The place of money in our lives

Chee Soon Juan

Singapore has never considered, much less practiced, anything else other than the free-market system. And rightly so. Such a system allows us to reward enterprise and diligence and, in so doing, generate growth for our economy.

The inevitable corollary is that outcomes for the participants in the economy will be unequal – the more innovative we are and/or the harder we work, the greater our remuneration.

There is nothing undesirable with such an arrangement, people should be encouraged to seek socioeconomic elevation through productive means. It is the desire of people wanting to get ahead and our aspirations to live a better life that drive human progress. The mechanisms of the free-market enable us to do that.

And yet, there is something profoundly wrong with the situation in which we find ourselves. The promise of the free-market is under siege. This is because what we have in Singapore today is not a free-market economy but a free-market society – a distinction made prominent by Harvard professor Michael Sandel in his book What Money Cannot Buy.

The market economy, Sandel says, is a tool with which we use to organise our economic lives. The market society, on the other hand, is a way of life, one where monetary incentives become the be-all and end-all of the way we live. The problem isn’t what we aspire to, it is what we are willing to sacrifice in our effort to obtain material wealth that should give us pause.

In other words, where do we place money in our lives?

A nation’s soul

It is not my intention to moralise about how we live our individual lives. Rather, I want to discuss how we organise our society and how we envision our collective future. For how we arrange the system that governs our lives will determine how happily we live.

In Singapore we have moved, perhaps imperceptibly, to a market society; we have turned many aspects of our lives into commodities readily traded for cash. Money has become the driver of our behaviour – even of our value system.

Want fewer births? Pay women to undergo tubal ligation. Want more births? Give tax incentives to couples to have more babies. Want good cabinet ministers? Pay them million-dollar salaries. Want our children to have strong character? Reward them with cash.

Money cannot buy everything but in Singapore that list is rapidly shrinking.

Our healthcare system runs on the basis that the richer you are, the better and more prompt your medical treatment is. Elite schools offering special academic tracks charge school fees upwards of $300 a month. Our public housing system allows flats to be sold in excess of $1 million.

When we monetise things that we shouldn’t, especially in circumstances where societal values are involved, we bring about harmful outcomes. Our moneyed society wreaks a pernicious effect on the public spirit: Despite having the most number of millionaires per capita in the world, Singaporeans are the least happy people; despite rated one of the best places by foreigners to immigrate to, more than half of Singapore citizens indicate they want to emigrate; and despite having a compulsory National Service, more than a third of our youths say that don’t feel any loyalty to this country.

Such abysmal civic spiritedness is (ironically) summed up by Lee Kuan Yew who talked about what he would do if he were a youth in contemporary Singapore:


Supposing I’m now 21, 22, what would I do? I would not be absorbed in wanting to change life in Singapore. I’m not responsible for Singapore…Why should I go and undertake this job and spend my whole life pushing this for a lot of people for whom nothing is good enough? I will have a fall-back position, which many are doing – have a house in Perth or Vancouver or Sydney, or an apartment in London, in case I need some place suddenly, and think about whether I go on to America. (
The Man & His Ideas, 1997)

This what’s-in-it-for-me attitude has assuredly seeped into our national soul. Opposition parties talk only about bread-and-butter issues and steer clear of human rights ones. We eschew democracy because voting in the opposition might ruin the prices of our HDB flats. The same reason makes us resist having elderly care facilities or dormitories for foreign workers built in our neigbourhoods.

This attitude is also embodied by the Prime Minister. Despite acknowledging the baneful effects of extreme income inequality, Lee Hsien Loong says that “if he could persuade 10 more billionaires to move to Singapore, he would, even if that worsened income inequality.” (See here)

Read also: A Fundamentally Different Outlook from Lee Kuan Yew, Part 1 and Part 2.

The danger

The danger of placing money at the centre of our national life is that we abrogate our moral responsibility and devolve our decision-making to market norms. We blur our moral vision – our view of what is right and wrong, of what is just and what is not, of values such as compassion – when we see everything through the lens of profit. It is a parlous state that we live in when market values replace moral values.

The danger is that we become blinded by the things we want and blind to the things we really need.

Such a way of life may bring us material progress (but even this will slow down as our economy finds it difficult to regenerate itself) but the good life, the one that brings us genuine contentment, will elude us.

We need a fundamental rethink of how we pursue wealth and, more importantly, to what end. We need a public debate about what we want for our future and how we want to live it. We need to ask that all-important question: What price do we pay when we cede our values to market mechanisms?

Far from esoteric, this subject should occupy popular discourse for it holds great sway on our future success and happiness as a people.

Chee Soon Juan is Secretary-General of the SDP.



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