Why I say NO by default

I have a very sensitive uh, BS detector, bordering on paranoia. It didn’t used to be that way.

There were a couple of times where a stranger walked up to me and asked me for $10. He lost his wallet and his bicycle, and he needed to get home. By taxi (or cab for you Americans). Really? There’s no one you know that you can call for help? The transport system in Singapore is fairly connected. You don’t need $10. $5 is already plenty, and you can always walk a little. Hey you’re down on your luck. You can walk.

There were also a couple of times where a child walked up to me and asked me for money. One boy of about 10 years old in school uniform asked for money so he could buy a hamburger (I was at McDonald’s then). Another boy, also in school uniform, asked for money because he didn’t have money in his EZ-Link card (a transportation card like the Octopus Card in Hong Kong, or Oyster card in England). He asked for $10 (that’s the minimum top-up amount). Wait, you couldn’t call your mom? Hmm… Haven’t I heard that one before…

But the point came that I started to distrust by default when I almost got hoodwinked into handing over my money every month for no good reason. It was many years ago (but still haunts me…) while I had a job. I had dreams of travelling the world and visiting places.

Then one day, I got a call saying I could get some free goodies if I attended some event. I don’t know how they got my phone number (we’ll talk about this later on). Ok, I’ll go.

The event was to get people buying time share properties. Basically, you pay some money every month to “own” a property that you can stay at when you travel. Or something. You’re sharing time on that property, because other people do the same thing. So all of you are paying for the privilege of possibly staying at that place in the future.

I just finished paying off my student loans. I dreamt of visiting and staying at new places. “I could stay at a castle!” And I mean, the sales person could write upside-down! She seemed very friendly and knowledgeable and have I mentioned I could stay at a castle?

It was after I signed on the dotted line that something didn’t feel right. The next day, I told my colleagues about it. One of them said he always go for such events, but never sign up. He went to get the free goodies only.

I want to cancel the whole thing. Apparently, it’s not that easy. I can live with losing the deposit I placed, but it seemed that I was still “under contract” to continue giving the company money for something I no longer want. I would have lost over $10000 that way before I could terminate the contract.

So I turned to the commerce mediating organisation in Singapore. They’re like the FTC in America, but with (much much) less power. But it’s better than nothing.

Long story short, eventually I could terminate the contract. I even got my deposit back.

Since then, I never buy anything or jump into any monetary contract without fully understanding what it means. And I’m a fairly minimalist person, which means practically everything.

I even got paranoid about my phone number. How had the time share company gotten hold of my phone number? Only through people who knew me, because I gave up helping people with surveys that also required my contact information (eventually, I stopped asking if the survey needed my contact info. I just said no).

Right now, if some company calls me up, I am very negative about it. Because the only people who has my number are close friends and family. And maybe remnants of people who can be loosely called acquaintances. And my bank. Hmm.

So I almost had a heart attack when I saw a letter from said time share company yesterday. I had to open it immediately, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Are they going to ask me for money? Did I leave out something in the contract in fine print? You can tell I thoroughly distrust this company already.

It was a letter telling their customers (I no longer consider myself their customer) that there’s been some company changes. Corporate buyouts, change of address, that sort of thing. The funny thing was it’s dated 1 April, so I don’t even know if I should take it seriously.

Interestingly, there was some stress on NOT contacting certain staff for certain matters. No reason was given. This just reinforced my (already low) opinion of the company and its staff. Are the staff working in a cut-throat environment? I have received a letter saying I was to pay the amount “owed” to the company retroactively once. I believe that letter was sent by someone who got hold of my information (from within the company), and blackmailed me. That person probably left the company, and thought they could squeeze some money out of the company (and by extension, me). I ignored the letter. And I can totally imagine this kind of person working in the company.

So this is why I say no by default to people asking me for time, money and help. It’s not that I’m a selfish jerk. It’s because I’ve had too many bad experiences before.

That said, I’m open minded enough to at least consider the request. Generally, I don’t even consider the nature of the request first. I look at the person. Do I trust that person? Is that person trustworthy, or needy enough, that I want to help?

And then, and only then, do I consider what it is I’m to help with.

Man in long-sleeved shirt or woman in business attire asking me to help fill in a survey? Nope. Teenager holding out a tin can with stickers asking for donations? Probably. Child asking for money to buy food or go home? Depends. Singapore is a fairly prosperous country. Our poor aren’t even really that poor. You can buy a good meal with just $2 (about USD 1.63 with the current low exchange rate. America, what’s up with that?). What are you buying to eat, latte and cheesecake?

I understand there are legitimate trustworthy business people out there. So I make sure to read the fine print. I read their work and determine if I trust them. Because I’ve been burnt too many times.

Have I told you about the time when I bought a product that promised that I’ll make USD 1000 in 30 days? I felt totally scummy.

People buy what they value

“I don’t have money leh. After 15th?”
“Ok.”

2 freaking dollars. They don’t have 2 freaking dollars.

Side note: The “leh” is an affectation of Singaporean English speech. It’s appended to most sentences as a sort of finishing element. By itself, it doesn’t mean anything.

Collecting money can be tough

I was tasked to collect mess fees from non-specialists in my unit. I was a lance corporal in the military. I was 20 years old.

In case you’re not familiar with military terms (I know I’m not…), the “mess” refers to the place where soldiers eat. Specialists refer to sergeants and above, until you hit officer ranks. For the purpose of this article, non-specialists are recruits (just joined), privates, lance corporals and corporals (ranked in that order).

I can’t remember why mess fees were needed, but I was to collect them from non-specialists (in my unit only). The specialists have their own specialists mess. The whole military compound had a food hall, which was free. Then there’s the non-specialists mess (which we hardly visit, but maybe other units frequent). Then there’s the specialists mess. And then there’s the 1 stall just outside my unit (the men in my unit preferred this than trekking all the way to the non-specialists mess).

Anyway, I was sort of favoured by the S4. I type bloody fast and he gave me paper documents which I was to transform into digital Word documents and save into a floppy disk. (Haha! Floppy disks! It was 1997.)

Yes, some of those documents were sensitive. No, I can’t remember anything. Torturing me will be a waste of your time. Have I mentioned it was 1997?

As a reference point, the S4 was the officer in charge of logistics and was one of the highest ranking officers in the compound. He had his own personal clerk. When his clerk left (the clerk finished his mandatory period of service), his duties were somehow passed on to me. One of those duties was to collect mess fees.

Coincidentally, I was the treasurer when I was in the Chinese Orchestra in secondary school. My advice? Do not be directly responsible for other people’s money if you can help it. I couldn’t sleep when I found the money I had on hand was different from what the record books said. I was about 15 years old. Good grief…

So. Recruits and privates were to pay $1, lance corporals to pay $2, and corporals to pay $3. The men were good-natured enough, but getting them to cough up money was a pain…

Why the 15th? Well, I was to get the money to the mess hall by the 10th of the month (I can’t remember the exact payment date. Let’s go with the 10th). After several months of failed attempts to submit on time, I managed to persuade the mess hall people to let me pay after 15th. This was because the army pays everybody on the 15th.

Granted, we weren’t paid a lot. It’s about a couple of hundred dollars a month, depending on your rank and length of service. $2 was maybe 1% or less of your military salary. But in absolute terms, $2 is nothing. The men typically spend more than that at the canteen every day.

Recession? What recession?

People pay for what they value. The men didn’t value the mess that much. Hence the reluctance to pay.

People still buy the latest iPhone, even though they still own a perfectly working previous version. People still go on vacations. People still go to expensive restaurants. The price isn’t the issue. If people value something enough to overcome the price, they’ll pay for it.

Here’s an interesting observation. I had little trouble with the recruits, privates and corporals. The recruits and privates were new to the military, and as a lance corporal *ahem* I was able to get them to pay up. The corporals were people who were going to the university after they finish their military service. They’d pay up so that I’m out of their hair or they don’t want my life to be miserable or whatever.

The lance corporals were from the hardier sides of Singapore. Polytechnic students or with lower education status.

Now I’m not saying the education status was the cause. I’m saying the attitude is different. The lance corporals were negotiating the terms. (My own rank was a different story. I was eventually promoted to a full corporal).

Once it was after the 15th, the men didn’t give me any more excuses. They’d just pay up. They weren’t trying to make my life difficult in the first place.

American hare, Asian tortoise

I’ve been meaning to get a drink from the cafe within the library for a while. It’s exam period, and all the seats were taken. But I finally got a chance to sit. I got myself a “Peach Dream”, a smoothie with peach flavour I think.

I quickly sat down at one of the tables that a lady graciously shared with me. Her friend soon returned with their drinks. I was just happily sipping my smoothie, watching a man on his laptop, one girl slumped on the table with her books, and listening to a mother reading a book to her daughter.

The two ladies at my table began talking.

“Did you know her son got 58 out of 60?”
“Really?”
“Her son is already so clever. But he’s still getting tuition.”
“But he’s so clever! He might get 50 even without tuition.”
“We don’t know if it’s because he has tuition, that’s why he got 58.”

That was a primary school science test. Hey I’m not eavesdropping. I just happen to overhear their overshared conversation.

Believing you can improve by putting in effort

There’s this study conducted dividing people on their perception on learning and intelligence. One group believed that intelligence is fixed, therefore if they don’t know something, they’re doomed to never learn how to do it properly. The other group believed that intelligence is malleable. If they put effort into learning, eventually they’ll get the hang of it.

The first group didn’t care what the answer was, only whether they’re correct or not. They didn’t care to learn how the answer came about. The second group cared more about why an answer was so.

When the 2 groups were tested again, the researchers found that the second group improved significantly. The first group didn’t do any better or worse.

I’m going to generalise here. Asians typically believe that if you put effort into something, you can improve. Be it maths, science, English, Chinese, whatever. That’s why here in Singapore, parents hire tuition teachers for their children, even if their children have phenomenal grades in school. (Also see PISA).

I didn’t have any tuition teachers after primary four (age 10). Not because I’m smart, but because my dad couldn’t afford it. Good thing I turned out alright…

Another general trait of Asians is that we save. Money that is. We’re brought up with the concept of saving money for a rainy day.

The hare and the tortoise

I read this book by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called Beyond the Crash. He brought up some concepts I’ve learnt about the global economy and politics.

America and Europe lead the world in terms of consumption. It’s worked so far because they also produced as much (as in exports). Their production brought in enough money for them to consume. They’ve raced ahead and amassed much wealth.

Like the hare, they’ve grown comfortable and stopped (more or less).

Globalisation allowed the other countries to come to the fore. The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), Indonesia, Philippines.

American (and European?) jobs flowed to other countries. First the Baby Boomer generation is slowly retiring, leaving a mass number of jobs for the smaller group of Generation X-ers who cannot fill them. Then globalisation killed those jobs, and the current Generation X-ers and Y-ers can’t find jobs.

The subprime housing situation created more turmoil. The recent bank crisis instilled fear and distrust. University tuition fees go up as people sought to get a Master’s degree in the tight job market. (Just for info, I’ve read there’s an “education bubble” going on).

America just averted a $14 trillion debt ceiling problem. Greece has a financial problem. Europe faces a sovereign debt problem. Their aging population doesn’t have enough people to take care of them, financially speaking (where do you think taxes go to?).

And the tortoises started to catch up.

Education

I’ve read an economist praising the education system of Singapore. I must admit, I was surprised. Then he (can’t remember whom or what book I was reading. Sorry…) pointed out that in America, teachers with average graduating scores are dumped to “second-rate” schools without training. In Singapore, the Ministry of Education chooses the best teachers, and provide them with training. I think it was 2 out of 10 applicants who get in. The Singapore government takes education very seriously.

Barack Obama has stated he’s taking America’s education seriously. As far as the future is concerned, I believe maths and science to be crucial. We’re going to need engineers, mathematicians, doctors, physicists, chemists, biologists and more to tackle the health care of our aging population, creating a sustainable Earth, and understand and make use of any future technologies.

Global commerce

Here’s something you should know. To get money, you have to sell something in exchange. I don’t care if it’s an apple, an iPad, television shows, movies, your body, real estate, knowledge (information). Even if it’s just a 250 by 250 pixel ad on your web page. You have to sell something.

America and Europe produced enough for domestic and international consumption. As a result, they grew. Then globalisation came. Their production dropped (because that production went to other countries as jobs). You produce less, but your consumption rate remain. You should see the problem, right? Then their domestic consumption even increased (think rampant credit card use).

Here’s the catch. China (seems to be the biggest blamee, though there are others) is exporting more stuff, and America (and Europe?) is buying. China buys up raw materials from other countries, manufactures products, and sells them.

What you should realise is that China has a small domestic consumption (remember Asians extol saving as a virtue, so we buy and consume less). Contrast that with China’s growing export business, you should see how China is growing in strength. But this depends on other countries buying their stuff *cough America cough*. China’s growth comes mainly from exports and China’s biggest worry is that people stop buying their exports.

The rebalancing

There was a time when the outsourcing/offshoring thing was a craze. Do you know how supply and demand works? As jobs went to India, China and Philippines because it’s cheaper, those jobs started becoming more expensive as the workers wanted better pay. It might still be cheaper to outsource/offshore, but it doesn’t always make a big financial impact to the bottom line.

You know this oil thing we need? It’s getting more expensive as it becomes scarcer. We need to find alternative energy solutions soon. See education above. Where are the people we need to solve this problem? (They aren’t motivated enough to learn, and they’re watching cat videos on YouTube).

You know what more expensive energy means? Transportation is going to get costlier. Getting a product to be manufactured in China, then assembled in Mexico, then shipped to America is going to be financially inadvisable.

You know what that means? Jobs are going to start flowing back (to wherever they came from).

You know what? There are millions of jobless young people who are willing to do those jobs.

But you need to be willing to train them. Specialisation cannot be your focus. Remember, these people just graduated from school. You won’t find a person who fits the job of a managerial post with an emphasis on information technology.

Get that graduate (who has a bundle of joyful energy) with the MBA. Train him/her on your business with information technology.

Get that programmer who did a bunch of software projects. Teach him/her about your special accounting software business.

Export more bits than atoms

I read that a Singapore minister (can’t remember who. You should know by now I have a terrible memory for these things…) who said that Singapore’s economic concern should still be to focus on manufacturing. I believe he’s referring to material goods.

I’m going to ask you a question. With the climate concern now, and that our landfills are starting to fill with our waste at a rate that’s slightly alarming, and that raw materials are getting costlier to shovel around, should you still export physical goods?

That’s still going to be a viable business. I mean, I still see people queuing up to buy the latest iPhone 4S, and texting on their perfectly working iPhone 4 (I still use an iPhone 3G, which Apple doesn’t even support anymore).

Remember the outsourcing/offshoring thing? There were 2 kinds of jobs: the physical creation of a product, and the intangible stuff. China does manufacturing. India does call centres.

As people become more aware of what they buy and consume, I see people having less material goods. The modern cell phone allows you to play games, organise your calendar, keep todo lists, take photos, capture videos, record audios, browse the Internet and make phone calls.

Even if that’s not the case, there’s a physical limit to how much you can export (and thus sell and thus make money). So sell your skills and knowledge. Teach people stuff. Offer something that’s not so easily replaceable by another person in another country.

Africa poised as untapped and trapped consumer base

Africa is like the poster child for a country in poverty. She has a large population but most of her people are struggling with where the next meal is coming from.

As China and India got more of their people out of poverty (due to globalisation in part), their people started buying stuff.

India is an interesting case. As her economy improved, so did her domestic consumption. In a sense, India is more “stable” than China in terms of growth.

The point is that Africa has a large population who most probably cannot and will not buy your products and services. They’re too busy dealing with AIDS, malaria and hunger. Not only that, it represents a huge number of people who cannot contribute to the world.

A human mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Finishing line

That was a lot to write.

So in case you skipped the whole shebang above, here’s the moral: Consume less (with more intelligence), raise education, and help other people.