Friday, February 27, 2009

Manners Maketh Man....And Mashine

Perhaps I am a little old fashioned, but one of the most attractive person is their manners. It's not that I'm starting to think like my mother in old age but I've found that one is always more likely to accept a person with decent manners than one who does not. 

When one has manners, one is more inclined to be forgiven when one ers. Everytime I go back to Germany, my mother constantly reminds me about the "Beautiful Manners," of my good friends, Corvin and Vincent Roman. Both the Roman brothers were very concious of the small things in life that make one look as if they were well brought up - things like:

1 - Standing Up and Shaking Hands whenever someone entered a room

2 - Making it a point to say goodbye to my mother whenever she was town and there was a function at my place.

3 - Offering to cover their cost of the meal whenever my mother took us out. 

I did get upto allot of mischief with the Roman boys - including a few drunken nights. However, their manners were such that it's left a positive impression on my mother, nearly 10-years on. 

Say what you like about the British Public School system but it does place allot of emphasis on manners and decorum. Yes, it's elietist when only those who can pay fees get an education. However, the system produces an elite that actually gives the impression of being elite - it is an elite that does not need to go onto the internet to talk about it's "Uncaring ELITE Face," to show that is elite nor does it need to talk about "Fixing" people in public to show it is strong. 

One of the ironies in the UK remains the fact that its most tradition bound institutions are its biggest guardians of democracy and civil liberties. Until Blair tried to "reform" the House of Lords, it was an unelected chamber that protected civil liberties in the UK from a sometimes unweldy elected House of Commons by standing up against torture and protecting due process of the law - ie a bunch of heriditary peers (concept of I'm born better), were at times better at protecting the rights of the people than the elected MPs. 

Well brought-up people are appealing because, strangely they can be human. Uncle Andy who was an army officer, remembers how an instructor he disagreed with came up to him and told him, "As your supperior, I am right, but as a man you are right," and shook his hand by way of appology. Respect is not something my Uncle,( who I know reads this )  my Uncle gives easily but that officer got it from him. That happened to him because he trained in Derra Dunn Military Academy in India - where they still train like how the British did back in the days when the British still had an empire. 

A well mannered elite that can communicate respectfuly with other levels of society is a real elite. You don't need to be told or bribed into aknowledging them as an elite when they behave like how one would expect supperior people to behave. 

Americans by reputation often appear crass to the British Public. Perhaps it's snootiness on my part but one tends to think of Americans as being loud and crass while the their British cousins are always percieved as being gracious. 

To be fair to Americans, they are a kind people. I remember strangers coming to help me find my way when I was lost in San Francisco. You don't get that anywhere else in the world. 

More interestingly, Americans have come up with polite mashines. After six months of not using my Citibank account, I'm fixated by ATMs that sound human - I mean I can't think of any other bank, definately not the local ones, where an ATM tells you that it was a pleasure to serve you.

Once again, Public School upbringing makes me cringe when shop keepers insist on telling you to have a "Nice Day." Come on, do you really mean it or hey, it's an invasion of privacy - what happens if I want to be miserable? Then again, when you leave the States where all shop keepers are trained to greet you nicely and step into shops where shop assistants treat you like an inconvenience, you miss it.

Well, that feeling is now taken to ATMs. Why the heck didn't I move money into my Citi account earlier. I'd deal with ATMs which are more polite and knowledgeable about what its doing than the human staff of other banks. The ATMs at Citi are desgined (supported by Indian IT) to make life for you, the customer convenient - they don't talk to you like you are obliged to bank with them.

Manners obviously makes men. Now, I realise that even mashines with the ability to be polite make the world of difference when you deal with them. 
   

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nice Guys Do Finish First

Green Day created a song called "Nice Guys Finish Last." As with allot of good artiste, they managed to capture the popular movement in a single sentence. In our modern culture of "get every cent you can," nice guys seem to finish last. Give the other guy a break and he'll only piss over your head. So why bother being nice - its much better to be the screwer than the screwed. Who can ever forget Gordon Geko's immortal words - "Greed is good - Greed works." 

I might be inclined to agree. In my personal life, I suspect I could be allot richer if I were allot more ruthless with my time and money. One could accuse me of being a sucker for down and outs - I take my relationship with Zen as an example - Fat Face just needs to look sad and I can't help but to buy her a meal. I suspect that I should probably wake up every morning and ask the Almighty to give me a streak of ruthlessness. Why be nice? Nice Guys Finish Last.

Thank God for economic crisises. If the current credit crunch is doing us a service, it is to show us that there is a place for ideals and morals, particularly when it comes to doing business. Wall Street and the world's bankers who were once worshiped for the gazillion dollar bonus's are now deservedly villified for screwing up the world by encouraging a culture of greed. Seriously, when you're going broke, you're not going to be terribly sympathetic to the likes of Chuck Prince (Fromer Citi CEO) or Stan O'Neal (Former Merril Lynch CEO) when they get the public boot on the rear ends - particularly when you know they'll be landing on a US$100 million pay packet.

Who are the guys who are doing relatively well out of this crisis? Surprise, surprise, it's the nice guys who avoided getting involved with the culture of greed. Bill Gates is now saving the world at his foundation and while his stock and Forbes ranking may fluctuate, Mr Gates is not rushing to claim social security. Another good guy that seems to be doing well is Warren Buffet who remains cash rich enough to pick up bargains. Mr Buffet has donated a large portion of his wealth to someone elses Foundation to ensure good works are carried out but in someone elses name. 

Closer to my own personal experience, is Arun Jain, Chairman and CEO of Polaris Software Labs. Of all the people I've worked with, Mr Jain probably has one of the most amazing stories to tell. I guess I have a soft spot for Polaris in as much as it was my first major job. For the first time, I made more money under my own name than I did for somone else - a case of being a $3,000 contractor instead of a $1,000 subcontractor. That, however, should not distract us from the obvious - Polaris is an interesting company built by an extraordinary person. The results are speaking for themselves - in the past three quarters, the company has declared profit increases of over 80 percent, despite the fact that they're dependent on the financial industry. The company's Ulas Trust has provided some 2,000 schoolarships for students in Tamil Nadu in India and is continuing to do so.

There are good strong business fundimentals for the company's success but I also think there's more to it and I think Mr Jain's character has allot to do with it. 

I think the first thing that should strike one about Mr Jain is the fact that this is the last person you'd expect to be a CEO. I remember going to pick him up at the airport and I was told to look out for "The Most UNCEO like person you can imagine." I guess you could call him the antithesis to the Donald Trump school of business. 

The man has no airs about him and it works from a business perspective. OK, Mr Jain is not a PR dream. Most of us in the industry like the Donald Trump type of businessman - a publicity seeker brings FREE promotion to the company and signs of success lead to actual success  etc etc. However, allot of these guys are not real and it becomes apparent in economic crisis. Mr Jain by contrast represents a differnt school of thought - modesty is practicality. 

The man was booked to stay in the Fullerton (six star). However, he personally cancelled the booking and moved himself to the Park Royal in Little India (plesant definately not the Fullerton). As far as Mr Jain is concerned, there is no need to waste money on the unnecessary and if you look at it, he's right. Flash is very attractive but it can also be a disadvantage - particularly when flash is not suported by substance (of which Mr Jain has plenty of). 

Mr Jain is also very knowledgeable, particularly about his industry. The man knows about software - he was a progammer himself and beyond his business actively seeks to apply IT knowledge (Shinning India) to agriculture (Real India). The man has worked his way up - Polaris was founded with 10,000 INR (approx US$220) 

"Cosmetics" as my ex boss (and Uncle) Jeffrey says, "Count." I can't think of any profession where the top people are unpresentable. However there is a point of over investment when it comes to cosmetics. I think of the advertising industry where one of the most complaints that clients who have walked into a few ad agency's - is that they're paying for the agency's swank rather than the work (what the client doesn't see is the sweat on the agency's end ...but then again, who's paying the bill.) 

So when you look at it in this perspective Mr Jain's modesty is a a powerful business message - clients are paying for the work and not to support flash. Look at it from the client's perspective. What do you really want from your contractors? You want them to show up and do your job and thereby make you look good. Do you really care if they stay in a six star hotel and get chaufered around? 

What's appealing about the man is that he's genuine in his modesty? This is not a nice guy persona he put's on at work or something he's PR advisors enforced upon him. He really is a very nice and very likeable person and as one of my fellow contractors noticed - "Obviously revered by his people." 

Which, once again, leads to the question on what is a leader and what makes organisations successful. I think, to large extent, the most successful leaders are those who are most successful at selling ideals and dreams. When a group of people come together to work for something they believe in, they'll go through extraordinary measures to realise their ideals and dreams. Without ideals and dreams you do not get culture and without culture what do you have? Material rewards only go so far in satisfying needs - if material rewards were all that it took, Singapore would not be suffering from a shortage of lawyers. 

And if a leader is a succesful salesman of a successful set of ideals, what makes a successful sales person? The answer is someone who has genuine conviction in what he or she is selling. David Oglivy insisted on using his client's products because he believed you can advertise a product if you don't believe in it enough to use it in your daily life. Likewise, you cannot sell ideals you don't believe in. Mr Jain does not just believe in his ideals, he lives them. 

A friend of mine argues that he makes it a point to flaunt prvilleges because it motivates his subordinates - "Why be a boss if you have to continue struggling - I want to work hard to be a boss so I don't work so hard." OK, there is a perverse logic in that but then again, one should ask oneself whether they're more likely to work hard for a hard working boss or one that expects them to work hard while he or she remains idle? My former battery commander did it best on a route march - the NSF battery commander gave an order for the men to lift the riffle over their heads and before the men, the regular battery commander did so - thus making it easier for the rest of us to follow suite (which was bloody painful) 

I guess I'm just wierd or as one former radio presenter said "creepy," but I'm always impressed by people who work their way up, lead by example and are modest by their nature. I respect highly successful people in punishing careers who still make it a point to spend time with their kids. I can't for the life of me figure out the attraction people have to people born into "rich families," or for people who describe themselves as "elite." 

You can't help but have awe for Mr Jain because he's such a quiet, modest man who's actions speak loudly. He makes it a point to ensure that his business thrives but he also cares deeply for the widder community his business opperates in. What else can be more worthy of admiration? 
 


 

 


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My *** is Huge....too bad I can't get it up

My Uncle Richard, Dad's older brother, was in healthier days a rascale of the highest order and I loved him for it. Nothing could send chills down my father's spine faster than the idea that I might be influenced by his older brother. Uncle Richard, to put not too fine a point on it was the type of guy you kept your kids away from for fear of his influence. Like me, he enjoyed his drink but in bigger quantities. Like me he also liked women - or as he puts it-"Little Girls." I remember him giving me my most valuable lesson - "When it comes to sex, learn to use the tounge and fingers, your dick is only for ejaculation." Even today in his sickly state, Uncle Richard reminds me to make sure that my next wife is "Half My Age," (Every woman over 25 is OLD). 

Uncle Richard is what you could call my first role modle in rougish behaviour. As far as he was concerned, screwing anything was fair game. However, even this most rougish of my family members had some standards and drew the line at certain things. As far as my uncle was concerned, it was unacceptable to cheat your children. Wives and girlfriends as far as he was concerned, could be replaced but kids were another matter. 

So I suppose in a perverse way, I figured that if this most rougish of characters refused to cheat children, I figured there had to be something there. I think the old rouge has a point. Adults, as I am discovering, are pretty awful. Most adults deserve what they get. Children on the other hand are a different matter. No kid ask to be born into the circumstances they are born into. Adults, if they're worth anything, ensure that they're kids get the best chances in life that they can get. 

 I am by no means a saint. The people who know me today cannot help but snigger when someone brings up the fact that I was such a good student of Christian theology that the school chaplin spent seven-years trying to get me confirmed and that as a small kid, I had one of Tibetan Budhist's most senior lamas declaring I was a "Pure Soul." Yet, despite my misdeeds, I was blessed by Thui's presence in two short months in 2006. This made me realise that doing right by a child goes along way to repairing your awfulness. It's something I've observed to be true, even in the most rougish of my friends. One of them has produced and raised not one but five gems. Say what you like of the rouges, but when you see the way they've touched the lives of kids, you realise that they've left a wonderful legacy for humanity depsite their misdeeds. 

So, I cannot figure out what makes some men stoop so low that they will cheat the small children in their lives? I think I've done some pretty awful things in my life and I've known people who have behaved pretty appaulingly too. Yet, and yet, all of them have ensured that they were never awful to kids or at least their own. 

I mean child abuse is evil. What else can one say? Then again, I've heard that many child abusers have medical conditions and so, as well as punishing them for their crimes, there is a need to give them treatment and rehabilitation.

But there are other crimes against children that are not child abuse. One that comes to mind are the men who refuse to maintain support for their children during a divorce. What makes them do it? For the life of me, I can't understand it and if anyone can come up with a reasonable explination for such behaviour, I'll listen.

I'm a child of divorced parents and I am divorced myself. So, its easy to for me to understand why "grown-ups" split. Just as its easy to fall in love, it also easy to fall out of love. Husbands are the usual culprits who cheat on their wives and I can understand when the wife does not want a cheating husband around. Then again, I've experienced the other end and know that wives can be intollerable. So, in such situations, divorce is a healthy option.

Yet, children are a different matter. OK, men don't go through childbirth but I've been fortunate to be blessed by two wonderful stepfathers, who have shown that fatherhood is not necessarily biological. A father may not carry a child but he does play an important part in creating the child and when you play a role, a bond of sorts must be developed. I remember Lee, my mother's second husband, when he had first separated from my mother. He need to see me see me, his stepson was as great as it was to see my sister, his flesh and blood. I was a child in his life and we had a bond. It actually hurt him that I didn't turn to him when I had problems with Gina. 

Having encountered a few stories of father's who have cheated their children, I now count myself even more blessed that not only have I been the natural son of a good man, I am also the stepson of two great men. 

One of the most recent ones for me, is a story on how a man walked out on his wife and two kids. The wife is desparately trying to collect arears on his child support and the payments are years old. Apparently this has gone on for seven-odd years where he's petitioned the courts to have his child-support reduced and even waived. The man claims he has no money to provide for his kids but plenty to drag his ex to court several times. I can't believe that he's willing to invest the time and effort to avoid paying basic living expenses for his own kids.

Like I said, if he had issues with his wife and doesn't want to pay her, I can understand - but for the life of me, I can't understand what he has against providing a few pennies for his kids? Sure, if you don't want to put the money in your ex's account - may be offer to pay half the school fees. Surely, you'd imagine he'd want to fight for a role in raising his own kids. 

I've never met the bugger and I don't want to. No matter how rich or well connected he is, a man who's very presence can get his 8-year old son so emotional in a negative way is not worth dealing with. 

Like wise, there are men who go out of their way to make wills to exclude children from previous marriages. Again, it's beyond me why they'd go through all that trouble to screw up their kids - we're not talking about rich men who have discovered they're brought a bunch of wack jobs into the world and feel it's necessary to cut them out and make them stand on their own two feet. These are guys who happily made one family, left it and then created another and now want to ensure their first family is left out in the cold. 

I know another man in Europe who earns over a 100,000 pounds a year. When he left his wife, he found it difficult to give her a hundred nor did he feel it was worth his while to actually buy one of his son's a Christmas present (he actually stopped the kids pocket money). 

When men behave like this, it is akin to admiting impotence. They can't take it out on their wives, so they take it out on their kids. That's not manhood, that's neoCON eunachdome.  


Monday, February 23, 2009

A Date in Haste

One of the things that I've never understood about some communities in Singapore is the association of virtue with virginity. To put it crudely, how can a woman in her mid-twenties be considered virtuous if she hasn't been poked? I also don't understand some men who think that they've hit drawn the ace of spades when the woman they marry is a virgin or at least claims to be one. Seriously, if you're any good in that department you won't need a girl to be a virgin. Not getting poked after 21 is a sign of mental insanity - not virtue ....I should know....

But this is Singapore and we have a very warped sense of what constitutes virtue when it comes to sex and relationships between the sexes. I'm with a German expat who once commented on how warped things are because,"Playboy is banned but Geylang thrives." To be fair to Geylang, Singapore's rate of criminally insane men would sky rocket. I mean, you have a society where you get a few allowances (Boys will be boys) but you can't get to know your perspective brides because you simply don't touch good girls that you want to marry. Say what you like about prostitution but in Singapore its a necessary social outlet for frustrated hormones.

Then again, how frustrated are Singaporeans? My favourite liquidator tells me that Singaporean girls are "Good in Bed," and a few barrow boys might be inclined to agree. However, how do our boys and girls discover each other if they never get out to meet each other. 

This was a phenomenon I discovered when I went "Speed Dating" as favour to a friend of mine. It was, from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist, a very interesting event. As my favourite litigator pointed out to me - "It proves why I need to have lunch with him every month." I stood out like a sore thumb. I was probably the only man not in the IT business or in engineering. I was, I am sure the only semi-employed person there. The girls, for the most part were accountants, engineers and one or two were teachers. 

I suspect I scared off allot of people. Instead of turning on my non-existent charm, most of my time was spent trying to facilitate conversations amongst the group. I suspect it must be a cultural thing but most of the people were shy and Chinese. Put a group of Indians in the room and you have the opposite problem - they can't stop talking. 

Conversations ie pick up lines went something like this:

Boy - Hi, work in a Stat Board.
Girl - I teach in a Junior College.

Irritating Busybody (Me) has to ask "Which Stat Board do you work for?" And "Which Junior College do you teach for?" So are we surprised why nobody decided to chose me as an ideal partner? 

Some of the girls were really cool - they confesed to liking beer - which is probably one of the biggest turn on for a guy - a girl who likes beer and football (she won't scream at you when your mates come home). But then again, this is Singapore - this alcoholic was the only one in the room and I think nobody wanted to get drunk with a guy who's idea of commitment is anything more than two dates with your cloths on. 

The favourite litigator suspected my lack of success was due to hanging around journalist who ask questions - the asking of questions, particularly those designed to get you to admit to silly things is probably not terribly sexy in some circles. Ah, well, I guess I get my kicks in wierd ways. 
 

Friday, February 20, 2009

I know EVERYBODY.......but nobody knows me

A few nights ago, I had nothing better to do and so I started surfing the net and lo and behold I ran into the website of one of the original citizens of Caucasia. Like all good citizens of Caucasia, this one went through great pains to point out that she was an exceedingly well connected person and to prove her point left the url of her linkedin page. The only thing a good friend from the UK could point out to me was ...."She's obviously blonde."

Well, she's blonde and she has a body that one could consider useable if one did not have the funds or the inclination to make a trip to Geylang. However to be fair to her, she's not the only person who talks about her connections. These days, it's not enough to be rich...you have to be connected. In Asia, the ability to drop names is especially important. You cannot escape reading about Japanese Kiratsu and Chinese Guanxi - the essential ingredients in doing business in this part of the world - so, guess what? If you are a citizen of Caucasia, it's essential to tell the world that you have connections as well as money - or in the words of one of the more prominent citizens of Caucasia - "I'm a brand amongst Asia's Billionaires."

Well, connections are important. Who you know in life does count. I got my internship at Citibank because I asked my Dad to talk to one of his golfing buddies. I was told not to be embarrased about it because....everyone else in the company also got their jobs through contacts. Let's put it this way, these days, everyone has a fabulous education and years of valuable working experience on their CV and so the only way the HR recruiters will ever look at your CV is when you have someone who tells them to look at it.

Contacts count and its not just about Chinese Guanxi. The British have an "Old School Tie" system. Contacts are very important, even in America, the land where penniless migrants becmoe gazillionaires on an idea - the last President got his job in part because of his last name and while the press is oggling over the current President's shade, let's not forget that he went to a university that is the brand of brands in the world of higher education.

But like everything else, people who talk too much about their connections are highly suspect. I for one am highly connected. When I am in Singapore, I know Lee Kuan Yew and when I go to Hong Kong, I know Li Ka Shing. If I wanted to goto the USA, I'd definately call on Barak but not before I stop by Redmond Washington to say hello to Bill.

You can't accuse me of telling lies. I really do know Li Ka Shing, Hong Kong's richest man and I really do know Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding Prime Minister. I am dead certain that if I continued at length, I'd have enough fawning followers to fill a decent sized ball room.

The more discerning amongst you, might actually ask the most important question. Do any of these people know me? This question makes sense. Everyone knows Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Li Ka Shing in Hong Kong. Who does not know Barak Obama or Bill Gates? On the other hand, how many people are known by any of the above?

This is the age of the internet. It's easy to know the whole world. Thanks to social networking sites like Friendster and Facebook or their grown up counterparts like Linkedin and Xing - knowing people is easy. As of writing this entry, I have 211 friends on Facebook and over 80 people on Tagged. I am, indeed, a man filled with friends. Valentines Day was especially hard work - I had to send out over 100 greetings (no I don't get laid as often as I need...oopps would like to)

There is however, a difference between knowing people and knowing people. It's easy to collect name cards. It's exceptionally easy to get people to join your friends list on a social networking site. All it takes is a click. I'm such an attention junky, I click yes on Tagged's"meet me list (most are hot chicks) and I have this wierd fettish of trying to reconnect with old school friends in the UK. If you looked at my Tagged and Facebook profiles, you'd draw the conclusion that I know allot of peolpe and allot of people know me.

Having a relationship is a different matter entirely. Relationships require an investment of time and honesty. Business relationships are particularly hard work in as much as you have to be able to understand the nature of your relationship. Business, as Hans Hofer, founder of Appa Guides once said, " Is about organising your relationships." If you can organise your relationships effectively, you can do almost anything.

It sounds simlpe enough. Doing it is another matter. For example, most of us assume that business is about taking care of yourself. It's vital that you get paid in business. What most overlook is the fact that its also vital that you take care of the people you have a relationship with, whether you're talking about your customers, suppliers and employees. Nobody will follow a leader who does not take care of them - unless you're an American General working for George Bush II.

What does taking care of relationship involve? I guess, firstly it involves making sure that the other party gets what he or she wants - ie with employees and suppliers they get paid and with customers, they get what they pay for. This, in itself is not an easy task, even when you have the most advanced systems in the world. My father remains exceptionally good at taking care of his customers. They pay him exceptional ammounts of money and even put up with his eccentricities but they do so because he is exceptionally good at what he does - even to the point where he ensures they get more than what they thought they wanted.

My father is an exceptional case in as much as he's working in an indutry that requires artistry. My father is "The Product." For most of us, we are not 'the product' and therefore, we need to work at it a bit more. One good example is my former father-in-law, Yong Koon, the egg seller. How difficult can it be to sell eggs and what makes one egg different from another? Branding? Perhaps there is some R&D involved but by and large most eggs are the same. Can the Middle Man control the quality of the eggs he sells ? Well he can change wholesaler if all the eggs he's bought turns out to be rotten - but by then, it would be too late for him. As for price ....it makes more sense for you to be cut out.

So, how the hell did this uneducated man in a business where he has very little control over the product get around to thriving? He did it by developing a knack for developing a genius for developing relationships and value.

On the superficial level, Yong Koon was never stingy with the Ang Pao's and had a record for attending events. A client's daughter get's married and you show up and present them with a generous Ang Pao. The supplier's wife falls sick - he sent a hamper.

How much can an egg make? Can it justify doing all of this? Well, yes, if you want people to keep buying from you. Yong Koon, the uneducated egg seller knows that people buy from people and people only like to deal with people who care about them. Caring about people means being somewhat honest with them and it means being interested in them even when you have nothing obvious to gain from them.

Everyone wants to know you when you have something for them. For the guys amongst us, my point can be proven by a trip down to Geylang or any other red light district. It's good for the male ego....even if you make Homer Simpson look like George Cloony, you'll have women throwing themselves at you. Then, when you reveal that you're not about to open your wallet...they're attraction to you fades.

Everyone can be a stud in a red light district - but how women will stick around when you're not opening your wallet? It's the case with relationships. How many of us are willing to stick around when the other party is not opening its wallet? Remembering a wedding anniversary or birthday is not going to win you a contract on its own and there is a line between charity and business. But the saying what goes around comes around is true - the guy who's kid's birthday you rememer is more likely to want to help you out when you may need it most. A former CEO you remembered is likely to pull a string or two for you because you remained a friend even though he was no longer a CEO.

It's not easy to do these things. Relationships involve egos and egos don't always act in ways that are sensible. Managing that is an art form but if you can master the art, life becomes easier. Yong Koon, for all his lack of schooling, is a genius at it. He ensures that peolpe win from dealing with him. The man would take out groups to restaurants that bought eggs from him and the chef would come out and greet him personally. These were all 30-year old customers. He got them to do things for them because he did things for them.

How well connected am I really? The honest answer is, I don't know but if people need my help, I try and render it where possible. My rollodex has a few names on it but don't expect me to make miracles with it.

Seriously, the next time someone tells you that they're super well connected and produce a fat list of name cards...check if they're of the opposite sex and bedable...that's about the best you can do with them.





Saturday, February 14, 2009

Welcome to Caucasia - A Land that Will Make You Rich - But First Gimme Your Money

Singapore is a small island and it's pretty easy to get familiar with the island. However, there is a part of Singapore that many Singaporeans are unaware of. The economy of this part of Singapore is dependent on Asian money, yet many Asians remain blissfully unaware of the existence of this place. What is this place? 

This place is called Caucasia and it's been around since the days of Raffles and the East India Company. Caucasia is what you could call the first "virtual" country in history. It's citizens live in various parts of Singapore and the rest of Asia. It is, I believe, the only nation bound together by human characteristics rather than a shared culture or a shared experience. 

The citizens of Caucasia inevitably look like your average Caucasian. Many hold dual nationalities - many are US citizens but there are a few Australians and British citizens amongst them. The citizens have worked in a variety of industries and by and large they are fabulous story tellers.

However, all of them have one trait in common. Every citizen of Caucasia is armed with a brilliant business idea that will make you very rich. As long as you sit down with a citizen of this fair land, you will be presented with an opportunity to get rich in a groud breaking idea. One of these citizens is so well versed in the internet that he goes around Singapore proclaimining - "DOT COM is passe, mate - it's all going to be DOT TVEE," (Of which he's going to be the world's dominant player). 

These business opportunities are fantastic sounding. On paper, they have a certain logic to them and you're told that the revenue is about to pour in. The half a million dollar contract is on the verge of being signed or there are three guys about to pass me forty to fifty thousand dollars in revenue when I ask them.

There's only one snag to these brilliant businesses. They have no money and all you need to do is to contribute as little as $5,000 to as much as $500,000. The citizens of Caucasia are not into big businesses that require the millions from venture capitalist. They merely need you or people that you know to pump in a bit of money to help them get things going and they will provide you with their personal guarentee that you'll double your money within six months. What could be more reasonable?

The citizens of Caucasia are wonderful people. Your intelligence and expertise are not required - they'll let you know that what you know or have experienced is outdated in the futuristic world that they're about to offer the world. As one of them often says, "I don't want SMART money, Mate, I'm looking for DUMB money." You just need to give them the money and you can be assured that you'll be rich within no time and they'll look after you.

However, you should never ask a citizen of Caucasia to show you a website or business premise, let alone to look at the books. Never ever question their integrity by thinking that the money you pass onto them is supposed to fund new opperations and not their living expenses and you'll be told, "That's NOT how it works - You just BUY shares." 

Caucasia is a nice place and its citizens are well meaning. Without their desire to make you rich, your money will languish in bank accounts under your name or in investments that you know about. What more could you ask for?

I remember a negative Chinaman in a low or no rent office in China town who had the audacity to suggest that what the citizen of Caucasia was doing was not workable. The citzen was most upset. Citizens are particularly sensetive to being questioned by Asians and non-Whites and when they don't get their way, will resort to attacking the competance of the local, citing how much better things are in whereever the citizen comes from. "Perhaps you're not familiar with it...it can be done in America/Australia/UK," is the usual line of defence. Of course, if you have to audacity to suggest that they can look for someone in whatever country they've suggested, they'll never forgive you for doubting them. The Citizen who was crossed by the negative Chinaman has decided that the Chinaman did not do a good job in saving one of his fellow citizens from bankruptcy and has been unafraid to express his opinions about it to the world. 

Caucasia is a wonderful place of well meaning people who just want to take your money and do things with it that you never dreamt of. They sincerely want you to be rich and believe that your keeping your own money will be bad for your financial health. We the Non Citizens of Caucasia should be greatful that the financial crisis in the West will create a rush of people emigrating to Caucasia - I mean what else would non White Citizens do with their money - Keep it? 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Those who like will like and those who don't won't

I have been accused to being a misfit who has the talent to upset people. I remember my Young Politician in his more concerned moments asking me,"Have you ever analysed your relationship with Bijay [My Nepali Naan Maker] and asked yourself why you hang out with him?" In his words, I was wasting my time with a member of the lower orders who had no ability to do anything for my career.

Well, the answer is no. I have not really analysed my relationships very much. I suppose I've done the very UnSingaporean thing and accepted that I will be friends with the people that I like and I won't be friends with the people who don't like me. Vinod, the only person I know on any of Fobes's list, once told me that the people who like you will like you anyway, and the people who dislike you will dislike you no matter what - so it's best to waste energy on trying to convert people away from their natural inclinations. Given Vinod's status as a gossip fodder for the press in Malaysia and beyond, I'm inclined to agree with the man.

Liking and disliking people is a funny thing. There's no logical explination to why we click with certain people and why we don't click with others. Astrology tries to explain allot - As a Sagitarious Tiger, I'm best off dealing with dogs and horses. Yet, until today, I avoid trying to use Zen for business (born in the Year of the dog), though I admit that I have a soft spot for the fact that she looked like a tofu. I'm supposed to be only a "fair-weather" friend with sheep - but my mother's other children (Tara and Christopher) are deeply loyal to me and my favourite litigator has proven to be a better friend to me in the few short months I've known him than quite a few I've known over the years.

So why do we like certain people and we dislike others? There could be a host of reasons why we like and don't like the people that we do? Money, power and status usually play a part in influencing who we hang around. But in the personal quest for money, power and status, we usually find that the people most willing to give it to us, are the people we like.

It's like one would say the problem with the PR is that you have to be careful about what you say to people about your clients. Being a blogger, this is exceedingly hard because the temptation to write what you want regardless of lible is strong. Having said that, if I look through my client list and the people who have supported me through the ages, I've liked everyone of them as people, even if I have had my disagreements with them. It's easy to talk well of people when you have the affection for them and it comes from the heart. People like former Saudi Ambassador to SIngapore, Dr Amin Kurdi or Ed Ng, CEO of GECF SEA, are people that I'd respect whether they were my clients or not.

Dr Kurdi in particular left an impression on me. When you live in the "western" or at least 'western-influenced' world as Singapore is, you don't often hear good things about Saudi Arabia and Arabs other than oil and the prospects of making a fortune. The Arabs, as is often said, can be sharp in their dealings and dealing with the Arab buraucracy can be very furstrating. Yet, at the same time, the Arabs have a culture where personal integrity counts. When a man gives his word, he sticks by it. I don't know about the experiences others have had but because I dealt with Dr Kurdi, my experiences were such that this was true. I remember one of the embassy staff telling me, "If Kurdi says it will happen, it will." When I worked for the Crown Prince's visit there were no contracts signed, no confirmation emails just his assurance that, "You will be compensated," and I was compensated beyond expectation.

Of course, relationships have to work both ways. Although I've yet to work on another major project with Saudi Arabia, I've understood the importance of keeping in touch, even when there's no money involved. I think the very rich often get tiered and cynical with people because - hey everyone wants to be your best friend. It's easier to deal with people who genuinely are your friends than those who only appear when there's something in it for them.

Another character in my life who comes to mind is Vinod Shekar, CEO of the Petra Group. For the past three years, Vinod has been number 16 on Forbes's list of richest Malaysians. Allot is said about Vinod, not all of it appears to be wrong. Yet, despite what is said in the media about the man, I actually like him for his personality.I don't agree with everything the man does but I believe it says it all when a lowly driver sticks with you for two decades and speaks highly of you.

There's something very likeable about people who despite their success, treat those beneth them with dignity and respect. You may not find them agreeable initially but you learn to respect them and appreciate them for being people of character. Then you get people who are nice to you, and they treat you well but then you see them treat people lower than themselves and you get turned off.

The best time for this with local Singaporeans is when you see them with their maids. I don't know what it is but some highly respectable people are simply incapable of treating their maids like people. It's as if they need to extract every penny of the $320 they give their maid in a monthly salary - the usual refrain being, "It's allot of money where she comes from." Yes, there are maids who do abuse the privilleges they are given, but it says allot more about the employers when they try and extract the pennies.

If you want to see a White Man's character, take him to Orchard Towers and watch how he conducts his business with the hookers. Chances are, you'll be well treated because you're a mate. But when you notice the guy gets a girl, let's her fondle him with no intention of hiring her services, and then refuse to offer to compensate her for her time spent (She wanted it mate), it says allot about the guy. Yes, it's fun to have girls fondle you and if you give them half a chance they'll try and extract every penny from you - but you should not denny people from being able to make a living - even if the living they're making is not to your liking.

Character counts and one of the best ways to see a person's true character is by the way he or she treats those smaller than him or herself. If you see someone fawn over one set of people and talk down to another...you know its time to start vomiting on them.



Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Very Curious Obsession with Size

A few days ago, the Straits Times, our national newspaper ran an article on small law firms. In a nutshell, the article implied that being small limited law firms of less than 5-lawyers to doing low paid work and their lack of financial resources made them more prone to being crooks. As a small business owner, I'm sad to  say that this prevailing attitude towards small businesses is not limited to law firms and I'm not the only one to notice this. A friend of mine in the IT industry noted, "The attitude of the Singapore establishment is - KILL THE SME." 

Despite the government's efforts to be nice to SME's (Recent budget introduced a host of measures for SMEs) and the media's efforts to promote certain small busiensses, the culture in Singapore is decidedly business unfriendly. As the recession bites, you're going to hear more and more Singaporeans tell their kids to work for the government or at least a forign multinational because - "There's an IRON RICE Bowl." Ask the average Singaporean what they think of small businesses and you'll get a host of negative responses - "Yech, Chinese Ah Peks in Shorts," is sadly not an uncommon thought from -sadly, Chinese yuppies who's preppy university education was usually paid for by an "Ah Pek" businessman in shorts. 

There's actually nothing wrong with being risk averse. In fact, it's often healthy to avoid certain risk. However, Singapore is a curious place. Instead of admiring people who take a risk and strike out on their own - we positively loath people who strike out on their own and succeed in making a living (Note, I didn't say get rich.) You only have to look at the number of ordinary people writing in to complain about illegal curry puff sellers from Batam to see how much we despise the small firms that are the backbone of any economy. Even my parents, who are very liberal by all counts, are only just accepting the fact that I'm part of the small business community. - My father telling me, "Better get yourself into a big agency - nobody respects free-lancers," (ironic because he's been a very successful small business), and I remember my mother telling me,"Ai Yah, local agencies cannot succeed." 

OK, I'm not going to denny that there are horrible duds and crooks in the small business community. I remember one small business school that I helped to market and Gina happned to lecture in. The hole in the carpark (which has since been torn down) of a school was a cesspit and thanks to "responsible" journalism this school and others like it have had its justified cum-uppance. 

But it's sad that we, a small nation that has succeeded despite its size, should develop such an allergy to very people who embody the very values that made it what it is today. I take my former father-in-law, Yong Koon, the egg seller as an example. Despite not completing secondary school, the man was hard working, curious enough to want to learn new skills when he didn't have to, and filled with good old fashioned comon sense. Sadly, neither my ex-wife and brother-in-law didn't inherit an ounce of the old man's senses. My ex-wife was obsessed with the providing father she's now bugging the heavenly father to make sure Spinelli's provides her with the right cookies. My former brother-in-law is contributing to the Singapore economy by producing weapons that will most likely never see a day of real combat. 

Unfortunately, it's his kids that seem to be acceptable ideal in Singapore. I suspect, we hate small businessmen like my former father-in-law because the old man understands that it was his hard work that created the good life he has and not some bureaucrat in some ministry hole thinking he or she actually knows how the world works (having said that I wouldn't mind if the world was filled with people who could go on S$46,000 cooking courses) 

Everytime I think back to my former in-laws, I'm tempted to blame the Singapore government for screwing up the generations. What the parents lacked in education they more than made up for in comon sense, hard work and people skills. The kids lost all of that despite having gone through the education system, which is something we're proud of. The old foggies actually knew how life functions - the old man had 'upgraded' himself and added skills to his resume (cab and fork lift driver) long before the government got onto the retraining bandwagon. The kids by contrast are stuck in the fact that they have "Iron Rice Bowls." 

But you can't blame the government for everything. Life in the government and multi-nationals is comfortable, even if the work-reward ratio does not always make sense. Stability for some, outweighs the dreams one may have. I suppose, I might be on the same boat had Gina not aborted and thrust fatherhood upon me. 

I shouldn't knock stability here. I'm told women like it and I'm told that if you have stability, you can actually think properly because you are not worried by the need to pay bills. However, I'm thankfully not a woman or a plant. Yes, stability is important but it cannot be the end game for one. Big may be comfortable and safe, but is it secure? Can a big company or government department insultate you from the realities on the ground. 

Ironically, a man regarded by his peers as one of the world's best business leaders of one of the biggest companies in history has been singing a different tune. In his book, "Winning," Jack Welsh, former CEO of General Electric (GE) says that he wanted GE to have the culture of a "Convenience Store." Mr Welsh estbalished his reputation by making life for GE's managers as uncertain as it is for small business owners - every year, the bottom ten percent of GE's managers get the boot. This element of uncertainty has created a situation where GE's managers are very aware of the need to create actual value rather than create projects that use time and financial resources. 

So, what does it tell you about us being a nation obsessed with size and being part of a monoblock, when one of the world's largest companies has made it a point to try and think like a small company? What does it say about the reality on the ground when a presidential candidate with millions of small backers raised more funds than his opponents who had the support of big financial donnors. 

Yes, size counts in fight. I think it was Napoleon who once remarked that "God is on the side of the Big Battalions." However, small does not mean weak or useless. In fact small is exceedingly useful and big can be monolithic when it means more control at the centre. 

Small can become exceedingly large when it needs to be and small when size is no longer a criterion. The American army has spent seven frustrating years in Iraq dealing with rag-tag mallitias who are separate but unite into a larger force when necessary - likewise with the Israeli army in Lebaonon in 2006 and the British army in Northern Ireland. 

So, while we in Singapore fret over not dealing with small sized businesses, shouldn't we as a small business community learn to collaborate and compete at the same time for our benefit?