Monday, August 15, 2022

On Singapore's elusive third gear lifestyle


Every National Day, I want to talk about emigration. But this year it seems that many influencers and bloggers have started to beat me to the punch. Kelvin Learns Investing probably made many Singaporeans proud when he talked about why he will not retire in Malaysia (link). A week ago, there was this wonderful article about a Singaporean who settled down in Chile (link).

I'm trying to put something together to talk about quitting until I saw this article about a Japanese restaurant called Tenya that has raised salaries by 10% and instituted a four day week to solve their manpower crunch. ( link )

I think Tenya is onto something.

I called this the Singapore "Third Gear" problem. For folks who remember cars with a manual transmission, drivers would start at 1st gear and, as the vehicle moved faster, gradually shifted until 5th gear, when the car is reaching its fastest speed. When I was very close to becoming Financially independent, I realized that there was a problem in Singapore - Singapore workers can only be unemployed (first gear) or work crazy hours (fifth gear). 

There is no middle-ground or third gear in Singapore. 

No lifestyle design where you can work a little and live a little pushing many Singaporeans to emigrate somewhere else. 

The first gear would be folks who do not have real jobs. These can be stay at home mums, folks living on government welfare by attending courses organized by the government during the pandemic, husbands who have successful wives calling themselves "business consultants", folks who inherit money, or anyone claiming to be a life-coach.   

Fifth gear would be a majority of Singapore workers. Folks who are committed 9-5 on weekdays on jobs which provide a career path, decent pay, but very little leeway for work-life balance. If you belong to the professional or executive path, bosses expect you to be available 24-7. To be fair fifth gear in Singapore is probably a decent place to be because of low taxes and you really get to keep what you kill, but it is soul draining and some countries like Dubai pay even better for fifth gear work.  

When I was teetering at the brink of financial independence, I was concerned about shifting down to first gear, this is even though I was not just financially independent on my own but I'm also a bit of an inheritor. 

First gear may be irreversible, after a while, no sane HR professional would want to have a look at your resume. Worse, I can't seem to take first-gear folks seriously, they seem so out of touch with reality. For an ENTJ, it's better to lose my financial independence than to stop mattering in society. 

And there's no respect. We're a nation of snobs.

So I stuck to fifth gear for 7 years after living on my investment income. But eventually you end up working for toxic environments as you rise through the ranks of management, where your skills matter less than your political maneuvering. Fortunately, I was able to let fifth gear go at age 39, long after investment payouts exceeded work take home pay.

But I can't find the third gear. 

I delayed for 4 years to go back to school to contemplate my life and maintain an air of respectability.

Eventually, I found some semblance to the third gear after rejecting the legal industry.

In this life, I can free most of the time unless I am conducting a class, then all the work and attendance is non-negotiable given how much preparation my colleagues need to get a class for me. This third gear is very volatile and my sales can be very unpredictable and only those with a fairly high investment cash flow can sustain it for this long. 

I suspect most third gear folks, if you can find them, are not conventionally employed in Singapore. Like me, they either report taxes as a sole proprietor or under the  LLP structure. 

( The guys who own a Pte Ltd actually work kinda hard and may even work on 6th gear until their business becomes profitable. ) 

The good news is that things are changing. 

I think with the pandemic and tighter curbs to foreign labor, SMEs may finally be pushed to really start thinking about what the modern Singapore worker wants. Building a fifth gear job with no chances of advancement would mean that very few locals would want to work for SMEs. But upping the pay a little and then downgrading to a 4-day workweek is a good start and these jobs may meet the aspiration of the Singapore worker. 

Not everyone is a an ENTJ. Many are INFPs who can't count, are lazy, and have an affinity for making bad life decisions..

At the very least, you can live the New Zealand and Aussie lifestyle in a low tax regime. Also you don't have to resort to career in sales to do this. How many balloons need to be forcibly taken away from children for angry parents to seek a statutory amendment to outlaw FAs here?

From a FIRE perspective, thanks to Tenya, Barista FIRE becomes a lot easier to attain in Singapore, where a fifth gear job can get you about $1,000 a month in investment income after 5-8 years, then you downshift to third gear lifestyle on a four day week in the F&B or retail industry.

At the end of the day, liberals like Tommy Koh can talk about Singaporeans being snobbish and the government can talk about a new social compact. 

Just pressure SMEs to unlock a four day work week and make a third-gear lifestyle achievable, fewer folks would emigrate to Australia and New Zealand design a lifestyle there. 


  1. Yep, I'd love to work 2 or 3 days a week, but not possible in IT. Its all or nothing.

  2. I tried to change to third gear in IT, but no luck. So nothing it is. Admittedly, in the long term third gear is not ideal for professions that change rapidly, there could surely be more space (as in open mind) for it