Article written by Lee Wei Ling
In 2007, in an end-of-year message to the staff of the National Neuroscience Institute, I wrote:
Slump time has arrived with a bang.
Decades of the good life have made us soft. The wealthy especially, but also the middle class in Singapore, have had it so good for so long, what they once considered luxuries, they now think of as necessities.
A Mercedes-Benz is no longer adequate as a status symbol. For millionaires who wish to show the world they have taste, a Ferrari or a Porsche is deemed more appropriate.
The same attitude influences the choice of attire and accessories. I still find it hard to believe that there are people carrying handbags that cost more than thrice the monthly income of a bus driver, and many more times that of the foreign worker labouring in the hot sun, risking his life to construct luxury condominiums he will never have a chance to live in.
The media encourages and amplifies this ostentatious consumption. Perhaps it is good to encourage people to spend more because this will prevent the recession from getting worse. I am not an economist, but wasn't that the root cause of the current crisis - Americans spending more than they could afford to?
My family is not poor, but we have been brought up to be frugal.. My parents and I live in the same house that my paternal grandparents and their children moved into after World War II in 1945. It is a big house by today's standards, but it is simple - in fact, almost to the point of being shabby.
(The British colonial era 5-bedrooms bungalow house of Lee Kuan Yew was built a century ago by a Jewish merchant)
(This photo of Lee Kuan Yew's living room in 38 Oaxley Road is courtesy of Zhaobao newspaper)
Most of the world and much of Singapore will lament the economic downturn. We have been told to tighten our belts. There will undoubtedly be suffering, which we must try our best to ameliorate.
But I personally think the hard times will hold a timely lesson for many Singaporeans, especially those born after 1970 who have never lived through difficult times.
No matter how poor you are in Singapore , the authorities and social groups do try to ensure you have shelter and food. Nobody starves in Singapore ..
Many of those who are currently living in mansions and enjoying a luxurious lifestyle will probably still be able to do so, even if they might have to downgrade from wines costing $20,000 a bottle to $10,000 a bottle. They would hardly notice the difference.
Being wealthy is not a sin. It cannot be in a capitalist market economy. Enjoying the fruits of one's own labour is one's prerogative and I have no right to chastise those who choose to live luxuriously.
Neither an Aston Martin nor an Hermes Birkin can make us truly happy or contented.. They are like dust, a fog obscuring the true mean ing of life, and can be blown away in the twinkling of an eye.
We know which is the correct choice - and it is within our power to make that choice.
In this new year, burdened as it is with the problems of the year that has just ended, let us again try to choose wisely.
To a considerable degree, our happiness is within our own control, and we should not follow the herd blindly.
The writer is director of Singapore's National Neuroscience Institute. And also Lee Kuan Yew's daughter...