Alwyn Lau

For good news, use drama. For bad news, use statistics. For really bad news? Use other people. Tweets at @alwyn_lau.

NOVEMBER 6 — Remember those movies like Soldier, Barely Lethal or even Wonder Woman where a child is raised as a soldier from young? The person is trained to fight and kill, a process which shapes his or her entire antagonism-filled worldview.

When we watch these movies, we find it fascinating. But I wonder if we realise that the very same mind-shaping process happens every day in our world as well.

Last week, yet again, another person in the room reminded everybody that “in this world” we must first and foremost secure our bank account without which nothing else is possible. 

“In this world” the primary thing which matters is how much cash you have. Your passion, your dreams, all that is secondary. If you can’t pay the bills, you’re nothing. If you don’t have financial freedom, you will never be free.

Someone mentioned she hoped to be a poet; she was soundly dismissed as an idealist, told to “get real” and advised to put her passion aside and focus on making the bucks. 

When I suggested that perhaps she should be encouraged to “do what she loves”, the pushback was that young people shouldn’t be taught such nonsense. No, we must do the whole “make money” gig and learn to love what we do.

“Do what we love”? That’s for dreamers.

The magic of ‘financial investment seminars’

This kind of philosophy is unfortunately repeated about a billion times every day by well-meaning parents, teachers, mentors and bosses, all of whom would have you believe that to be alive is to earn, and only losers dare to have a different opinion. Unless you achieve financial freedom, your life will be a mess.

Let me be clear: It’s all bullshit. It’s all crap. It’s all a lie. Why?

First of all, people who give out this kind of advice will almost never give you a precise number to hit (to attain financial freedom). Okay, so earning money is important. Okay, so we need something in our bank account to “survive.” 

Question is: How much is enough? What exact figure do I need to be raking in before I can say, “Alright, my rate of earning is sufficient, now I can stop thinking about my bank account”?

Well, guess what: There is NO ANSWER to this. Nobody has a goddamn clue as to a number, and this is so NOT because they’re poor financial planners and NOT because they’re glib about the lines between poverty and luxury. 

The reason why a number ─ aye, a limit ─ to the pursuit of “financial freedom” is so elusive is because financial freedom is and was never the goal of a capitalist narrative.

Nobody wants financial freedom — we only want financial infinity

Financial freedom is like a dog chasing a car. After it reaches the car, what does it do? Oh, it just stands around, maybe pees on it and waits… until the car goes again so it can continue chasing it. 

And this is what the pursuit of financial freedom amounts to, a dog chasing something simply because it feels it has to chase it.

Sure we gotta eat, but how many people you know who always chase “financial freedom” are on the verge of starvation? 

Isn’t it the case that most of them tend to suffer from problems resulting from eating too much rather than too little? And given that our country is the most obese in the region, this “We gotta eat” factor sounds like a fat piece of nonsense.

So let’s skip the We Don’t Have Enough Food bullshit. At the end, it’s usually about :

•             We want more useless stuff in the house

•             We want to impress our peers more

•             We want to travel to exotic places and add to the list of places we have “checked-in” on Facebook

•             Essentially, we want to see our bank accounts grow and explode

If you want futher proof that financial freedom is a hollow illusory concept, you should attend a financial investment seminar, a unit trust talk or any one of a thousand such events happening daily. 

I can’t tell if these talks are magic shows or what. Because as the talk progresses, you’ll realise an undeniable truth i.e. that no matter how much you are presently earning, the only viable conclusion from the seminar is that you will never have enough for your retirement.

It’s like one of those Genting Highlands magic performances where no matter how many swords the fella plunges into the box, the lady inside will come out alive. Same thing here. 

You could be earning RM20 million a month but it won’t make a diff. The unit trust consultant will still prove beyond a half-shadow of a doubt that a) you’re going to starve once you stop working, b) you’ve been a sucker all this time because you haven’t purchased their funds and c) you’re a complete and irresponsible loser unless you take action now by giving him money.

Which brings me back to the bogus of financial freedom: Do you know how much you want to earn? If you received, say, a 40 per cent raise tomorrow, would you be happy? 

Have we reflected on why some people, despite earning north of 800 per cent more than you, remain unhappy, unfulfilled and neurotically inclined towards earning even more? 

Do such people, in fact, not appear to you like they’re utterly addicted to making money for the sake of it?

We are all financial alcoholics

Again, we don’t want financial freedom; we want financial infinity. To ask why is like asking why the rook in chess moves the way it does. Or why people show appreciation by clapping hands. Or why Man U fans will always continue to be Man U fans.

There is no answer. There is only Because.

Financial freedom resembles what philosophers call an empty signifier i.e. it’s a shell or tagline you can use to signify anything you want without the burden of actually being precise. 

It’s really an excuse, a justification, to continue living life in a certain way. It’s like the words “democracy” or “Malaysian” or “freedom” or “security” — no one needs to bother defining these terms precisely, because getting the terms right wasn’t the point in the first place. These words are simply add-on labels to legitimise whatever the hell we want to do.

Furthermore, we would not even know what we want to do with a windfall should we get one. If we were suddenly given RM100,000 tomorrow, most of us would blow it on (yet more) stuff we don’t need, travelling to places we really couldn’t care less about, buying gadgets and assets which rack up our debt even more and leave us dissatisfied in seconds, and within a short time we’d be back to Square One. 

The truth is that money to us is like whisky to the alcoholic. How much does the drunk want to drink? The answer is the same one to the question of how much we really want to earn: Infinity. That’s right, that’s the answer. We want to make an infinite amount of money, and use this infinite amount to make even more.

The alcoholic wants to drink infinitely; the person chasing “financial freedom” is really chasing financial infinity. 

Both possess the least freedom in the world. But guess what — at least the alcoholic wouldn’t brag about his condition and encourage his kids to become like him?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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