By Gerald Koh
Let’s be honest, Singapore is a pretty materialistic society. And it is only going to get worse.
The concept that the best, or even the only, way to attain happiness and satisfaction in life is to earn a fortune and own a wealth of material riches, is a commonly subscribed thought among Singaporeans. The classic Five C’s — cash, car, condominium, credit card, country club membership — being used as the ultimate metric of determining success and happiness in Singapore is a prime example of this.
Sadly, despite its dangers, materialism is so ingrained in society that we often do not give much thought about it. This can lead to the idolatry of materialistic credentials, mental burnout and even nihilistic hedonism. Considering how it has accelerated over the years and will continue to become more extreme, I think it is time we rethink materialism in Singapore.
‘Pressure cooker’ culture
The culture of materialism is not something that popped up on its own. To trace how such trends have been normalised in our society, we need to examine the kinds of social pressures that exist in our society and how this ties in with materialism.
Singapore is like a pressure cooker; we are always under pressure to get a good-paying job to afford the finer things in life. There is an underlying desire in our country and across different stages of life to be highly accomplished by securing straight A’s at school or being a successful CEO in a company.
From a young age, students in our country spend the third-longest time on homework globally. Even before adulthood, Singaporeans are forced to be accustomed to spending long hours on their studies, conditioning them to work long hours in a workplace.
We think that if students don’t study properly in school, their chance at “succeeding” in life is gone and they won’t be able to earn a large paycheck and afford the finer things in life. Our attitude towards education is fueled by materialism instead of curiosity, defeating the meaning of learning.
The belief that working hard to attain material happiness is also seen in our work culture. In 2019, a study by a tech company Kisi found that Singapore was the second most overworked city in the world, topped only by Tokyo. Singapore also ranked 32nd out of the 40 cities when it came to the level of work-life balance that citizens enjoyed. While there are multiple reasons why this exists, such as corporate culture, one factor that fuels the lack of leisure time is the lust for material items perceived as the primary source of happiness.
Our motivation to spend excessive time, energy and focus on work and education is fueled by the excessive yearning for financial and material comfort above all else. It is based on the notion that generating enough wealth for yourself (and perhaps for your family) is worth any amount of labour, rest or work-life balance.
However, this level of materialism would leave us without any meaningful purpose on an existential level. We neglect invaluable human relationships in our pursuit of material happiness and abandon other ambitions in life that do not involve money-making.
Implications for our society
Being entrenched in a materialistic mindset can be detrimental for individuals. But when it is widespread and part of society, it is harder to instantaneously detect with much more dangerous consequences.
When people mention the word ‘kiasu’ it’s usually meant as a humorous way of describing those who want to get ahead. But if everything we do has to involve a kiasu spirit of not losing out, our greed for material goods will never end. We already go so far as to queue hours at McDonald’s to procure Hello Kitty toys — and I doubt the happiness from owning a Hello Kitty toy fulfilling in the long run — that it makes me wonder what will be next. In such a context, it can be said that materialism breeds a greedy society.
I believe our low birth rate is another negative consequence of our materialistic mindset as people prioritise material wealth over having a family.
It is becoming more commonplace to hear people not want children because of the high costs of raising a child, seeing them as a sacrifice rather than a way to attain happiness and meaning. I have heard acquaintances also say that they do not want children out of the fear that they can not afford them the same luxury they have.
However, should we really think of family as a sacrifice rather than something that brings joy? And should we really prioritize material happiness for our children over familial happiness? I don’t think it is wrong to question if you can afford a child, but what should be more important that we consider how much love and happiness we can afford for our children.
In short, a widespread materialistic mindset normalizes greed across society, leaves its inhabitants empty and may even impact issues as broad as our national birth rate.
How we can guard against this
It may be quite worrying to think about how this negatively affects you and our society. While we as individuals can’t immediately change the trajectory of society, we can adjust our lifestyle and way of thinking.
One way is to shift our thoughts on what matters in life. Rather than viewing career ambitions, grades and material wealth as our life goals, we should view them as a means to an end and searching for meaning.
Developing the habit of donating your time and money to worthwhile causes and charities could provide a greater sense of fulfilment and happiness over material wealth. You could volunteer and advocate for an issue you resonate with and not shy away from activities that others may deem “useless” because it does not generate money.
Another way is to take extra effort to not get caught up in over-consumption habits. There are always new releases for digital gadgets and clothes that draw lines of people. However, reconsider whether you need the latest iPad or another pair of limited-edition sneakers. You may be surprised as to how little these things matter in the grand scheme of your life.
Most importantly, do not forget the need to treasure relationships with your family, a significant other, and the community at large. The benefits that come go beyond the physical, and will satisfy your needs on a deeper level — emotionally, mentally and existentially.
We can never fully eradicate materialism within society. And in truth, material gain does provide temporary happiness, as well as meeting basic needs. But we need to recognise the extent materialism plays a role in society, country and in our own lives, and find other sources of happiness. At the end of the day, if we want to see society change, we need to first change how materialistic we are on an individual level.