Disclaimer: I am a horrible person that enjoys trampling on the last words of dying people. If your hunch tells you that you are going to hate reading this, then don’t.
If live in Singapore, by now, you should know who Dr Richard Teo is. His story had been told on a thousand social platforms, inspired millions and even made it to the front page of a certain tabloid magazine which I have no idea why do people pay for.
His sob story of a successful person facing a sudden decline in health is something we have all heard of and his take back from it, that money isn’t everything, is a aphorism that we all know. The only difference which separates him and an average joe delivering it is, it just feels so bloody good hearing a millionaire say it. And considering that those aren’t the words your regular millionaire, but someone who went from rags to riches and will die in a matter of months, makes it resonate in us a hundred times harder.
I was like everyone else when I first read it. I felt poignant knowing the circumstances he was facing and was worried for him and more so for his family(I still do actually). But being the horrible person that I am, I also felt something suspicious in his speech. My suspicion lies not in the authenticity of the speech, but just how true his views are about living a fulfilling life? I then decided to re-read his speech and thought hard on what it really meant. Not to my surprise, this time round, I felt it meant absolutely nothing beyond what we already know and even misinforming.
I must remind you that I am writing this with all due respect.
To be fair, I have no doubts on the sincerity of Dr Teo’s speech. He is a man that has come a long way earnestly hoping that the future generations of doctors would avoid the regrettable path that he took. Urging them to be genuinely concerned for their patients and not be blinded by monetary possessions. And he is saying this not just for the interest of the sick and old, but because like what the Dalai Lama spams on twitter all day long, he feels that the only way to live a rich life is through compassion. With that in mind, he wants the brightest minds of our country to live the life that he didn’t.
Everything he is saying is well intended but that doesn’t mean it cannot be read with scrutiny and be addressed.
I didn’t watch the video but what from what I read, I could picture was a hall of dental students crying buckets when he delivered his speech. But will that change how medicine is practiced locally? No. Will hordes of A level graduates be opting medicine as their course of choice in view of its prestige or monetary benefits? Yes. Let’s face it, ideas do not shape our lives but experience do. If ideas are enough to alter our tendencies and behaviors, there will be no smokers regretting the first puff that they took while on the last stages of their chemotherapy and none of us will ever hit the snooze button again after reading a book on how to be productive. We can only put ourselves in Dr Teo’s shoes for as long as the speech lasts and it actually isn’t a bad thing at all. Why not? Read on.
Secondly, money isn’t everything sleeping in a casket of it will not guarantee you smiling. But as far as living goes, be it possessions or novel experiences, you need money to get them which makes them irrefutably very important. But Dr Teo seems to frown upon that and implies that our willing participation in the rat race to riches is what society has moulded us to do. You must agree with him because it feels good to. Despite being part of it, for some reason, it has become trendy to hate upon this very evil thing called “society” without really understanding what it really means. I feel that Dr Teo’s is a victim of that and his disdain towards society is just silly and reductionistic.
Fact is, most of us are neither obsessed with money nor power due to the pressuring from society, we just want to be happy and the possessions and experience that money can buy is the clearest path to our goal. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. No sane person would lead their life constantly perturbed by how he would expect himself to feel when he is frail and old and ceasing to exist in seconds, if so, he would be highly dysfunctional(which answers my earlier question). Instead, he would live his life by pondering upon the joys of having a new car or to visit Madrid on his next holiday. And once we have visited Madrid he would want to visit Rome and Cairo and Istanbul to constantly fuel the novelty of living and he needs money to achieve them. Other than acknowledging the value of money for all kinds of trades, is society really at fault for such a phenomenon? I don’t think so. With or without society, novelty, which make us happy, will be pursued. Nobody wakes up in the middle of night screaming, “Eureka! I should do some voluntary work tomorrow to make myself happier!”. Even if they do, it doesn’t make them happier but just wanting to be happy like all others.
He claims that true happiness doesn’t come from serving ourselves. In other words, a happy and fulfilling life can only be through compassion and empathy. That is just another specious statement that doesn’t fit the whole bill.
What you do does not always make who you are. That’s the harshest thing anyone can learn in life. There is no general formula to leading a fulfilling life that works for everyone. And by practicing what your self improvement book writes may not work. It’s true. No matter how great your effort is, something that works for someone else might not work for you. The Dalai Lama may feel warm and ecstatic from within every time he feeds a yelping dog but I assure you that Christopher Hitchens won’t. Maybe it’s the way that Hitchens was brought up, maybe it has something to do with his blood and veins, but the question of nurture vs nature is besides the point. Hitchens won’t and he will not no matter how hard he tries to(unless he gets a lobotomy). But does that mean that being less empathetic will make Hitchens a less fulfilled man on his death bed? That’s nonsense. A serial rapist cum murderer can died fulfilled if what he professes in life is the cries and death of young maidens.
I really really really don’t agree with much of Dr Teo’s words. Overwhelmed by the grim image of dying, he discounted every moment he spent basking in materialistic joys and focused on what else he could have done. If he spent his life being a caring general practitioner instead of the Ferrari owner, he might just envy the cosmetic surgeon and regret not being one. For most of us, life is an unfulfilling enterprise and it will be no matter what you do.
RIP Dr Teo
PS: I think I will make a brilliant de motivational speaker.