Curbing a Culture of Careless Consumption


Socio-economic progress has been one of the primary concerns of Singapore’s Malay-Muslim community. Over the years, efforts have been channeled to facilitating greater opportunities for the economically disadvantaged. This is further catalyzed when compared vis-à-vis other communities at the national level.  All and well, a section of the community has excelled in their careers and are part of what has been termed as the ‘growing middle class’ or perhaps even the new rich. While such achievements are commendable, there are nevertheless issues that are generally associated with increased wealth and disposable income that often go under the radar. Careless consumption is one of them. Such consumption is careless towards society and careless towards the environment.

While a consumerist lifestyle is inevitable in a highly globalised society, careless consumption is something that can and should be curbed. The notion of consumption, in some respects, is associated with indicators of success – the more money you have earned, the more successful you are and the more you are able to buy/consume to reflect your success. Such a perception would clearly ring bells in Singapore, where many in the rat race strive to achieve the 5 Cs: Car, cash, credit card, condominium and career.  In the meantime, as individuals work towards achieving these, other materialistic goods and services would suffice.  This article does not suggest that we should stop ourselves from enjoying the “better things in life” but rather reflect on how and why we seek to achieve them.

A motivating factor for writing this piece has been global trends of increasing consumption, which have had adverse social and environmental implications, many of which overlap and feed into each other – i.e. poverty and income inequality, resource scarcity and food insecurity to name a few. What we are witnessing is clearly the crumbling of the modernization theory, where the notion of economic development is paramount. Even so, many developing countries still seek to develop along the lines of western developed countries.

Increased economic wealth thus allows its people the ability to consume more, which drives production in the materials economy –  a linear system starting from extraction of resources to the production, distribution, consumption and finally, disposal of economic goods. However, according to Annie Leonard (director of the Story of Stuff project – www.storyofstuff.com), this system is unsustainable given that resources are finite and that forces of globalization only intensify the economic process while ignoring the various social processes at work. The United States, for instance, is said to be the biggest consumer worldwide. Although making up about 5% of the world’s population, it consumes 30% of the world’s resources and produces 30% of the world’s waste (and let’s  not forget all those carbon emissions).  Leonard further notes that if everyone were to consume at the United States’, we would need 3 to 5 more earths worth of resources to sustain it, something we certainly can’t afford.

Such facts have, no doubt, put consumerism in the hot seat and encouraged several movements worldwide to reduce one’s level of consumption, not only in terms of doing one’s bit for the environment, but also one’s own personal ethical development. Rather than thinking “Why can’t I consume more?”, consumers should ask themselves “Why can’t I consume more sustainably/ethically?”. All it takes is a conscious effort to do simple actions such as buying/eating what you need/in moderation, using the extra cash for charity/giving back to society or even reducing consumption of disposables. Such actions place emphasis on a principle which is often understated – the significance of small efforts that accumulate overtime and with everyone doing their part. Or as the Malay proverb goes Sedikit-dikit, lama-lama menjadi bukit.”

Some may ask, would this really matter to Singapore’s Malay-Muslim community? Of course it does, for two primary reasons. Firstly, we do not live in a vacuum, nor are we immune to the market forces around us. To think that we are “the exception” or that we have other more basic issues like education and employability to think about, clearly misses the point and lacks foresight of preparing for future challenges. Our youth, in particular, should be made aware of these issues and be able to tap on the increasing opportunities arising from the green economy and other sustainable development activities. Such issues are already being discussed at the national and global level. It could very likely then still be the case that the Malay-Muslim community will still be playing “catch up” if it fails to curb a culture of careless consumption despite achieving its desired level of economic progress in the future.

In fact, there may already be signs of the culture of careless consumption arising in the community at this very moment. In Minister Yaacob Ibrahim’s speech during Aidilfitri celebrations in 2009, he expressed his worry that there would be a widening division between the haves and the have-nots in the Malay-Muslim community, where the former – with their new found wealth and independence – would not be giving back and helping society as much as they should. In this respect, curbing a culture of careless consumption would also indirectly facilitate a sense of humility. We should not forget of what it is like to “have a little” rather than “having a lot” or even “having a lot more”.

Secondly, curbing a culture of careless consumption is not alien to Islam, where principles of waste reduction and ensuring a sustainable environment are in abundance (but perhaps easily forgotten).

“O Children of Adam! wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer: eat and drink: But waste not by excess, for Allah loveth not the wasters”. (Holy Quran, 31:5)

“The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Prevention of damage and corruption before it occurs is better than treatment after it occurs….The averting of harm takes precedence over the acquisition of benefits.” (Majallat al-Ahkam al-Adliya)

Young AMP, through its recent activities, has gotten the ball rolling on this issue.  In  conjunction with International Day of Climate Action, Young AMP organised “Going 350: Muslims and the Environment”, in a bid to increase environmental awareness within the community.  One of the presentations during the event was by Ustaz Firdaus Yahya, who while presenting on Islamic principles on the Environment highlighted the issue of greed, which spans various aspects of our lives, and more so the environment that we live in. A small yet significant step, Young AMP looks forward to further sensitizing Singapore’s Malay-Muslim community on such contemporary challenges.

In conclusion, while it is critical that Singapore’s Malay-Muslim community strives to increase its level of economic development and success, let it not be a pre-occupation that undermines other intangible aspects of life, such as humility, happiness and a holistic understanding of our environment.

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