A Not-So-Golden Culture of Extravagance
By Hsu Myat Thazin 28 November 2016
What surprised me most, when I first started my online business, was the extent of spending power of people in Burma—a country where the minimum wage is about 4 dollars a day and the starting pay for a local university graduate hovers around 180 thousand kyats (US$150) a month.
I was always aware of the existence of an upper echelon of society that had amassed stupendous wealth to splurge on the latest designer products and frequent the most opulent cafes in town. What I wasn’t aware of was the existence of a middle class that doesn’t hesitate to buy consumer goods, eating into a huge chunk of their salaries.
As an owner of clothing store myself, I have encountered many occasions where my customers would ask me to reserve a $20 dress for a few more days or weeks until they draw their salaries. I’m not necessarily complaining about any of these behaviors, as the more impulsively people spend, the better it is for my business.
However, it’s tragic to see that many people here, especially the youth, are living paycheck to paycheck in order to be perceived as affluent and on-trend. A member of my staff, whom I paid about $150 a month, has just recently bought the iPhone 6 plus, which she had been wanting to buy. She’d asked me before to lend her the money, but I didn’t want her to be living beyond her means and to suffer from cash-flow problems in the future, so I refused. Sadly, 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 it with many people in Burma. Some street vendors selling “mont-hin-gar” [fish soup] can be spotted with the latest gadgets that even I don’t have. This leads me to ask the question of why our society is obsessed with spending.
Many socio-economic reasons can perhaps explain the phenomenon. One of the primary reasons could be that our past dictatorial government failed to hammer the idea of saving into our brains. In contrast to countries where mandatory saving schemes are strictly enforced, until recent years, we did not have access to reliable banks where we could deposit our money, let alone register for mandatory saving plans. Also, we cannot ignore the fact that Burma has been left in isolation for half a century and it is only at present that people are starting to experience the ‘foreignness’ of the outside world through consumption of goods and services. As such, the hype and fascination over social media and western fashions and lifestyles is not unwarranted.
However, at the root of this outrageous consumerism, I feel, is our need to feel socially-accepted. Everyone, including me, wants to be validated by society. One of the ways to feel accepted is to be doing whatever the rich kids are doing. We are looked upon as “cool” and “popular” if we have checked in at the latest restaurants or bar in town. We receive more “likes” if we can upload a photo of a limited edition gadget before anyone else does. Yet, in doing so, we have inevitably become obsessed with how society sees us through our social media accounts. Hanging out at Harry’s bar and taking photo with the “famous” wall took off amongst Yangonites precisely for that reason. Capitalists who know the power of social media have taken advantage of this phenomenon to encourage more spending, promoting the idea of exclusivity and class in their product designs.
For me, I must say that I’ve always detested doing the things that everyone else has been doing. It makes me feel like I’m supporting others’ capitalist dreams. Since I started my own clothing business, I have made a point to not purchase any clothes from the brands at retail stores unless they offer me a 50 percent discount, because I know that their markup is at least twice the cost of their products.
I guess being a “capitalist” myself has made me resist capitalism more (what an irony, I know!). Initially 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 the puppets of capitalists.
This burgeoning middle class, purchasing unprecedented levels of consumer products from overseas, translates to greater imports for the economy while our exports remain in a miserable abyss. Economics 101 teaches us that as long as our exports fall way behind our imports, there is only so much that our new economic policies can do to bring about an economic miracle.
I’m not rallying here for the boycott of all consumer products. I do understand that people, including myself, sometimes succumb to temptation and spend impulsively because we actually fall in love with the quality or design of a product. There is nothing wrong with that. However, it is the endless extravagant spending just to be perceived as someone that ‘fits’ in society’s perceived standard of status and class, at the expense of our future savings, that I am not comfortable with. Perhaps, it’s time for us to start supporting financial literacy, building an empire of our own from little savings that we have, instead of worrying about when our next ‘like’ will come.
Hsu Myat Thazin was born and raised in Burma. She is an undergraduate student from National University of Singapore, majoring in Economics. She owns a clothing line ‘Fashmob’ and is currently interning at a private equity firm in Rangoon.
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives onBurma/Myanmar.