The Rich Will Not Save You
Guest writer Samantha Cheh explores our self-flagellating worship of the wealthy, and how they exploit admiration
There is this classic Cher quote which crops up on Twitter every so often — it comes from a 1996 interview with Jane Pauley. Cher, all loose limbs and cool, self-assurance tells Pauley:
“My mom said to me: ‘You know, sweetie, one day you should settle down and marry a rich man.’ I said, ‘Mom, I am a rich man’.”
Though her self-possession itself is something to aspire to, more than that, I saw how getting rich (or marrying rich) could get you places that simply wanting something hard enough could never. Like many of us, money was taught to us as a sign you had made it. Money was a sign that someone was worth listening to because they had proven themselves and you — yes you! — could be like them if you did what they did.
If you wanted something hard enough and were willing to put it all down on the table, you could also make it. You too could be a “rich man” like Cher, like them.
Unfortunately, what most (rich) people won’t tell you is that while you’re busy trying to survive and dream of getting rich like them, they’ve already eaten the food off your plate.
I don’t think I have ever really thought that much about Neelofa — nee Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor, 30ish years old; she of the light-and-crystal-infested mega wedding that launched a thousand Twitter-screeds — as I have in the last two months, but boy how that’s changed!
I can’t stop thinking about the photos.
There’s the banquet hall blooming with flowers tumbling in waves and coils, lights shooting up in every direction so sometimes I feel like I’m looking at the organic innards of an alien spaceship. Then, of course, the crowd of guests seated in concentric circles, so many of them in a single, unventilated venue — more people than I have seen in almost two years, seated so close together there isn’t enough space for a fist, let alone an uninterrupted breath.
Then, of course, my mind shifts instantly to the image of her honeymoon jet skis and the gaping mouth of a sea cave, the little tag referencing their Langkawi tour guides.
I also think about all the unseen hands and faces who made their little illegal trip possible. The people who cannot afford RM300 Covid tests or the long road to recovery after infection.
Then I think about how for someone who essentially built the foundations for a career on the backs of her 8.6 million Instagram followers, Neelofa is exceedingly bad at using the platform to generate good press for herself. Is she unaware of the “close friends” function? Does she honestly think this is what good publicity looks like?
Or, more plausibly, did she deliberately post about (illegally) crossing state borders so she could buy some fucking rugs in Negeri Sembilan to rub it in our faces that RM60,000 in fine money is pocket change for someone like her? That she can pay any fine, any amount, nothing is insurmountable with the wealth she has squirrelled away in bank accounts, local and offshore?
Because, dear reader, for the absolutely irresponsible crime of hosting a wedding of such huge proportions and going to Langkawi for her honeymoon during a major, worsening health crisis, Neelofa and her guests have been charged RM60,000. (Unclear what her jaunt to N. Sembilan will cost her, but the answer will always be “not enough.”)
Compare that to the RM50,000 fines that have been levied on individual burger and rojak sellers, on the small mom-and-pop kedai runcits — the people who politicians regularly claim are their constituents, but continue to grind into ground with their policies and disaffection.
RM60,000 isn’t pocket change for them, it’s years’ worth of income.
Those are the other photos I can’t stop thinking about: the smooth stainless steel stalls wiped clean in preparation for hours of gruelling labour over a hot stove, plastic folding tables standing amid the dust and dirt, waiting for customers. The desolation on the face of the traders’ as they hold up the ridiculous compound notices for RM50,000 fines. Ringing in my head, I hear the pak cik’s devastated, plaintive words: “Ambillah kedai runcit saya, saya tak mampu bayar kompaun.”
This is what she had to say for herself about the fines:
I accept with an open heart and make this compound as a lesson to use permits to cross state borders for purposes agreed upon by the authorities, as well as a reminder for me and everyone involved at my wedding to always emphasise the importance of SOPs. I would like to apologise again if this case has caused a small problem to the running of anyone’s daily work. Thank you. (Emphasis mine)
She talks about the permits as a “lesson” about using permits, a bureaucratic detail. She talks about her literal crime as a reminder. She talks about days’ worth of police resources and media coverage as having caused “a small problem”.
Nothing about the lives she endangered with her wedding and holiday. Nothing about the risks she took, the total disregard for law and public health. Nothing but the bell-clear implication that the only thing she thinks she did wrong was misuse her travel permit for her honeymoon rather than work.
The implication here is that she doesn’t think she did anything wrong: not the nightmare-super-spreader wedding event; not mischaracterising her trip to Langkawi; certainly not her little rug shopping trip down south.
Those were not illegal, merely expensive.
And for me, personally, what I cannot get over is the unrepentant smugness that radiates from her every pore, her every word.
She doesn’t give a fuck about breaking the law, because her money protects her. Her reputation and business credentials place her on a different plane of existence when it comes to legal matters. The unspoken implication too is that her marriage to “preacher-actor” Haris Ismail has also launched her into a different realm of divine intervention.
She is above it all, above all of us.
The thing about it is that it’s not just Neelofa, the whole basket is rotten.
Siti Nurhaliza — the darling of Malaysian pop culture, She Who Could Basically Do No Wrong — definitely broke Covid SOPs when shehosted a tahnik ceremony for her new son featuring VIPs and a certain religious politician from across state borders (no matter what she claims).
In January 2021, KL Federal Territories Minister Annuar Musa posted a photo of himself walking with another minister, all of them maskless—he said it wasn’t a breach of SOPs, and was not charged. I think about the man in Cheras fined RM10,000 for failing to register his details at a restaurant he visited, and the couple charged RM20,000 for not wearing masks because they were eating (which was denied by the police).
The openness with which the rich and powerful flaunt their privilege is obscene and the way the police abet them is infuriating — but what is plain batshit crazy to me is the ease with which they rewrite history and the laws to suit themselves. Siti Nurhaliza says her ceremony didn’t breach SOPs, so of course they did not. Annuar Musa says walking maskless isn’t against the law, so of course that must be true. Neelofa says her wedding caused only a “small problem,” so naturally we shouldn’t be pissed about it.
We’re always told that the rich became rich because they played the game right, because they deserve what they worked for. They will preach and sell this sanctimonious gospel to you for a small fortune — for Neelofa, it’s RM79 "Muslim friendly" slippers or RM400 hijabs.
The thing no one talks about when you get rich, when you claim “rich man” status, is that life around you distorts. People twist their tongues and reality to court your favour and wealth.
You want an example? Next time, take a stroll through Elon Musks’s Twitter feed and you’ll get an idea of how much face-in-mud grovelling is possible.
Can you honestly tell me with a straight face that these so-far-out-of-touch-they’re-practically-in-space billionaires and millionaires, these never-have-to-think-about-a-budget-naires, actually have a modicum of understanding about what it means to be equal in the eyes of the law?
There is no use in fining the rich, the fines are drops in the bucket compared to what they already have. We also know that fines don’t do anything to enforce the law, and instead disproportionately impact poor and vulnerable communities, while also opening up spaces for abuse by the “authorities”.
What I’m trying to say is that rich and powerful people live in an insidious, wrenched-from-reality world order. They don’t know what it's like to see your business shrink and fail because of their bad policymaking. They don’t understand that there is devastation to the price of a fine caused by flimsy SOPs, poorly-defined ordinances and rampant abuse of power by police.
We know that rich people, the Neelofas and Siti Nurhalizas of the world will never actually give a shit about SOPs when breaking them costs nothing — that’s why they don’t blink twice at posting about their lavish events during a global pandemic, while most of us continue to social distance, cancelling parties and small gatherings. That’s why they don’t think it’s a big deal whether or not there are 10 people or 100 people in a room.
In her book “On Immunity”, author Eula Biss talks about immunity against disease as a “public space” that requires equal care from individuals to ensure the safety of the whole.
Over the last year, I’ve seen everyday, regular-salaried Malaysians band together to try to hold together this crumbling thing between us. This public space infected by disease and the poison foisted upon us by politicians who couldn’t tell the difference between a national budget and the split ends of a carrot.
The rich do not subscribe to the idea of public space. The rich do not hold anything holy but their appetites, themselves and their kind.
Please, please don’t kid yourself, dear everyday salaryman, my fellow citizen and friend: the rich do not give a fuck about you.
They range from the Elon Musks to the Bill Gates of the world; the Neelofas and Gwyneths; the dato’s and datins, the tycoon sons and developers’ scions. They do not understand a world in which every scrap is earned (not truly), they don’t get the everyday costs of living.
And the rich will not — will never — save you, save us. #EatTheRich
Samantha Cheh is a writer based in Kuala Lumpur. She writes fiction and non-fiction about arts and culture, tech and terrible Internet behaviour, as well as the Footnotes from the Void newsletter. She tweets too much @sam_sicilipadi
My favourite SOP is the one where only 70% of management is allowed to be on the premises but for everybody else, working from home is just optional. It says a lot about the government's familiarity with (and interest in) most workers' realities.