Compassion deficit
Excessive preoccupation with making money for 50 years may have distorted our national trait. By Seah Chiang Nee
Mar 23, 2014

(Synopsis: It’s great to be a businessman in Singapore today, especially if you control rentals.)

AS dreams go, mine last week oddly fit into some of the current trends now unfolding in Singapore.

In it I was passing a cafe which sold bottles of colourful beverages with exotic scientific names.

Curious, I offered to buy one, but was told: “Sorry we can’t sell to just anyone – only to our contract customers.”

What on earth was a contract customer, I asked.

The vendor gave me a form complete with all the therein and therewith clauses to sign if I wanted to buy a bottle.

I then woke up. A retail contract could be a great deal for businessmen, I told myself, especially if it tied down customers on prices and volumes.

Was it possible that my dream reflected things to come in business-minded Singapore?

It coincided with two current stories that showed how great it is to be a businessman here because of the very, very pro-business environment.

Many of them are used to getting things their way since early independence, when leaders talked of trade as the city’s lifeline.

That’s probably why Singapore was able to overtake Japan and the expensive European countries to become the world’s highest cost city.

One recent morning, I entered a small, fairly empty restaurant for a cup of coffee and was rebuffed by a salesgirl who politely declined to merely sell me a cuppa.

I must order something to eat. “Otherwise, we can’t make money; rents are high,” she explained the ruling.

Imagine a business laying down terms for a minimum purchase on a customer!

Days before my weird dream, two stories broke that more or less showed how business is sometimes done here.

First was the announced closure of the Zion Road nasi padang restaurant, a long-time favourite with locals and foreigners alike (including visiting Malaysian diplomats).

The shut-down has nothing to do with poor food.

High rental is the chief culprit: from S$8,300 a month 10 years ago, it is rising to S$11,000.

The second was news that football fans will have to pay S$112 to watch 2014 World Cup matches live on TV – compared to S$88 in 2010.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) last week ranked Singapore fifth in the world’s crony capitalism index.

(This refers to a system under which politically connected businessmen are most likely to prosper.)

I must quickly add: business or not, Singapore generally remains corruption-free.

The government’s strong leaning towards the business community and its emphasis on GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth at all costs is accepted as crucial by older Singaporeans who benefited from it.

But among some of the younger generation, the helping hand given to them is resented by people who feel that the same should be given to lower-income Singaporeans.

“Decades of holding business people in exaltation above other citizens has remodelled the minds of a generation,” said a graduate housewife.

“For one thing, the chase for the dollar is making Singaporeans more materialistic, uncaring and greedy,” she lamented.

Being islanders without many natural resources, Singaporeans generally accept that they have no choice but to chase the dollar as a priority.

The question is how much emphasis and whether there is a now a proper balance between people’s economic and social needs.

The broad feeling is that business interests should not be allowed to over-ride the general welfare of citizens.

A British freelance writer, Charlotte Ashton, who moved here last year, wrote about her recent experience on an MRT train when she was pregnant.

She stepped into a packed train one morning and feeling faint, she crouched to the floor holding her head in her hands.

She remained there for 15 minutes ignored by all until she reached her destination.

Nobody offered her a seat or asked her if she needed help.

Expressing her views, Ashton said: “The problem here is that we measure everything in dollar bills – personal identity, self-respect, happiness, your sense of worth – it is all linked to how much money you have.

“But only the top few per cent earn serious cash – so everyone else feels worthless and apathetic.”

Her account of “Singapore’s massive compassion deficit” stirred plenty of discussions, including the Prime Minister.

Although Singaporeans need not accept everything she wrote, Lee Hsien Loong said: “It was still a good reminder to us to be kinder and more gracious to one another”.

Being status-conscious and impatient to get rich sometimes renders Singaporeans vulnerable to cheats by slick artistes.

Singaporeans are known to have been conned into paying money to people they have not seen – just on the promise of a profit.

How to explain this trait?

A retired executive commented: “It stems from a sense of insecurity, of being part of a tiny, resource-less city with an uncertain future.

“They know they have to depend on themselves should they run into financial trouble.”

(This article was first published in The Star)