June 26, 2005
Insight Down South By Seah Chiang Nee
A PRE-TEEN pupil offered $1 to his classmate to do his homework. Another gave his friend 10 cents as a tip to buy canteen food for him.
These Generation Y tales told to me by a mother over lunch recently touch on one of Singapore’s maladies after years of affluence.
This wealth has given Singaporeans a good life but has also moulded a lopsided view that money is a quick fix for all problems.
But these schoolboy horror stories have been around for decades.
In the early years, even when Singapore was less wealthy, some students in elite schools were known to flash Rolex watches, Gucci bags and other branded goods.
Dr Tony Tan, the current deputy prime minister, once spoke of a spoiled brat who burned a $5 bill to show off how “successful” his parents were, and his friend promptly replied by torching a $50 note.
Some time ago, a friend told me his son had come home one day complaining about his pitiful pocket money after being shown a classmate’s birthday present from his father.
It was a $200,000 deposit in the 12-year-old’s Post Office Saving Bank (since taken over by DBS Bank) account.
The stereotype of youth is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of none. It is, of course, exaggerated and hardly fair since he lives in his parents’ mould.
The rapid transformation from Third to First World has created an attitude towards money more profound than in many other comparable cities.
“If you have a problem, just throw money at it and it will go away” seems to be a viewpoint that has been passed on to the young generation.
Take the case of nine-year-old Jeremy Tio, who was lost for three nights recently in Fraser’s Hill with his three Malaysian cousins.
When he was found, he emotionally hugged his rescuer and said, “I love you.”
But he revealed his Singaporean upbringing when he told his Malaysian rescuers, “If I give you money, can you take me home?”
His gracious rescuer Rapi Bata replied: “No need to pay us. We are here to help you.”
This episode raised concern at the direction in which Singaporeans are being raised. Very few people blame Jeremy for the remarks because of his age and the severe fatigue he was under.
But spoken so matter-of-factly by one so young, it has placed the whole society, the education system and his parents under the critical spotlight.
One Internet writer said, “It belies a very serious problem with our society at large. From such a young age, little Jeremy knows the power of money.”
Another cynical response: “Can’t blame little Jeremy. He is only money-minded, that’s all. This is a true blue Singaporean. Money talks every time. I think Jeremy will be an exemplary Singaporean when he grows up. He appreciates the value of money.”
Others were less judgmental, pointing out his tender age. One defended him, “When you're cold, hungry, desperate, afraid ... would you will still be thinking straight?”
But the general view is: “He thinks money can solve everything or it can make people work!”
It flows down from the highest level of leadership, which has long used money as a weapon to fight corruption. Singapore’s Cabinet ministers (and senior civil servants) are among the world’s most highly paid.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew often says that giving high salaries to government ministers and officials is the best way to keep graft at bay.
Even a junior minister in Singapore earns more than $1mil a year, with the Prime Minister and other senior leaders making at least twice the amount. By comparison, the US President earns US$400,000 or about S$700,000.
Several years ago, the son of one of Singapore’s billionaires said in a public speech that “greed is good” because it served as a builder of human enterprise and wealth.
He is evidently not the only businessman to think in this way. A rising number of executives of publicly listed companies do more than just think; they are facing fraud or corruption charges in court.
The money culture is spreading but not every one is against it. In the name of pragmatism and reality, some support the principle that “if you want good service, you pay for it”.
Want Olympic winners? Give a $1mil reward. In some charity bodies, $3 out of every $10 you contribute may end up as commissions to professional collectors.
Thank goodness we have not reached America’s level of money-mindedness – yet! We don’t have to tip our taxi-drivers or anyone just to make a dinner booking, but for how long?
o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com