Saturday, January 23, 2021

"Confucius is a bastard !" - How to fight off Singapore's Cultural Involution

I was brainstorming one of the worst titles an author could come up with for a philosophical piece of work with a friend and we settled on something that can piss off a significant part of the ethnic Chinese population. The working title he came out with was "Confucius is a bastard."

We were, of course, being deliberately immature. At that time, we did not work out the central thesis of the work, and we settled on some small-time critique of Confucius' love for ritual and music. 

Little would I know that cultural anthropologist would complete the task for us.

Before you read the rest of the article, I strongly suggest that you follow this link and read this article on involution. 

Involution is a powerful idea that should animate all Singaporeans. It is the concept that encapsulates the problem that plagues all Confucian societies. There comes a point in a Confucian society, that people become imprisoned in such a narrow definition of success, that they give up hope because they cannot find a way to get out of this narrow mindedness. 

I'm a product of such a society. 

When I got my third degree in SMU Law School, even with my financial independence, I felt constrained by the GPA system in SMU. For every law subject that I felt interested in, being of average ability in class, I had to pay a heavy price with my GPA score. This was fine until my GPA started hitting the low 3.4s. Any slip-up could mean losing one Honors classification. So, subsequently, I started playing safe, and took subjects I had a serious competitive advantage in. The final outcome was that I did not really stretch myself to learn areas of the Law that gave me the most intellectual growth. 

Involution also affects our career choices. This CNY I expect questions from relatives why I wasted a law degree and did not get into practice even though I make relatively good dough on my career choices. 

(This topic is so interesting the Rotary Club may invite me to speak about NOT taking up a legal career next month.) 

Sometimes, I would imagine my financial independence being the sole reason I can tell folks to fuck off and leave my career choices to myself. But deep inside I know this - without my dividend payouts and magical middle-finger made of my investment portfolio, I may not have the strength to resist societal expectations and I would be pretty depressed dealing with divorcing couples today. Every decision I make relating to career and family will be scrutinised and criticised by nosy relatives. 

All the Confucian societies pay a heavy price today for involution - No sane mother would give birth to a child so that he/she will lose or play second fiddle to other kids. Worse, the trend is now assortative mating that entrenches genetic advantages to the child of two working professionals.  I am now no longer surprised that the fertility of Confucian societies is now trending down compared to other societies with more Protestant roots. 

I don't think anthropologists have found a solution to this problem. Confucianism has been around for thousands of years and this rules out a mindset change. China may collapse because of this.

Here are some ideas I have:

  • Universities should just award Pass degrees and give out prizes for best dissertation and maybe subject performance. This allows every candidate to be assessed based on their merits and personal interests. HR departments cannot use a shortcut to cut down the candidates they interview so they need to assess everyone individually.
  • Secondary school, one of the largest sources of inequality, need to be debranded and every student is routed to a nearby secondary school.  
  • Instead of minimum wages, institute legislation to cap maximum time spent on work. 996 culture will just induce a rebellion against corporate culture. If you want to stand out, get more work done within 10 hours. 
I suppose none of my suggestions can produce a mindset change within one generation. But at a personal level, we know how to resolve that issue if it really gets into our nerves.

Simply emigrate to a non-Confucian society.

Lee Kuan Yew himself said that in a slow-growth economic regime, it is better to experience slow growth in Australia than in Singapore. I think academically, our average students in Singapore kicks ass in a society that does not have Confucian roots. This is simply some something Australians do not emphasise in their society. 

This is also what I observe about Asians who settle in Australia - laggards can become winners when they venture outside the country.  


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Emperor's New Road


One of the more exciting opportunities for investors and enterprising young professionals is the Belt and Road Initiative and for yonks, it has been hard to find a book that can summarise it well for Western audiences. Worse, I heard that the analysis coming out from China was overly optimistic about its prospects, so The Emporer's New Road is a welcome addition to an investor's library. 

I don't a have the academic training to really appreciate the work, as I suspect that a student of political science can possibly benefit from having a framework to arrange all the information shared in the volume, I will do my best to share three points I picked up from reading this volume.

a) Somehow major rivals must fight each other.

Almost every book on geopolitics must reference the rivalry between China and the US and no expert will rule out the possibility of a  Cold War evolving into Hot War between the two superpowers. The term is Thucydides Trap - Athens and Sparta must go to war because an incumbent cannot countenance the emergence of a new superpower that will replace it as the next hegemon.

What is surprising to me is that smaller states can play on this trope and threaten to go with the other party if they cannot get support from one. Superpowers can keep using their hard-earned taxpayer funds to support a finding black hole to get an edge over a rival power.

What is sad is that even with really smart people in charge, nation-states cannot find an alternative to the escalation of rivalries.

b)  When it comes to development funding, the country that receives is more important than the generosity of the country that gives 

When a superpower funds or assists a country's development, the question of whether the country prospers under such support depends on the receiver rather than the giver. The Belt Road Initiative is often compared to the Marshall Plan when the US was helping Western Europe and Japan recover from the ravages of World War II. 

The Marshall Plan succeeded because of the industriousness and work-ethic of the recipient countries. The BRI has a much harder time because recipient states may not even be genuine about their own economic development. 

This book details the various fiascos of the BRI and has very few good things to say about countries like Pakistan or Sri Lanka. 

While this is not mentioned in the book, China may be wasting their resources on nations that simply are not culturally disposed towards progress and improving their lot in life. 

c) Progress is slow where land rights are too strong

Another thing I learnt about the development of nation-states is that optimal progress requires property rights that are not that strong. Singapore grew fast because our laws allow the government to confiscate someone's land for development with some compensation. Imagine going to an emerging market and obtaining enough land to make way for a railroad. Another problem is that politicians are already in the pockets of wealthy land-owners. 

If you are expecting an analyst from the US to say really nasty things about China's Pet Project of the 21st Century, this book will definitely meet your expectations. It is well researched, with footnotes spanning a quarter of the text. 

After reading this book, I've come off with an extremely negative view of BRI after reading this book. The BRI has too many moving parts and many countries have an incentive to see it fail. I have no doubts that you will feel the same way after going through this text.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Should Gen-Z just give up their private property ownership dreams ?


Before I start, I just want to say that I have no expertise in residential real estate investing. I got a EC about 6 years ago and sitting fairly decent capital gains. These gains are trivial as my kids go to a school next door and it will be at least 7 years before I can even move on.

Vina Ip's Behind the Scenes of the Property Market is a good first read for budding property investors who are not looking for a property right now and want a primer on the local property markets. 

First, I enjoyed the general tone of the book which is negative and somewhat cynical. Singapore is a high trust society but we should not trust commissioned real estate agents so readily. The book is full of anecdotes that uncover the various unethical practices of local developers and their agents. I particular love the exposes on developers who manipulate units for sale to always give the impression that markets are bullish. 

This alone is worthy for the time,effort and money to read the book. 

Secondly, I'm somewhat neutral about whether the book can help someone who is looking for private property to buy. Perhaps this is the objective of the author as she does conduct workshops.

I can summarise her approach into two parts:
  • The 3-3-5 approach seems very conservative. I should not have purchased my EC judging by the earned income of my household at that time. My neighbours who do not have millions in the REIT markets are also sitting on excellent capital gains today and many have already cashed out moved out. I leave the reader to google what the 3-3-5 rule is but I prefer you support the author. 
  • Secondly, most of the best deals shared by Vina were largely based on exploiting the downturn of a different economic era. This means that even if you have an intention to buy private property, there is fairly solid evidence that the trend of residential property prices will be down moving forward.
Combining these two insights, this is tantamount to saying that Gen Z should simply BTO and forego their private property dreams!  She might be right and I leave it to the reader to decide whether to agree with her. 

I can't seem to decide my stance on this.

What I really disagree with her about, which should not be held against her because she's entitled to her opinion, is my impression of her view on government policy. She seems negative about Singapore's high rate of home-ownership close to 90%. This is the highest in the world.

The impression she and quite a number of seemingly anti-PAP property gurus ( that I shall not name ) is that home-ownership saps innovation of a country and we've evolved into a risk-averse population as a result of that. Interestingly, she came from a place where some elderly live in coffin-sized apartments. She goes as far as to assert that Singaporeans give up a slice of their personal happiness to support their expensive mortgages. 

In my opinion, that is a step too far even for a very credible property guru.  

My personal take is that broad-based home-ownership produces more good than harm. Sure, we're a lot more risk-averse and maybe even less innovative than Hong Kongers, but we still make decisions that are the best for the community at large and we're less individualistic. It was the Christmas tree at Hong Kong Festival walk that was burned down by the innovative and entrepreneurial protestors of Hong Kong that affected MNACT shareholders. Also, home-ownership means we have a greater incentive to look after our property, as a landlord she should be aware of how "entrepreneurial" a tenant can be with property that they don't own. 

It's the reason why our heartlands are such pleasant places.

But my disagreement should not be a reason for someone not to read her book. I learnt a lot from HK D&D players who are extremely proficient an creative in gaming as individuals, but Singaporean players are better team players and form stronger teams.  One of my most memorable games was making a HK DM rage-quit after the Singaporean party members decided to cooperate and refused to backstab each other in the game regardless of the game scenario. Even the HK DM admitted that this Singaporean trait was hard to beat because he's warier about being betrayed by his own kind in a business engagement. 

To folks from Hong Kong, Singaporeans will always be naive, gullible, kiasu, less creative, less entrepreneurial than HK counterparts. In an individual deal, Singaporean businessmen can be outmanuevered. As a country, however, I leave the reader to investigate how we're faring in this pandemic and the state of our GDP per capita. 

The author's eventual transition to become a Singapore property owner shows how correct our policies are. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

Is it wrong to bribe my kids with $100,000 to avoid a Polytechnic education and go JC ?

Polytechnic education has achieved leaps and bounds ever since Ong Ye Kung has been the Education Minister. The latest numbers show that up to 30% of the Poly in-take go on to study at a local university. Making matters more interesting, the makeup of Poly students has improved over the years with a significant increase of students who would have made it to a JC program with their O level grades.

This presents a sea-change in the calculus of choosing the right academic track and I'm starting to imagine my own children coming up to me in their teens to convince me to support their polytechnic ambitions in the future. One glaring reason to skip a JC and go Poly is CL2, which is as fun as having a root canal for potato-eating Singaporeans like me. Also, my daughter can also doll-up in a Polytechnic setting instead of going to a lecture in school uniform.

For all these reasons, you might expect a parent like me to simply just support my child's wishes, but I am thinking of doing the opposite. I'm thinking that if my kids want to study in a Polytechnic, I may opt to bribe them to take the JC track instead. This is not a small bribe. I fully expect this to be around $100,000 in tomorrow's dollars to balance the hardship between a JC and the Polytechnic program for a discerning teenager.

I detail my reasons below :

a) Polytechnic education is now very relevant with the existing industry

As the government ramps up Poly education, they will try to align closely with industry so that students will be able to hit the ground running. From my point of view, this is totally meaningless because industries do not last very long in the future economy. Imagine a bomb hitting the Singaporean economy and all jobs are lost, having bankable skills with a diploma would be meaningless because we will all be on Universal Basic Income. 

But a JC student using his writing skills learnt in GP class can whine much louder to the government. He can put his suffering in a different framework and become more philosophical over the dystopia he is in. 

While a Polytechnic prepares a student for industry, a JC prepares a student for a society where there is no industry.

b) Polytechnic education teaches practical skills to students to solve real-world problems

Once upon a time, I served an IT vendor in support of a financial exchange. The trading system went down and my highly skilled diploma-trained engineers recommended we restart the trading service. The unskilled but terribly overqualified manager in charge of us from the customer-end (who enjoyed reminding me of his scholar status) insisted we troubleshoot the issue even though we do not believe the root cause to be on the infrastructure end.  We troubleshot for hours and exacerbated the outage.

In the end, my diploma-trained engineers were proven right, bouncing the application service solved the issue and trading resumed. A few days later this asshole manager told his CIO that even though we were technically right, we were wrong because we failed to convince him to bounce the application.

Practical skills are worthless in the real world. The real skill is in negating practical skills with trash talk in the real world. 

This guy is an ex-scholar. I'm pretty sure he has an A-level cert.

I rest my case.

c) Polytechnic lecturers empathise with students and treat them like human beings

One of my favourite Maths teachers in NJC set such a tough Further Maths exam that moderation was set at 20% and over 50 students tried to drop the subject after failing it. We were so traumatised, the Maths department even conducted an intervention to stop the massive exodus of students from taking the subject. I felt that teacher meant well, because until that test we took, we thought we were Math geniuses. 

Most JC students today will say that nothing in University matches the stress level of the A level exam. I continue to have nightmares of taking exams during my JC days but never in Law or Engineering school. But there is an upside, whenever I look at some AI algorithm and think about tensors and matrix manipulation, I think about A level Further Maths in NJC and all the resistance to pick up these new coding skills disappears. 

In all my personal engagements with polytechnic lecturers on the other hand, I find them actually are quite encouraging. One professor in SP even told me that he loves making them feel good about themselves.  

I'm sorry, empathy, love and words of encouragement, is actually not appropriate for my children. 

This is not the Five Love Languages. 

If my kids go Poly, they will never understand what it is like to be forced to drop a subject they love because it may drag down the JC's overall results. They may never experience the differential treatment of ordinary students against students who study H3 or S-level papers or the jadedness of a JC tutor. 

In the end, it is the JC that truly reflects the capitalistic meritocracy of Singapore society and I prefer that they get a taste of it before getting out.

My final point is - as attractive as they are today, polytechnic graduates are in a rough patch. Recent graduates are not seeing salary increases and a larger proportion are joining the gig economy. But the government propaganda machines, orchestrated probably by a JC student, still has FB ads that look like this :

" I did not regret skipping JC to study XXX diploma, at XXX Polytechnic. "

These idiot scholars behind these silly campaigns don't get it.  

REGRET is absolutely what needs to be experienced within the education system. 


The A level track is all about these things.

So I am prepared to bribe my kids with $100,000 to learn all of that. 

I reserve my right to change my mind. If you have a better argument or reasoning for your own kids, do share with me, but we can agree to disagree!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

What do we really pass down to our children?

I'm quite happy to read financial blogs from parents that occasionally share their parenting philosophy. 

In many cases, I can't say that I fully agree with their approach because parenting is even more personal than personal finance. Because of negative personal experiences, I also believe that it's really risky for anyone to run on the platform that they have superior parenting approaches. 

Specifically, an acquaintance had a newspaper column on parenting in the 2000s on how she raised her kids but when her daughter was in her teens, she got impregnated by a security guard who worked in the same location as she did. The security guard refused to marry her. So my acquaintance talked candidly about her daughter's decision to become a single parent. The newspaper shut her column down because the authorities do not want to advocate for single parenthood. 

Due to decisions I've made in my life, my kids may have a tough time in Singapore society, so I cannot really be considered a good parent. I summed up the problem like this - Other folks in my generation are assortatively mating to produce GEP kids and their spawn will clog up the academic system which my kids would have to struggle to bash their way through. My kids would need to be extremely strategic and competitive to fight in the future workplace. 

If they fail and end up in the wrong track, the government will make wonderful speeches about public-private sector collaboration to get them hired in some kind of faux-automation job that is relevant to their diplomas where they will just wait to be retrenched over and over again until they die of old age.

Ok, now I got some of you fellow parents suitably depressed, let's review what can really pass on to our spawn :

a) Intelligence

I still think the best attribute to pass onto our kids is Intelligence. If my kids are intelligent, they can harness the power of Quantum Computing to cure cancer. Otherwise, they can go GEP so I can promote it online and can sell my sperm (or my wife's milk) for some extra cash. Even conduct another course on various sexual positions on how to have GEP kids.

The problem is that our kids are, too often, not intelligent enough. There is a wide gulf between a degree from Stanford versus a degree from Stamford. So if they don't make GEP, you have to spend thousands of dollars enriching the tuition industry - with obviously none left to enrich the financial training industry. Which can't be a good thing.

Gen-Z guys need to wise up early to have more Intelligent kids. I think it's too late after the kids are born. Logically, intelligent kids (especially sons) come from Intelligent mums. 

Guys should become sapiosexual. Sapiosexuals are folks who are turned on (sexually) by high Intelligence. I suspect we have at least two Prime Ministers who are sapiosexual.  

So go date a Daughter of Better Age to have smarter kids. Imagine how much you save on tuition and scholarships. 

Just do it lah. Tarhan !

b) Values and Conscientiousness

Last week I asked my daughter who is the most vulgar person in the family. I thought my son would get the vote because he composes songs about his dick at age 5 ( I did not teach him that, but I think I used to do it as a kid too). I was stunned when my daughter said that it was me. 

Children catch onto bad things really easily, so I'm not sure what kind of values I will transmit to my kids. I really want my kids to be competitive though, but they don't get to experience it in a family setting. My son might be a little competitive but he's a sore loser. After he got thrashed in King of Fighter 97 by his sister, he abruptly switched games saying that the game is boring.

If my kids can't be competitive, they should be conscientious and have grit. But my kids don't even have a gritty dad. I'm a quitter for more than the latter half of my professional life. Once I became financially independent, I stopped trying to endure toxic cultures or shitty office environments, I just walk away. This sort of bugs me because somehow, I wonder if my kids can really quit their way to a better life like what I did. 

Also, I suspect that conscientiousness may be genetic and cannot be taught. I also think my daughter is more conscientious than my son. 

What I do know is that moralising does not work and when they become teenagers, they can sense hypocrisy quite easily. I can't tell my kids to play nice and ignore an obvious edge if the academic system is structured to ensure that only a few actually win this society. 

c) Wealth

If you look at it from the perspectives of (a) and (b). Wealth is the easiest thing to transfer, but it generates a different class of problems on its own. Your kid needs a basic level of intelligence and values to manage money correctly so that don't end up destroying themselves with drugs, or ending up a cameo in the Singapore Social Cinematic Universe.

Even so. I depart from other bloggers in that I look forward to an early wealth transfer for both my kids if they meet the right academic targets. I do not subscribe to the philosophy that my kids should be denied wealth so that they will understand the meaning of hard work. My kids need to understand the meaning of a broad-based strategy and how to tap resources only available to other much older adults.  

Also, I don't want my kids to dwell on the stock micro-management track for too long. I needed to do it to FIRE for myself, but my kids do not have although they need to learn how to consult others. While it's not a bad thing for others to fixate on things like BTC or TSLA, but I think it's not how a strategic wealth manager thinks about money and the intergenerational impact of it. 

A nice number like $100,000 at age 18 can allow concepts like asset allocation and risk-reward to be understood over multiple investments. This is the kind of exposure a responsible teenager can have to build a decent portfolio while attending a full-time course. He has an incentive to follow the news and figure out how the world works. This can even expand to maybe $500,000 after doing getting the CFA or MBA. Personally, I've felt that my potential was not reached because I took too long after my CFA to bridge theory and practice. 

Anyway, these are my kids. 

I reserve the right to change my mind as they grow up. 

Don't take this as any form of advice for parenting. 

Better parents than I have failed so dramatically in the public sphere, I sometimes think that having children can be such a bad idea. 



Sunday, January 10, 2021

For older folks "New Year, Old Me" is good enough

Apparently the mantra in January every year has always been "New Year, New Me".

It's logical because when resolutions are made, for a majority of people, they hope to achieve some kind of break-through that makes them a better person by year-end.

Increasingly, I think the new year resolution for folks after their 40s should instead be "New Year, Old Me". 

As we get old, the struggle is not achieving new things. The struggle is maintaining the engine at a tip-top shape. Status quo can be a great reason for celebration.

  • If you can hold onto your old job, it's a blessing. 
  • If you can still do some simple coding and decipher a bash script, good for you.
  • If you can still run 3km, celebrate it. (It's a big deal for me.)  
  • If your paycheck was the same as 2019, hallelujah!

There are of course some things that tend to get better with age - Compound interest is one example of how older folks can get more control over their financial lives and avoid ageism. I was tallying my dividend payouts for the last 6 months for my next preview and I'm clocking more than the Singapore median household income these days in a pandemic year which is not too shabby given that my family does not live beyond the means of a heart-lander household. So without a single bet on Tesla or shitcoins, I had an excellent 2020. 

I would caution the folks consuming the myriad of "dividend blogs" to be careful though. There comes a time in your life more cash-flow only brings a psychological feeling of security and nothing else.

  • My house is big enough for my family.
  • I don't have folks to impress if I get a car. If I get a Ferrari, I'm pretty sure folks will ogle at the Ferrari instead of me.
  • My kids are still too young to be driven through the tuition assembly line.
  • The weather already gives me the feeling of travelling to another country.
  • Can't even buy a console as my personal projects are way more interesting than Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
  • Freaking Millenials and Gen Z drink expensive coffee that is sour! So I prefer to stick to my $1 version. 
I'm thinking to myself what can I do with my life in 10 years if I ever quit teaching investing. The nostalgic part of me wants to open a comic/game shop along Bukit Timah road. Might provide employment for my kids if they fail the academic grind in Singapore. Problem is that I can't convince myself that it would make me happy to do that for the rest of my life and may even turn me into a hater of otaku culture if I have to deal with shoplifters or shit reviews on social media.

One thing I really need to do is to hang out with younger people because they have a lot more optimism about their lives and don't exude the cynicism of folks my age. For that I am lucky - two RI Sec 4 students are seeking an attachment with me in the middle part of the year and I am happy to line up some interesting work for them so they can pick up some investment skills. 

I used to cry myself to sleep when my PSLE score could not get me into RI. Now RI boys think they can learn useful stuff from me. 

That's a pretty fine development.



Friday, January 08, 2021

What I am doing in 2021 so far

Markets seem to be becoming more interesting with the Classic Capricorn effect appearing in the Singapore Stock Market in 2021. Nothing more can be done this year as I've spent the entire pandemic downturn positioning a leveraged portfolio to tackle the upside. My only hope is that we deploy the vaccine quickly so that the economy can get back to normal. 

I don't have tickets to sell this week so I am enjoying a nice new year break, I've been really trying to enjoy this "unprecedented" cool weather, bringing my mum to Haji Lane for artisanal coffee and croissants. I regret that I can't travel with my mum as the pandemic kicked in months after I lost my dad, so I will do as much as I can within this island while the weather is good. The cold weather is a gift that makes Singapore seem like a Western country in autumn. 

As you can see, Haji Lane can be quite beautiful in the early morning without the crowds. 

Programming for me has become the "Tai-Chi" of the mind. I did not want to do anything too critical to my web app, so I've been doing some simple 2-3 hour projects to sharpen my skills. 

My first project is to figure out how computers produce PDFs with programming code. Things are simplified so much these days that there are library routines to convert HTML into PDF files if you know a little bit of programming. I managed to create a simple reporting tool I hope to deploy for my future batch of students. 

The stuff can mostly be found on my web app, so I was wondering how I can add some text into a reporting system. Instead of doing data-entry, I thought I should teach myself web-scraping so that I can populate my report with text descriptions. 

Web scraping is a lot harder then I thought because dynamic websites run javascript on the client. In the end, I employed Selenium and BeautifulSoup to write a program to fetch text based on stock ticker symbols from the web.

The final result is a program that can produce a description of a company using only the stock ticker symbol. Looks really simple but there are so many new things I need to pick up to do this. 

Actually compared to days I was doing Computer Science for 'A' levels programming has become a lot easier, but the demands on the programmer is a lot higher because they need to assemble something that can work and scale for a business within a few weeks. I used to spend months building a library to create and populate text/graphics on a window before I can even write my program - and there are no Youtube videos made by Indian programmers during my time.