October 29th, 2012

Let’s stop conflating wealth with worth

The Amy Cheong episode presents Singaporeans with an opportunity to openly debate the ethics of living in a generally affluent society that has widening inequality. How do we make sure citizens’ rights to fulfilling and meaningful lives are not heavily dependent on their abilities to generate wealth? What are the social responsibilities of the haves towards the have-nots?

by Teo You Yenn and Kamaludeen Mohamad Nasir
We can tell a lot about what people regard as right or wrong by their responses to transgressions. In the case of the Amy Cheong incident, it is interesting to note that the primary focus has been on her racial prejudices – while almost nothing has been said about her presumptions about class.

Her presumption that one’s right to marry depends on the amount of money one has is as troubling – if not more so – than her narrow presumptions and negative feelings toward Malays. The relative silence about the relationship she draws between money and marriage reveals our deeper common sense: One where wealth, worth and deservedness are tightly tethered.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argues that people born into modern capitalism are trapped in an “iron cage” – unable to decide their paths, and compelled to work hard, be frugal and accumulate wealth for its own sake rather than as a means to larger goals.

He perhaps underestimated the degree to which the pursuit and accumulation of wealth can take on tremendous meaning and normative value, with disturbing consequences for human beings’ sense of themselves and their regard for each other.

In Singapore, the recent debates over social spending, education and meritocracy, and population and immigration have brought to the fore the need to narrow the gaps between the rich and the poor and to ensure social mobility. This seems to be the consensus, even if there is disagreement as to how these goals are to be achieved.

What is less explicit, and where there might be lower degrees of consensus, pertains to how the state and society perceive the value of being wealthy. That discussion has not found a big place at the table of national conversations.

We seem to have accepted too easily that what people can and cannot do in life – including when they can marry or how many children they can have – depends on whether they can afford it.

It is apt for society to place this worldview under scrutiny. Two recent pieces of news add to the urgency of this.

First, in the Wealth Report 2012, Singapore sits prettily at the top with the highest gross domestic product per capita – a situation that is expected to remain until 2050.

Second, the Prime Minister revealed in his National Day Rally Speech that, by 2020, 40 per cent of every Singaporean cohort will comprise of graduates, a significant increase from the 27 per cent today.

These achievements and targets come at a time when the Singapore Government acknowledges that we are experiencing a widening income gap. This intensifies the unequal starting point among the haves and the have-nots, harming the meritocratic ideals of our system.

With increasing affluence and educational attainment among a significant proportion of society, what is traditionally considered status goods, such as the often talked about 5Cs in Singapore, is constantly being redefined.

The bar for “success” is increasingly high and, yet, also dangerously narrow. We seem to have a situation where certain sections of society feel a sense of entitlement to various status goods.

Significantly, their practices and values shape social norms that presume certain acts – whether spending on weddings or luxury goods – mark people as superior and of higher (human) worth (it is telling and problematic that rich people are now referred to as “high net worth individuals”).

Ms Amy Cheong’s remarks should be read as being as much class snobbery as racial prejudice. Class snobbery concerns are not unique to Singapore: England’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently warned that “class snobbery is holding Britain back by creating a society divided between those born with a sense of entitlement to succeed and others who are ‘permanently excluded’.”

It is heartening to witness Singaporeans being comfortable enough to air difficult issues on race, but it would be unfortunate if important observations on social class divisions take a backseat.

The Amy Cheong episode presents Singaporeans with an opportunity to openly debate the ethics of living in a generally affluent society that has widening inequality.

How should we value wealth? How do we make sure citizens’ rights to fulfilling and meaningful lives are not heavily dependent on their abilities to generate wealth? Given that no individual can become rich independent of what society provides, what are the social responsibilities of the haves towards the have-nots?

In a quote attributed to Karl Marx, he mentioned that in examining social inequality, “the least advantaged are the eyes that matter when it comes to looking at justice”. A truly national conversation will have to examine the category of “least advantaged” through multifarious lenses – whether race, age, gender or social class.

It is time to talk about whether the positions and worldviews of the privileged should be a standard for the rest.

The writers are both assistant professors in the Division of Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University. This piece was first published in Today and is re-posted here with the authors’ kind permission.

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