Sunday, March 24, 2013



After the General Election in 1997, I had written an article on “Materialism, The Hidden Rot of Society” which was published in the 1998 volume of Solidarity, The NSP newsletter and subsequently printed in the book, Publish and Perish, produced by the NSP in 2001. Below is an extract from the article.

“One of the strange paradoxes of modern society is that the consumer society has to encourage the people to spend more of their money and more of their time on the non-necessities, on the “useless things”, the junk of life in order to stimulate economic growth and generate the income to give them the necessities of modern life.

But what is really a good and fulfilling life? Is it living in private houses, owning cars and travelling abroad? We have been deluded by the materialistic approach to life and neglecting the spiritual dimension of life.

It has been said that we are strangling the life out of ourselves because of how we think and it is only when we start to see the world more as it is that we will stop strangling ourselves. We need to shift from seeing a world made up of things to seeing a world that’s open to and primarily made up of relationships. We need to recognize that there is a deeper reality that exists beyond anything we can express in words. For what appears most real to us – whatever see, touch, feel, taste and hear, are actually non-substantial.

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had posed the question, “What is life about?” to the students at the National University of Singapore in December 1996. According to Mr. Lee, life is about living and this according to him, is bringing up a family, living in a society that makes everybody feel at ease with one another, living in a society where there are other things – painting, music, plays, dramas, dances, operas, paintings, restaurants, parks – giving ease to the bare existence of life.

But the reality of life in Singapore is that living as described by Mr. Lee Kuan Yew seems to be only for the elite – what about the rest of us ordinary Singaporeans? Unfortunately, many Singaporeans are so busy earning their living that they don’t have time to even think about what life is about and to see that materialism can never answer the deeper questions of life. Many equate wealth with goodness and see the rich man as being blessed.

We need to change the values in our society. Our society has become so materialistic that we have lost sight of what life is really all about. As I care for those who are dying, I realized that one of the most important questions we will face when we are our death beds is:

“Has the world become a better place from what I have given or has the world become a poorer place because of what I have consumed?”

The real meaning of our lives lies in what we have given rather than what we have taken from this world. The truth is that wealth is no guarantee of happiness. In the past twenty years, the British economy grew by 40%, the German by 50% and the Japanese by 60%. But this does not mean the Germans and Japanese are any happier. In fact, surveys have shown that it is the Japanese who are envious of the lifestyles of almost everyone.

Likewise, we may be richer than our Malaysian and Indonesian neighbours. But are we  happier? Mr. Canagaratnam Gunasingham drew attention to the fact that a peasant society under the harshest of conditions is a storehouse of human values. It is in such a storehouse that the inner resources of traditional life reside.

According to him, the steeply rising expectations of a social class which already enjoys high levels of gratification is a serious weakness as it may matter little to this group that a segment of the population is deprived in terms of what the economy yields. “A gracious society is but sounding brass and tinkling symbol if it does not go with a tragic vision which society often loses sight of as their material prosperity advances” wrote Mr. Gunasingham.

Indeed it is human greed rather than an economic system that is the root cause of economic injustice. It has been said that a poor person may envy the rich and strive to gain great wealth, but if he succeeds he discovers that he still wants more – “whoever loves money never has enough, whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.”

It is only when our citizens are imbued with spiritual values that they will have contented hearts that frees them to share what they have with those who are less fortunate.

In a letter to the Forum Page in September 1992, attention was drawn to the fact that the rise and fall of nations and empires are not due only to political, social and economic forces but that moral and spiritual forces also play a very important role. We must not lose sight of the spiritual and moral aspects of living or we will fall into the trap of letting things become more important than people. And when our citizens are motivated primarily by monetary rewards, our talented citizens will be easily “creamed off” by “greener pastures.”

It would be very sad if the PAP succeeds in winning the elections but fails to build a nation and worse still, to alienate the people from the government. Mr. Janadas Devan  had rightly pointed out that “Singapore in fact does not exist unless every member of that totality can say, This is my Singapore, I’ll take care of it – for you as well as for myself. And no Singaporean is going to say that unless he or she has a vote, a voice. A self satisfied elite that forgets this are like Generals who believe that they can win wars without soldiers.” An elite in a nation that uses materialism to entrench themselves in power will therefore soon find themselves left without a nation.

One American dream is to reach a point in one’s life where one doesn’t have to do anything one does not want to do and can do everything that one wants to do. We are in danger of seeking to follow such a futile and empty dream. The author of the book, Ecclesiastes, reached such a point in his life only to find a sense of futility. He wrote:

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work and this was the reward for all my labour. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

Human beings are created for relationships and we need to remember that “what makes us human is not our mind but out heart, not our ability to thinks but our ability to love.”

Singaporeans need to learn to live simpler lifestyles so that they will have more time for themselves and families. We need to recognize that there are limits to our productivity. After all, what will it profit Singaporeans to gain the whole world but to lose their souls?

We have to learn to measure our standard of living not by what we have but by what we are – a joyful and healthy people instead of a people driven by anxiety, insecurity, greed, envy, lust and pride. 

It is only when we are community of selfless individuals committed to the welfare of others that we will have a truly democratic society. A society comprising of individuals who are materialistic and self centered will always be governed by an elite that knows how to use fear, greed and promises of security to their advantage.”

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