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Friday, 7th January 2011

What frugality can achieve

Recently I gave a speech on climate change, emphasizing the importance for the individual to live simple. Someone on the floor queried whether frugality would help the economy. Well, that was a good question. It gave me pause. Then I said it would not be meaningful if we spent money for the sake of helping the economy. The least we can do is to spend money on the greater use of green technology. I asked: why not invest the money in young people or in enhancing the quality of life of the underprivileged?

A case in point is the vast number of needy people in China (and many other places in the world) for whom benefits from the nation's prosperity has not trickled down. I visited some of them with a voluntary group some time back.

When we arrived at a school in rural northern Guangdong we were greeted by students. I spoke to them at random and came to a young child. Judging from her look and build I thought she should still be in primary school. I was therefore very surprised when she said she was already in secondary Form 3, meaning that she should at least be 15.

The next day we visited her home which was an old and very run-down house in the midst of farmland. It looked as if things had hardly changed for the past hundred years. The household still relied on what they could grow in their small piece of land, which was usually rice and vegetable. There was practically no machinery. They kept a pig and some chicken, but they would sell the pig by the time it grew up. And they probably had chicken for their meal twice a month, during full moon and new moon. Hence it would be a miracle if a young child surviving largely on rice and vegetable could grow strong and tall.

Figure 1     A home visit, joined by a curious crowd.
Figure 1      A home visit, joined by a curious crowd.


The child was fortunate in that she could at least go to school. There, for a yuan a day, she could at least have a decent, subsidized meal at midday. At least there was egg and meat for lunch, which somewhat made up for part of the protein deficit in her diet.

In respect of the standard of the school, you really could not expect too much. There simply weren't many qualified teachers, especially language teachers, who quite readily sought greener pasture in the city where the pay and living conditions were far better. We talked to one teacher, who indicated that he was a mathematics teacher by training, but because of manpower shortage he had to take on English classes with the very limited vocabulary and grammar he had. The situation would become worse as cities further prosper.

We also went to another home and met two old women in the household. In the photo below, the old lady on the left was cutting bamboo sticks for incense, all for a small income. The other, on the right, was less fortunate as she lost her eyesight years ago. She of course did not realize that a simple cataract operation was all that was needed to completely change her life.

Figure 2     The helpless and the sightless.
Figure 2      The helpless and the sightless.


Over the past couple of years conditions at that village may have improved. However, I am sure there are many other places in the mainland and the rest of the world that still urgently need our help.

In late 2010, there was in the news a young entrepreneur from Hong Kong who lost his life while driving a truckload of supplies in the last of many journeys to help earthquake victims in Xinjiang. Earlier on, there was another young man who stayed behind in the quake site to help victims but sacrificed himself in a subsequent tremour after rescuing some twenty children from a collapsing building. They were among the silent many who are actively helping those less fortunate than us.

Why not join these volunteers, or support charity? By investing in the needy young and underprivileged, we surely earn many, many happy returns.

Laozi had said, "Fill not a vessel, lest it spill in carrying. Meddle not with a needle by feeling it constantly, or it will soon become blunted. Gold and jade endanger the house of their owner. Wealth and honours lead to arrogance, and bring ruin"



B.Y. Lee



Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>