3 Sad Reasons Materialistic Singaporeans Live a Miserable Life


Joanne Poh



You might not find too many Paris Hilton-lookalikes in Singapore, but that doesn’t mean that society at large doesn’t have its own brand of materialism. The Singapore of the past is long gone, and kampungs have made way for glitzy hotels, fleets of Ferraris and Chanel handbags at every turn. But in spite of this prosperous veneer, Singaporeans don’t seem to be getting any happier—in fact, according to most recent polls, we’re downright miserable.

Still, many Singaporeans are materialistic and proud of it, and it’s not uncommon to hear women proudly declaring that they’re princesses and like to be pampered, or status-conscious men showing off their flashy cars. But don’t be fooled by those smiles. Here are three big reasons a materialistic mindset can make life harder for you:


They sacrifice quality of life to amass possessions

Singaporeans often blame the high cost of living and a lack of employees’ rights for having to work some of the longest hours in the world. That might be one part of the equation, but it isn’t the full story. The problem is that many people here do have the leeway to select less demanding or less stressful jobs but choose not to because they prefer to earn more in order to maintain their lifestyles.

(Note: Not saying this is true of everyone here, as there are people earning incomes so low a house cat couldn’t survive on their salaries.)

Each time I log on to Facebook I see endless photos of fancy European holidays, designer handbags and fast cars. Yet many of these very same people work routinely work until 10pm and beyond every day, and they don’t like it one bit.

Of course, it’s a personal choice to sacrifice time and quality of life in order to earn money to support a lifestyle of a certain standard. But the danger of doing this unquestioningly is that you risk becoming a slave to your possessions and feeling like you are forced to sell your soul for work because you have no other choice. If you are lucky enough to be in the position where this is a choice and not a necessity, it’s important to ensure you choose your lifestyle consciously rather than by default.


They always want more

The problem with getting into the habit of amassing lots and lots of possessions is that it gets addictive. For instance, as a child you might never have dreamt of owning a designer bag. But once you entered the working world and realised that all your PMET friends owned handbags that cost 2 months’ worth of salary, the seed of desire was planted. After buying your first Louis Vuitton, you gradually progressed to wanting a Chanel, and so the story goes.

As is patently obvious in Singapore, materialism is addictive. Once you start enjoying a certain standard of luxury, your brain gets used to it—it’s a process called adaptation and explains why the thrill you get upon returning from a shopping spree with your arms full of bags fades all too soon, and you’re left craving your next purchase. This unquenchable thirst for acquisition is one that no amount of possessions can rid you of, and the sooner you realise that and try to find satisfaction in other areas, the sooner you’ll be able to live life with true satisfaction.


They’re always chasing after approval from others

In a materialistic society like Singapore’s, a person’s worth is often measured in money. Those who are high earners end up being treated better than those who look poor, parents warn their children they’ll ruin their lives if they don’t study hard and get high paying jobs, and it’s considered shameful and a loss of face to appear poor. This is a reality we live in and it may take a while for that to change (if it even ever does).

It appears that a big part of materialism, at least in Singapore, is wanting to appear to be a person of value in front of others. Once you get into the habit of wanting to buy everything you see, if all your friends show up in a new car, your own beat up old Kia starts to look lousy in comparison and before you know it you’re feeling like crap. This sounds archaic for sure, but unfortunately it still exists, even if in a more subliminal level for some.

It’s true that we live in a society that’s still largely conformist. But learning to find acceptance within yourself rather than trying to look good in front of others can not only make you a lot happier, but also save you a pile of cash. This isn’t to say you have to starve yourself of any material comforts, but not making that the central focus of your life can lead to a healthier outlook on your career, relationships and life in general.

Do you think materialism is making Singaporeans unhappier? Share your opinions in the comments!

Image Credits:
Mathew F

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.

  • Andreas Schmidt

    Hi Joanne,

    I concur to your observations. Looking at the people around me I do get the impression that many are hungry for whatever-kind-of-appreciation from the Tans and Lims nearby. Why? They are not even their friends nor do they know them so well.

    Next they try to keep up with the Kohs (who – by the way – might be heavily indebted and not happy at all behind that façade they try to present to them) and once they feel they are on par with the Kohs, the Lees come around the corner and have even more stuff resulting in an even more frantic race on the treadmill to now catch up with the Lees.

    Where does it all end? I don’t know, but probable not in happiness or peace of mind.

    Why don’t we compare ourselves with the Onobanjos in Niger or the Silvas from the Favelas in Brazil or the Chottopadhyays in Bangladesh who lose most of their possessions due to regular flooding?

    A change of perspective can do wonders to our satisfaction level.

    Just realize that with about 50 K SGD of annual salary you are already among the top 1% earners of the world. Not Singapore! The world!

    • Anonymous Inc

      They also make lousy friends because they’re always working hard and chasing $.

  • kew bee

    Reason #4 – truth hurts… like this article ;(

  • jessie

    Our Mindset has to change in viewing “success” as being comfortable with our own choices and not what others deem or want you to be but this is difficult in Singapore as segregation starts in school based on academic performance followed by career and it is all spelt out for the citizen.

  • bmvjr

    Money doesn’t make you happy – at best it makes it easier coping with being unhappy! People who need materialistic display, status symbols and such almost always lack genuine substance

    in terms of personality, confidence, self esteem and a healthy portion of pride in who and what they are and do. The materialistic stuff is bought as a compensation for this lack. Since materialistic things are short lived in their effect, the buying has to go on and on. It is not a disease but it is a condition that those who suffer from it would be a lot happier without.

    In a society where peer pressure is created to the extent that you are considered a loser if you didn’t crown a tertiary education with an impressive degree, respect for those who may well do a great job in their field but without academic decorum is non existent. If you are part of that segment, you have plenty of folks looking down on you and that makes it difficult to be happy, too. The thing is not everyone is born to be a successful doctor or lawyer or architect or stock broker etc. Many are born to excel in professions and fields that don’t come with the glitzy image of very decent to exorbitant pay. But those professions are fulfilling too, they demand working hard too, they require dedication and determination and skill too, they deserve respect and recognition too and we would be in dire straits without them. I personally admire the contractor who does good work and i think he should be proud of it, i admire the care taker who does hard work at unimpressive pay and i think he/she should be proud of that, the cashier, the post man, the delivery person, the cleaner, they all have lives too, they mostly make do with the little they earn and yet they can be happy at the same time. How so? They got the key to happiness: friends, getting together, cooking and eating together, helping each other out, looking forward to a day off, meeting up for a walk, chipping in for a joint BBQ, singing together, watching sports events together, expressing affection for each other and so on. None of this requires fancy cars, big houses, pricey jewelry, titles, degrees, 85 inch TVs or diamond crusted hand phone covers. In that regard they are not only better off than the status symbol addict but richer too.

  • Anonymous Inc

    I think because that generally Singaporeans are living in an oppressive society that makes them unhappy and the money that they earn only serves to help them cope with that unhappiness as someone else said here. The truth is hard to bear and humans have a funny way of being in denial. Materialistic desires are just a bandage to the real pain. To be honest, there’s a lot of sick people out there, mentally and spiritually and we see this in STOMP all the time. It’s just souls crying out for freedom and a chance to live a happy life without the stress of high costs and financial burdens.

  • bmvjr

    One vital step, while not the only one, is to stop comparing your own life, your own activities, your own means with those of others. Success is to be measured by the difference between what you set out to do or achieve and what you actually reached at the end. If you never played tennis, decide to start learning it and training for it and eventually find yourself able to play on some level, you have achieved a success – why would you compare yourself to Roger Federer or Nadal and be frustrated? If you never learned French before but decide to attend a course, keep it up and do your homework and eventually manage to conduct a light conversation in French, you achieved a success – why would you compare yourself to any French national and be frustrated? If you make S$ 1,800 a month and manage to live within those means, don’t compare yourself to someone who makes S$ 18,000 a month but may fail miserably at managing their expenses properly and safely. So don’t look at others but take pride in what you set out to do and what you see through and achieve. That is what counts and what makes you successful! You are not a kangaroo so stop trying to jump like one.