“You Singaporeans are so lucky . . . ”

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By Augustine Low

I was having a casual chat with a middle-aged Malaysian visiting his son working in Singapore and his parting shot to me was, “You Singaporeans are so lucky. Your leaders are so frugal, look at the PM and his wife, look at Lee Kuan Yew’s house, furniture that people would have thrown away . . . ”

That was certainly food for thought. On reflection, I guess our leaders do come across as somewhat frugal. PM Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching are never flashy and ostentatious; in fact people are often critical of how simply (some call it shabbily) Ho Ching is attired even for state visits.

Images of Lee Kuan Yew’s house, released after his death, showed spartan living spaces with decades-old furniture. We have been told the frugal side of Lee – how he preferred to mend old clothes than buy new ones, how he urged his colleagues to borrow winter clothes for overseas trips, and how he eschewed laundry service by washing his own underwear during hotel stays.

But how does our leaders’ frugality make us “lucky” citizens? To start with, one presumes that leaders with frugal habits are also frugal with government spending, dispensing with the kind of profligacy that could bankrupt government coffers. There are obviously those who disagree, arguing that the profligate spending is the reason why we will see a rise in taxes.

There is also the element of humility in frugality. Images of President Halimah Yacob shopping for 10-ringgit tudungs in a Kuala Lumpur roadside on New Year’s eve went viral and netizens gushed about her humility and down-to-earth nature.

A person frugal in habits could also be frugal with time – and this translates to strong work ethic, making the best use of time. We have been told that Lee Kuan Yew was having weekly Chinese lessons at the age of 90 and working tirelessly till the end.

The remarks about frugality by a Malaysian is particularly poignant because we have read of a foreign leader’s spouse who went on spending sprees in Harrods in London and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, who flaunt Chanel bags and glittering jewellery. In contrast, here in Singapore, Ho Ching’s spartan styling and so-called sloppy sandals worn during overseas state visits created headlines for different reasons.

On the whole, frugality (at least as a public persona, let’s forget about the big fat bank accounts for the moment) may be an underrated virtue. But there is a need to strike a balance – Ho Ching can maintain her frugal image at home but she is better off ditching those sandals and putting her best foot forward (pardon the pun) for state visits with pomp and grandeur.