walk human trafficking

Sometimes, it’s better not to talk about things when you have no idea what you’re talking about. Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.com

 

Just the other day, it was reported that a local politician said this:

In highlighting the mindset of youths today, Dr Maliki said that the Singaporean dream of possessing the 5Cs – cash, car, credit card, condominium and a country card membership – was “in the past” and that millennials are developing their own definition of success.

He added that the youths want to be excited about where they live, work and play, encapsulated by the You Only Live Once (YOLO) attitude.

That got me thinking and I think I’m well qualified to comment on this as part of the generation in between the ones who aspired to have 5Cs and the youths that Dr Maliki had in mind. In fact, by examining my generation, it becomes pretty clear why youths today make the choices they do.

The generation that aspired to have the 5Cs was the generation that grew up in the late 80s/early 90s. This was the generation that experienced the “Asian Miracle” which culminated in the Asian Financial Crisis of ’97.

Why did everyone want the 5Cs?

The reasons why those five objects became aspirational goods is a 90s thing.

Cash is pretty self-explanatory. From time immemorial, more cash has always equalled more wealth. As for cars, they were included in the list simply because cars are expensive in Singapore. It was true in the 90s and it’s true today.

Credit cards were also aspirational goods as qualifying for a credit card used to mean that you had a certain level of income. Condominiums were also a hit not so much because they come with amenities such as tennis courts and swimming pools. It’s more of the fact that in Singapore, almost everyone stays in public housing. Condominiums were a sign that one had escaped the drudgery of public housing.

Lastly, the country club. Country clubs used to be the place to see and be seen. Spending time on the golf course was both a way to do business and a sign that you didn’t need to be stuck behind a desk.

So, why have the 5Cs fallen out of favour?

How the 5Cs died

It’s simple, really. The aspirational goods for an older generation don’t hold the same appeal for a younger generation. It’s pretty much the same with fashion. What looked cool to our parents looks dumb to us.

Not all the 5Cs have died of course. More cash is still preferable to less cash although, in most modern societies, we carry less of around. Having your own car has become more a status symbol than before thanks to the increased connectivity of public transport and private ride-hailing services.

However, the country club and credit card dream is mostly dead for different reasons. Country clubs are old and stodgy and frankly, not good value for money. Why pay membership fees to hang out in a place that doesn’t really offer anything appealing. It’s much more accessible and affordable to check out the latest cafe with instagrammable backdrops or food.

Credit cards, on the other hand, are handed out so freely that this isn’t really a dream any longer. Even a graduate fresh out of university gets one in the mail. Imagine that! Someone just starting out in the workforce, possibly shouldering some student debt is considered good credit as long as he/she has a job.

Owning a condominium unit is the one that I’m not sure about. Those my age have probably come to realise that the standard of public housing nowadays isn’t all that bad. Furthermore, land prices have become so expensive that the only way developers make money is by selling condominium units that are much smaller than before.

 

So are young people less materialistic?

It’s strange to think that people, as a group, change over time. After all, we are subject to the same psychological biases that major religions identified thousands of years ago. So what is it with the youths of today?

Simply put, experiences are the new aspirational good. Travelling has become more accessible with budget airlines and Airbnb. Furthermore, the internet now provides enough information for anyone to travel easily and cheaply.

Also, your friends on social media are going to get bored of seeing your car or house every single hour. It’s much more interesting if you have something new to show off. Like that new cafe you checked out, that new place you visited, the new shoes or bag you bought*.

In short, it’s stupid to think that things have changed. Our grandparents had their aspirations. Our parents had theirs, and our young will have their own as well. It’s nothing to do with YOLO**.

 

Notes:

*It’s hard to show off a new car or house every single day. Besides, if you do this, people are going to think that you sell cars or houses for a living. Not exactly what rich people want to be mistaken for.

**Btw, Dr Maliki is also showing how much of a generation gap he has with the young. YOLO was so 2012.

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Time to get a little smarter if you’ve been doing dumb things all week. Here are my reads for the week.

 

We Should Fail Better (The Big Picture)

Barry Ritholtz makes a compelling argument about how some institutions and systems learn better than others. He contrasts the aviation industry’s experience versus the U.S. public health care system. Off the top of my head, I suspect many institutions in Singapore could benefit from this sort of thinking as well.

 

What The 200 Day Moving Average Does & Does Not Tell You (A Wealth of Common Sense)

This is for the investment people. I don’t really believe in reading charts but there’s some value in using some of the indicators as a quick check on things. Personally, I would use the 200-day exponential moving average (EMA) as a guide to investor sentiment. The other thing is also to use it as a rough guide rather than a precise signal of when to enter or exit the market.

 

The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy (The Atlantic)

It’s a very long read but I can’t recommend it enough. The article really describes what the upper middle class in America are going through and its impact on inequality — Children’s education, median starting salaries across the top decile universities versus other universities, the tax code benefitting the rich. It’s an insight and a reflection of the privileged class and its impact on society.

As a Singaporean, I found a lot to agree with and I wonder why academics in Singapore don’t focus on these sort of things. Inequality is an issue in many developed countries and it’s no different in Singapore.

 

How To Tell If You’re Rich Even If You Think You Aren’t (Financial Samurai)

An easier read compared to the one above but no less illuminating on whether a person should consider him/herself rich. Once again, U.S. context but general principles probably apply elsewhere.

 

Young Retirement Savers Scorned (A Wealth of Common Sense)

Another practical read. Ben Carlson comments on a piece that touched some raw nerves because the piece suggested how much net worth a person should have obtained by a different age. He adds on some calculations how the savings rate and rates of return you’ll need to hit those sums. This article is perfect for younger people or people who need some vision on how to save. If you don’t have a problem accumulating savings, then don’t worry, you can skip this.

 

 

grayscale photography of person at the end of tunnel

Photo by Anthony DeRosa on Pexels.com

 

In my previous post, I mentioned that the biggest obstacle for a young adult in getting to a $100,000 is probably the sheer thought of it. As the saying goes, “The first million is the hardest.”* You could get technical about it but from a psychological standpoint, it’s hard to fathom something that seems so far away and out of reach. Which is why, before you get your first million, you probably want to concentrate on your first $100,000. If you’re looking at your first $100,000, you probably want to focus on your first $10,000.

I also mentioned that you could get over the mental block by having a paradigm shift. So, what is a paradigm shift?

 

paradigmShift

Sometimes the answer is already there. You just need to change your perspective to see it.

A paradigm shift works so well because sometimes we are trying to solve a problem by tackling the wrong areas or viewing the problem from the wrong angle. Here are two examples from my own experience.

 

Investing

“Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki has its detractors and after I’ve learnt more about finance and investing, I can safely say that the book isn’t very useful in teaching anything practical. The book won’t make you become a good investor or a successful business person. What “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” did for me was to help me question the whole idea of getting a job, spend some, save some, and then retiring.

It should have come to me more easily than others as my dad’s side of the family ran their own business but unfortunately it didn’t. For many years, I thought that the basic formula that most people subscribed to was the right one. I might have had my suspicions but I didn’t really question it or I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the problem was.

What the book did for me was to show me that there was a more efficient model than the “study, work, retire” model that most people have come to know. It presented me with two paths — be a business person, or be an investor. Once I picked the path of an investor, it was just a matter of setting up a system** that works for me and over the last 10+ years, it’s worked pretty well for me. All I needed to do was make tweaks to refine the system.

I’m not saying that the system I have now is perfect or will no longer need tweaks. What I’m saying is that I’m pretty sure I’ve got the main setup right in terms of approaching the problem.

The point is that this wouldn’t have been possible if I had never learnt of possibilities beyond the “study, work, retire” model. Getting rich this way is only possible for very few people who happen to earn outsized amounts relative to the average person. Even then, they must not fall into the trap of spending more than they earn or having their “lifestyle creep”***.

More recently, I’ve made a fantastic discovery on another topic altogether.

Weight Loss

For most people, weight issues don’t start until their 30s. That’s when the metabolism slows down and your lifestyle becomes less active due to work or having kids. And for most people, the logical solution to weight gain is either to (a) exercise more, and/or (b) eat less. So, when my weight ballooned to an all-time high relative to my height, I tried both methods.

Guess what? Unless you’re extremely disciplined, those don’t work.

Exercising more is the weaker strategy as studies have shown that diet is a bigger contributor to weight loss than exercise. Furthermore, dragging yourself to the gym regularly takes effort. This either involves waking up earlier or going after you’ve already exhausted most of your willpower at work. Grinding through a tough workout further depletes the willpower and that might actually lead you to eat more. “Alright, I worked out today. I deserve that extra slice of pizza.” That’s a pretty common thing we all say to ourselves after we work out. There’s also the type of exercise that you do but at this point, that’s more a matter of efficiency that effectiveness.

Trying to eat less also takes willpower. However, one other reason why it doesn’t work so well is that our metabolism slows down if we take in fewer calories than we normally do. If we normally consume 2,500 calories a day, our bodies see fewer calories as a sign that food is scarce and therefore we need to conserve calories by slowing or shutting down certain body functions. That’s why women stop having their periods if they eat fewer calories than needed for normal body functions.

So what’s the paradigm shift here? Fasting.

It sounds counter-intuitive. Besides, doesn’t eating fewer calories lead to a slowdown in metabolic function? So why would eating no calories work?

It turns out that once the glycogen stores in the liver are depleted, our body goes into a state called ketosis where it starts to burn fat as fuel instead of carbohydrates. It’s only by not eating that our bodies enter this state as the glycogen stores take about 12 hours to burn through. If we just eat fewer calories like some diets recommend, our bodies never enter this state as the breakfast-lunch-dinner cycle is evenly spaced over a 24-hour window.

There are variations on how to fast but the one I’ve done follows a 16-8 intermittent fasting cycle. Basically, you eat only within an 8-hour window. There are no restrictions on what you can eat but of course, this isn’t a license to eat as much as you want. You’ll also want to ensure that what you’re eating isn’t junk in order to get optimal nutrition. What I mean, of course, is that you can’t go on with this plan thinking that you can eat nothing but cheesecakes. A healthy, well-balanced diet is necessary for a good life.

Another thing is that I only eat this way on weekdays. Most days, I have only lunch and dinner while I have something for tea on some days where I feel a little more hungry. But it’s definitely not the lack of breakfast that is the major factor as I’ve never been one to have a heavy breakfast anyway so skipping breakfast shouldn’t make such a big difference in terms of the number of calories.

I’ve experienced amazing results with this. I’ve never been fat or obese, and the worse thing I had was probably early signs of a developing paunch. After going on this for about 6 months, I’ve lost about 10-12% of my body weight or approximately 20 pounds. I didn’t think it was that drastic but lots of people have noticed the weight loss. My weight is back to an optimal level and keeping it there has never been easier.

Apparently, fasting has lots of other health benefits as well but I can’t tell you if I’ve experienced any of those. The best way would have been to get a health checkup prior to starting the intermittent fasting program and then another checkup afterwards. However, the scientific evidence so far is quite convincing.

Word of caution. Weight loss is only for people who are overweight. It’s safe to say that being overweight is associated with many modern diseases such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease. However, I’ve had a number of colleagues who have no weight to lose asking me how I lost weight. These people are asking the wrong question. For them, it should be how to maintain an optimal weight or even bulk up. In fact, the next thing I need to work on is not losing any more weight but to get a regular exercise routine going for optimal health.

The paradigm shift here is away from the breakfast-lunch-dinner cycle to one that starts a little nearer to lunch. The funny thing is how we’ve all been told we need to eat 3 square meals a day since young but certain religions have been including regular fasts in their religious practices for thousands of years. There is a train of thought that the breakfast-lunch-dinner cycle is actually a relatively modern invention (thank you, Kellogg’s) and we’ve forgotten that our biology hasn’t evolved that much over the last few millennia.

The point I wanted to make is that sometimes, we need to question our assumptions and keep discovering if people have tried what seems like “impossible” solutions to the problems we have. Being experimenters and pioneers is something I’d rather leave to the scientists but if there’s convincing evidence that something works, we shouldn’t be afraid to try it out and see how it works for ourselves.

If you have experienced paradigm shifts in any other areas, feel free to let me know in the comments below.

 

Notes:

*If you’re a billionaire like T.Boone Pickens, then replace ‘million’ with ‘billion’. That’s the title of his book by the way.

**The system comprises of a few parts and is beyond the scope of this post but let’s just say that you don’t have to be a CFA charterholder to come up something similar.

***Lifestyle creep is the concept where your lifestyle creeps up to match any increases in your income. Most people aren’t consciously aware of this but it happens. Think of the type of holidays you took when you were a poor student compared to when you are working adult. Or the places you used to dine at versus the places you dine at now. Using a Singaporean example, chances are you went to Bangkok for holidays when you were a student and now the destination’s changed to Japan or Korea.

 

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All these don’t come from nothing

 

Ben Carlson has just written another fantastic post on how compound interest works wonders even for very marginal increases in rates of return. His post was based on a quip made by Paul Merriman during a podcast with Med Faber about how a difference of just 0.5% makes a huge difference over longer periods of time.

You can check out some numbers he ran that shows what a 0.5% difference in rates of return can make over a long period of time. The point I want to make, which Ben kind of does as well, is how compounding does not help if there isn’t anything to compound in the first place.

$10,000 compounded at 6% over 30 years ends up becoming $57,434.91. To make things simple, let’s call it $57,500. To someone 30 years ago, $10,000 would have been a huge sum of money but if that’s all they had set aside for when they stopped working, they would be in serious trouble today.

Similarly, today if you are a working adult in your late 20s to early 30s, and if you think $100,000 is an impossibly huge sum to save in order to start compounding with, you might be in for a shock when you reach 60 years of age.

I’m not saying that $100,000 is a walk in the park to obtain. However, young adults who think that $100,000 is an impossibly huge sum to save up are NEVER going to reach that amount. That’s simply because of the huge mental block that comes with thinking that you’re never going to be able to achieve. It’s the same with anything else in life right? If you thought that you were never going to lose weight, then why would you even try? Or even if you “tried”, it would be that sort of half-assed attempt and you would give up at the first encounter of difficulty. But, seriously, it’s not so bad. This is how you can get started.

Of course, actually changing your habits so that you hit your goals takes a monumental effort. Personally, I find it easier to hit those goals if you have some sort of epiphany or paradigm shift about the problem. I’ll talk more about that in my next post.

 

 

 

 

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Property. Every Singaporean’s dream.

 

 

Recently, I attended a housewarming party and a friend of mine commented that it was crazy that Singaporeans are buying one to two-bedroom apartments as an asset. Of course, we didn’t have this discussion in the presence of the homeowner who had invited us. The homeowner had bought a two-bedroom apartment (about 700 square feet) in a 1000 unit condominium for more than S$800,000.

Of course, the homeowner wasn’t the only one. The entire project was basically sold out which is why my friend thought it was ridiculous that they would pay a higher per-square-foot (PSF) price compared to larger apartments. In essence, the lower you pay for PSF, the more space you get for each dollar that you pay.

That’s not all. There’s a second problem with owning property.

It’s not liquid

The problem with property is that it takes time to sell it. You can ask any property agent but I don’t think you’ll be able to raise cash from selling your property if you need the cash in a matter of days.

In the event you are forced to sell due to a market downturn, guess what? A fair number of people are looking to exit too. This increases the probability of making a profitable exit from investing in property.

However, I believe that re-mortgage options are available which somewhat mitigates the problem of liquidity.

Property prices always go up over time

This is perhaps the biggest motivation for the average property investor or an investor of any asset class for that matter. The question is whether this idea holds true in perpetuity.

On one hand, property prices move in tandem with inflation over the long-run. On the other, buildings get older and require maintenance over time. The older an apartment is, the less appealing it becomes for new buyers and renters as well. One of the few things a good piece of property has would be its location. A case in point would be how badly maintained Far East Plaza and Far East Shopping Centre are relative to the malls at Orchard Road, yet owners who bought those units years ago would make many times their money if they were to sell today.

If buyers bought the smaller apartment to stay, they may eventually find that the increase in price may not be enough to help finance the purchase of a larger property unless they turn to the public housing market.

Other than the issue of liquidity coinciding with a fall in property prices, smaller apartments tend to have the largest number of buyers and these buyers, being the middle-class in Singapore, tend to be the most economically sensitive ones as well.

Furthermore, Minister for National Development has thrown a spanner in the works by indirectly hinting that even HDB apartments may not hold their value in the very long-run. And the repercussions are real with some flat owners finding it difficult to sell older flats. The same probably holds for private apartments with a similar land lease structure.

So why is it that Singaporeans still love such tiny apartments?

Affordability

The first obvious point is whether the property buyer can afford the mortgage. Property prices in Singapore are some of the highest in the world. Naturally, this means that almost everyone takes out a mortgage in order to buy property.

Although the PSF may be higher for smaller apartments, the total price, or what we call quantum, is lower. For example, a 700 square feet apartment with a PSF of $1,300 would cost $910,000 whereas a 1000 square foot apartment with a PSF of $1,100 would cost $1,100,000. An apartment with a higher quantum would naturally require a greater amount out of pocket for the downpayment as well as a larger mortgage to service each month.

The best example of this is how some years back, a few property developers launched projects with shoebox apartments (less than 550 square feet) with prices around the $500,000-$650,000. The draw of these apartments was the low quantum but they commanded PSFs of anywhere from a $1500-2000.

No matter the size, most people who bought 1-2 bedroom units were looking to rent these apartments out. Presumably, the game plan is to have renters pay for the unit (including mortgage) over 25-30 years and at the end, cash out by selling the unit or continue to rent the unit and have an additional stream of income.

Leverage

The attraction that most Singaporean property buyers don’t admit to is that buying property allows them access to leverage. What is leverage? This is simply the ability to control more assets with a much smaller capital base.

Banks are in the business of lending and are happy to make loans which have collateral. This is the reason why banks are quite happy to make loans on property given that the buyer passes the required checks on their credit standing.

When buying a property, a buyer typically only puts 20% of his own money in the transaction. This means that you could control an asset worth a $1 million with just $200,000. $1 million may seem impossible to most Singaporeans while $200,000 is much more realistic.

Therefore, why not trade $200,000 today in order to control an asset worth $1 million? Sure, I have to take a mortgage which brings the total amount I have to pay for it more than $1 million but if my renter’s paying for it, then why not? Furthermore, interest rates are low which means the interest cost is low. Leaving that $200,000 in the bank also means that I’m getting next to nothing on it.

For buyers who buy to rent, leverage also makes the rental yield look more attractive. A 4% rental yield on an apartment becomes a 14% if you only have to put 20% down and the interest rate you have to pay is 2%. Sure, interest rates are going up but rents may not remain stagnant either. Leaving that money in the bank or their CPF account* which pays 2.5% is nothing when compared to a 12% return. Read more here if you’re interested in the calculations. Of course, the return would be lower after accounting for taxes, and expenses related to upkeep and rental of the property. Factor in the opportunity cost of investing in another asset and the real return could very well be near zero.

Conclusion

In sum, my view is that Singaporeans love tiny apartments because of the lower quantum which makes them more affordable. Furthermore, as a property investor, the leveraged return is quite hard to beat.

In exchange, property buyers take on the burden of a 25-30 year mortgage and the risk that property prices may drop. Also, if their only investment asset is that single piece of property, I shudder to think of what might happen if there are asset-specific risks. Most people aren’t engineers or property managers so there’s no telling what kind of issues that particular property could have in the long-run. Property investors take on the added risk and expenses related to rental of the property. On top of all this, property buyers forgo what is essentially a risk-free yield of (currently) 2.5-3.5%.**

Oh yes, there is also the additional risk of not being able to service the mortgage in the event the property price is near the maximum the bank was allowed to loan you.

By now, you probably can tell that I’m not so big a fan of property as an asset class but given how most Singaporeans don’t see or understand other alternatives, I’m not surprised at how popular tiny apartments are with Singaporean buyers.

Notes:

*CPF is a pension scheme that every working Singaporean is enrolled in.

**Most people pay for their mortgages from their CPF OA account so I’m factoring in the extra 1% that CPF pays on balances up to $60,000.

If you’re wondering about asset allocation strategies, consider reading the following post that was put out some time ago by Financial Samurai.*

It’s a good understanding of the risk/reward trade-offs from being more overweight in bonds or stocks. Of course, if your investment horizon is long, you should consider being overweight in equities.

Also, the thing to notice is how little difference in drawdown there is between a 80/20 portfolio and 90/10 portfolio. I suspect the real practical difference comes down to how much psychological pain one can bear.

Other things I would add are:

  • Many financial commentators always comment about how the maximum drawdown in a year could be something like 40-50%. i.e. Being 100% invested in equities means having to endure seeing your wealth drop in half. They often fail to highlight that the rebound following bear markets is often significant as well.
  • If you could extend your investing time horizon, you inevitably could be overweight equities. Being in bonds or cash would pretty much just be for peace of mind and/or liquidity reasons.

 

Notes:

*Data compiled by Vanguard is for US markets but I suspect that we would see similar returns for the STI.

This month I will have been married for 6 years.

6 years isn’t a long time but it’s certainly past the point of the honeymoon phase that most newly married couples find themselves in within the first 1-3 years of marriage. What have I learnt after 6 years of marriage?

I love my wife.

I still do from the time I asked her to be my girlfriend and then to be my wife. She makes up for all my weaknesses while I hope I make up for hers.

The best part of loving someone is the unexpected parts. Growing up, I never had to wash toilets or mop floors but that’s something I do on a weekly basis right now. And to be honest, it’s not so bad. Some days, it can even be therapeutic.

Getting a cat was also her decision and at the beginning, I was hesitant. I grew up having dogs around the house so I didn’t really know what to expect with cats.

However, Teddy’s turned out to be the perfect cat for us. He can be demanding when it comes to food and he gave us something to worry about with his stomach issues on two occasions but most of the time, he’s the sweetest cat.

Things aren’t perfect but honestly, perfection is overrated. I wouldn’t trade my life now for anything else.

Although #deletefacebook is becoming a thing, Facebook is pretty much the only place that I get my news from nowadays. I mean, no sense reading through an entire newspaper when many people are more likely to only share the news that is breaking or news that resonates with them. And if enough people share it, then it’s probably worth taking a look.

Anyway, the point of my post today is to bemoan the lack of common sense thinking that comes quite naturally to anyone who has studied some economics. This thought came to mind when I saw an acquaintance on Facebook share the following headline with his own caption that lamented how prices in Malaysia were getting too high for locals.

 

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Apparently, most coffeeshops have raised the price of iced milo to almost RM3 and iced kopi is hovering near RM2.

Now, any person who has done a course in economics at high-school should be able to point out all the problems with that line of thinking.

#1 Price increase in a competitive market are subject to the forces of demand and supply

 

If the market is competitive, any price increases must be due to either an increase in demand or a decrease in supply. Since the demand for coffeeshop drinks are relatively stable from year to year (after all, people don’t suddenly go from drinking two cups of iced milo a day to drinking three cups a day).

The culprit probably lies on the supply side with costs of rental, labour or the ingredients themselves being the main reason to sellers having to raise prices.

Artificially keeping the price low will cause some sellers to be unable to generate a normal profit sufficient to keep them in the market. This will mean that some sellers will close shop and there will be even less goods available in the market, making it harder for buyers to obtain the goods at the artificially low price.

Unless you can find proof that sellers are acting in concert to raise prices unnaturally, it’s probably better to leave markets alone to do their thing. Thinking otherwise is just bad logic.

#2 Prices are a nominal concept

Price increases on their own aren’t a problem. What matters more is the amount of goods one can buy despite the price increases. If wages have been increasing faster than the price increase, buyers are actually better off in real terms. In other words, if wages rose faster than price increases, buyers are able to increase their standard of living as they can afford more goods than before.

This is something that many common folks don’t get. They look at the increase in prices in isolation from their increase in income or wealth. Of course, there will be a segment of the population who hasn’t seen wages or wealth increase and are unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future but we can’t deny that there is also a substantial part of society that experiences wage adjustments and/or increases in wealth.

Another cause may be behavioural. One finding of prospect theory is that losses hit people twice as hard as gains. An increase in the price of something you purchase could be viewed as a loss which means that gains in income or wealth twice as much in order for people to feel just as well-off as before.

Whatever the case, thinking is nominal terms is just bad logic.

Conclusion

Now, don’t get me wrong. If everyday necessities are getting expensive to the point where most people cannot afford them then we have a crisis. Authorities could compound the problem by printing money or interfering with the function of the market by restricting either price or output like they have in Venezuela but to worry about the prices of things going up without consideration of many other aspects of the situation is just plain stupid.

 

 

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Do you do these things? If you do, at least one person thinks you belong to the lower socioeconomic class

So, this photo triggered a lot of reactions among Singaporeans because it’s from a page from a Social Studies study guide. I think the initial reaction was so strong mainly (at least if the original poster’s post is anything to go be) because many people assumed that this was something that was being taught in schools (it’s not. MOE has come out to say that this isn’t even an approved guidebook. i.e. it’s not sanctioned.)

The other reason for the big reaction is that it probably it touched a raw nerve with a lot of people. After all, how many people in Singapore identify with some or all of the things listed in the table under “lower SES”?

Frankly, it’s stupid that people are getting triggered about this. It’s great to see the various memes that have been popping up after this high SES/low SES thing got some people triggered. It shows that as a society, we know how stupid it is to make sweeping generalisations about whole groups of people.

Take the point about “eating at hawker centres or at home”. This absurd because most high SES (frankly, I think it’s a stupid term but given this context…) people I know regularly eat at home. After all, if you belong in the upper strata of society, it’s relatively cheap to hire domestic help in Singapore as compared to places like London or New York. If you have a live-in domestic helper, I’m pretty sure you would eat more often at home because that makes eating in simpler. You don’t have to think about what to eat or the pain of having to clean up after eating.

And as for hawkers centres, many people (if you’re Singapore born and bred) know that’s where the best foods are. So, eating at hawker centres isn’t so much about getting affordable food. It’s about getting good food. Don’t believe me? Check out this photo.

 

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That’s our Prime Minister at a hawker centre. Source

 

That’s the Prime Minister of Singapore at a hawker centre. He’s by no means poor or lower SES. So why was he there? He was there because that stall is well-known for their awesome fried chicken wings. For many Singaporeans, hawker centres aren’t a place that they turn to just because the food is cheap. It’s a place they turn to because the food is also good.

Ok, so we can say for sure that the book in question is garbage. Does that mean that there aren’t social class differences in Singapore? Obviously not. Just like any society, we have people from all strata of society. When I was younger, I attended a school that is pretty infamous for being the school where rich kids go to. There is some truth to that generalisation as some of my classmates are the sons of billionaires or multi-millionaires. However, there were plenty of my classmates that came from working-class families. Personally, I grew up in an upper-middle-class family so I didn’t grow up knowing HDB void decks but that certainly didn’t stop me from going to hawker centres. Lunch almost every weekend was from the fishball noodle stall at the hawker centre near my childhood home.

For Singaporean guys, once you enlist in National Service (NS), you meet people from all sorts of background and funny enough, once you have a shared experience like that, you realise that regardless of their background, people are more similar than different. Right now, like 85% of other Singaporeans, I stay in public housing* and I’m in one of the more affordable neighbourhoods but I would say that the quality of living is pretty good. Some of my colleagues

Therefore, the more important questions people should be thinking about should be along these lines:

  1. Who are the disadvantaged in society?
  2. Is their disadvantage permanent?
  3. What proportion of our society do they make up?
  4. What kind of help are they getting?
  5. How much help are they getting?
  6. Is the help working?

And if you’re interested in that sort of thing, I have just the thing for you.

Notes:

*Singapore’s version of public housing is quite different from what public housing is in many other countries. Funny enough, because so many people in Singapore stay in public housing, there seems to be a social division between people who stay in certain areas as well as older apartments. Basically, the price of public housing in Singapore is also market-based to a large degree, so prices differ across neighbourhoods and flat types. Naturally, this means that certain neighbourhoods are more affordable and more affordable means that you tend to attract more families with lower incomes.

So the A-level exam grades have been released and this year it’s a little more personal because my younger brother also received his results. He did better than I did in my time but unfortunately for him, it’s so much more competitive now that he definitely won’t be getting into the course of his choice if he were to apply for the big 3 (NUS, NTU and SMU). It’s little comfort that he did better than I did because just like the PSLE and O-level exams, the results are only useful for getting you to your next school of choice. Beyond that, no one cares how well or badly you did.

Anyway, the post isn’t so much about his results but more of the reaction of my mother. Although he easily qualifies for the course he is interested in for quite a few universities, my mother also looked at a few options that are willing to guarantee him a place but that he totally has no interest in. Basically, it’s like wanting to study film design but your mom wants you to study engineering just because you definitely can get a place.

The problem with this way of thinking is that this is so 20th century. In those days, getting into university was something of a rarity so graduating with a degree, regardless of the course studied, was something extraordinary. These days, graduates are dime a dozen. A much bigger proportion of each secondary school cohort goes to university and parents are much more willing and able to send their kids overseas. In short, merely going to university isn’t going to mean much.

What’s going to be more important is doing well there and a big part of doing well comes from the motivation of the student. To be honest, before I went to NUS to study economics, I had the view that every person who managed to get to a university (especially the big 3) must be really smart. After going through four years of university and meeting countless graduates who are/were colleagues, I’m not so sure.

I believe intelligence is pretty much normally distributed. The only reason why more people are got a university degree in my time versus my parents’ time is not that my generation is smarter. Rather, the opportunity for a university education increased. Similarly, I know many people from my parents’ generation and older who never got a degree but are possibly some of the most intelligent people I’ve met. My grandfather and my mother-in-law are two prime examples. The only reason why they never got a degree is that they had to enter the workforce to bring home some bacon.

While I don’t teach at a university, I’ve seen many students at my school fail to do well or even fail to complete the course due to a lack of motivation. And one of the biggest factors for a lack of motivation is that the student is only in the course because his/her parent(s) insisted that they study the course. Often, they can pass the first year because the modules are easy enough or the excitement of new friends and a new environment can pull them through. Once they go to the second or third year where the modules increase in complexity and become more specific to the course they applied for, their lack of interest becomes a chain around their ankles and they sink. It’s sad that we counsel so many students when we actually need to be counselling their parents instead. After all, if their son/daughter graduates with a lousy Grade Point Average (GPA), their future may be bleak.

To all parents out there, I know it’s fashionable in Singapore to be a doctor, or lawyer, or banker but not everyone has the aptitude nor interest to pursue those professions. It’s much better to let your child take responsibility for their own lives and be the best person he or she can be. Of course, you want to keep an eye on your child in order to make sure that they’re not going to become the best criminal but there’s no shame in being the best chef, baker or even dog groomer. They’re all decent professions that provide value to society.