“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, buttonholing the reader in his short story ‘The Rich Boy’. “They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is difficult to understand.” We all know people who are very rich. Some of them are friends, even close friends. Yet however close, if you are not very rich, you don’t really understand them. And it is difficult to be really close friends.
I just finished watching season two of ‘Downton Abbey’, a TV series defined by the very rich and privileged. And how you are either born into this class of gentlemen and ladies or you are not. The division of class is absolute and clear. Season two of ‘Downton Abbey’ starts with the First World War. All the characters braved themselves for a new world after the war where presumably, the class system would be abolished. Their lives faced impending and unthinkable changes when social lines started to blur. We can guess how the story will unravel in the next season. The social lines will be less clear. But just less clear. They will still be there. These lines of social division have permeated every society through the ages.
At a party, a friend once provided the most intriguing labels to a room of powerful people. He grouped all the guests into “the rich, the talented and the famous”. Notice the poor has no place in this grouping. In some circles, having money is a given. If you don’t have money, you are not in. Simple as that. Gracious people, knowledgable people and smart people notwithstanding. It is an unwritten yet accepted rule. And it gets interesting when someone tries to cross the lines. Eyebrows are raised. Obstacles are erected. People are threatened. You see, if you are talented but not rich, or if you are famous but not rich, you somehow still don’t belong. Some want to belong. Badly. Some don’t see the need. But all will have to concede that financial standing is the backbone of social structures.
The wealth divide is a problem in most countries. Increasingly so. The very rich are now super rich. The poor are destitute. I have been a working class Singaporean all my life. My family was poor. My father was a cook. My sister started as a maid but went on to run a successful business. We then became a middle class household by Singaporean standards. When I was a child, I was aware we were poor. But not too conscious of the lines. I was just a kid. When I started working, I no longer felt poor. I was fearless. I didn’t see the lines but I knew they were there. At some point, I did ask – what would it be like to be very rich? To not have to worry about money. To be able to retire from my day job and pursue creative and social interests.
An interview I read on Jodie Foster sometime ago struck a chord. She said there came a time when money was no longer was an issue. Going to a restaurant was about the food. Price was not a consideration. What will it be like when a decision is made with no consideration of cost? How will it feel when going to work is totally not related to making a living? They say the rich are not necessarily happy. In fact most of them are quite unhappy. When you have money, you want more. Really? But why? Then again, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, some of us will never really understand.