I had my dip in the obituary this morning (21 Feb 2017) and guess what, Tan Sri Khoo Teck Puat popped out. He was a billionaire, with a net worth of about 4.3 billion. He died in 2004 and was (at that time) the 108th richest man according to Forbes.
His source of wealth came from owning shares in Standard Chartered. It was the wisest investment move he had ever made. He was also a well known philanthropist who donated $80m to a medical school and has a hospital named after him.
Lesson? Well, like Travie McCoy and Bruno Mars who sang desperately that they want to be a billionaire, most of us, the silent majority is not likely to become one.
We can dream of it if we want to, but no amount of croaking in the bathroom to that materialistic chorus would see us becoming a billionaire (for most of us of course). I guess the consolatory prize would be to aim for that coveted Changi millionaire (before taxes of course).
But my point here is this, while Tan Sri Khoo sought meaning (or significance) in philanthropy, sharing part of his wealth with thousands, what is meaning for the common folks, that is, the majority struggling to make ends meet, or the well-to-do living amongst us who are equally struggling to make meaning out of their lives?
Let me start with a petty indictment here. I believe we are living in a happiness-addictive society. This is a society that puts a premium on feeling good, feeling happy. This happiness virus has infected all walks of life. In a money-driven world, the equation is most elementary: With money, you can buy happiness.
Universities are designing courses to focus on narrower and narrower areas of specialty so as to make the biggest, most lucrative, personal impact. The unconscious goal is to demystify the mythical, relativize the objective and individualize the benefits.
As such, we atomize society into various moving parts, all contributing to one sacred goal of enlightened self-interest and enrichment. The metanarrative here inevitably converges on how to maximize material gain so as secure the greatest happiness for oneself. Recall...with money, you can buy happiness?
Religion is not spared here. Some of the churches are a collection of like-minded worshippers who are told that love covers a multitude of sins, prosperity is one of the fruits of growth, and the spirituality of personal justification outweighs the sacrifices of self denial, and a repentant and contrite heart.
It is no wonder the we have made great advances in technology and great civilizational stride with a Midas touch, reaping much economic rewards from it, yet we are not the happiest lot on earth.
A survey was done to compare the economically advanced nations against the poverty-stricken ones and they found that the rich are no doubt happier - so they claim. But compared to the poorer nations, they do not find more meaning in what they do, that is, the endless/mindless wealth accumulation.
For the poorer nations, despite the uncertainty, insecurity and low income, they find greater meaning mainly derived from belonging, purpose and post-traumatic growth. Unsurprisingly, the suicide rates are higher as a whole in the economically advanced countries with Japan leading the charge.
So, this brings me back to my first question: What is meaning for the common folks? Well, we may not be happy in the way the rich are able to claim with most of their material needs and wants fully satisfied. But I guess, for us, meaning is found in family, loving bonds, unpretentious friendships, and a job that challenges us to make a difference in the lives of others.
As such, we can fight monotony by giving monotony meaning in the way we deepen our ties in a marriage, practise kindness at the workplace, and going the distance for a friend. Meaning is thus about depth and depth is about giving and reaching out - beyond the self. It is about treasuring and building relationships and Tan Sri Khoo was doing just that in the philanthropy he was engaging in before he passed on.
And if at the end of our life, we still have the committed love of our marital partner, the undying devotion of our children, the unceasing loyalty of friends, and the lovely remembrance of those who once crossed our path in life, I think we common folks would have left the richest legacy behind without being the richest man (or woman) alive.
We will then be able to echo the same sentiment with pride as the one inscribed in Tan Sri Khoo Teck Puat's memorial below: "A true measure of your worth includes all the benefits others have gained from your successes." Cheerz.