Caught in the trap of materialism

Source: The Sunday Times, Dec 19, 2010

I scorned those who flaunted wealth but found that I too cling on to material things

By Lee Wei Ling

Christmas is a big occasion in Singapore, even for non-Christians.

It is an excuse for revelry, dolling up, eating unhealthy food and drinking expensive wines – sometimes costing more per bottle than what some doctors earn in a month.

Because of improved economic conditions, the newspapers have been carrying full-page advertisements of late, often on three to four consecutive pages, especially on Fridays and Saturdays.

Last week’s Sunday Times and New Paper not only had advertisements that stank of ostentatious displays of material wealth, but also stories that encouraged such behaviour.

The New Paper had one story entitled ‘He spends $14,500 on bottle of wine’. Another story, ‘Branded bags and BMW for 22-year-old’, quoted a girl as saying: ‘I believe in spending. I always feel that when you spend, you make yourself happy… At the end of the day, the investment will come back to you in a good way.’

In her case, the return on her ‘investment’ was that she was able to attract attention and clients at events she attended.

I cannot empathise with such people. My approach to life has always been to pare away all material objects except the few necessary for existence.

As Singapore’s economy improved over the past year, it would appear that Singaporeans have become more extravagant. A foreigner who looks just at newspaper advertisements might be forgiven for concluding that most Singaporeans are millionaires and the majority lead a hedonistic life.

Perhaps it is good that people are spending. After all, spending keeps the economy humming, so long as people are spending within their means. If nobody wants a mansion with French chandeliers and Italian marble flooring, the merchants selling these items would close shop. In addition, contractors would not need to employ foreign labourers.

These labourers come to Singapore after paying employment agencies several months of their salaries, and slog at back-breaking jobs that pay several times what they might earn in their home countries but are meagre by Singaporean standards.

But they manage to feed themselves, support their families back home, and save to perhaps buy a house of their own one day. After decades of comfortable living, few if any Singaporeans will work as construction workers or maids.

Much as I detest materialism, an incident last week reminded me that I too was guilty of being attached to ‘luxury items’.

My father and I were going through one of my mother’s drawers. We found knick-knacks as well as jewellery that had much sentimental value.

I found the gold bracelet that I had bought for my mother in 1978 with my first pay cheque. And there was an aquamarine ring that my father had chosen from a tray full of semiprecious stones, all mined from Madagascar, that the President of Madagascar had presented to him and other members of the Singapore delegation visiting the country in 1964.

It was a lovely hue of blue, my favourite colour. Though I will never wear it, I remember that as a child I had asked my mother whether I could have it when I grew up.

There was a gold medallion inscribed with Chinese calligraphy that my father had presented to my mother in the 1960s. There was also a fake gold necklace I had bought on a Singapore Airlines flight. I had used it a few times before my mother took a liking to it. So I gave it to her.

It was ideal for travelling because one would not be too upset if it was stolen. And she being Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, no one would have asked her if the necklace was fake or real gold. Now that I am travelling with my father again, I will take this necklace with me.

My father was thrilled to find a small, plain white gold ring that my mother had worn as a pendant after she married my father secretly in Stratford-upon-Avon in December 1947. I have never seen my father wear a ring or any other ornament. But when he found this ring, which he had assumed was lost, he tried to wear it on his little finger. However, it was too small. So I am keeping it together with the aquamarine ring for their sentimental value.

I placed the items from my mother’s drawer together with some cheap ornaments in my own drawer. As I was about to lock the drawer, I noticed that a men’s dress watch that I had bought on another Singapore Airlines flight was missing.

The watch cost less than $200, but it looked more elegant than the watches I had been using for many decades. I had meant to use it when I attended functions with my father. Now it was lost. I searched unsuccessfully for it for an hour, then gave up.

I was quite upset. So I resorted to my favourite antidepressant and tranquilliser – exercise. As I stepped on and off a 25cm pile of plastic blocks with a 4kg weight in one hand, my mind became clear again after about 30 minutes.

Why was I bothered about losing a watch? It had no sentimental value. The error was not losing the watch; the error was allowing myself to temporarily fall into the trap of clinging to material possession. So I let go of the watch – physically as well as mentally.

The episode was a healthy reminder that I have not yet attained the stage of detachment, not even from material things.

What right have I to view with disdain the materialism of others when I too am at fault?

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute. Send your comments to