All That Glitters is Not Gold
Written by Dr Wong Wee Nam
21 November 2008
“All professions are conspiracies against the laity.”
– George Bernard Shaw
When we were in school, one of the unforgettable proverbs we learnt was “All That Glitters is Not Gold”. Another was “Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover”. For all intents and purposes these proverbs taught us to be more skeptical, more discerning and not to be easily taken in by propaganda.
The recent financial crises and economic events show that in this world of mass marketing, botox, silicone implants, controlled media, irresponsible press and proliferation of experts on whose opinions seem like absolute truths, it is not easy to inoculate ourselves against mass persuasion and herd–thinking. In the world where pursuit of money has become the primary goal, it is not hard to be blinded by any glitter.
For years we have been told that we must pay for top talents of the world. Without the top talents, we would lag behind. We accepted that because we thought that the world was too complex for ordinary mortals to manage without the handing over the reins to the talents and experts.
But where are the experts now? Instead of bringing prosperity and wealth, the financial experts are the main cause of the economic catastrophe that we are witnessing now. Now we know that top talents, when they make a mess, can really create havoc and bring a lot misery to common people by causing them to lose their life-savings. Though experts have appeared to try and find a solution to the crises, we know they are as helpless as every one of us. They must appear to do something so that when the problem irons itself up everyone will be grateful to them.
John Kenneth Galbraith had seen through this hollowness of expertise. In his book, “The Economics of Innocent Fraud”, commenting on experts, he said that in the economic, and especially the financial world, prediction of the unknown and unknowable is a cherished and often well-rewarded occupation.
“The men and women so engaged believe and are believed by others to have knowledge of the unknown; research is thought to create such knowledge. Because what is predicted is what others wish to hear and what they wish to profit or have some return from, hope or needs cover from reality,” he wrote. “….those employed or self-employed who tell of the future financial performance of an industry or firm, given the unpredictable but controlling influence of the larger economy, normally do not know that they do not know.”
In Singapore, we too like to pay top money for so-called top talents, especially foreign ones. We even pay good money for second-rated foreign talents. With so much top and second-rate talents around, it is surprising they could not help prevent us from being the earliest in this region to go into recession.
The beauty of being a talent is not only in the high pay but in the absence of blame. For example, when things turn bad, the blame is not on the management but on the market forces, absence of public restraint, competition, high oil prices and so on. Of course when remedial actions are taken, the top talent is not sacked but may even be rewarded with severance pay and other compensations that are written into the contract. It is often the ordinary workers, who are the least responsible for the bad performance of the corporation, who will be asked to give up the jobs to save the company.
So in this world of mass marketing, botox, silicone implants, mass media and paper-armed experts, the common folks must wake up and realise that there are plenty of mediocre posers and rotten apples, very well-camouflaged with titles, degrees and impressive dossiers, around.
This, however, is not a new and modern phenomenon. These people have been around even in ancient times as this story told by Liu Ji (明刘基)of Ming Dynasty shows：
In Hangzhou, there was a fruit seller whose oranges were so good that they could last the whole year without losing their lustre and colour. The skin was as smooth as jade and as shiny as gold. However, when a buyer peeled off the skin, the inside was as rotten as cotton.
When an irate customer asked him why he had tried to deceive people, he replied with a smile, “Oh, the world is full of people who swindle and deceive. Am I the only one? Take those arrogant generals sitting on chairs covered with tiger skins and armed with military tallies. Do you think they can even fight a war? How about those officials wearing the exalted black gauze cap and the jade belt? Are they really capable of running the country? At the moment, the people are suffering but they do nothing to help. They are also doing nothing to check the evil doings of the lower officials. They are doing nothing the whole day except eating the grains produced by the common folks. Aren’t these people like gold and jade on the outside but as rotten as cotton inwardly? Why are you blind to these people but only focus on a poor fruit seller like me?”
卖者笑曰：“吾业是有年矣，吾赖是以食吾躯。吾售之，人取之，未尝有言，而独不足子所乎？世之 为欺者不寡矣，而独我也乎？吾子未之思也。今夫佩虎符、坐皋比者，洸洸乎干城之具也，果能授孙吴之略耶？峨大冠、拖长绅者，昂昂乎庙堂之器也，果能建伊皋 之业耶？盗起而不知御，民困而不知救，吏奸而不知禁，法斁而不知理，坐糜廪粟而不知耻。观其坐高堂，骑大马，醉醇醴而饫肥鲜者，孰不巍巍乎可畏，赫赫乎可 象也？又何往而不金玉其外，败絮其中也哉！今子是之不察，而以察吾柑！”
Alas, unlike the days of the fruit seller, this is now the world of advertising, packaging, media manipulation and creative accounting. Even if you keep your eyes wide open or are gifted with a helicopter vision, it is now more difficult to catch the crooks. They now look very respectable in coat and tie. And when these people cause damage, the harm is massive.
Even a great economist like Kenneth Galbraith had found it difficult to detect a fraud. He said, “Over a professional lifetime in economics, as a teacher, author and sometime public official, and from some personal interest, I have read through dozens, perhaps hundreds of corporate financial statements. That some were a disguise for quiet larceny did not cross my mind.”
So the next time someone tells you “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”, tell yourself: “how can I be sure that I would not be paying a bomb for a dud?”