a dirt hut with no running water or electricity. He and his siblings were warned by their parents not to play too far away from their house. The reason for that warning is NOT because their parents were afraid that the children would fall into a river or a canal and drown, or that their parents were afraid of kidnappings.

The village that his family lived in consisted of houses built closely to one another, made out of scrap materials. Everyone used firewood or charcoal for cooking, and fire was a constant hazard. If a hut caught on fire, there was a real risk that the fire would spread to neighboring huts quickly. If the kids were playing too far away, they would not be around to help put out the fire or to save the few precious belongings they had.

That is still in the living memory of a large proportion of Singaporeans aged 50 and above. When one is a generation or less from such poverty, one is more likely to put material needs above others. This is articulately and elaborately explained in the theory of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Government Policies

Singapore, under the unbroken rule of the People’s Action Party (PAP) since 1959, has focused a lot on economic development. Many political decisions were made by the government with economics in mind. For example, I once read that the government, when planning for an attraction, decided to build a bird park instead of a zoo because bird feed was cheaper! Housing policies encouraged the population to “upgrade” to bigger flats even as population growth was stabilizing. In the last two decades, “Speak Mandarin” campaigns emphasized to the (Chinese) populace of the Chinese language because of the rise of China as a world economic power. Salaries of cabinet ministers and bureaucrats were pegged to “the private sector.” Even the Esplanade, a center for the performing arts, was built because of the desire to develop Singapore as a “cultural hub.” Lee Kuan Yew often warned the electorate of “freak election” results which would drive the country into an irreversible downward economic spiral, where our womenfolk “would become maids in other people’s countries.”

With such a strong emphasis on the economic development of Singapore, it is not surprising that Singaporeans put material wealth and gain as their top priorities in life.

Conspicuous Consumption Encouraged in Chinese Culture

My dad used to drive a Mercedes Benz. This was in 1994, at the height of the COE bubble. The car, with all taxes included, cost about S$160,000. One hundred and sixty thousand Singapore dollars today is almost US$124,000.

That was enough to buy a flat to house a family of three or four in Singapore comfortably, with cash to spare.  My dad explained to me that it was “necessary” to spend that kind of money on a depreciating asset because it communicated to others that his construction firm was successful and financially stable.

A former teacher of mine told me a few years ago that her husband, as a C-level executive in a large company, was “forced” to upgrade his car to a more expensive one because that was expected of him in that position. Lower level employees could not be seen driving bigger or more expensive cars than their supervisors.

Sharks’ fin soup, a nutritionally bankrupt dish whose main ingredient is tasteless, is “seen as a status symbol” in Chinese weddings because it is expensive. If that dish is missing at a wedding dinner, couples are obliged to explain that they’re environmentally conscious, or risk “losing face” in front of friends and family.

Any culture which encourages such conspicuous consumption of wealth is likely to put the pursuit of material things high up on the list of priorities.

When the pursuit of wealth and material things for their own sake become an obsession, one is unlikely to see the point of intellectual and cultural values. After all, there will always be someone else who earns more than you, and thus will make you less happy. Very unhappy. Then you will want to earn even more than him/her, and buy a bigger house, car, TV etc. It’s a vicious cycle.

Do Americans Place Too Much Emphasis on Material Things Too?

The latest Apple products such as the iPod and iPad generate the same interest and excitement among consumers in America as they do in Asia. Anecdotally, I have more than a few coworkers who make about a dollar or so above minimum wage – part-time – but drive fancy cars or big trucks and own fancy electronic gadgets. My neighbors have TV sets so huge that I can see them from across the central courtyard about 200 feet away. A friend from RIT drove a BMW he could barely afford. Empirical evidence shows that consumption takes up 70% of the American economy.

Americans place as much, if not more, emphasis as Singaporeans on acquiring material things. It is just that conspicuous consumption for its own sake is not encouraged in American culture. The pursuit of earning more money than thy neighbor certainly exists in the American psyche. After all, Americans did not help build a nation that became the world’s superpower by being uncompetitive and lazy.

Does placing a strong emphasis on material things make a culture or a people materialistic? Yes. Are Americans materialistic? Definitely. Are Singaporeans more materialistic than Americans, or any other culture, for that matter? I hardly think so.

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1 comment:

  1. I drive a 1998 Chevy Metro, but I do read the Comopolis blog!