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Capitalism and You (and I)

The district of Serangoon is abuzz with activity. A new shopping mall, pretentiously named NEX, has opened, and is drawing its virginal crowds like a sprinter draws breath. Situated at the unholy intersection of two ley lines- or what pass for ley lines in the minds of Singaporeans- it is no wonder lunchtime on Monday sees it as crowded as other malls on Saturday evening, something which the latter are (perhaps rightfully) envious of.

The mall itself isn’t much to look at. A giant of steel and glass, the greenery seems gratuitous, like the articles in a lad mag. It is unapologetically blocky, with corners and joints jutting and elbowing their way into your field of vision. And then there are the trappings of modernity- pipes, glass, girders, seemingly-purposeless constructions littering its facade, as though the profession of architecture has become as every bit as arcane and ritualistic as religion, and the weird walls and columns are oblations to their deity.

Its guts, on the other hand, are minimalistic. There is a token landscaped area, but that is the extent of its inner beauty. Every few hundred steps, there is a Frankensteinian fusion of wire and lights in the image of the mall’s logo, and in the spirit of Christmas. On one of the higher floors, there is a ceiling studded with lights (caveat epilepticus), presumably as some artistic statement, and which will no doubt play host to nothing more than advertisements. The rest of the mall is simply whitewashed wall, storefront, and dusty floor. It is unfailingly bare, save where the agency of Man has added to it bells and whistles- literally, as you may find when they ring with a clinical cheeriness when somebody strays into a store. Such are the angel choirs welcoming us into a twenty-first century heaven.

To say that the mall is crowded would be an understatement. It is busier than a dockside bordello when the fleet’s at anchor. All sorts of people fill the halls- the young, the old, the handicapped. If Death would glimpse of all who danced with him, he need but gaze about. There are the giggling girls, the laughing couples, the quiet foreign workers, the boisterous schoolboys; then there are the smiling families, the hobbling old folk, and the occasional prams, presumably infant-filled. Occasionally, there is me, but I can gaze at the floor- and then I am no more. There is only the crowd, which I am a part of.

What is the purpose of such a thing?- its grey bones and clear skin, and its squirming blood?- and there is no answer other than “to sell”. There is no higher meaning to a structure designed to be built as cheaply as possible, maximize the floor area available to stores, and draw the crowds in their teeming thousands. Profit is the god, and NEX is the temple. Its priests ply their wares along its halls, and at the end of every month, its Pope counts the rent.

And we the worshippers. Sometimes, there is really nothing more pleasurable in life than to indulge in spending unabashedly. Stroll and gaze long enough, and the storefronts merge into a blur of colour, such that after you leave, you will struggle to remember anything other than the lights, the whites, and the throngs on throngs of eager shoppers. Time becomes as much a commodity as money, to be spent wandering and wondering. Like any good narcotic, you remember little of what went by, save that it was Good. We say that we go there to buy this, eat that, but we all know we are there because of It Itself, those three totemic letters.

Indeed, Capitalism concerns us in only two ways- money, and time. When we work, we give our time in exchange for money. When we relax, we spend our money on ways to take our time away. In its true form, it is a zero-sum game, and a vicious cycle which we cannot break out of. Really now, should every event in our lives be filled with depth and meaning? Perhaps there are some who can brave that sort of mental fight, but for the rest of us, we just want to while the time away.

Thankfully, we are human, and such economic concepts fail to describe us by dint of their purity. We value things other than time and money. We relish our food and cherish our friends. When we step into that seven-floored sensory-inundation enclosure, we are dimly aware that we are not there as slack-jawed, rubber-necked supplicants. We are there as ourselves, for ourselves, not by the call of Capitalism. Some Odysseuses we are!- but we stroll with our ears open, bodies lashed to the mast. So unlike the crowd we describe- for if we broke it up into the individuals making it up, they would be as human as ourselves- but as a crowd, we are a part of it, yet apart from it.

Well at least, I hope all of us are.