How much is enough? This is the eternal question.
In Asia, where memories of poverty are still widespread, the scarcity mentality has long absolved the haves of responsibility to the have-nots and put off the day when we demand more of ourselves.
But at what point—at what GDP, at what per capita income—should the obligation to shift focus from the individual to the community kick in?
We ponder the answers in a discussion with Karen Yeo and Min Xuan Lee of PlayMoolah, a Singapore-based organization that designs and implements financial empowerment and educational programs for schools and communities.
Trop We are at a point now in this part of the world where—I think it’s fair to say—we’re doing pretty well financially. Yet, there’s still a persistent insecurity, a feeling that it’s all a zero-sum game and that if you relax even for minute, someone else will eat your lunch. To be honest, I thought we’d be past this by now.
Karen Yeo I think at least in the Singaporean context, we’ve been ingrained with this idea that we are a little red dot, an island that is resource-scarce, and that we have only ourselves to depend on. Even with regards to the military, we are told over and over that we are a predominantly secular island surrounded by Malay muslim nations.
The mentality has trickled down into education through this idea that there’s a scarcity of good educational resources and that we have to get our kids into certain schools to secure their future. It has also permeated other aspects of our society.
I do think that’s why we have this scarcity mentality, that we don’t have enough and we can only depend on ourselves.
But when you unpack it, it’s not really true.
Trop It’s interesting you say that, because I am noticing a grassroots backlash against the scarcity mentality: people writing into newspapers pleading against infinite growth, parents saying they don’t want to send their kids to “good” schools and so on. Do you think it’s a trend?
Karen Yeo I definitely think things are changing. Recently, we met a guy who lives the freegan life in Singapore. He lives on a hundred dollars a month, dumpster diving although he has plenty of money in the bank. Instead of dismissing him, people were inspired by his example. It’s illuminating. There’s a community out there that is supportive of this alternate lifestyle.
And then you have other organizations like the Ground Up Initiative, which is building a kampung-style [Ed. note: “kampung” is Malay for “village”] campus that aims to give Singaporeans a sense of gratitude and sufficiency by connecting them to the land.
Min Xuan Lee If I had grown up only in Asia, if this was the extent of my world, I’d have the scarcity mentality too. But people who have seen the bigger picture, seen more of the world, know that actually there’s enough for all of us to live a healthy life.
One of the best books I’ve read recently is Charles Eisenstein’s The Ascent of Humanity. He talks about the age of separation and how money plays a big part in that. Money allows individuals to become independent and self-sufficient, but that goes against the laws of nature. You are not actually independent as a person: you depend on your parents, the soil, the community. In cities like Singapore and Hong Kong, we have lost touch with the idea of interdependence beyond the family. There’s a lot of isolation.
Trop Do you think that tends to be more the case in immigration-based societies?
Min Xuan Lee No, because California [where Min used to live] is immigration based, but because they are all immigrants, they know they are interdependent. There’s a strong sense of community, where everyone chips in and you all help each other. You look beyond family. In fact, sometimes I feel closer to that community, even though it’s global.
Trop What makes California different?
Min Xuan Lee There’s a sense of abundance—in terms of material and knowledge—in California. There’s also space to create your own kind of wealth. For example, I can choose to live without money in California, and I can survive, because I can get land, I can grow food, I have access to natural healers who are so spiritual. There’s enough for a community to be completely self-reliant.
Karen Yeo Another thing that makes Singapore different from the California example is our history. In the years after our independence, the focus was on building economic security, and because of land scarcity in Singapore, large populations were moved from traditional living arrangements in the kampung to urban housing developments known as HDBs (Housing Development Board). This was to the detriment of traditional community ties and spaces. What we have today are artificial, not organic, community spaces.
Min Xuan Lee Yeah, here you can’t even set up a free lending library from within your HDB flat without approval from the HDB managing committee.
Trop: Let me play devil’s advocate and say that many observers have noted high levels of generosity in communities without abundance. I have friends from formerly communist nations who talk about how much more community spirit there was in the old days when nobody had anything. Or take the famous example of the Bombay trains, which are packed to bursting, but passengers always make room for one more.
Min Xuan Lee It’s a mindset. The opposite of scarcity is not abundance. It’s not taking without limits. It’s actually sufficiency and asking ourselves what is the point of enough. It traces back to Gandhian philosophy. You only need a couple of things: food, a roof over your head, and healthcare.
Trop Yes, I agree that it’s a mindset. We see what we want to see.
[The following day, the artist Kristine Oustrup shares with me the words of the Danish botanist Nathaniel Wallich about Singapore in the mid-18th century. Of Singapore, he wrote to Sir Stamford Raffles, that it ”abounds in an endless variety of plants…with unrivalled facilities and opportunities…” It’s the same place, but a marked contrast to the rhetoric of today.]
So let me ask you this, then: in the context of this conversation, what is your vision for a better Singapore?
Min Xuan Lee The word that comes to mind is regeneration.
Are you aware of the seven forms of wealth? It’s this idea that there is upstream capital and downstream capital. Upstream capital is living capital, stuff related to your health, the environment and society. All of these take a long time to amass but can be destroyed very easily. Downstream capital is money and other material assets—they are all derivative.
Today, we think we are building security when we build only financial capital, but if we are building it at the cost of other forms of capital, especially upstream capital, it’s not worth it.
When I talk about regeneration, it’s asking whether we can be mindful enough of how we are accumulating and investing in downstream capital. How can it be sustainable and regenerative, that is, actually growing upstream capital.
Karen Yeo For me, I used to have lofty ideals, but now my vision is simpler. I just want a kinder, society, where we give back people their dignity. The other day, I went to KPMG for a meeting, and I noticed that the front-end receptionists were given name tags. It was a recognition of their humanity, and not everyone does that. It was a very small gesture, but it made a big difference to how I felt about that organization.