Saturday, May 14, 2016

Before you eschew kiasuism...

I was having breakfast with the folks of BigFatPurse and Jon complimented that I would never take the risk of running a business because it's just not something a guy like me would do.

Jon is right.

I would take enough risk to generate the returns I desire but not more than necessary to become financially free. My family's well-being is at stake.

If there is no need to take any more risk, I would prefer to farm my excess funds into the most consistent form of arbitrage that I know of - that of knowledge arbitrage. The cheapest trade-off which has the largest returns is to monetise your knowledge and skill. Knowledge, unlike property, cannot be misappropriated or taken away, so once you have the ability to trade knowledge for wealth, it becomes a fairly consistent means of earning a living.

These day you seldom get really philosophical arguments in Parliament because the government, by and large, works, which is why we need Nominated Members of Parliament in Singapore. NMPs do not need the support of the people and can spout as much irrational nonsense as they want so long as it fulfils the agenda of the tiny minority of people they represent.

NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin has recently sparked a debate on whether Singapore should kill its Kiasu culture.

I have not determined whether on the whole I agree with Kiasu culture but I can say that I am quite exposed to it right now being part of this neurotic system of legal education in SMU.

Kiasuism explains why law students work so hard. But kiasuism without an understanding of the effort and risk it entails can be tiring, stressful and even result in the loss of precious lives.

Right now, I can imagine my batch of classmates graduating into one of the worse markets for legal practitioners in recent memory. My guess, backed by some credible folks in the industry, is that half of them would not be given permanent jobs after their pupillage. The bar exams are also getting harder and there has been talk that standards for Parts An and B have been tightened recently.

A problem is that we did not delve into definition of what a truly Kiasu person would do.

To deal with new economic realities, some of my classmates are pushing themselves harder to game the system.

Just today, I learnt of a brilliant new strategy of applying for a leave of absence citing some personal reasons immediately after a bad exam episode to game the system. The problem with this strategy is diminishing returns if more people execute this stunt. If too many people do this, HR departments would catch onto this.

Or instead a Kiasu person would activate Plan B or look for a Blue Ocean industry elsewhere. This person can do more networking and look into alternative industries which pay better. Another valid way to play the game which requires some hard work and lateral thinking.

The problem is that we don't know whether a Kiasu person would do the former or the latter, and we are now trying to shoot it down in Parliament almost like it's an STD which all Singaporeans have.

I think the most disingenuous application of NMP Kuik's argument is that it is always applied in a school setting. This argument is always about the unhappiness of our children.

I'm going to offer a politically incorrect version of what actually happens when we are Kiasu.

If you are Kiasu and the people around you are not, you are very likely going to be happy at the expense of others. It worked for me during my first semester, I got $4,000 pre-reading my textbooks and giving myself  a 6 month head-start in law school. I was a happy sociopath at the expense of my classmates. But what else is new ? If you have two streams of income when your peers and some bosses have one, you are one happy SOB. Wealth is relative.

Now I have just completed Semester 4. The game has changed.

In school, if everybody is Kiasu, then everybody is unhappy. Eventually a person's lack of talent shows over the long run. My subsequent grades became average once everyone started to pick up on how to excel in class. I end up working harder and getting shittier grades. Now everyone is miserable and angry.

My concern is that NMP Kuik is harbouring a special fantasy of every Singaporean where everybody's foot is off the pedal. Then just pushing yourself a little bit will yield great results. People who harbour such fantasies are no better than guys like me who openly admit to being the class of super-Kiasu rent-seeking aspiring-super-managers of the new economy.

A person who wants a life in Arts, Music or Literature is free to pursue this life path. But they want to take offence because somebody else is into Law, Engineering, Accounting or Medicine.

Which is why I argued that a start-up founder takes an irrational position when he starts a business. If he fails, he will have a problem getting a spouse who prefers a government service engineer. But is it fair to then accuse everybody of being so kiasu and wanting to become a $4,000 civil service engineer ?

NMP Kuik is trying to boil the ocean.

If some Singaporeans ever decide to believe her and become artists, poets, sportsmen or social workers, I bet my last dollar that the other proportion of Singaporeans will exploit the wider gap left open to people who desire the more profitable professions the economy has to offer.

So, in short, if you want your kids to be happy, let them play. It's your right to do so.

But don't cry to the government when you discover that other guys are not only not letting their kids play but sending them to cram schools because they want their kids to be your kid's supervisor in the future workplace.


  1. Agree with this. Every action has a consequence. It's up to us to face it. Don't choose an action and blame the result on something/someone else. And worse, don't force someone else to foot the bill (e.g. Choosing not to transfer OA to SA now because one assumes a better rate of return from the stock market. If one ends up losing most/all investable amounts, for heavens sake do not ask the government to redistribute those who have "too much" CPF monies in their SA. You have made your choice, and so have I. Live with it)

  2. After my exams tomorrow, I'm gonna write about PSLE. Stay tuned !