The Weight of Ang Pows

Chinese New Year Ang Pow (or Red Packet) laid out on the table! Each 红包 had 花开富贵 written on them, which meant blessings when the flowers blossom!

Chinese all over the world are busy preparing the most important festival on the Chinese calendar: Chinese New Year. And just days before the actual event, UOB stirred up a controversy with an infogram advising people how much money in SGD they should pack in their ang pows, based on the recipients’ relationship with the giver.


Now, ang pows are as significant in the Chinese culture as the goodies, new clothes and feasting. Ang pows are money packed in red packets and given by the elders to the unmarried (or by working children to their parents) to signify their blessings to the other party.


This was supposed to be the result of a survey of 503 people by Ipsos. Given the back lash, it brings to question whether the pool is representative enough, or if there is a hidden bias in selection of the survey pool.

When I was a kid, I looked forward to Chinese New Year, because during that festive season, I got to receive ang pows and I could imagine buying new things with the money collected.

I would count the amount I received and sigh in dismay when my collection was barely half that received by my peers. I would mentally note down and compare past year trends to see if my collection was on par with inflation rate (even though the number of relatives I had was the same every year) and even tried to single out elders who had the potential to give a bigger ang pow the following year.

I have not done such an analysis for a good 10 years or so. I thought it was part of growing up, that I grew to realise that people won’t change and the only way my ang pow money will increase or decrease is if some uncle strikes lottery and become a millionaire, or that someone in the family died.

Only the latter happened and it showed no signs of abating.

However, as I recalled the excitement I had in the past vs the nonchalance I experience presently, I conclude that my expectation for ang pow money is inversely proportion to my earning power.

I stopped keeping track of my ang pow money after I started working. My ang pows are currently left untouched except for the following reasons:

  • Doing a clean up
  • Forgot to draw cash for next day’s expenses
  • Looking for new bills to pack in the ang pows for wedding couples

My current company has a culture whereby our bosses will distribute ang pows during departmental celebrations. Even though I know beforehand the amount inside is nominal (statistically, the lowest absolute amount I will ever receive in an ang pow), I felt no misgivings about that.

In fact, since I was in HR for a good 3 years, I appreciated the fact that bosses, despite their different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, took the effort to show that they care, and to display gestures not because they believe in it, but because it is aligned with the belief system of the recipients. Not many people are born leaders, but at least they try to employ best practices to boost staff morale, that is to show respect and tolerance to diverse culture in the workplace.


Which is why UOB’s infogram ran into disagreement with the general public.

The sum of money suggested by the survey published by the bank was more than what the average Singaporean can afford. And it advocated for and fed an unhealthy and unrealistic expectation of ang pow money, and totally missed the significance behind the giving of an ang pow: for blessings.

Yes, children may be looking forward to a big ang pow, but what values are we teaching them if we give an ang pow with a sum of money that is disproportionate to their current lifestyle or the earning capabilities of their parents? Should we give them enough money to buy a new iPhone, or just enough to be able to go for a good meal with their peers?

Values, by the way, is a central tenet in Asian culture, not least amongst the Chinese.

If anything, the best thing about festivities is not about how lavish we go about carrying out our celebrations. It is about celebrating thousands of years of cultivation of the human character, enveloped in a simple piece of red packet.

I shall end this piece with a video shared by Ms Josephine Teo last year during the Chinese New Year season, which also focused on the unspoken values hidden amidst a simple tool for eating.

p/s: Just to be clear, my previous workplace does not have the culture of not giving ang pows not because the management was callous or insensitive, but because in civil service, and especially in prison, giving ang pow is a taboo, since “giving ang pow” is the local reference for “bribery”.

Disclaimer: I am a casual social commentator, who speaks because it is logical and rational, so my points are not necessarily based on established research and studies. As much as possible, I will refer to theories and knowledge I picked up through formal education. If you do agree to my ideas, please feel free to contaminate others in your social circle. If you disagree, though, it would be good to provide sources and credits, so that I can learn from my mistakes.

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