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Plain and simple living…is so hard to do

And now the suggestions will start rolling in… on how to honour Lee Kuan Yew. So far, there seems to be a “re-name Changi Airport’’ lobby, a proposal for a sort of museum or for his Oxley Road home to be retained as kind of monument. What about his face on dollar notes? Or a postage stamp? Or just posters for mass distribution? Thankfully, no one has suggested a statue a la Stamford Raffles – methinks Mr Lee would have turned in his urn if that came to pass.

Of course, there is no need to do anything at all. Singapore, is after all, his monument. His imprint is everywhere, whether in infrastructure or policies or even governing philosophy. Some say it is enough that we honour him by sharing his values and passing them on, like the values enshrined in the National Pledge. The ultimate method, others say, is to honour him by ensuring that Singapore continues on its upward trajectory.

I would pick one value above all that we should imbue in ourselves and in future generations: frugality. Law and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam pointed this out, as did a myriad different people, including Mr Lee’s own family members. A waste not, want not approach to living. Maybe not the sort of austere lifestyle that he led in Spartan conditions, but a lifestyle that knows the value of being alive rather than the price of things.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything “designer’’ on him – or even really “new’’. He wore the same jacket and had the same red box for years. He wouldn’t change the cloth of armchairs in the Istana. He ate home cooked food, didn’t take expensive holidays and clearly disliked lavishness. He advised politicians like Mr Sidek Saniff to borrow, rather than to buy.  I looked at photographs of his living room and it reminded me of my family home – more than 30 years ago. In fact, it seems to me the only thing he wanted people to buy was a place to live, because home owners would have a stake in this country and its future.

How many of us can live as frugally, given the temptations that surround us? Yet, too many get into debt and are in too much of a hurry to enjoy the finer things in life. I don’t think he ever compared himself with the many millionaires and billionaires he must have met in their well-cut suits. But what about us? We look at some people’s clothes, bags and shoes – and drool. We want to upgrade all the time – not ourselves, but our homes. I sometimes think it is good that Mr Lee didn’t get around too much, to see the conspicuous consumption of this disposable people.

I know the usual arguments: that people must spend in order to power the economy ecetera and that it was Mr Lee who wanted all these bad things, like casinos, into the country. And how we should enjoy the fruits of our labour. I think there must be a distinction between growing fat on the fruits and having them pickled for a rainy day. If we want to build on his legacy, this is one trait we must keep.

It must permeate the political circles, the governing elite and down to the masses. It is right that politicians eschew ornamentation and civil servants understand the needed for understatement. As a people, while there are legitimate worries for the down and out, I think this need to be with the “in’’ crowd and our penchant for comparison must simply be reined in. As a people, we waste so much, including food and water. We use so much electricity and complain about the bill. We don’t need air-conditioning or even hot water – yet how did they become necessary instead of nice to have?

I am guilty too of waste, having forgotten the days of Bobo the elephant and water rationing and, yes, scooping water out of a big jar to bathe. Of buying new clothes only when Christmas and Chinese New Year rolls round.

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(We forget the basics even as we talk about climate change, eco-conservation and eating organic food, you know, the trendy stuff.  I cannot forget how Mr Lee responded to a young woman a long time ago who asked him about Singapore’s role in guarding against climate change and other environmental concerns. He said that Singapore had been protecting the environment for years, by planting trees and its Stop Littering campaign. I think the young woman was hoping for something more esoteric and uplifting…)

Such small gestures. Pick up litter. Don’t waste water. Don’t spend money unnecessarily. Such basic traits that we might just be beginning to lose as a people.

So how can we keep them intact?

I have one suggestion (and it’s not another campaign) – and that is for us to pick up some traits from the West, yes, the West. You know how we always sniff at their “welfare system’’ and “unemployment benefits’’ and how they sap the value of hard work. Here, we don’t have the same scale of government welfarism, simply because we have our parents.

It bothers me that young working adults want to be treated like adults, when they are really children living under their parents’ roof. That is why they can afford the finer things in life early in their careers and why they suddenly find that forming a household not so easy. How can it be easy when young people have had free board and lodging until the day they get married and move into their own place (sometimes bought by their parents)? On the other hand, young people are “expected’’ to leave the nest when they start work or pay for their living at their parents’ home. It looks like a weird arrangement to us and seems to work against the idea of a traditional, Asian home. I think, however, that it is time to start thinking this way if we want ever stronger Singaporeans who will fight to live the good life on their own steam instead of relying on Mommy and Daddy.

We need, to use an awful phrase, a mindset change so that we can grow more resilient generations.

Why this talk about giving parents an “allowance’’ when their children start work? The children should be paying for food and board, not living for free, just as they would if they were living on their own. Single people in their late 20s and 30s, living with – or rather off – their parents should be ashamed of themselves. Toothpaste, toilet paper and utilities all add up you know.

We must stop thinking that our duty of care to our parents only start when they can’t look after themselves. And then applaud ourselves for being filial. It must start from our being independent of our parents money-wise when they are still able AND caring for them when they are unable.

That’s when I think we will start realizing the value of being frugal. That money from work is not “spending’’ money, but “living’’ money.

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I am ending here because I am beginning to nag. But I hope you get what I mean…

Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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