Monday, April 23, 2012

The Love of Your Own Kind!

Since I collected payment from my first decent sized job for the year, I decided that it was time to start saving again. Two dry years and the absence of a retainer client made savings all the more important. So, I decided to take a tenth of what I made and split the savings between my Central Provident Fund (CPF – a compulsory saving scheme for all Singaporeans) and my Standard Chartered Account.

Discovering Standard Chartered again was a wonderful joy that put one of the biggest “hot-button” issues into perspective – that it the issue of foreigners.

Despite having no presence in the UK, Standard Chartered is a British Bank, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange. The bank, along with the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) was a bastion of British Commercial Dominance in the colonies. Standard Chartered, along with HSBC remains the only commercial banks in the Western World that issues currency (Hong Kong Dollar, the other to issue Hong Kong Dollars is the Bank of China) and its presence in emerging markets has helped Standard Chartered remain fairly strong despite the financial crisis (American Express Banks was bought by Standard Chartered).

I became a Standard Chartered customer in 2005, when I started writing for Arab News. The Arabs paid me with a cheque that was to be drawn on a Standard Chartered Bank account. At the time, the account they had on offer paid me a grand total of 1.88 percent (which may not sound like much but in Singapore its considered a lottery to get this type of interest on a savings account) and I could run the account with something as little as a single dollar.

In 2006, when I was doing relatively well, thanks to the Saudi Embassy in Singapore, I used this account as a place to park my savings. Unfortunately, I lost focus and allowed myself to whittle down my cash savings to a non-existent level and sometime in 2010; they sent me a note asking me to put something into the account to keep it going. I put five dollars into the account in November, 2010 and left it there.

So, when I visited them last week, I decided to find out how the account was doing. I was told that in the year my five bucks had lain in the account, untouched, I had earned a grand total of a cent in interest payments. OK, this doesn’t sound like a lot of money.

However, the comparison with how I would be treated at my regular bank, the Development Bank of Singapore or DBS was quite astounding.

Let’s start with the amount. Standard Chartered allowed me to keep my account open with a mere five dollars. Had I put this amount in an account with DBS, I would have received a few more nasty notes through the course of the year to remind me to put more money into the account because they would have shut me down. DBS has a policy of charging the customer a fee of two dollars a month for having less than $500 in your savings account. If you have the misfortune of having a current account with them, they’ll charge you a mere $15 for having a balance of less than $10,000 a month.

The argument here is that DBS loses money to maintain accounts with not very much money in them and so they need to pass the losses onto the consumer.

For some reason, the government thinks this is acceptable. Like all banks, DBS borrows money from depositors at a low level of interest and proceeds to lend it out at a higher rate. To anyone outside Singapore, it looks like DBS has a fool proof way of printing money. I get paid some 0.05 percent per annum on my savings account and I get NO interest on my corporate account. The bank then lends out the money I deposit into the accounts at anything ranging from six to 20 percent per annum.

The non-existent interest rates I’m paid for lending money to the bank would not be so bad on its own. However, insult is added to injury when the bank charges are thrown into the equation. I effectively pay the bank for the privilege of lending them money I earn.

My treatment at Standard Chartered and my comparative treatment at DBS is not a question of who would have paid me more. I made one cent out of Standard Chartered and had I kept an account with DBS with five dollars, I would end up owing them money.

The question here is, why do I have to pay DBS for the privilege of lending them money when Standard Chartered does not charge me for the privilege? It cannot be that Standard Chartered has found a way of not losing money on my account while DBS bleeds money every time I have less than $500 in my savings account?

Not everything about Standard Chartered is better than DBS. It’s cheaper to transfer money via DBS. When I first started out with Huong, I helped her to transfer money to Vietnam. Charges at DBS were only S$30 per transaction. By contrast, Standard Chartered charged $100 per transaction. The process at both banks takes about the same amount of paper work, yet one bank charged a premium of $70 extra per transaction.

That’s OK. In a world with free-competition, customers should be allowed to pick and choose which provider they want for various services. I would save with Standard Chartered and transfer money through DBS.

Unfortunately, the world of banking isn’t exactly “free-market” competition. Foreign banks like HSBC, Citi and Standard Chartered are allowed to operate in the local market provided they understand whose market it is. As such, foreign banks that deal with consumers tend to cater to only the very high-end ones and ignore the masses. They are limited in the number of branches they are allowed to operate. Back when I was an intern and Citibank was Citibank NA, rather than Citibank Pte Ltd, we had a grand total of three branches. By contrast, DBS, which is co-incidentally owned by Temasek Holdings, which is in turn owned by the Ministry of Finance, has a mere 100 plus branches across the island.

Yes, Citi, Standard Chartered, HSBC and gang have a larger international network than the local boys. However, within the domestic market, it’s the local boys who have the advantage. Every Singaporean with a savings account started out with a POSB (Post Office Savings Banks – a subsidiary of DBS) account. The local boys have had a head start on taking the local market and in a way; local people have their savings trapped in the local banks. Contrary to what the powers-that-be may tell you, Singapore’s prosperity isn’t built by foreigners pouring their money into the place, it’s built by trapping the savings of the locals and investing it elsewhere.

To be fair, the local banks have realized the importance of overseas growth markets and adapting to deal with them. United Overseas Bank (UOB) is a big player in Thailand. DBS is a big player in Hong Kong. The bank is actively modeling itself on one of the most successful international banks – Citibank. My ex-boss, Eddie Khoo, moved from Citi to DBS before heading to UOB where he runs consumer banking. More recently, DBS hired Piyush Gupta, a former Citibanker to be CEO.

Once they hit overseas markets, our local boys will have to learn to treat customers properly. However, will their love for their customers in say Hong Kong or Thailand translate into love or at least respect for the Singaporean customer?

As much as I would like it to be yes, I don’t think there’s a strong case for optimism. The big Singapore businesses that burnt overseas resort to milking more from their home base – the average Singapore consumer. Word has it that DBS was allowed to take over POSB when It started feeling the heat in the initial days of investing in China. When Temasek Holdings bought shares in the loss making Merrill Lynch, it quietly sold assets in Singapore.

A while back, I actually got into a heated debate with my favourite litigator and his partners. The crux of the argument was, one of their members had proposed that the government take a more active role in giving work to local law firms. I countered that patriotism has never been much of an effective marketing tool. Local consumers will chose price and quality over patriotism.

A year after this incident, I stick my position. As a local Singaporean business, I don’t expect the government to give me preferential treatment. What I do expect, is for the big local enterprises that I rely on like the banks to treat me like a valued customer rather than an automaton they can squeeze whenever they need to cover up for mistakes made elsewhere.

Let’s face it, after comparing the way I’ve been treated by Standard Chartered and the way I’ve been treated by DBS, I’m not thinking about Standard Chartered’s London Listing or Colonial heritage, I’m thinking of ways to move more of what little money I have their way because they give me so much more.

Extend that idea to other things. Why do we choose foreign things over local things? Could it be because the foreigners actually treat the locals with a bit more love and respect than the way we treat each other?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Trying to Smell, the Smelly and the Downright Odious

This week has been a week for me to indulge in all things Indian. It started on Good Friday when I started working for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Alumni Association’s PANIIT APAC 2012 event in Suntec City and it ended last night when I went out with a New Year function for the Nepali Community in Khantipur Restaurant in Little India.

Both these events were an eye-opener into the world of global migration. My Singaporean friends, especially my local Indian friends will undoubtedly hate me for this but being with both communities helps one to understand the issue of “foreigners” much better.

The PANIIT APAC 2012 event was an adrenalin rush. It was a high-powered and high-profile event. The four “stars” were the President of Singapore, the former President of Singapore, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and the Second Minister of Home Affairs. The only event that I’ve been involved in that had a higher level group of dignitaries was the visit of Crown Prince Sultan to Singapore in 2006.

That, however, was an official state visit, organized by the Saudi and Singapore governments. This event by contrast, was a mere alumni association meeting. What made the Singapore Government provide so many high level dignitaries to grace an alumni association of a university that none of our ministers attended?

The answer is simple – it was about the global shift of economic and social gravity from West to East. The people involved in the PANIIT event were high powered professionals working for multinational corporations like CISCO and Energizer or from the significant Indian IT companies like Polaris or entrepreneurs who had started software companies in Singapore like Optimum Solutions. The Alumni who were invited to speak read like the who’s who of Indian industry. You had people like R.Gopalakrishnan, Director of Tata Sons, Ananath Krishnan, Chief Technology Officer of Tata Consultancy Services and Arjun Malhotra the co-founder and Chairman of HCL and Headstrong. You could say that the guest had influence over companies with a combined revenue equivalent to the GDP of Singapore.

When you look at things this way, the obvious conclusion is that India is rising and Singapore wants to a rising India to be one of the engines of economic growth. The days when Lee Kuan Yew looked upon India has a noisy third-word mess have long gone. With the Western World in in economic malaise, the Singapore government is especially welcome to capital coming from India and Indian professionals bringing their skills to Singapore.

On a personal level, working with this group was an energy rush. You can’t help but feel the energy coming from a room filled with highly educated and successful people. My personal experiences are such that I’ve founded that the Indian Expatriates tend to be the BEST educated and most intellectually stimulating of the groups that I’ve encountered in Singapore. I suspect the well brought up Indians are trained with the same methods that the British used back when the British had an empire (which the Brits neglected through 1960 wishy-washy liberalism).

The IIT crowd would be welcome in any country that they visited. Until this recent event, the event was held either in India or the USA. Despite all the talk about “brining jobs home” in an election year, America is well aware of the benefits of welcoming a bunch of highly educated and well to do people.

While Singapore was pulling out all the stops to welcome the chaps from the IIT Alumni Association, we have been host to people from the other end of the social scale. We don’t admit it but there is an army of barely educated Indian and Bangladeshi workers in Singapore doing all the work that we the people won’t do.

If you make a trip to Ministry of Manpower’s Foreign Manpower Division, you’ll see the way that the Singapore Government views these people – they’d rather not. If you want to be nasty to anyone, it’s always easiest to be nasty to this group. Having sympathy with them is akin to dying of AIDS.

Let’s start with the fact that the average worker is paid something as generous as S$30 a day for a 12-hour work day. They often come home to a bed space, which they pay anything from S$180 to S$300 a day for. If you take into consideration their living space and what they pay, you’ll find that the worker pays more per square foot than most luxury condominiums.

When a worker is injured, he is expected to wait for a period of anything up to 11-weeks before he gets paid. When not working, the guy is not paid and when if he has to audacity to work without permission from the Ministry, he can fined up to S$5,000. In short, the average worker is placed in a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation.

Despite this, the locals couldn’t give a shit about people in this end of the social scale. Many regard them as a nuisance. We are happy to accept Indian and Bangladeshi workers cleaning up our shit and we think of the work they do as a favour that we do for them. A Bangladeshi worker has a cup of tea at the void deck and it’s a decline of society, a few barrow boys get pissed, beat up a few people and it’s just a minor one-off incident. Talk to enough local Singaporeans about Indian and Bangladeshi workers and they’ll tell you about drunks sleeping on the street. How true is this prejudice?

I do accept that the worker crowd can get rowdy. However, I’ve NEVER seen them get any more rowdy than the Barrow Boys after a few cold ones. I don’t blame them for getting rowdy. If you worked a 12-hour day, six days a week, you would want to let go at least once a week. Contrary to what the media headlines might tell you, this crowd has never been what you’d call a “troublemaking” crowd.

If you look at migrant communities throughout the world, you’ll find that they are generally more law abiding than the natives. I guess you could call it a knowledge that you’ll be on the wrong end of things if the police get involved. As such, these communities develop a system to take care of issues before any one decides to bring in the cops. Whenever tensions rise, a group of guys will bring parties apart to cool things down.

I look at the migrants that I know. I take one of oldest and best friends, Bijay, the Nepali Naan Maker. He came to Singapore more than a decade back. He served his National Service and has worked hard in the food and beverage line. Hang around Bijay or his friends and you’ll find that what they basically want is a small space to work hard and build a life, either with a simple job or by starting a small business. Bijay has settled here and after fathering two- daughters, he’s now about to become a father of a little boy. His wish is simple – to make his boy a more educated version of him. If you look at how Bijay has pulled himself up in the world with limited education, you can imagine how much more someone like him could do with more schooling.

Ironically, the locals who complain about migrants tend to be amongst the biggest causers of social problems. Bijay is a first class character, who is impossible to dislike. By contrast, you have members of the Pundek Family who think nothing of sponging off their friends and family. Macha Pundek was especially good at the job. He had the audacity to ask his former brother-in-law for a $2,000 loan about two-years ago. To-date the said former brother-in-law has been paid back with promises of when he’ll be receiving $10 as well as a request for more money. He mysteriously quits his job whenever the former brother-in-law ask for his own money back.

So let’s look at things this way. We will always want the guys from the IIT crowd. They have the money and they have professional skills. We will not admit it but we need the likes of the Nepali and other South Asian workers. They clean our crap and they do it pretty loyally. Now, ask ourselves, if we need the likes of Macha Pundek who thinks nothing of trying to cheat people into buying him and his equally obnoxious buddies the next round of booze.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Who am I?

Thanks to the influx of foreign residents in the last eight-years, Singapore has been going through something of an emotional crisis. Singaporeans of all races and religions have found themselves feeling rather crowded out by people from elsewhere and as far as most of us are concerned, home isn’t feeling like home anymore.

This is particularly true for the Indian and Chinese communities. The local Singaporean Indians are complaining that the Indians from India who are coming to Singapore are a snooty bunch who doesn’t appreciate the local Indian community for its achievements. The Singaporean Chinese complain that the Mainland Chinese are a bunch of ruffians or whores who should be left in the dustbin.

It seems that the people who pledged to become “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion,” have started expressing sentiments that are what you can only politely describe as being a little chauvinistic.

Ironically, the obvious sentiments of xenophobia have produced something that years of government indoctrination failed to do – it’s produced a natural sense of “Singaporeanism.” Local Indians and Chinese have discovered that they have more in common with each other than with the chaps coming out of Mainland China and India. I’ve had local Indians think nothing of complaining to me about how “snooty” Indian Expats are and I’ve had Singaporean Chinese think nothing about cooking pots of curry to show solidarity with their fellow Singaporeans of Indian decent when Mainland Chinese complain about the smell of curry.

Even my mother who has since become German and not lived in Singapore for a good two-decades now, has gotten into the game. We had a major fight where we didn’t speak to each other for a month because she got upset with me because I told her that I had referred to myself as a “Chinaman” on a Facebook thread. She was very upset and told me, “You are SINGAPOREAN of Chinese decent, NOT a Chinaman.”

She also made the point that our family is “Ang Moh [for readers outside Singapore, this is a Hokkien word that means “red beard” and used to refer to ethnic Caucasians] and your great-great-great-grandfather came off the boat and realized that English was the way of the future.” I could actually feel the disappointment every time I make some remark that does not show solidarity with the Western world in terms of my social life or my political views. As my sister once said, “She feels sad that you see yourself as a Chinaman and forgot that you grew up in the West.”

I don’t see what the fuss is all about. What’s the big deal about being a Chinaman rather than a Singaporean of Chinese decent? I also don’t see what the big deal about being “Western” is all about.

Perhaps it’s just me but I don’t see the difficulty in being many things all at once. Why must I be “one” thing or why do I need to owe allegiance to anyone particular culture.” Perhaps it’s my astrological make up (Sagittarius Tiger) but I have a natural aversion to things that demand my exclusive heart and mind – hence one of the reasons why I never turned to fundamentalist Christianity despite the very best efforts of an ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend. The idea of taking spiritual guidance from some White American or someone who took spiritual guidance from a White American is repulsive. Much to the distress of the ex-girlfriend, I found more God in hanging out with her 5-year old son and chatting to him about silly names he had for himself, me and his mother than I did in the service.

When it comes to religion, I am Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sheikh etc all rolled into one. What logical person would believe that God is bothered by the crappy labels that we place on ourselves?

So, if that’s my view of God, what do people imagine my views of human culture to be like? Why do I have to Western or Eastern? Why can’t I be both? Look, I speak English and I operate in English. I grew up in the Western Education system (England and Singapore has an English-based system). So, I guess you could say I am very “western” in my outlook on life.

You could say that this blog is the least “Asian” thing about me. I don’t see myself as particularly outspoken. I have been known to use tact and diplomacy to get things done. However, I don’t believe in being shy about expressing my opinions for the sake of being shy. There are times when you need to say something so you should say it.

Another “Westernised” or “Buddhist” side of me is that I don’t easily except things because that’s supposed to be the way things are. Asians or at least the East Asians (South Asians are different in this respect. Let’s not forget that the Buddha was a Nepali Prince) tend to accept things as they are because that’s the way things having been. Questioning is not looked upon favourably. You have Confucius to blame for this – he drummed it into the East Asian psyche that life was best when there was order under the benevolent heavenly king, which needless to say, never existed, except in his imagination.

Yet, at the same time, I do not see myself as a Westerner. Even when I lived in England, I never wanted to become an ‘Englishman.’ It was always clear to me that while I lived in England, I would one day leave and be back in Asia, particularly Singapore.

Singapore remains the place where my blood ties are, though these are admittedly thinning out as old relatives die out and younger ones move elsewhere. For all that I’ve complained about Singapore, this remains the only country I have an obligation to defend. My closest friends come from Singapore, namely during my National Service days. These are ties that you don’t ignore easily.

It’s also helped that my professional life has been formed in Singapore. My professional life or at least my value add to the people pay me is the fact that I know Singapore as it is, which means I know the nitty-gritty of how to get things done. Yes, I do have skills. The principles of pitching a story are the same wherever you are. However, the business I’m in requires me to have a network and the network I’ve built up is here. Yes, my clients come from elsewhere but they want to operate here and that’s why I get hired.

I am Singaporean in that I hold a Singapore passport. I function in Singapore and I have family in Singapore. This is the country that I am obliged to defend in a time of war and at the same time this is a country that has given me a rather pleasant home, even if I do spend a lot of time being critical of certain things about this home.

I don’t need the Chinaman or the Englishman to tell me that I am Singaporean. This is the place that I have become most familiar with for better or for worse.

Yet, at the same time, I don’t have a problem being Chinese. I don’t operate in Mandarin or Cantonese as well as I do in English. I’ve never been in China and I do not exactly have a cultural and emotional link with the average Chinaman – that was even when I had a mainland Chinese girlfriend.

Having said that, I’ve always felt most at home whenever I’ve been in a Chinese community. My favourite parts of Western cities happen to be the Chinatowns. There’s a familiarity of things like food, language and a shared sense of being within a larger global community.

I don’t indulge in many of the Chinese cultural symbols. I don’t gamble nor do I listen to Chinese music (I listen to Hindi music and I don’t listen to music in Mandarin). However, I do watch Chinese fighting movies and I do identify with the heroes in Chinese Gung Fu movies, who for the most part are outsiders fighting against something or other. I am attached to Chinese New Year. I don’t have a problem with Mainland China taking over the world.

I am an ethnic Chinese with a Singapore passport, who has made his life in Singapore. I happen to think and express myself in English. I don’t have a problem being of many cultures. I think this is something that people will need to be comfortable with.

I am Tang Li