Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Surviving the Winter of Singapore's Divine Discontent.

So many things happened the past 24 hours !

First, PM Lee gave all Singaporeans a big scare but proceeded to finish off his National Day Rally. Less than 24 hours later, we lost Past President S R Nathan.

I just want to pen several quick thoughts about making the three wishes granted by God.

PM Lee's intention was definitely noble and well-intentioned when he wished for Singaporeans to be divinely discontented but also balanced with wisdom so that they can be grateful to the lives which they have. But ideas like making wishes can be rapidly be perverted by social media.

Here's my take on what can go wrong when Singaporeans start becoming discontented but becomes tempered by wisdom.

a) TFR will remain dip below 1.0 and remain there forever

When parents are discontented, no amount of support is adequate for the raising of children. The warfare waged between parents for the best schools will reach a fever pitch with financial resources being plowed to ensure a seat in local universities. With such high investments being made on children, only an insane parent would have a second child.

Singles being discontented with what they have achieved in life will avoid settling down. They also have the wisdom to be grateful for their single status even though they might wish for more. This is already happening to a segment of the male population here.

b) No one with any smidgeon of talent will work for SMEs. 

Singapore bosses are discontented with employees. Singapore employees want a better workplace. The net effect is that discontented but talented employees will look for MNCs so that they can get a better corporate culture, pay and work-life balance. Once they get a taste of MNC work, they will have the wisdom to be grateful for their working environment.

The net effect is that SMEs are festering pit full of the least talented employees with bosses who are continually dissatisfied with them.

c) Many older Singaporeans will leave for Australia

Genuine discontentment is not a happy state. Ambitious guys like me grapple with it with an obsession only other ambitious guys can understand. This is in spite of financial independence and having a life which looks quite good on paper.

Imagine what Divine Discontentment would mean - I imagine the state of discontentment to be eternal. But wisdom counteracts by knowing when Discontentment ends. There will come a point whereby Singaporeans become discontented with discontentment. After all, the winter of discontent is destined to become a glorious summer and Singaporeans only have themselves who can play the role of the Son of York.

Discontented people get old, they find a society which can give them more work-life balance, to be able to invest their hard earned money in a different jurisdiction which gives them a high quality of life.

Facing Eternal Discontentment, Singaporeans may leave for place like Australia where no one has wished for discontentment. Where the capital accumulated through hard work can be invested to give a modest lifestyle in the countryside net of taxes. Where children will not constantly be judged for their mediocrity.

Fortunately for us, PM Lee kept one wish in reserve for Singaporeans for the future.

Right now, I am still thinking about how future generation of citizens, faced with the prospect of permanent Divine Discontent but also infused with Wisdom would word this final wish.

What would you wish for ?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

To the 6 out of 10 SIngaporeans who want to leave this country...

A recent survey of polytechnic students showed that 6 out of 10 of them would like to leave the country. You can access the link to the article here.

This survey probably does not represent a decent cross-section of Singapore society. After all, how do students who study for a media and communications diploma represent the interests of everyone here ?

I think a serious bias exist in these set of results. Young people who choose a career in media and communications are a peculiar bunch. Salary surveys constant peg them at the bottom of the pecking order with degrees in Art and Design making about $500 below the average amongst local degrees. It is no accident that 60% wish to leave the country. But these students chose a career in media and communications and probably out of their passion and interest in this field. If you deliberately make a sub-optimal career choice,why blame it on the whole country ?

The purpose of this article is to address three specific points on the reasons why people want to leave the country and offer some solutions to them. If you shift the responsibility from the state to the individual, there are many ways to mitigate one's unhappiness in Singapore. I, too, felt that it was ridiculous for a good engineer to stay in Singapore in the noughties when I was building my career. You were constantly being undercut by foreigners who were employed by multinationals who are constantly trying to talk companies into outsourcing their IT departments. But having started investing early, it was possible for me to play the game from the other side of the equation.

a) Affordable place to live in

If you actually review inflation figures, Singapore is not unaffordable. We have hawker centres to provide cheap food, women have access to cheap domestic help and there is a large arsenal of financial support available for parents. Interest rates have also been kept low for a long time. Admirers of the Australian way of life should give paying Australian taxes a try.

But of course, if you choose to buy a car, enjoy smoking or drinking alcohol, Singapore will become one of the most expensive places to live.

I asked some fellow bloggers why the middle class with diplomas want their Rolexes and cars when it prevents them from becoming financially independent. We can only settle with the answer that perhaps material goods makes them feel that they have achieved something significant.  It is a source of self-esteem. The crowd with better degrees prefer to dwell in the realm of ideas and we tend to feel good when we have insight over a particular problem or made progress with careers.

The trick is to go with the flow and indulge in what is cheap in Singapore and avoid what is expensive.

b) Singapore's narrow definition of success

There is more credibility in this gripe. Singapore's definition of success cannot be avoided by going on your own way and using your willpower to ignore the views of other people. I always ask startup founders whether they can find a girlfriend, the answer I always get is that Singaporean women prefer men with stable careers. Singapore women in general do not like to bet on Moonshots.

This is a problem with no cure because politicians like to use the word "mindset change" to show their helplessness in dealing with some social issues.

But in many ways this is not even an issue. Because the only social cost is that you are deemed as being less successful as your friends who go to schools in Bishan and Barker Road. The damage is still mostly psychic.

Suppose you go to a society that has a broader definition of success, would you be truly better off ? At the very least, if you salary is sub-par, Singapore has a work fare program. In Australia, you need to be jobless to be on the dole.

Finally, Singapore's narrow definition of success subtly benefits a section of the male population who are mathematical and conscientious but lack a detectable personality. Somehow, these ultra-bland guys can settle down and establish families in their 40s. Its not wise to that away from them to benefit the fun hipster folks of media and communications. This is the kind of breed of men which produces the best civil service the world so we have to keep breeding them to maintain our success story as an economic miracle. ( SORRY ! )

c) Slower pace of life

The final point is a slower pace of life. This is also valid but I disagree on it's true meaning.

You can have a slower of life in Singapore. Just become financially independent like and and quit your job.

But that is not a satisfying solution as I have found out that a fulfilling life needs a constant stream of challenges. In my case, it has to intellectual in nature as I need problems to solve everyday.

Singapore's problem is that lack of a halfway house between full employment and non-employment.

I will either be worked like a dog or I will be wandering town with nothing to do. I really like a career track which is 3 day week but pays me only half of that of a full time job so that employers are incentivised to create this career track for middle aged workers but HR departments will only entertain such requests from working mothers.

If a guy requests for this perk, it signals deviance. I can imagine the personal projects I can do in my spare time, like pick up Python Django and IOT and add value to my workplace if someone gives me this career option.

But even then, Singapore is one of the places where authorities are ready to lend a hand to business men. You can design a lifestyle if you have great ideas and willing to tolerate a failure rate of 90% by starting a business. It's not an ideal solution but options for a slower pace of life is there.

At the end of that day, if you choose an area of study which amplifies your angst and unhappiness in society, you have to bear responsibility for your choice. The country cannot do anything for you.

My advice to the 6/10 is to actually leave.

Find your own personal heaven in Norway, Canada or Australia. There will be some people would gladly pay 37% taxes in exchange for some sayang sayang from their adoptive nations.

But this is Singapore.

No Sayang Sayang without achieving or mastering something significant.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

What does an Olympic gold medal mean for the Singapore Dream ?

I think an Olympic Gold medal deserves a quick write-up on this blog even though I should be slowing down for moots preparation.

First of all, like almost everyone here, I was pleasantly surprised at Schooling's Olympic Gold win. I never thought Singapore would actually see a Gold medal in Rio. That being said, I think this win raises a lot of questions about the nature of the Singapore Dream, and just how remote it has become for someone in the middle class to actually attain it.

If anything, as talented as Joseph is, luck played a major role in this event.
  • If Joseph had average parents, they would have persuaded him to take the 'A' level path and aimed towards a more regular income instead.  
  • If Joseph had been born in an average family with the median household income, even if they wanted to nurture his talent, they would not have been able to send him to a top sports school in the US.
  • If Joseph was not given deferment from NS, the gold may not have happened because of government interference. 
  • If Singapore could not get live broadcast rights, even if Joseph had gotten gold, most of us would not have been able to witness it live on TV. 
So many things would have gotten wrong but Singapore got lucky this time round.

We got lucky because Joseph had a great family, a successful dad who believes in him and the power of sport.

After this win, I asked myself whether I can be as noble and visionary as Colin Schooling, and sadly the answer is no.

I would, like many parents, choose a more stable career choice for my child in spite of their artistic or sport talents.

I would insist in the stable path because it is in their best interests to do so.

How many parents would admit to being more like me than Colin Schooling ?

Never forget that the reason why Singapore could see its first Olympic gold after 51 years of independence because Colin Schooling was astute and capable enough to afford to send his son to the US without taxpayer support.

If we are become successful financially within our generation, it may be possible that, for some of us, our children can pursue their talents without concern for financial stability.

This is our reality right now in Singapore.

For now let the burden of sports, entrepreneurship and the arts be borne by the rich.

This is not meant as a moral judgment on government policy.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Dealing with absurdities : Take small and tactical risks

National Day is over so it's time to address some of the absurdities which I have raised in the previous article on the Singapore Dream.

One way to deal with the absurdities is to take a risk.

Sometimes absurdities arise because of the way we approach risk. Take for instance, in the field of investments. If you want higher returns, you have a to buy equities and take on some market and credit risk. If your investment fails, it will take you further from your goal of financial independence. Financial bloggers always support the idea of investing in equities over time horizons. This way, the efforts have a much better chance of bearing fruit although you will end up owning horrible companies being run by occasional crooks.

I recently took an academic risk and signed up for International Moots. It's not a subject I am familiar with from my work experience and previous degrees and a lot of young hotshots are taking the subject in the hopes of representing the University. From a risk-return perspective, this move is not particularly rational because it takes up a lot of  a student's time. But the subject has coaches from the private sector and the folks who speak get a moment of 1-1 coaching which is hard to get in a University environment. Of course, representing the University can look really good on a student's resume.

This the essence in dealing with absurdity #4.

In the local education system, we stick to something that we are familiar with so that we will get a better grade on it but the tradeoff is that we learn less because we are not exploring new territory and developing new and unique capabilities. My personal experience is that grading by the curve creates this kind of effect on students. I think students make a fundamental mistake when they see their education as a portfolio of bonds which give steady but guaranteed returns, there is no room for innovation. At a broader level, rewards systems in a meritocracy run by similar principles. Reporters are only good to a sportsman only after he has achieved a significant result. No points are given for effort.

In a system where rewards commensurate only with  results, one possibility is to take small and steady bets on games of high volatility. An Olympian who gets gold for Singapore becomes an instant millionaire and gets an entry into the history books. This is an amazing result.

This is the essence of my foray into cryptocurrency mining. Some contracts have very low rates of return but I have targeted currencies with a high volatility to take advantage of the currency highs which happen throughout the life of the contract. Some bets starts to take on the character of a call option - something which may expire worthless but may also result in extraordinary returns.

Therefore, the to crack some of the absurdities of the Singapore Dream, not everything you do has to be ultra-stable and involve the well-trodden paths of other Singaporeans. One way of winning the Game of life is to have a broad general approach to minimise your risks in major areas of your life ( like a basic job ), but allocate a certain amount of time to take small amounts of risks which would mostly return nothing much, but has the odd probability of outstanding returns.

Due to my International Moots schedule, this blog will slow down it's updates until early September.

Unless something sensational happens, see you next month !

Monday, August 08, 2016

Conformity, Pokemon Go, and Skepticism.

For the past 2 days, I've joined the ranks of the Pokemon Go zombies.

It started out as a way to bond with my daughter who is not very attached to me. With Pokemon Go, she was more willing to go on a walk with me to catch random virtual pets. I found myself levelling up and catching Pokemon with the intention of at least, showing my daughter what fighting a Gym is like.

While I was not hooked ( I am obsessed with other things right now like IoT and Blockchains. ), here are some insights on this new craze.

a) It amazing how people get polarised into people who like Pokemon Go and haters with room in-between.

I consider myself someone in-between. I am a casual gamer who use the app to bond with my kid. It's interesting that Facebook has become polarised so easily. At one end of the spectrum are the crazy fanboys who share every achievement and screenshot. At the other end are nay-sayers.

Its interesting that one faction can call the other zombies when they themselves have their own anti-Pokemon interest group.

b) Pokemon craze will die out very quickly but Augmented Reality is here to stay. 

Pokemon Go will be forgotten in about half a years time. There is no reason for it to be sustained given that other games like Farmville and Draw Anything petered out within months but Augmented reality is here to stay.

Expect more games with more adult teams with similar mechanics to emerge. Also expect businesses to get into this app as a form of location based advertising. A missed opportunity was an app which employs a real cryptocurrency which can really be a platform for disruption in the future. Imagine landlords giving out tiny vouchers for shoppers to move to various checkpoints in their shopping centres.

c) Investors can learn a thing or two from this phenomenon

Investors should always maintain a level of skepticism when facing new technologies. Skepticism being a middle ground between enthusiasm and cynicism. Augmented reality moving mainstream is something brewing for a long time but not all technologies have been able to get their killer apps so easily. Semantic web technology has been around longer but it is so arcane that we've yet to see a similar breakthrough. Almost all my personal time after law school is now invested in Dapps and blockchains because I see it as something as big as the emergence of the Internet itself.

d) Keep your risk positions small is still key.

When it comes to time and money, its always good to keep the risk of each position small.

When I got into crowdfunding I kept my full investment below $5,000. Now I face two possible defaulting campaigns. Now I am getting into cryptocurrencies, I am only playing with hundreds of dollars but will scale it to no more than 1% of my entire portfolio size.

e) What is a Smart City all about ?

At the end of the day, Pokemon Go and various new initiatives should not always be a positive thing about choosing to become a Smart City.

I am generally very bullish about Singapore's future, but I can imagine driverless cars killing off the livelihoods of taxi drivers, ticketing kiosks killing off cinema workers. On the whole, Singapore needs to make this mercy killing as quickly as possible so that we can move on and adapt to a new and better way of life.

This does not only mean lower-end jobs, I expect many high end knowledge work to be disrupted as well. Blockchains will destroy traditional banks and clearing houses will be a thing of the past. Even the LRIS CPF plan will have a severe impact on the fund management industry, which is why such a great idea for common folk will not see a deadline for implementation.

At the end of the day, the only means of survival is a person's ability to pick up a new skill as all industries face its forces of creative destruction.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

What Singapore can learn from Donald Trump ?

As a follow-up to the article on the Absurdity of the Singapore Dream and the upcoming National Day Celebrations, I would just like to talk about policies at a macro-level. I wish to extend the argument that Singapore can learn a little bit from the rise of Donald Trump.

As a disclaimer, when I say that the government can channel Donald Trump when drafting policies, I was not referring to his racists, seditious and xenophobic rants. Instead, Singapore can do something to prevent the hijack of the existing government if they figured out why Donald Trump is edging closely to Hilary Clinton today in the Presidential elections.

More importantly, Singapore is not safe from a demagogue. Roy Ngerng is an inadequately informed citizen and was prone to massage his data to make the CPF programme look bad. Even though he lost a series of lawsuits, just look at how urgently the government is reforming the CPF program today with the introduction of LRIS and escalating payments in CPF Life. Now imagine what would happen if a highly-educated Roy Ngerng like character started making sense when addressing the Singapore crowds but also was opportunistic enough to channel dissatisfaction towards foreigners and minorities.

My hypothesis is as follows : If the absurdities of living in Singapore grow to a point whereby Chinese non-degree males become dissatisfied with living here, the ground will be ripe for a revolution.

This is the reason why Donald Trump is so popular today. He tapped into a wellspring of anger from white blue-collared men who have beens sidelined by elites. In America is very wrong to call someone a nigger, but calling someone a hillbilly or a redneck is ok and considered politically correct. Right up till this year, white blue-collared men have no voice until Donald Trump step forth and started addressing their concerns.

This lies at the root of my suggestions for what our government can do.

The government needs to study Chinese non-degree men very carefully while the going is good in Singapore. The cost of this study does not need to be borne by all Singaporean tax-payers because it can be paid for by CDAC or even part of NTUC. The last time I checked, CDAC still takes $1 off my paycheck every month.

What do these folks do in their spare time ?
Are they married, do they have children ?
Do they have adequate savings ?
Do they really need to own their home ?
Do they hold permanent or contract jobs ?
What are their aspirations ?
What are their hobbies ?
What is their life satisfaction levels ?

Upon personal reflection, the only time I get to meet these folks is when I am doing my reservist but we tend to create our own cliques very carefully once we settle down in camp, so I do not have a very conclusive idea of what they want out of life.

I cannot imagine our Admin officers and Philosopher Kings having a firm grasp of the working class Chinese men either.

But I do know this :

It is a very bad mistake to think that these folks want what we want. Social science studies already show that some guys just want to plug into the virtual world and not settle down.

Singapore as a Smart City can also do this way better than other countries. Anonymized data collected by surveyors can be uploaded as a dataset and then processed by members of the public and hackers. We can even build a new business around their needs.

Of course, my suggestion is certainly not for Singapore to detract from the excellent work already done on minorities. When I was a government officer, there was indeed some evidence that this has always been quite big in the policy maker's minds.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Personal Update

Just a short personal update :

a) Completed my internships

I have completed 6 week of internships first with a Criminal Legal Aid Scheme then subsequently with a legal department of a technology consulting firm. 

While it's probably safer not to discuss the work I did during my internships, I would say that seeing the law in action is a much welcome personal development. As I've spent 30 months without a pay check, it would interesting to note that the transition into employment has not as smooth as I thought. 

My schedules are all fairly lenient work schedules where I can return home on the dot. It took about 3-4 weeks for my body to get back to a 6 hour sleep cycle and I even fell sick for a few days. 

Things only started improving after I cut down drastically on carbohydrate intake, then I was able sleep and wale up without the use of an alarm.  Another way to make the work experience better is to combine coffee intake with one cup of green tea. This way, you can be alert without becoming too edgy and nervous. 

b) Financial Markets

There has been no developments in the market until a few days ago when the CPF board is making fairly substantial enhancements to broadening the investment options of fellow citizens via LRIS and allowing CPF Life to have payouts which appreciate with time, I will leave the work of explaining to the bloggers who have spoken on the issue. 

The major themes of the local market is that it is largely bullish after Brexit, but there are some looking risks in the horizon for us yield investors. Industrial REITs will face some downward pressure with a looming oversupply and retail looks quite dismal. I spent some time roaming around Marina Square and Suntec on weekdays and it seems quite bad to be a landlord in orchard road these days. Perhaps with rents trending down, we can see some new ideas emerge.
Another team is the dissolution of Swiber. I think Swiber is just a the beginning for O&G stocks. Fortunately, I don't have these counters in my portfolio. 

c) Books

The most exciting book I've read recently is Sarong Party Girls. Otherwise, I have been reading aggressively on Blockchains and Smart Contracts. I've gotten quite into Blockchain technology with my aim of becoming an expert over the upcoming semester, I'm in the middle of going through the literature but expect to do some hardware hacking and mining contract purchase over the next 3 months. 

This is a very exciting time for me as I've found something which touches on my IT, Finance and legal background. It's something I hope I don't screw up on over the next few months. Nevertheless expect me to write a lot more about my foray in Blockchains over the next few months.

d) Back to school tonight

As I have chosen to take on the super challenging International Moots module, I actually go back to school tonight and may even spent the whole day back in University tomorrow to read up on public international law. This will form the main part of my struggle over the next 2 months : taking a completely alien area of law of Public International Law and privately nurturing an obsession with cryptocurrencies and smart contracts. 

Interestingly, I was given an invitation to attend a business lecture next week which is unrelated to my current legal course. I will be hobnobbing with the top academic authorities on blockchains.
Hopefully by this weekend, I would have something more interesting for everyone.