So You Were Born Rich. Shame On You?
Caroline remembers the first time she was made to feel bad about the fact that her family was more well-off than most.
“I was just being my usual self, procrastinating and not turning work in on time,” she says. But her teacher, for no apparent reason, told her that she was not as high and mighty as she thought she was (Caroline never thought she was better than anyone), and that there were “other more important people’s children in the school”—for example, Jack Neo’s daughter.
She was in Primary School at the time. Years later, another friend in Junior College insisted that no matter what, she would always be blinded by privilege.
These incidents illustrate the grudge many hold against those born into money, echoing a recent Reddit thread where many shared encounters with snobbish, entitled, and ignorant behaviour exhibited by upper/upper-middle income folks. After reading these accounts, one could be forgiven for thinking that the above-mentioned grudge is in fact justified.
At the same time, these stories don’t account for the many other wealthy individuals who are perfectly decent human beings. They also overlook the fact that there are plenty of snobbish, entitled, and ignorant people who don’t happen to be rich.
And so when they don’t behave this way, when they instead behave in ways that reveal their privileged background, we hold it against them. We lament their lack of effort in educating themselves about how the rest of society lives, and claim that they should “know better” even though many of these people didn’t choose their upbringing.
For 29-year old Jason Tang, trying to be “better” didn’t exactly turn out well. After university, he took a gap year before joining his family’s company, travelling in South East Asia doing non-profit work. It was also during that time that he earned a reputation for being spoilt and a bit of a germaphobe.
“On hindsight, I know I grew up in what you might call a bubble,” he tells me, “But it … wasn’t my fault? My parents didn’t bring me to hawker centres and they gave me a chauffeur, which I eventually declined because it attracted the wrong kind of attention. Some might say this is a nice problem to have, but as I now know, it limited my experience of Singaporean life.”
He adds, “People give you hell for that kinda thing. And when you’re young, you don’t know why. You just feel like people hate you.”
As much as Jason looks back fondly on his time traveling, crediting that period of his life for helping to broaden his worldview, he admits that some also see such behaviour as patronising.
Pointing out that those who are rich are under no obligation to go into philanthropy, he explains there will be those who expect such non-profit work to become something more long-term. Otherwise they just consider it another kind of tourism; after all, he can just go back to his old, privileged life after that.
But most of us aren’t too keen on acknowledging this because we aren’t so much focused on what the nuances of these people’s lives are. We think to ourselves: “They have money. How bad can life be?”
It’s either this, or we resort to the very communist argument that those who have more should share with those who have less.
If you were talking about someone like Steve Jobs, who made his money off the exploitation of low-wage factory workers, one could make the case that he should give back to society. But this isn’t an expectation that is necessarily fair to all rich people. After all, it’s up to you alone what you choose to do with your money.
The thing is, all of us are born into different circumstances, and grow up with different experiences. We don’t get to choose.
In the same way that the rich can be ignorant of how the poor live, so too can the poor be ignorant of the way the rich live. There is no logical explanation for why it is only the ignorance of the rich that should attract criticism.
The only instances in which this criticism becomes valid is when it becomes judgemental or when it lacks compassion; when it goes beyond “I didn’t know people lived like that” to become “These people deserve to be poor for not working harder.”
If someone says that, then by all means, criticise that.
Otherwise, I’ve heard about this other thing called ‘meritocracy’ that is apparently a lie, and which some have said actually entrenches socio-economic inequality.
Perhaps you might want to look into that too?