Luxury has less meaning when society is more equal

by Roy Ngerng

When I was growing up, Charles & Keith was considered a luxury brand for me. I wouldn’t step into a Charles & Keith shop because I didn’t think I could afford it.

Even brands like Zara is considered a luxury brand to me. And when I came to Taiwan, I continued to not shop at Zara, until I needed thick winter clothes and found that Zara provided better protection than the other brands I bought, and until recently when I realized it provides discounts after certain seasons, where I can obtain its clothes more cheaply.

The idea of luxury is a relative concept. In Taiwan, Rimowa is considered a luxury suitcase on Taiwanese wages, but in Germany, it is relatively more affordable because of Germany’s higher wages.

A friend told me that in Denmark, where her friend lives, people throw out perfectly good-looking clothes because people there earn high wages and can afford to do so.

When I was a child, we wouldn’t go to McDonald’s or KFC because it was considered expensive. Going to McDonald’s was a treat. And when I was in secondary school and started hanging out with friends, I was angry when they wanted to eat McDonald’s because to me, it was expensive. I would only buy an ice-cream.

Going to the cinema was also a treat because we were poor. Even when I started working and my colleagues wanted to eat at a place that cost S$20 or S$30 a meal, it would make me very unhappy because I felt like I was spending beyond my means, and it scared me.

Coming from a poor family means your concept of money is different, the fear of not having enough follows you throughout your life, even when I reached a stage in Singapore where I was earning more comfortably.

This is something people who grow up in relative wealth might not understand, though it is not necessarily their fault.

When a society is unequal, it creates distance between people of different income classes. A wealthier person might not understand the hardship that a poorer person has to go through, to have to save every penny or to think hard about how each penny should be spent.

And to someone from a lower-income family would question why a person from a wealthier family seems to have life planned out without needing to worry because there seems to be enough wealth for the person to tide through life, even in down times.

But not all wealthy people are like this. I have a boss who comes from a wealthy family but who is humble and has empathy, and understands how migrant workers are paid too low wages, and have empathy for the need for incomes to rise, because of the social and political impacts it causes; and he has my deep respect.

Inequality creates resentment, resentment by the rich that the poor person is depriving them of a better-looking society, or resentment by the poor that no matter how hard they work, they cannot climb up.

A society like this will become more and more polarized and angry as people become more protective of their spaces or fearful of their livelihoods and become less understanding of others.

But such inequalities do not need to exist. A fairer society, where wealth is more equally distributed, has less distance among individuals. There is greater understanding as people live in greater wealth parity, which leads to lesser resentment and greater understanding.

Any society which is willing to share its wealth will eventually allow each member to benefit more equally, and where each member becomes more wealthy, and society becomes uplifted as a whole, as every individual has the financial capacity to play their part to contribute to the economy and help it grow together.

In such a society, the concept of luxury brands will have less meaning when wealth is more equitably shared, and everyone is able to afford not only a basic standard of living but a good one. There won’t be luxury as things become more affordable.

But until then, when society is as unequal as Singapore, where I grew up in or Taiwan, where I live, people will continue to hold one another with suspicion and anger, especially when the wealth distance is greater.

People’s perceptions of luxury will be different, and people might mock others because of a lack of understanding due to how unequal the society is, and how it creates unfairness.

We can resolve these issues, by allowing wages to grow fairly with the cost of living, and by each member of society, businesses and workers, being willing to share the profits in a way that can help workers earn more, and where we entrust in workers higher wages which can, in turn, grow domestic consumption and domestic profits.

Like the circle of life, so does the economy runs in a cyclical manner, from workers contributing their wages to help businesses grow, to businesses paying workers fairly in order to allow them to do so.

Beyond the discussion of luxury brands, is a much larger discussion about the inequality in society that fuels misunderstandings and reduced empathy, and we need to be willing to transcend beyond such misunderstandings to advocate for a fairer and more equal system that can allow greater empathy and understanding to occur.

This was first published on Roy Ngerng’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.

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