A not-so-golden culture of extravagance

What surprised me most, when I first started out my online business, was the extent of spending power that people in Myanmar have- in a country where the minimum wage is about 4 dollars a day and the starting pay of a local university graduate hovers around 150 thousand kyats ($120). I was always aware of the existence of upper echelon of society who has amassed immense wealth to splurge on the latest designer goods and be spotted at the most opulent cafes in town. What I wasn’t aware of was the existence of middle class who doesn’t hesitate to buy consumer eating into a huge chunk of their salaries or hang out at Acacia Tea salon. I have encountered many occasions whereby my customers would ask me to reserve a $20 dress for a few more days or weeks until they draw their salaries. Well, as a “capitalist”, I’m not complaining any of these behaviours as the more impulsively people spend, the better it is for my business.

But it’s somewhat tragic to see that many people, especially the youth, here are living paychecks to paychecks in order to be perceived as affluent and on-trend. My staff whom I paid about $150 a month has just recently bought a latest iphone which she had been wanting to buy and had asked me before to lend her the money for the phone. I could have loaned her the money but I didn’t because I didn’t want her to be living beyond her means and suffer from cash-flow problems in the future. But obviously, that didn’t stop her. She got the money anyway and bought the iphone. This isn’t an isolated case of frivolous spending I’ve seen with people in Myanmar. Some street vendors selling “mont-hin-gar” can be sometimes spotted with the latest gadgets I don’t have on their hands. I’m not sure if they are richer than me sometimes.

At the root of this outrageous consumerism, I feel, is our need to feel socially accepted. Everyone, including myself, wants to be validated by the society. One of the ways to feel accepted is to be doing whatever other rich kids are doing, that is, following the trend. And it doesn’t help that social media is allowing us to portray ourselves as someone we are not or exaggerate whatever we have. What if you don’t hang out at the over-priced Harry’s bar and take photo with the ‘famous’ wall that has been so liberally plastered across social media amongst the Yangonite? I must say that I’ve always hated doing things that everyone else has been doing. It makes me feel like I’m supporting other’s capitalist dream. Since I started my clothing business, I made a point to not purchase any clothes from the brands at retail store until they offer 50% discount because I know that their markup is at least twice the cost of goods. I guess being a capitalist myself has made me resist capitalism more(what an irony,I know). And I thought that some capitalists were very sick in the way they make money and enrich themselves; but I’ve come to accept that it’s a two-way street where consumers, even in developing countries, have allowed themselves to be exploited by those capitalists.

I’m here not calling for the boycott of all consumerist goods. I do understand that people, including myself, sometimes succumb to temptations and spend impulsively because we actually fall in love with the quality or design or whatsoever. There is nothing wrong with that. However, it is the endless extravagant spending, at the expense of our future savings, just to be perceived as someone that “fits” in the society’s standard of status and class which I am not comfortable with. It’s time for us to start knowing the difference between assets and liability and start making our own empire from little savings that we have so that we would never be the puppet of capitalists who live in their million dollar mansions.