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pywong
4th February 2009, 06:25 PM
There is no end to wanting - after the Ferrari and the Birkin bag, what
next?

By Lee Wei Ling

In 2007, in an end-of-year message to the staff of the National Neuroscience
Institute, I wrote: 'Whilst boom time in the public sector is never as
booming as in the private sector, let us not forget that boom time is
eventually followed by slump time. Slump time in the public sector is always
less painful compared to the private sector.'
Slump time has arrived with a bang.

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

Decades of the good life have made us soft. The wealthy especially, 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 now a statement about who you are, not just
a piece of equipment for communication. Hence many people buy the latest
model though their existing mobile phones are still in perfect working
order.

A Mercedes-Benz is no longer adequate as a status symbol. For millionaires
who wish to show the world they have taste, a Ferrari or a Porsche is deemed
more appropriate.

The same attitude influences the 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 labouring 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. Perhaps it
is good to encourage people to spend more because this will prevent the
recession from getting worse. I am not an economist, but wasn't that the
root cause of the current crisis - Americans spending more than they could
afford to?

I am not a particularly spiritual person. I don't believe in the
supernatural and I don't think I have a soul that will survive my death. But
as I view the crass materialism around me, I am reminded of what my mother
once told me: 'Suffering and deprivation is good for the soul.'

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 in 1945. 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 Lee
Kuan Yew'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 .
Many of those who are currently living in mansions and enjoying a luxurious
lifestyle will probably still be able to do so, even if they might have to
downgrade from wines costing $20,000 a bottle to $10,000 a bottle. They
would hardly notice the difference.

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 an 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 how we found it?

We know which is the correct choice - and it is within our power to make
that choice.

In this new year, burdened as it is with the problems of the year that has
just ended, let us again try to choose wisely.

To a considerable degree, our happiness is within our own control, and we
should not follow the herd blindly.

*The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute and daughter of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. *