Friday, August 31, 2012

The Wisdom of the Rich

Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest person and the world’s richest woman has just caused something of a storm Down Under. The storm she created centred around a speech she gave on poverty – she is quoted as telling people to stop complaining about millionaires and billionaires and “Drink Less, Work More.”

Her remarks have irked politicians from across the political divide and she’s even offended no less than the treasurer himself, Mr Wayne Swan. Her remarks are as they say, “Politically incorrect.”

Let’s face it; Ms Rinehart is not a Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, who made her own money by revolutionizing an industry that has benefited millions. Her Aus $ 29.2 billion fortune is based on mining (a case of nature’s generosity) and was inherited (someone else worked for the fortune). As with the case people who inherited their fortunes rather than built them, there is always a temptation to ask what she did to earn the right to lecture others on how to live their lives.

However, let’s look beyond Ms Rinehart and look at her message. Has she said anything that is intrinsically wrong? I don’t believe she has. If one examines how fortunes are made and lost, you’ll realize that they’ve usually been made by the people who have worked more and drunk less. They’re made by the people who have focused on their work instead of complaining about how unfair life is.

Let’s face it, life is generally unfair. People, who are rich, usually have advantages in life that ordinary people don’t have. The rich can send their kids to good schools and having a family brand name can open doors that would otherwise remain unreachable. I think of myself as an example. Dad had the means to finance me through university and between my parents; I had enough contacts to open doors which were unobtainable to most. I could function as a free-lance PR consultant with less than a year’s experience because I was a rookie who could get the editor of the leading woman’s magazine to take my calls.

Yet, despite these advantages, I’ve not established the financial status I should have. Look at my Central Provident Fund (CPF – the national savings plan that all Singaporeans have) and you’ll suspect I’ve spent the last few years as a street urchin instead of being the PR consultant to the likes of GE Commercial Finance, Underwriters Laboratory, Alcon and 3M. It’s not that I haven’t made money but I’ve been foolish with it and I’ve not acted on things that I’ve known – namely the importance of preservation.

Somehow, whenever I had money, it always seemed easier to have fun with it rather than to use it wisely. My biggest weaknesses as they say involved the chicks and the booze. I think of the times it felt so easy to stay out and try and hit the pub with friends rather than to preserve that extra bit of cash. I wasn’t socializing with the people who wanted me to succeed but the people who hopped I could buy them another round of drinks.

So, I look at what Ms Rinehart says and appreciate that she’s right. I, for one, should have drunk a bit less and focused a bit more on work – and I am by no means lazy. However, had I followed Ms Rinehart’s advice, I might have preserved more of what I had and be in a better position to build more.

I think of Bill Gates who once made the point that life is unfair and we should get used to it. I also think of Vinod Shekhar, who once made the point that he ‘focuses on himself rather than what other people get.’
When you realize that life is unfair but you haven’t been dealt with the worst possible hand, then you focus on how to play the hand you have rather than on complaining about what someone else has.

For some reason, I decided to change a part of my outlook for this year. Instead of focusing on my indulgences, I decided to follow what my Dad suggested I do – try and look after a person or two. Haven’t won the lottery nor have I hit the jack pot with a huge job. However, I’ve found that after I decided to shift that focus, I found that whenever I’ve been about to run out of funds, someone or something has come up and given me something to keep me afloat.

So, I put it this way – Is Ms Rinehart wrong when she suggests that we stop complaining about the well to do and work more and drink less? I don’t think she is.

Monday, August 27, 2012


The Prime Minister has just finished his National Day Rally speech for the year and everyone is busy chatting about his speech. The mainstream media published the uplifting bits of his speech, while the online chaps did their song and dance about being more 'liberal' in his approach to government.

One of the things that caught my eye was the fact that he spent a good portion of his speech telling Singaporeans how to behave better. This portion of the speech was devoted to dealing with ugly online behaviour towards our new arrivals from elsewhere and the thrust of his comments was that such bad behaviour ruined Singapore's international reputation.

For the record, I agree with what he said. Perhaps it's just me but the attitudes towards foreigners, particularly those who happen to be dark skinned and from other parts of Asia disgusts me. I feel like vomiting whenever I hear highly educated professional people in Singapore talk about the unfortunate darkies doing the 'dirty' jobs.

I don't know what it is about our society? For some reason, those who have been blessed cannot help but start treating the less fortunate as something worse than dirt. The disease isn't just restricted to native born folk. Perfectly nice people from elsewhere end up getting infected too. Read a comment in the Today paper from some White Australian expat about how clearing up our trays in a fast food joints would be a denial of jobs for old people. Not sure how he worked that one out – he must have been thinking, “Granny, I'm doing you a favour by letting you clean up my shit.”

The nation is unfortunately filled with scum and nobody seems terribly interested in dealing with this type of behaviour. So, it's a relief that somebody as prominent as the Prime Minister has called attention to rotten behaviour that seems to be accepted as normal by the general public.

However, if one has to think of things in their proper context, one has to ask whether it's a failure of leadership that we have to tell a 47-year old nation how to behave and to have some decent manners.

Singapore has been an independent state for 47-years. In those years of independence we've become a serious model for the rest of the world to follow in terms of development. As I've said on so many occasions, our little Red Dot has become so advanced that it's not just people from the less developed world who are trying to prolong their stay here – even Americans, Brits and other Europeans are trying to hang onto the life that Singapore offers them. We are what every city should be – clean, green and rich.

Unfortunately our behaviour or at least our growth as people seems to have stayed in the dark ages, while our GDP has shot into the stratosphere. It's a sad reflection on our nation when the Prime Minister has to tell us how to behave after 47-years of independence.

What's happened? Well, unfortunately, while I agree with what the Prime Minister said, I believe that the government has to bear a good deal of the responsibility for the current situation. Much of what happens in Singapore starts with government policy.

Lets start with the obvious. Government's generally don't deal with personal behaviour issues unless they turn into issues that affect public peace. In the early days of Singapore's development, the key was economic development. It was right to do this in the sense that the Singapore Government actually found the money to finance many of the things that have made Singapore a very livable city.

However, the government has to be responsible for creating a culture where certain people are treated as elite Demi-Gods while certain others are treated as something worse than the shit you scrape off the bottom of your shoes.

Let's start with the fact that Singaporeans children are streamed off into different academic streams at an early age. While I don't disagree with streaming, the way it's executed in Singapore meant that those who didn't make it into the more academic streams ended up being labeled as “stupid” and destined for jobs that would not pay terribly well.

Then, let's look at wages for the white and blue collar. Those in white collar professions pay more than their blue collar counterparts. The difference is so much more that the Middle Class end up telling their children that not being academically gifted means you'll end up in a badly paid blue collar job.

So, right from the very beginning, a child is told that unless you're from a certain academic background, you are somehow less than human. You are, in effect, sub-human if you are anything less than an “A-level” student, for example. I remember being in the army and being told, “But you're MUCH smarter than the men.” I was an “A-Level” student while the men were not. I was supposed to be part of a 'smart' elite telling the mules what to do. Thankfully, I never saw myself as being smarter than the men and unfortunately that thinking still persist in the corridors of power.

It doesn't help that this thinking applies to foreign policy and immigration. Those from the 'desired' countries are encouraged to migrate with large salaries and encouraged to wall themselves in swanky homes paid for by big companies. It's drummed into the heads of school children that people from the less fortunate countries are a cause of social problems.

So, yes, I agree - Singaporeans need to learn how to behave. It's sad that we have to be told to behave after 47-years but we got to start somewhere. However, the government should also look at the cause of why we are the way we are and start tackling the problem with some urgency.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Joys of Faith!

I have to hand it to the Young Muslim Politician who Feast in the Middle of Ramadan from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek for having the ability to rescue me whenever I get hit by a bout of writers block or some other distraction. He has knack of raising topics that bring out the aggressive side in me and after a session of talking rot with him, I feel inspired to blog.

It was a magnificent day today. He decided that he needed to meet up with the Naan maker and me this afternoon and being the good self-respecting Muslim that he is, he proceeded to assist us in polishing off two bottles of wine and a little roast chicken in the middle of the Ramadan Day. To show his appreciation, he happily posed for a photo with a glass of wine in front of him and then proceeded to take few snap shots of the chicken.

Anyway, we were all happily enjoying this little much-munch session in the middle of the Ramadan day when he decided to try and influence the Naan Maker into becoming a “Mit Romney Supporter.” He proceeded to talk about how we needed to strong Republican President who would support Bibi Nethanyahu’s bid to get peace in the Middle East and that the Palestinians needed to learn to use the tongue and not the gun. He proceeded to then take the tone of moral superiority and claim, “What George Bush II did in Iraq was a noble act.”

That set me off. I told him to stop being a “Pundek” (Tamil for cunt) and actually look at facts on the ground. Let’s face, I have Jewish relatives whom I love dearly but that does not distract me from the obvious fact – the Jaudi’s have no intention of making peace and they are actively engaging in terrorist activities by stealing land, which nobody recognizes as theirs. While the Jaudi’s engage in daylight theft, the Western World under American Leadership endorses it. While the West bleats on about the possibility of Iran having the bomb, it continues to allow Israel to “neither admit nor deny” having a range of nasty little toys.

Anyway, the Naan maker must have gotten a little worried and did what he could to make peace. I think was still pretty belligerent. I will not accept that the Western view of the Middle East is the one that I need to follow and I don’t see why I should accept a lie just because the people sprouting it happen to be a shade of pink.

The kid has a way of bringing up what irks me the most – the mentality of a slave. He’s got this idea in his head that the only way to live is to ape the mighty powers of the world, which is what his masters in the little village do.

To be fair, you can’t blame him in the sense that the powers-that-be in Singapore have done a relatively good job at creating prosperity and stability. However, it doesn’t mean that they’re right all the time and it doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t strike against conventional views especially when convention is wrong.

Furthermore, he suffers from a symptom common to many colonized folks. He desires to be like the colonizer. This symptom is particularly acute in Indians. The moment they get their US or British passports, there is a tendency to become obnoxiously so. I have a friend who happens to be Tanzanian born and can’t stop reminding people that he has a US passport. This symptom becomes even more acute when it comes to the UK. As Russell Peters so elegantly says, “Every Indian has an ancestral homeland – it’s called ‘The United Kingdom.’”  

In fairness to the Indians, they’re not alone in this. The US Department for Home Land Security has become an expert at using neutralized citizens against their former kinsmen. Two of the least pleasant experiences I’ve had with US immigration have come from Chinese (the first time it happened, I was in my late teens and they were giving us hassle for not having a‘re-entry’ permit. He had to end with a threat – we’ll take away your green card. My gut reaction was – shove it, take it back. I was, however, with my mum and discretion was the better part of valor.)

While I do admit that life in the West is generally more comfortable than in most places, I have NEVER understood the desire to be like the “colonizer.” I NEVER felt that I was being “liberated” by the West or Westerners. It was ingrained inside me from day one that colonial masters were only good for one thing – target practice.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate systems that the colonial powers had in place. I put it this way; I’m educated in the British system, which for the most part remains a pretty darn good one at preparing you for life. I also enjoy the finer things about Western culture. American movies, English literature and since I’ve been involved in a French restaurant – French food.

I have been blessed by Westerners in the family and friends. I enjoy the company of a good many Westerners, who may not be close friends and family.

However, I’ve never felt an emotional need to be like them nor did I ever want to identify myself as being a Westerner. I identified and in many ways, I still identify with the people who defy and kick out larger colonial powers.

It’s not very patriotic for me to say it but what Lee Kuan Yew did seems shallow and meaningless (though it has proven beneficial) when compared to the blood, sweat, brains and heart that guys like Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Gandhi put in. When kids my age were fantasizing about being Rambo and the guys with the cool tanks, I wanted to be the men in little black pajamas, shooting at the chaps in the tanks.

Yes, Singapore has prospered by following the conventional path of building up a sound infrastructure and letting the multinationals come in. We’ve prospered. I am a direct product of that prosperity. My father made money from advertising, an industry which is as Western and Capitalistic as it gets. At one stage, I wanted to be a banker.

I should be grateful that I was born in Singapore and in many ways I am. However, when you look at how much we avoid a struggle and compare it to the struggle that our Asian neighbours have had, you start to see why our youth are like the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who feasts and drinks in the middle of the Ramadan Day aka Thambi Pundek and they have young people like my little Thuy who throw a tantrum when they’re late to school.

When you make these comparisons, it’s easy to see why the government was so open about letting in people from elsewhere come in to do what needs to get done.