PENNYWISE, POUND FOOLISH

Posted on September 4, 2008

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In days gone by when school textbooks were English both in language and origin, we were taught the intricacies of monetary values in terms of pound, shilling and pence.  To be pennywise, pound foolish is to be senwise but ringgit foolish which is to mean we could be so taken up about  being overly concerned or “cautious with small amounts of money, but careless with larger amounts …” So if a person  “spends very little on food during the week, then blows all his money drinking on the weekends”, we may say that he really is penny-wise, pound-foolish.

This idiomatic saying is about getting the bigger picture and understanding better what exactly it is we wish to achieve.

We of course have many examples of this here in our own backyard. For example, let us say  I want some people to go away from the country and leave the whole country to me and my own kind. If this is my objective and without thinking things through I just say to them, “Go back to the Timbuktu you have come from!”,  the effect may in fact be the opposite of what I had set out to achieve. These people’s reaction would more likely be to dig themselves deeper in and stay put. Instead of turning the heat on the people I had targetted, in effect, the heat will now be on me. And that is why those who behave in this way usually have to leave the country themselves. Ironically, those they had asked to leave stay put and instead they themselves have had to leave the country for a time. Thus, not only have I failed to achieve what I had set out to do, the situation is now worse for me than it was before.  

Take another common example. If my objective is to get others to embrace my own relgious philosophy and practices, it would be “pennywise, pound foolish” for me to apply brute force to stop them from discussing some ramifications of my religion, for example, on their social life. In fact, it is only when others discuss my religion that I will have the opportunity to clarify some common misconceptions they may have of it. To ban others from talking about my religion will have a counter effect as many parents are finding out when they use their perceived authority and try to force their religion on their children in a myriad of misguided ways.

Today, there is a most critical issue for us Malaysians to consider. The time has come when we are asked what kind of nation we wish to be: to have more of the same or to effect change for the better. The time has come for us to set ourselves on the path to fundamental changes in the way we define who a Malaysian is, how the nation’s wealth is to be shared, how our children will be educated, how government contracts will be awarded, how we prioritise government spending, how we conduct our elections, how the police and judiciary should function, how ACA should prioritise who they should target their investigations on (only the small or especially on the big fishes?), how to restore pride to all citizens regarding their nation, how to listen and pay heed to the people’s cries, how to integrate east and west Malaysia, how to have freedom of information, how to rid ourselves of the abominable laws and the shameless ways in which they have been used against perceived “opponents” of the state. The list goes on.

In considering change, I must not be so naive as to expect that there will be no inconvenience of any sort to my normal routine. I must understand that change can, in the transition period, cause some hardship and pain. In choosing change, I must give up something relatively smaller in order to gain something much bigger and worthwhile. Some relative sacrifices have to be made. When I have my house painted, some furniture must be moved, the place will be a mess, and smell of new paint may irritate my nostrils. Change cannot be had without some tolerance for some things I normally will not care for.  There may be some uncertainties and no matter how well managed, the markets may be nervous. Some effects will be worse than others.

In facing this, I must not turn inward and instinctively become even more inept in managing myself and my instincts and my resources and fall victim to the “pennywise, pound foolish” effect. To have the pounds, I need to give up my pennies. The higher goals, the bigger good must be my focus. For that, I welcome the coming change.

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Posted in: Perspective