Are Singaporeans obessesed about $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$?

October 13, 2012

We can disagree on many things. But one of the things we can all agree on without too much difficulty is, the greatest change in Singapore over the last ten years is its culture – namely the growing preoccupation with money. Let’s be clear, this isn’t going to be another money is the root of all evil rant or preachy take on how people should regard the idea of money – the way I see it, there is nothing wrong with striving for money per se. There is however something very wrong when money becomes the predominant activity where it even assumes an end by itself – this hardly requires any elaboration – when the money only culture roots itself into any society, it’s effects can be pernicious – as not only does the measure of a person and his worth become inextricably linked with the whole idea of money; but what also happens is it becomes the preeminent benchmark that determines everything that is good or worthless – in short it narrows out the field of possibilities squeezing out all else.

Question: Is Singapore barreling inexorably towards that kind of money obsessed culture, that I have just described? I’ve be honest with you, when I read about high flying civil servants who are so disconnected with the ground swell as to even splurge out on Fin de siècle Parisian gastronomic holidays – public servants who scam taxpayers just so they can crash their Italian sport cars into lampost – ex civil servants who have no qualms about blowing $800 on a tryst – and how our political class seem to be only interested in rhapsodizing endlessly about our stellar GDP growth and gilded cage standard of living despite failing to deliver any discernible benefits to the average man in the street or how that might even bridge the chronic income equality. Then say what you like, but what begins to emerge is an unsavory picture where its even conceivable money now rivals or even exceeds the whole idea of values vis-a-vis not only does this single track goal subvert good values, but it may also lead good people to do things that are morally questionable, if not reprehensible, thus inflicting a deep gash, in the concept of the whole idea of public service.

I realize only too well when the moral narrative is juxtaposed against a regime where minister regularly get paid million dollar salaries – the whole idea of higher principles and values sounds rather out of synch and may even be closer to an admirable sentiment than something that can offer a real workable solution – after all say what you like but just as no one can run away from the law of economics – a corollary of that logic also imposes on us the belief, if you are only willing to pay peanuts; then all you’re probably going to end up with is monkeys – and we all know that it pays naught to have monkeys managing the levers of power.

True as that may be, but true to only a point. And this is what many may have forgotten – instead they may have elevated this notion into the upper reaches of a fait accompli i.e a fantasy.

I guess one reason why the idea of money and high performance is so often seen as one of the same reality in Singapore may have something to do with how we have all been subtly conditioned to only perceive value on in quantitative terms of yield, profit and return on investment terms – my point is before we can even begin deconstructing the myth that money = talent = high performance = good life for all, it’s necessary to understand this uniquely Singaporean mindset is an acquired taste and not something that comes naturally to whole idea of the public service culture in any part of the world (though in the banking community, for some funny reason it seems perfectly normal to pay out creamy bonuses even when they are foreclosing, that could also be one reason why so many taxpayers want to light them up) – to me, that explains why the money culture has managed to entrench itself so deeply in the Singaporean mentality -coloring not only our worldview; but also how we may define personal and organizational success. In summary, if we cannot define progress in terms of GNP and GDP, then it simply doesn’t exist – the flip side of that myopic lens of seeing the world in only utilitarian, pragmatic and functional terms is it’s bound to squeeze out all other considerations which cannot measured. Wonder no more why moral considerations and so many other factors that should normally feature in the decision making process are simply extinguished?

A side effect of pursuing this corrosive logic is not only do we end up debasing the whole idea of public service as simply a transactional quid pro quo exchange but what it also does is cast out the spirit of public service and idealism. Neither is it possible for us to gain a deeper understanding of how inuring the system with chasing the buck culture brings only untold grief to the submerged classes who have been ravaged by unbridled competition. I realize only to well when we speak these days about engendering and nourishing this spirit in Singapore it’s like talking about snakes in Norway – the bloody thing doesn’t exist; but when I read about the great endeavors that mankind has undertaken throughout the course of history – putting an end to slavery; seeding the idea of democracy and saying no apartheid and banishing parochialism and sectarian violence – I am reminded none of these great endeavors would have been possible without recruiting the idea of nourishing higher ideals and principles – it’s inconceivable for me to see how we can work towards a better world if the system is designed to attract only those who wish to benefit financially from government service. I don’t deny that idea may have of late gained currency as we are always informed that there is only one type of man that resides in every one of us – and he is none other than Homo economicus, or Economic human, a being so pragmatic and rational and driven by self-interest that he has even come to color the entire discipline of the economics along with the marketing manifesto and how policies are regularly crafted – however what’s so often elided about the story of Homo economicus, is he’s first and foremost a primal and feral creature – if Homo economicus was a real man, we would probably have to shoot him with a tranquilizer gun, put him in chains and pack him off to get his head examined by Lee Wei Ling as his serial single mindedness to seek out profit at every turn and opportunity is the very reason why the financial world is in such a mess and so many continue to be shackled in the chains of income inequality- to me this is a curious state of affairs, as since most of us will have very little difficulty in understanding why it may be a lousy idea to hire someone who regularly hear voices to pilot a 747 – or that it’s might not be an ideal fit to employ someone who has a habit of breaking out in tongues whenever he is stressed as an air traffic controller. But when it comes to managing the free market enterprise or crafting policies that affect millions of lives no one seems to be particularly bothered about putting a psychopathic profiteer in charge who probably thinks moral probity is a name of a range of womens panties – that’s why I don’t believe this flawed model of humanity can ever be allowed free rein let alone predominate so much of our thinking as to even shape the outlook of the civil service culture right down to coloring the broader complexion of statecraft, if the goal is to create a progressive society.

If the 2008 economic meltdown has taught us anything at all – it is simply this, life is not so simple where all one has to do is pay the highest dollar to attract the best talent thereby securing a lasting and stable future – it’s a gross simplification to assume the profit motive alone can be the the central linchpin that reliably translates talent into high performance or for that matter deliver the idea of the level playing field – as if we continue to pursue his jalopy of an idea to its logical end not only will there always be a divide between theory and practice, but as we all saw so clearly in the carnage of the financial crisis, if the profit motive is not coupled to the idea of higher principles, values and ethics – then the shit will hit the fan – neither does it profit us to frame the ills of our age in purely technical and mechanical terms while decamping from the importance of values and the role it might have on the outcome: while palpably true globalization may have exacerbated income inequality but so has unbridled run away train immigration along with the state sanctioned habit of passing cost spikes to the end user automatically – while no one denies the capricious forces of globalization do not lend themselves easily to control, but can we say the same of policies that guide immigration and the corrosive culture of passing the cost to the end user like an automaton?

Doing away with a principled approach may be fine and well, if you’re fixing a broken pump; but as we all witnesses in the financial crisis and even the recent BP fiasco: avarice, greed and willingness to trade short term gain for long term benefits simply create perfect conditions for grief. And this again underscores the importance of having moral coherency instead of what we may mistakenly believe to be talent, if we are to craft good policies that do not only serve to heighten the already acute anxieties of our times.

If there are any lessons to be gleaned from the shattered dreams of the last economic crisis, it is only this: this is not an economic glitch or a failure of financial system as we are so often led to believe by the apparatus of mass assimilation, but at the heart of the problem its an old fashion moral dilemma –  where idolizing the money culture played a preponderant role in the anatomy of failure. To me the lessons are clear, we cannot do without a moral compass – if the goal is to build a holistic goody good machine where the public is to continue to trust the system. It’s conceivable we may even need to set a new bearing so that we can begin to ween ourselves from this idea that high performance can only had at the expense of seeding a culture that encourages only people whose only metier is to know which side of the bread is buttered – if we continue on the current path all we would be doing is filling up the ranks with parvenu’s and the automata – Rather what is required instead is to revivify the system by placing a renewed emphasis on moral and ethical wholeness – Neither should we discount character so completely as to believe for one moment that what a person chooses to do in his personal life has nothing whatsoever to do with his professional life – if he were a businessman then I say; let the market sort him out, even then as we all saw from the Madoff scandal, there are limits in the absence of ethical safeguards – and this begs the question: what more if the person in question happens to be a public servant? Can we then say, the only line that will keep this man in check may well be the very same “admirable sentiment,” that our custodians of power once considered expedient to dismiss as irrelevant and incapable of eliciting the right attitude for public service?

I think not. You see I just happen to have a wonder weapon on my side, history is dead stacked against Homo Economis.

Darkness 2012

“The middle class in Singapore has been systematically obliterated by the PAP. Yes you can go and quote me if you all wish. Better still, go and tell all your friends, the middle class in Singapore is being ass fucked! That is a much more accurate description of what is really going on. And now there is a new nail that is to be hammered into the coffin. And this goes on and on and on in Singapore. As if its the most natural and expected thing to ever happen. That to me has to be a very perverse form of joke. One that I dont consider very funny at all.”

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