The Greed Epidemic

According to a recent Nielsen survey, consumer confidence in Singapore has fallen to an all-time low. The media has also been hovering over the economic meltdown for some time, trying, in vain, to explain to the people of Singapore what exactly went wrong. What did go wrong? Why the recent carnage on the Stock Exchange of Singapore, why the Lehmann Brothers fiasco, and why the rash of bank failures? Little people have been mortally wounded -- people who trusted these institutions with their life savings.

For the past few days, my wife and I had the experience of taking care of my four-year-old nephew and eight-year-old niece, while their parents took a brief vacation. During the few days we spent with them, I re-discovered children's programs on television. What an education I received in just a few days, convincing me that commercials on children's television programs are one of the most seductive, sinister, early stages of consumerism.

Consumerism is what makes our lust driven economy work. Remember the advice given to Singaporeans by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong? "You should continue to spend on life's little pleasures," we were told. The government of Singapore is telling us to keep consuming, for surely if we stop consuming our economic wheels will fall off, and we will all perish. Consume or die!

Pervasive Consumerism
As I watched a few days of children’s programs with my four and eight-year-old nephew and niece, I discovered that the commercials receive as much, or even more, rapt attention than the programs themselves. The message of these commercials is blatant and obvious. Children are being programmed, at any early age, to be consumers. They are being trained to consume things on their own. During or immediately after every commercial I was informed by our little consumers-in-training that they really wanted and/or needed the gizmo, gadget, diversion or junk food just advertised.

While commercials shown during children's television programs are a problem, there is a bigger and far more malignant epidemic sweeping across our nation. I thought of the needless economic massacre suffered by many, defaulting on credit lines and loans, losing their homes -- people who had been seduced by consumerism into attempting to achieve the so-called Singapore dream by the unremitting use of pieces of plastic that fit neatly into their wallets and purses.

I pondered the marketing gurus who, armed with a basic understanding of human psychology, are able to motivate, persuade and manipulate others for their own gain.

Rapacious Greed of Big Business
Today's adults are always yesterday's children. They are simply products of decades of self-indulgence. When I think of our greedy, ‘me-first’, ‘get-it-now-before-you're-too-old-to-enjoy-it’ self indulgent culture, I think of Nick Leeson, who, over a decade ago, during a time when today's young adults were consumers-in-training, led to the downfall of Barings, United Kingdom’s oldest merchant bank, by fraud and deceit. He was eventually sentenced to prison, but his name came to symbolize the rapacious greed of big business.

Wall Street a classic Oscar-winning 1987 hit was a movie about corporate greed. In the movie, Michael Douglas said, "The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind."

Decades later and post Nick Leeson, the greed epidemic continues, unabated. Even Town Councils are consumed by it.

Indeed, our entire nation is consumed by it.

While we all enjoy buying things for children, one of the most cherished lessons we can leave with the younger generation is that they do not deserve, nor will they receive, everything their little hearts desire. Further, if they were to ever get everything they wanted, they would not be happy - the fires of lust would burn hotter and hotter, voraciously consuming everything in sight.

J.A.C. Mackie, an Australian political scientist who visited Southeast Asia regularly for more than two decades, said Singapore had become "the quintessence of consumerism and materialism." Although Australia has a reputation for hedonism, contemporary Singapore, Mackie says, "makes Australia look rather spiritual". About twenty-five centuries ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tze cautioned against consumerism when he said, “Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity”.

In The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser, a psychology professor from Knox College, offers a scientific explanation of how our contemporary culture of consumerism and materialism affects our everyday happiness and psychological health. In the book, Kasser cites numerous studies as he makes a compelling case that compulsive consumerists and materialists are lonely, narcissistic, hampered in relationships, compulsive, insecure and disconsolate.

Beyond Acquistion of Material Goods
A study of 178 countries based on life expectancy, consumption levels and happiness by the New Economic Foundation's Happy Planet Index places Singapore at 137 out of 178 nations and at the bottom position in South-east Asia. "Singaporeans fret about financial security and retirement. Many Singaporeans are concerned they do not have enough money to grow old gracefully, and that seems to make them unhappy," says Philip Merry, Founder of Global Leadership Academy, as they were searching for Singapore’s happiest person. He adds, "I want people to just look at (the fact) that happiness is all around you, but most of all it's inside, and we don't spend enough time just counting our blessings and realising just how fortunate we are."

So perhaps instead of trying to buy our happiness and self worth or worry about what other people think about us, we should focus and decide what we value as an individual, to think for ourselves what will make us happy so we can move toward that. We have to base self-worth and happiness on our own terms. Obviously, this will be different from person to person. One person may find self-worth and happiness in helping students learn to read and write. Another may find it in their spirituality. Another may find it in helping to save the rainforests. But whatever it is it must come from within and we must each pursue things that have a value higher than the acquisition of material goods.