The rich, the good and the ugly

SOMETIMES, we get the impression that people of a certain social class must know one another quite well.

So when we talk about the super-duper rich, we presume that they not only appear on the same Forbes list each year, but they probably have each other's private numbers on their smartphones.

And it does not really matter which country they come from, or which industry they belong to, because their extreme wealth is the common denominator.

So if you look at the richest men on the 2011 list, you can imagine Bill Gates, at No 2, giving Lakshmi Mittal of India, at No 4, a call that goes something like this, “Hi, Mittal, how much richer are you since I last called? Steel prices are rising but I am not doing too bad myself. Microsoft just dished out US$8.5 bil to buy up Skype. Small change, my man!”

But what is the reality? I suspect that while the pursuit of money drives these people, and they may share mutual public platforms, real friendship among them may not be as common as we think.

Gates and Warren Buffett recently brought together 61 American billionaires to a resort in Tuscon but it was not so much a gathering of old friends but total strangers.

Buffett reportedly knew only 12 of those invited though by the end of the evening, he had made 40 new friends.

The one thing in common for these ultra-rich philanthropists is that they belong to the special club of people who had pledged to give away at least half of their wealth under the Giving Pledge initiated by Buffett and Gates.

So what did these people talk about all evening? Apparently, since there was no real bond of friendship, they saw the meeting as a chance to “meet each other, compare notes, eat and laugh.” At least that's what the Associated Press pieced together by talking to a few of the diners after the event, which was totally off-limits to the press.

When my growing-up boys asked me about the important and rich people whom journalists get to meet in the course of work, I used to tell them that, like the rest of us, “the men pee standing, and have to put on their trousers one leg at a time.”

It was my way to remind them that there are more important things that make up a person's worth than wealth and position.

But there is no denying that these philanthropists have the potential to initiate sea changes if they put their hearts in the right place.

And it is good that other rich people around the world, including in Malaysia, are also embracing this concept of giving away part of one's wealth to address the world's many problems.

I was pleasantly surprised that our very own Dr Jane Cardosa, one of the three dynamic Cardosa sisters with roots in Convent Green Lane and Penang Free School, is a recent recipient of a US$100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further her research into a vaccine for polio and hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD).

Hopefully, we will see more Malaysian philanthropic ringgit being made available to produce positive social returns.

Maybe someone should propose a study on how to eliminate the bigots and extremists in our midst who seek to build walls that divide, rather than bridges that unite.

And a further study on foot-in-the-mouth disease, which seems to be pretty rampant among the politicians.

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