It is often said that people are too concerned with getting things and spending money. What is your opinion? (English O-level 2017, Syllabus 1128)

In cities near Singapore, like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, one is bound to meet the Singaporean “national bird”. This creature utters one incessant cry: “So cheap! So cheap!” So many Singaporean tourists get labelled as examples of our “national bird” because we seem to be obsessed with buying things that we perceive as cheap, which is sometimes seen as a larger symptom of the consumerist disease. However, I will contend that the accusation that people are too concerned with getting things and spending money only hides the real cause of that behaviour — the perception of economic insecurity. Given that perception, apparently consumerist tendencies can be seen for what they truly are: the attempt to stave off the constant fear of annihilation by the impersonal forces of the economy.

People whose lives seem to revolve around consumer goods sometimes appear to live essentially meaningless lives, since their lives are all about consuming, and not producing. Their consumerist behaviour precludes the productivity of creativity, which to me is the basis of a meaningful life. I understand why anyone would label this consumerist behaviour as excessive, but we must have more empathy for such people. We are all threatened with the anxiety of meaninglessness, but sometimes this is expressed via the anxiety of annihilation. This annihilation is not just the destruction of our bodies, but the destruction of the key parts of our perceived selves — our social circles, our ways of life, our possessions, and so on. When government housing (HDB flats) in Singapore can sell for more than S$1,000,000 for a 5-room flat, it is no surprise that people feel threatened. Buying consumer goods is an expression of that fear, with each additional acquisition symbolising not just buying power, but the power to survive and thrive in spite of the threats that seem to press from all sides. This expression of fear cannot be condemned as excessive if we are to truly understand the mindsets of such consumers. Moreover, almost all of us actually are those consumers, to some degree. After all, who has never jumped at the thought of a discount on something we really want?

I admit that from some objective point of view, this consumerist behaviour is excessive. Life should be lived with courage, and if so many of us were not as afraid of annihilation, perhaps we would see more creativity in the form of compassion (creating positive change in society through compassionate acts), art (creating beauty), and so on. However, when even millionaires seem to be obsessed about cheap cars or fashion, we must have empathy for them and not condemn their behaviour as excessive when they may be concerned for their children, for whom a million dollars may seem insufficient.

This excessive concern with getting things and spending money may be spiritually, psychologically, and socially unhealthy and counterproductive, and must be resisted by those who see the damage that such behaviour can cause. However, to resist this behaviour by labelling it “too much” is itself counterproductive. As members of global society, we should be more concerned with building and shaping the world into one where nobody will have to feel insecure about the necessities of life, including food, shelter, medicine, and education. Perhaps then we can move from being mere consumers, to create something larger with our lives.

(552 words)

I’ve also posted this under A-level essays because it would be really easy to expand to satisfy the GP marking requirements. I would add sections on:
– What the anxiety of annihilation is
– Precarity
– How consumerism is threatening the environment (climate change and pollution) and society (inequality)


(A response to..) Don’t keep calm! And don’t carry on!

This post is a response to the article in the link — Dont keep calm! And dont carry on! – Opinion – Al Jazeera English.

Mr Seah cares about students, and if you care about students, you have to care about politics as well, because what happens in the political realm impacts students too. If, for example, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) comes into power, then it will probably enact policies that they have described here (which, in my opinion, would be good for students but bad for the tuition industry).

So, it was with great admiration that I read the article “Don’t keep calm! And don’t carry on!“. It is such a well-written article, and anyone who even dreams of doing well for their General Paper (GP) should be able to understand and critique this article. It contains a cogent analysis of the ideology embedded within the “keep calm and carry on” meme, and is a call to action — except that the author (Michael Marder) does not spell out for us what that action should be.

I agree with the bulk of the article, and it seems worth the effort to write about the implications of my agreement for my own actions — in terms of my teaching and existence — in the Singaporean context.

The premise of the article — that we exist with a “highly destructive status quo” — is one that I accept. As another author has observed:

“The condominium of state and private actors in the financial-monetary sector is a proper object of civic curiosity. The power to describe must also be disentangled from the formal powers of office and the prerogatives of wealth.”

The inequality that I observe in this world is simply unacceptable, in a moral sense. It is inexplicable that the world’s billionaires continue to hold on to their wealth so tightly when one in three people in the world live in poverty. Marder observes that “the danger is real that the public is about to lose its collective cool”, and it really is no surprise when we have statistics like that to look at.

As a GP tutor, I expect my students to have enough general knowledge to score well in their essays, and this makes up part of the general knowledge that they should have. Once a student is aware of such statistics, there is no way s/he will be able to ignore it without some effort. In the same way that a person will find it difficult to be happy in a room of sobbing people, most people will find it unacceptable to hoard wealth when the problem of poverty is so widespread.

This is not to say that I don’t encourage my students to be successful — I always point to the efforts of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to show how a billionaire can make a massive difference in the world, more than what a humble tutor (me) can achieve. Success isn’t bad — it is unrestrained greed that destroys the world.

In addition to greed, there is also the problem of apathy, brought about by what Marder calls the “ideological constructions of normalcy”. A student of mine has pointed out that this includes the dystopic phenomenon of people being entertained to death with their smartphones, both of us having observed people on trains and buses nowadays being glued to their smartphones in what seems to be an orgy of mindless consumption.

As a teacher of young minds, I always try to encourage mindful consumption, rather than mindless consumption. This is incidentally good for a student’s grades as well — if a student spends hours reading thought-provoking material rather than spending hours playing games or watching inane videos, it will surely have a positive impact on his academic performance.

My teaching is my way of not keeping calm, of not carrying on as if the world was alright. I don’t claim to have a tremendous impact on the world, but I am doing what I can to try to change things. As I explain to my students, we can help by supporting tax reform (an idea that many political and business leaders support), and by volunteering to help whoever we can in our country.

Yes, I want my students to be successful and to do well. But I also want them to remember that keeping calm and carrying on isn’t the best thing to do all the time.