Sunday, October 03, 2021

Helen, Ivan and a new way to think about Inheritance

The Internet has exploded with memes on the latest PSLE Math question involving Helen, Ivan and the number of coins that they have between them. I'm not particularly bothered by super-hard math questions because the same question was administered to the entire cohort of Primary 6 students. If the questions were any easier, it would be much harder to determine who should get into that "lousy" school. 

You can say what you want about the question, but there will be 12-year-olds out there who can solve it.

Closer to my personal life, some trolls have been attending my previews and asking me whether I have a privileged upbringing. My answer to that question is YES. My dad was a founder of possibly one of the most successful pet shop franchises in Singapore today and I lived in landed property for over three decades of my life even though today I take public transport and wear decathlon most of the time - a testament that there is social mobility in Singapore.

Strangely, I noticed that folks who harp bout my background are generally less dismissive about my array of academic qualifications. I have a strange way of building my educational portfolio - I don't like to go deep, but I sure love going broad when it comes to lifelong learning. But as of now, no one has complained that my material may be too alien to laypersons because I have engineering, finance and a law degree.

If you broadly look at Singapore, we generally start getting defensive about inherited wealth. ACS is the school that tends to get the most of the brickbats given that students often get chauffered to school in the 1980s. But RI was never the target of jealousy because the idea is that RI kids earned their place because they are smart. 

I think this is illogical. 

What gets ignored is that intelligence and conscientiousness are can also be inherited and the rise of assortative mating would mean that professors who marry each other will have kids of above-average intelligence ( even though the kids may not be as brilliant as their parents statistically speaking. ) Conducted over time, assortative mating is known to significantly contribute to income inequality, but sociologists continue to target inherited wealth in their diatribes against the political right, but as academics themselves who do commit a lot of inbreeding, they are less willing to target inherited brains.

If we arrange inherited wealth and inherited intelligence/conscientiousness, we can get a nice 2x2 matrix.

If you are smart but not that rich, maybe you can go to RI and run Singapore. If you are rich but maybe not that smart, then owning Singapore is your birthright as ACS master race. But the 2x2 matrix will reveal two hidden categories of Singaporeans. We have a Precariat, much like myself, who do not inherit enough money or brains. And we have the Elite - masters of the universe who have both money and brains. 

2x2 matrices are great because they let you think about what to do with four categories. I propose the following :

a) Inherited Brains but not Wealth - Professional

If you inherited brains but not wealth, then your best bet is to join the top professions. Top professions like medicine and law are not just academically draining - for a number of years doctors and lawyers work the most brutal office hours. If you can survive the hours, the legend says that medical specialists can buy one private property every month. 

Their children can be elite.

b)  Inherited Brains and Wealth - Join Government or run a Startup

These are the masters of the universe who have it all. Money and Brains. The challenge for society is convincing these folks to serve the nation. The Admin Service pays almost as well as Goldman Sachs but the decisions can impact all Singaporeans. Alternatively, being a startup founder is no sweat for elites because there is already a safety net against failure, the payoff is that thousands of jobs can be built.

The question is, as a society, how can we convince the elites to serve? Elites don't really have to if they don't want to.

c) No inherited brains or wealth - Play the Squid Game

This is where the precariat comes from. They have limited financial, social or cultural capital. In this case, I have channelled the last article and suggest they join the Squid Game - any vocation that is based on a tournament system like a career in sales. 

In sales, 80% of the income is earned by the most charismatic 20%. This can be insurance or real estate sales. 

I am in this category as I do have to sell myself every week.

d) Inherited Wealth but not brains  - Patron of the Arts

My ambition is for my kids to at least qualify to join this segment. At least getting the alumni privileges is not taxable by the government.

It is easy to just dismiss these guys who inherited just money because they can go through life in a coma. But I don't believe that wealth should necessarily lead to an existential vacuum. 

If you have a lot of money and maybe not so much brains, you can still be a patron of the arts and bring more beauty into people's lives.

For readers who have just finished this article, which quadrant do you belong to? Do you agree with my recommendations?

Share them in the comments below. 



  1. Superficially you can market yourself as a squidy, but you're closer to the entrepreneur / biz start-up spectrum. 😉

    As for admin service, it's usually the no inherited wealth/ high intelligence that stay in it. Those from super wealthy families often chaff at the system even if they're a high-flier being put in charge of a stat board in their 30s & higher chance of them leaving eventually.

    Btw when I say no inherited wealth above, it really means not crazy rich. Vast majority (75+%) of govt scholars do come from upper middle class i.e. parents at least condo address or terrace house.

  2. I think the government really needs to come up with a plan to draw elites into the Admin Service even though you are right, they really have no incentive to stay. Sometimes having wealth can mean saying no to a minister if there is a disagreement with policies.

    Without inherited wealth, the smart Admin officer will just bite the bullet and make things happen.