In Hokkien, it is simply known as “khua beh khee”, which means to have a lowly regard for someone.
The Malay version is more direct — “pandang rendah”, or simply, “to look down upon”.
The phrase means to regard one or a group of people with disdain or scorn, and even contempt due to real or perceived lack of certain material qualities.
For example, it is said that the rich were more likely to often look down upon the poor if status became an important preoccupation.
The beautiful may thumb their noses at the less endowed, for instance.
Usually, the disdain stems from material attributes, or the lack of it, and is rarely spir itual.
The impact can be far reaching for the recipient, depending on how inferior he or she is made to feel, and for how long.
Whenmy family moved into a village in Kuala Lumpur in the mid 1970s, I got to know a family of seven siblings living a destitute life.
The father did odd-jobs and the mother was believed to be mentally ill.
The villagers avoided the family and the children, a rowdy bunch who were often the suspects when a petty crime took place.
As a result, the family pretty much kept to themselves, the children playing near the shack made out of discarded planks and rusty metal sheets which they called home.
Passing by their home one evening while returning from school, I saw the siblings eating white rice mixed with condensed milk for dinner.
When one of the boys sensed my presence, he put down his plate, picked up a plank and waved it at me —as if to warn me not to look at them.
The hostility, I later found out, stemmed from their being frequently picked on and having the villagers looked down upon them.
Years later, when they grew up, got jobs and moved on to better lives, the chap who waved the plank at me remained trapped in the net of inferiority complex woven by those who had looked down upon him and his family.
I was told he later turned to a life of crime.
But society not only looked down upon the poor.
A friend related how one of her uncles had looked down upon her family because her siblings were not as good in their studies as their cousins.
The battles were not over financial status but over academic achievements by which success was measured in the number of ‘A’s one obtained.
In later years, the odds evened out and her family produced as many PhD holders as her uncle’s.
However, she said, her father was still unable to lose that inferior feeling at annual family reunions, treading carefully in words and actions lest the other party was offended.
She wished her father would one day take pride in the fact that his children had not only grown up to be successful but also did not lose their human touch and had not looked down upon anyone.
Being looked down is of course nothing to be ashamed of.
Positively taken, it can be a powerful catalyst to drive one towards success.
Otherwise, it traps us in the web of inferiority complex and self-doubt that can also be likened to looking down upon ourselves.