Friday, April 18, 2014

How to thrive as as a B-Grade Singaporean.

One of the things meritocracy and pragmatism has done is to inadvertedly create class divisions within Singapore. We see evidence of trolls like Heather Chua and Wee Shu Min succeeding in making many people angry simply because they were consciously aware of such divides and used it to elicit an emotional reaction from everyone.

As a realist, I will not debate class divisions in this blog. I will try my best to define it and suggest the various actions to cope with our reality today.

First let's try to define our class divisions :

You are Grade A Singaporean if you come from RI, ACS or HCI. If you study in the Ivies or MIT, you also qualify as Grade A. You might also qualify if you are GEP, lawyer, doctor or a government scholar. Income-wise, you also qualify if your income belongs to the top 10% percentile of folks in your age. If every Chinese New Year, your aunts admonish their kids and ask them why can't they be more like you, you are possibly Grade A.

I am a Grade B Singaporean like most of you readers of my blog. I was mostly schooled in government schools coming to a decent JC only after my O levels and after working really hard ( Because I was certainly not smart or gifted ). I went to a local University and managed to get a decent engineering job upon graduation. Income-wise, we are are somewhere between 70-90% percentile of our cohort. Every Chinese New, your aunts nitpick on you whenever there is a chink in your armor. For singles, you are asked why you are not married. For married couples, you are asked why you don't have kids.

Grade C and below is everybody else. Competitively societies like Singapore consider 70% of the population to be everyone else and only important during the elections where one man gets one vote. Decent education, decent jobs, full stomach and a decent shelter, but Grade Cs do struggle very hard in this society which made an infernal pact with globalization to sacrifice the middle class. If during Chinese New Year, your mum defends you vigorously and says "My child is a good person, you leave him alone", you are probably Grade C.

I want to share what it feels like to be a Grade B Singaporean and what we can do about this. ( Hopefully a better blogger can advice the 70% of Singaporeans which truly need the most help. )

a) Grade B suffers from elitism too.

When I was under employment, I had to convince senior management of why engaging the Ruby on Rails community would be great to improve participation in competitions. I was impressed with how quick it was to scaffold a working website in 5 mins  after I attended a boot-camp. Senior Management was incredulous, I was interrogated my senior management who simply could not accept that a language could be that awesome. I was repeatedly under assault until a scholar stepped in and said that I was right about the language and its rising popularity and then, suddenly without hesitation, I was then allowed to proceed with my engagement activities.

14 years IT experience matters not if you are Grade B. A one sentence from a Grade A scholar ( who's a great guy BTW ) saved my presentation from oblivion.

 b) Grade B Singaporeans need to find a good niche in the industry.

This is important advice to Grade B Singaporeans. You need to choose an industry where you could get to the top on your own merits. An American MNC will always favor strong performance and not school grades.  One of the reasons why ex-P&G folks like me will always respect the company was that some Senior Managers have only A levels and some staff who would never be promoted may have degrees from the Ivy league. This is the mark of a true meritocracy.

( P&G has it's own entrance exam. I believe that any good company would always have one )

c) Grade B Singaporeans cannot ignore financial markets.

Quitting the workforce and subjecting myself to the mercy of the financial markets has been good to me for the past 3 months. Even Sabana REIT would not cut my dividends because I did not come from the right University or was not gifted. Sabana REIT cut dividends for everyone this quarter , the ones from Cornell, MIT or GEP who owned Sabana  all got 1.88 cts this quarter. A microcosm of fairness is hard to come by in this country. We must embrace it.

I can't emphasize how important it is to supplement your Grade B income with dividends which do not discriminate based on your position in society. This can put you within striking distance from Grade A if you work hard, save and invest your funds wisely.

d) Contrary to what the political left says, Grade B has very strong social mobility.

Last, I want to share a message of hope to most of my readers who are Grade B like myself.

Even though I was not in a top JC or secondary school, I was able to participate in S Papers, Olympiads and various competitions when I was younger. When competing against average Grade A folks , a diligent  B-grader can win.

A good  friend calls such a person the Goblin champion - Not a real Champion like a Champion from RI, ACS or HCI but a Goblin Champion who can use the right strategy to overcome a higher-caste opponent. Case in point, having earned income and a dividend flow from the markets which exceeded my pay can result in an annual remuneration similar to an MP's allowance ( but only for last year for me, now my income would be Grade B for quite a while until I rejoin the workforce ).

When you hit 40s and get retreched, a Grade B can easily slip to Grade C if you are not careful. But Grade B always had high social mobility in Singapore, you need to be conscientious and apply the right tactics to transcend your caste boundaries.

My blog is here to help you do that.


  1. Christopher, great post! I think Sabana REIT's dwindling dividend hurt you quite deep there ;-)

  2. Yeah but I have repositioned my portfolio. Can't hurt me if I am prepared right ?

  3. Are there Grade A, B and C retail investors?

  4. All retail investors are lower grade than institutional investors.

  5. Hi Chris,

    To most Singaporeans, you could be regarded as a "Grade A"? If I don't recall wrongly, you graduated with First Class honours and there are many from RI or HCS who are not able to achieve that.

    I think even among the Grade As, there's stratification within them. Like a stat board scholar might envy a PSC scholar who envies another who is a President Scholar?

    Guess sometimes it might be good enough just to do your best and fulfil your own potential.

    In my view, you're really doing well! So does it really matter which grade you belong to?

  6. Certainly, scholars can be like Kobe beef, they have some sort of grading which exist amongst themselves.

    I don't really consider myself Grade A because I might have done some things many Singaporeans might find amusing but I really don't belong to the top 10% in income.

    Of course, psychologically, being a B-grader is a comfortable place to be if you are a Singaporean. There is still upward mobility if you are B-Grader.

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