Saturday, 13 July 2013

The dark side of the Matthew effect

Some time ago, two assistant professors, namely, Teo You Yenn and Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir, from the Division of Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University wrote an article entitled “Let’s stop conflating wealth with worth.

Here’s a short extract of it: “In Singapore, the recent debates over social spending, education and meritocracy, and population and immigration have brought to the fore the need to narrow the gaps between the rich and the poor and to ensure social mobility. This seems to be the consensus, even if there is disagreement as to how these goals are to be achieved. 

What is less explicit, and where there might be lower degrees of consensus, pertains to how the state and society perceive the value of being wealthy. That discussion has not found a big place at the table of national conversations.

Then, the authors brought out the issue of Ms Amy Cheong who wrote some racist remarks about malays and malay weddings in her facebook: “Ms Amy Cheong's remarks should be read as being as much class snobbery as racial prejudice. Class snobbery concerns are not unique to Singapore: England's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently warned that "class snobbery is holding Britain back by creating a society divided between those born with a sense of entitlement to succeed and others who are 'permanently excluded'." 

The authors continued: “It is heartening to witness Singaporeans being comfortable enough to air difficult issues on race, but it would be unfortunate if important observations on social class divisions take a backseat. 

The Amy Cheong episode presents Singaporeans with an opportunity to openly debate the ethics of living in a generally affluent society that has widening inequality.”

This is a good article about income inequality and I have penned my own thoughts below.

“Albert Camus once challenged everyone to ask this question: "Should I commit suicide?" If not, then what am I living for? What is the reason for my life? What is the worth of my life?

The above article asks this, "how does the state and society perceive the value of being wealthy." I think this coincides with the questions above, mainly, "What is the worth of my life?” Is it all about wealth?

Let me throw the gauntlet down here. I guess our greatest ailment is to equate wealth with life, that is, no wealth, no life. Or as Jack Neo so colloquially puts it, Money No Enough. That is what makes nervous tics out of us.

This reminds me of a Yemeni twenty-six year old man named Mohamed Bouazizi. He was a makeshift fruit and veg seller and had a mother and 6 younger siblings to support. Life was extremely difficult for him as he was always pushed around by the local police. In December 2010, out of sheer frustration and hopelessness, he immolated himself when the police confiscated his fruits cart. His suicide was said to have started the Arab Spring.

Sometimes I wonder why people kill themselves. I tend to believe that it is not because they are poor. Neither the fact that they may even be poor for all their life. Maybe the reason for giving up is that they do not see any hope in a society that equates living well as living wealthy and living poor as living hopeless. What's worse is a society who oppresses the poor as in Bouazizi's case.

Let me sharpen my thoughts a little. I am not saying that there is a general unhappiness associated with poverty. The poor can very well live happy life; truly authentic carefree ones. But in a society that puts a premium on wealth accumulation, the less well off (even if they are able to afford the necessities of life and a little more on the side) will unavoidably feel excluded. This socioeconomic pariah status is all in the mind, no doubt. But it is still no less pernicious.

As the authors above write it, this is a case of class snobbery. And when income inequality widens, class snobbery turns the society into a form of feral competition of dogs eat dogs.

Thanks to the Matthew effect, the rich will only get richer and the poor will either get poorer (by exploitation) or relatively poorer (by runaway wealth of the few). As the income gap widens, the poor and the left-behind middle class will be left staring into the hopeless inequality chasm. And as for the rich, which forms the tiniest minority in the society, they'd gallop away into the distant golden sunset.

So I guess the marginalized and the poor in this affluent society has another "push off the mortal cliff" to add into their trolley of woes. At this rate of income inequality, it is difficult for them to catch up. It's like the Lahaye's "Left Behind" series. And if I may add, they are left far behind.

As an aside, during my parents' days, in the 60s, they built Singapore together, in one spirit. There was no talk about the class or wealth divide. There was in fact nothing for them to talk about. It's all about the "same boat" mentality. They were all running the race at the starting point. If there were any flashy sprinters, so to speak, it was not so in-your-face or in-your-track.

But now, it's obviously different. With large capital inflow and runaway growth, and one-sided distribution, many are struggling to keep up in the fast track of life here. And the above article has pushed the right buttons by highlighting this issue. Class division can be divisive especially when it excludes many from their fair share of the economic fruits. And statistical inequality is made worse with perceived inequality (the 1917 Lenin’s revolution says it all. I suggest you read the amazing book Former People by Douglas Smith. I read it and I felt deep, deep sympathy for…guess who?...the unimaginably rich, especially the aristocrats. No joke. When society tips over, it plunges down).

Of course our society should reward the risk takers. But it shouldn't be a reward so incommensurate or disproportionate to the take-homes of the industrious majority that the latter feels excluded, or even discriminated against. The Bible says envy rots the soul; in our case, looking at the high suicide rate, it may very well end it.

So, have we really arrived, Singaporeans? Are we a developed 1st World economy? Do we really have cause to celebrate this coming 9th of August? Of course we do. We are amongst the richest in Asia! Three cheers for wealth! But isn’t 9th of August about the people? And if it is about the people, especially the disillusioned majority, what’s the cause célèbre?

Let me end with an adapted fairy tale. If one would to ask snow white’s mirror this, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" (taking "fairest" to mean "fairness" here). Will the mirror of society reply, "you of course, our Singapore government." Mmm....Or, will the mirror just quietly demur? Cheerz!

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