Friday, February 24, 2012

All that glitters is not gold

The number of designer outfits or bags you own is no indicator of how classy you are

By Ong Soh Chin
Every now and then, I pay a visit to one of my favourite novels of all time, just to immerse myself in the languid beauty of its prose and to soak up the existential truths which ache at the heart of its deceptively simple story.

These truths, as fans of this novel know, are poignant and eternal; and their lessons forever still to be learnt.

The Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and published in 1925, is a delicately woven tapestry of human foibles and courage, of paradise regained, of love's labour lost, of hell on earth - all set amidst the backdrop of a society where old stratifications were quickly changing to accommodate a whole new ascendant class of people defined by their massive, rapidly acquired fortunes.

By year's end, the story will, no doubt, win a whole new generation of fans when a movie adaptation, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, hits the big screen.

At the core of The Great Gatsby is the issue of social mobility, a topic which has been attracting a lot of attention recently in Singapore.

Social mobility is a good thing. It enables people to move up in life. It allows them to believe in the dream that they can one day have a far better life than their parents or grandparents ever did. It was the brass ring Jay Gatsby grabbed with both hands and turned into gold.

The 1920s in America, where Fitzgerald's novel is set, was a period of great social change, brought about by industrial and technological revolutions that created overnight millionaires, thereby moving large groups of people up the social ladder.

In Fitzgerald's novel, Gatsby, born to a poor family bearing the unglamorous name of Gatz, rode the waves of change in the early 20th century, making himself rich through the illegal trade of bootlegging. Once flush with cash, he reinvented himself to become the enigmatic Gatsby.

Singapore, similarly, has seen rapid advancements in the last half century that have rocketed its citizens and their children into a better life. It is home to many success stories; paupers turn tycoons in one swift generation and kids raised in attap huts grow up to become denizens of luxury penthouses.

Along with this development have come all the trappings of a moneyed existence - lavish banquets, fancy cars, designer wardrobes, posh holidays and gallery openings.

But there are many things money cannot buy, such as class, compassion, elegance and grace. It is these entities that are starkly lacking among many of the new moneyed classes and the resultant friction, in some cases, can be fairly abrasive.

This is because social mobility today is becoming more difficult in Singapore, as well as in many other countries, due to the challenges that come with globalisation - a slowing economy, rampant inflation and increasing competition from emerging markets.

At the same time, even as new fortunes have sprouted, so too have new misbehaviour and indiscretions.

In Fitzgerald's novel, Gatsby's arriviste trappings are silently mocked, even as his wealth is admired. Similarly, in Singapore, it is not uncommon to hear some newly rich people trumpeting that they only stay at five-star hotels, fly Business Class or travel by limousine, without a thought for whether their audiences could be a) belittled or made resentful by these pronouncements or b) even give a damn.

However, in densely packed Singapore, with its widening income gap and next generations facing a harder struggle to climb out of low income brackets, these lessons of grace need to be learnt urgently.

People do not necessarily resent rich people. I think human beings possess a functioning thermostat that understands the general temperature of life. As long as people feel they have a fair shot at success, there is a ready acceptance that there will always be those who are better or worse off.

What is more difficult to swallow is when the trappings of a wealthy lifestyle are deliberately amplified for self-aggrandisement.

Or when conversations and world views are crassly shaped by the number of expensive holidays taken or the number of designer outfits owned.

In Gatsby's case, he paid the ultimate price for his tunnel vision, even if that vision was nobly focused on love.

For the parvenus I see too often now around me, alas, that tunnel is a lot narrower, shallower and shockingly self-centred.

Even though this column appears in a publication which celebrates the best things that money can buy, it does not advocate mindless consumption as a substitute to being a decent human being.

So, while it is not a crime to live a life of luxury, it is so if you think you are superior to others who lead more plebeian lives.

New clothes and mansions cannot hide the tacky pathos of a bankrupt soul, even if that soul is lined with gold.