Dec 31, 2009

The Risks of Unregulated Investments in Singapore

In the ST Forum today, one Gabriel Chua writes as follows:

    "I would like the authorities to explain the regulatory framework governing all forms of investments where money is collected from Singaporeans and invested overseas.

    We have solid regulations governing finance firms, financial advisers, securities, futures, fund management and so on.

    Yet we have heard of how many Singaporeans have lost money investing in overseas properties sold in Singapore.

    We have strong regulations governing financial advisers who want to sell even $1,000 of unit trust investments. Do we have the same for companies set up here to collect money from Singaporeans for investments in their own country?"
Gabriel has correctly identified a gap in Singapore's laws.

In general, you can be quite confident that in Singapore, your insurance agent or financial adviser holds the proper licence to do his job. Also, banks and insurance companies all have to get a MAS licence, before they can do business here.

And if you buy land or property in Singapore, government bodies such as the HDB, the URA, the BCA and the Singapore Land Authority all do their part to ensure that the system is reasonably reliable.

But some other types of investments fly almost completely under the regulatory radar.

I have personally come across two examples. The first is fine wines. The second is foreign land. I'll just discuss the latter.

I once received a call from a telemarketer. She invited my wife and I to high tea at a 5-star hotel. She also promised that in return for our attendance, we would be given $100 worth of shopping vouchers (I think it was Tangs or Metro) .

The requirement? We had to sit through a 60-minute presentation. No obligation to buy anything. But we had to sit and listen for a full hour.

My wife and I attended. The conference hall was crowded, filled with many Singaporeans like ourselves. As we enjoyed our high tea, a lady came to our table and did her presentation. She carried a laptop, ran a Powerpoint slide show and discussed various brochures, maps and legal documents with us.

It was all about investing in a certain big, empty piece of land in the United Kingdom.

You didn't have to be super rich to participate either. The entry level was not high. Here's how the investment scheme worked.

The land in question was neatly divided into thousands of parcels (think of a grid of many, many small squares, superimposed on a big map). You could choose the specific parcels of land you wanted to buy.

Suppose the average price of one parcel was $5,000. If you wanted to invest just $5,000, you would buy just one parcel of land. If you wanted to invest $10,000, you would buy two parcels. And if you were very rich, you could plonk down. say, $5 million and buy 1,000 parcels of the land.

You could buy as many or as few parcels as you wanted.

I was told that the company was marketing this scheme to people in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. The whole idea of the exercise was to round up enough Asians to collectively pool their money and buy the entire piece of land. One fine day (and it could be many years later) the company would help them to sell the land for a good price, and each investor would then get his or her share of the profit.

I didn't invest any of my money.

I did ask lots of questions. My wife and I are both lawyers, and we found it interesting trying to work out the legal structure. The sales lady couldn't answer some of our questions, but she did get her boss to come and explain. He was a European businessman (a Finn, I believe), sophisticated and knowledgeable, and he gave reasonably good, clear answers.

Anyway, in the end, while we understood the legal structure, we felt that we didn't understand the market risks well enough. (I personally know nothing about land anywhere except in Singapore).

So we finished our coffee and snacks, and said, "Thank you, we will not be investing in this. Now can we have our free shopping vouchers?". We duly collected our free $100 shopping vouchers and left.

I should add that at this event, there was no hard sell. Right from the start, they had said that they would not use any unscrupulous tactics to pressure us to buy, and this was true - there were no unscrupulous tactics.

Nevertheless, the incongruity is undeniable.

You can't sell a $5,000 unit trust investment to an uneducated grandmother in Singapore, unless you hold the necessary licence and comply with all the MAS rules and regulations. The licence, and the rules and regulations, are to help safeguard the grandmother's interests.

But you can sell the same grandmother a $5,000 parcel of land, situated in a country far, far away, under a complex collective land ownership scheme. You don't need any licence. Nor does the Singapore government seem to know or care whether the land really exists; or what you tell or do not tell the grandmother; or what documents you ask her to sign.

Some potential for a disaster there. Right?

Dec 30, 2009

Kids, Dentists and Other Exciting Adventures

    ST 30 Dec 2009
    Pulling child's tooth ends in bite
    and slaps

    I WOULD like to express my dissatisfaction with Eastern Dental Surgery at Jurong West branch. I visited the dentist on Monday at 8.40am because my five-year-old son had a toothache. My son cried aloud when he went in. The dentist managed to give him two injections but with the third one, he was unable to bear the pain and tried to close his mouth, thus biting the dentist's finger which was inside his mouth.

    The dentist shouted loudly: 'You dare to bite my finger, I beat you.' Then she gave my son three slaps on his arm. I was shocked and the next moment, she shouted: 'I don't want to pull his teeth any more, since he bit my finger. Ask them to pay up.'

    The next minute I was chased out of the door and asked to pay $18. My son was so frightened he shivered non-stop and tears kept rolling down his cheeks.

    I do not think this is the right way to deal with a five-year-old patient. If the dental clinic accepts children as patients, the dentist should not beat them if they are not cooperative. My son told me he does not want to visit a dentist ever again.

    Chua Ying Jie (Ms)

I found the above quite funny. If I were Ms Chua herself, or the kid, or the bitten dentist, I would not have found it funny. But since I'm none of these persons, I must say I do find it quite funny.

It reminds me of an incident in my own childhood. I must have been around five or six then. I had a toothache and my father brought me to a dentist. But I was so scared that I would not open my mouth at all. I didn't bite the dentist, but I resolutely kept my mouth closed. After an hour or so, the dentist gave up and my scowling father had to bring me home.

Alternative extraction method.

My wife and I have been more expert, in handling our own children. The trick is to bring your little kids for a routine dental check-up, long before they ever have any toothache. Under non-painful, non-traumatic conditions, the kid will be easily persuaded to open his mouth. Thereafter he will get used to the idea of having dental check-ups.

Also, if you are going for your own routine dental cleaning/scaling, you can bring your kid along to watch. Then the kid will see that dentists are nice people and there's nothing particularly scary about visiting a dentist.

(But don't bring your kid, if you are getting your wisdom tooth extracted. Because that is scary).

The dental clinic I go to is GPA Dental, at United Square. They have got the coolest technological gadgets I have ever seen in any dental clinic. There's a small touch of James Bond, in their toys.

One of them is a wireless intra oral camera, with a macro lens, a built-in light etc. With this little device, the dentist can take close-up, high-pixel, full-color photos of your teeth, from right inside your mouth. These photos are transmitted to a computer and you can immediately view them on a mounted TV screen. The dentist will store these photos in his computer, as part of your dental records.

Dec 29, 2009

Writers, Photographers, NS and Saving The Trees

Did I ever mention that I really enjoyed my NS? A big part of it, anyway. My military vocation was a rare one. It was "writer". Yes, believe it or not, there is such a vocation, and my job was to write for Pioneer, the SAF magazine.

Half the week I would be touring different military bases (not just the army, but also the air force and the navy). The other half of the week I would be in my Mindef office, writing articles about the people I had interviewed and the events that I had witnessed.

I also had an NSF driver to drive me around, and an NSF photographer to take photos for my articles. It was fun.

Getting that job was like striking the lottery. Out of maybe 18,000 or 20,000 NSFs in my entire cohort, only two became "writers" (me and another guy). I can honestly say that neither of us was a "white horse". We didn't have dads or uncles who were brigadier-generals or perm secs.

Instead we were hand-picked for our writing ability. We were also selected for our confidence levels. (When you are 18 years old and just a chao private, you really do need confidence, to interview a senior guy like a brigade commander, or the Chief of Navy, or the Minister of Defence).

There was another NSF guy - his vocation was "translator". His job was to translate our articles, for the Chinese edition of Pioneer (not such a fun job, since he didn't get to go out of the office). His command of English and Chinese was formidable. At that age, he was already writing serious plays in English, and serious poetry in Chinese.

(As a matter of fact, I just tried to google his name. If I've found the right guy, then this year he just directed a bilingual theatrical production, and also won an award for Chinese poetry).

Oh yeah, and my NSF photographer friend. He later became a professional photographer and one year he even won Singapore's Young Artist of the Year award (for photography). You can see some of his stunningly evocative and beautiful pictures here, here and here. Heck, I'll post one photo on my blog - I don't think he would mind.

Photo by Ken Seet

Ken even knows how to make SAF soldiers look cool. Check out the 56 military photographs available here.

You have to be a little impressed about how Pioneer has consistently managed to identify 18-year-olds with talent in writing or photography. Pioneer's alumni NSFs include people like Russel Wong, Adrian Tan, Colin Cheong, Simon Tay and Warren Fernandez. If my memory serves me correctly, once upon a time the ever-incisive Cherian George was also an NSF Pioneer writer.

Anyway, why am I writing all this today? Because I just read someone's blog post, and it reminded me of my NS days. The post is entitled How to Cancel Your Pioneer Subscription, and it goes like this:

    Just go to this URL, fill in your particulars; type in some reasons, such as: you prefer reading the cyber version to save the Earth or your family is receiving duplicate copies; request to unsubscribe; then click SUBMIT. That’s it.

    Here’s a template:

      Dear Sir/Mdm,

      I would like to unsubscribe and stop receiving Pioneer magazine in my mailbox as I prefer reading the online version for environmental reasons.

      Thank you and hope to hear from you soon.

      Best Regards,

    I cancelled mine once I ORDed years ago.

    Frankly, the magazine is a waste of paper and money. Help spread the word along to save the Earth as I believe most people will just chuck their Pioneer magazine straight into the waste paper bin without even tearing open the plastic wrapper.

    Subscription is forced for all NSF at 40 cents per issue (if not I would have cancelled it immediately after getting my first issue). It’s cheap, but it’s still money. Not cancelling it will be wasteful as I am not interested in reading news about SAF. Moreover, there’s
    the online version (slightly different) which is better for the environment if you really want to read.

    The Singapore government is moving towards an advanced e-government model, encouraging Singaporeans to do more government transactions and queries online. Why is the SAF always a few steps behind?

    At the very least, the cost of the magazine should be absorbed by SAF, given that NS and reservist are national obligations for Singapore males who are rendering a
    service for the nation.

Well, I won't pretend to be too sad.

I truly enjoyed my NS at Pioneer. I got to know some very talented young folks. I also had the chance to meet and write about all kinds of people in the SAF - from defence scientists and BMT recruits, to the elite Naval divers and the Commandos.

And while I was at Pioneer, I always did my best to write good, solid articles that gave due respect and credit to the people featured in them.

However, shortly after I ORD'd, I too cancelled my own Pioneer subscription.

The simple truth is that the SAF is a conscript army, and most of the conscripts aren't that interested in the SAF. The average NSman does want to know about things that directly affect him, such as new IPPT rules, or increases in SAF allowances. But not much more than that.

Most of us wouldn't want to read about yet another OCS commissioning parade. Or yet another upgrade of an old piece of military hardware. Or yet another overseas training exercise - unless it involved our own unit. Maybe not even then.

Also, you can't argue with the "let's save paper" environmental point. Well, I don't know how to argue with it anyway. Years ago, I cancelled my subscription to the print edition of the Straits Times .... for the same reason.

Dec 28, 2009

The Supplementary Retirement Scheme

Oops, it's that time of year again. Need to rush down to the bank and deposit the usual $11,475, before the 31 December deadline. This will reduce my income tax by exactly $2,295 next year.

Yes, I am referring to the Supplementary Retirement Scheme. For full details, click this link - you'll get the Finance Ministry's official explanation of the SRS.

The SRS is nothing new - it was introduced about a decade ago - yet many Singaporeans do not seem to know about it. Briefly, it's a voluntary government scheme which provides tax benefits to encourage people to save and invest for their own retirement years.

I think that the SRS is a good idea. Not necessarily for all people (because everyone has his or her own unique financial circumstances). But the SRS could definitely be a good idea for many people.

However, I realise that the SRS might not be that easy to understand. Take for example the blogger at Salary.Sg. In general, his articles are very informative and well-written, and I've enjoyed reading many of them. However, his recent post about the SRS - entitled What's Not Good about the SRS - struck me as a little disastrous.

The blogger discussed the SRS and concluded that it was basically a terrible thing and you would be foolish to use it. However, his explanation was not convincing and he clearly didn't know (or didn't appreciate) the finer points of what you can do with your SRS monies. (On the plus side, several of his readers did respond with good comments, to correct the shortcomings of the article).

In general, the SRS works best for (1) the higher earners, and (2) people who are interested and committed to a long-term plan of building up their retirement funds. It may also make sense for working people who are, say, already in their 50s and do not foresee having to meet any major financial expenses between now and their retirement age.

Also, the SRS has some uses for income earners who foresee that in the future, there will be a year, or two, or three, when their taxable income will dwindle sharply (for example, the person might be planning to temporarily stop work to pursue higher studies, or to look after the kids at home).

My advice to you is to at least find out how the SRS works. Then you can make an informed decision as to whether it is for you or not.

Dec 27, 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

'Tis the season when I grow jolly and quiet and busy, all at the same time. As I reflect on the big picture of life, I see the hits, the misses, the hugs and kisses, and all the new adventures that lie ahead in 2010. Life is a rich and colourful place, and I am glad to be here.

Right now, my left brain and the right brain are getting together to talk and sing and plan and imagine a few possibilities. I've made a list of things I want to do in 2010, and a list of things I need to do, and a list of "maybe" things.

Some details are sketchy - but is that not how life behaves? There's only so much that we can foresee and predict. Life itself will fill in the blanks as we go with its flow.

Oh yeah. I spent some time thinking about what to do with this blog in 2010. One possibility was to delete it and quit blogging. Nahhh, I told myself, that is a little too drastic. On the other hand, it is true that the original raison d'etre of this blog (and its predecessor, Mr Wang Bakes Good Karma) has already been fulfilled.

When Mr Wang first started blogging in 2005, the Singapore blogosphere was pretty much a ghost town, as far as discussion of social, political and economic issues were concerned. My goal was to help plant the seeds for a more active, socially aware blogosphere - to encourage debate, to encourage participation, to get more people to come forward and express their views too.

Back then - I know that many of you would have forgotten by now - some readers were hesitant even to leave anonymous comments on a blog. They feared that somehow, the evil PAP government would find a technological way to identify and track them down. And who knows what the PAP might do then? Blacklist their HDB application; their scholarship application; their job application; or worse, get the ISD to arrest them.

That was our kind of Internet culture, back then. That was the climate in Singapore, generally. We've come a long way since then. Not saying that everything is all flowers and beauty right now - it's not. But today the local blogosphere is certainly much bigger, much more active, less fearful, than it used to be. Many, many more Singaporeans (ok, PRs and foreigners too) are blogging to express their views about what's good, what's bad and what can be improved about Singapore. Furthermore things have reached a point when the government can no longer not acknowledge the existence of views, opinions and concerns expressed on the Internet.

And with that - Mr Wang will ... well, not exactly retire from writing about social issues etc. But Mr Wang will definitely feel much more at liberty, to venture into new sorts of topics, different sorts of themes, all in the great new year of 2010.

See you then. Happy New Year!

Dec 15, 2009

More About Financial Goals

J Singh wrote to me again and said that he would try out the "goal identification" approach mentioned in my previous post. So I will say a few more things about this approach.

Emergency Funds

For the average young Singaporean stepping out into the working world, one important early goal would be to save up some emergency cash. The main emergency I'm referring to here is the possibility of becoming unemployed.

The rough guideline is that you should have cash roughly equal to six months worth of your usual expenses. This will allow you to survive, while you look for another job. Six months is just a guideline. You might need more, or less - depending on how likely you are to lose your job, and how long the period of time you're likely to need, before you find another job.

This emergency money is to be tucked away in some very low-risk instrument (such as a savings account, a fixed deposit or an SGD money market fund). It is meant to protect you against emergencies and is not for investment purposes.

Medical Insurance

After you've established your emergency fund, you might want to consider medical insurance. Young, healthy persons might consider medical insurance less important, and there is some rationale in this. However, the longer you delay buying health insurance, the greater the risk that as the years pass, you may find yourself getting some medical condition (for example, high blood pressure; high cholesterol levels; ovarian cysts or whatever).

By then, you will have to pay a higher premium for your health insurance. Alternatively, the insurance company may refuse to cover you for the risks of particular types of diseases.

If you do have some pre-existing medical condition, make the effort to shop around a bit before you commit yourself to taking up any particular medical insurance policy. This is because different insurance companies do take a different view towards the same kind of medical condition. Some insurers would be stricter, others more liberal.

Depending on where you work, your employer may also provide health insurance. This is a nice benefit, but not terribly reliable. You don't know when you will change jobs, and when you change jobs, the insurance usually lapses.

Life Insurance

Life insurance is important only if you have dependents (such as aged parents or young children). After you die, you don't need any money for yourself.

There are several types of life insurance available in the market. For most people, the first kind of life insurance policy they should buy is term life insurance. You pay a small sum every month and are assured of a large payout, in the event of your death. The policy is purely for protection purposes, and if you don't die, you get nothing back.

If your key intention is to secure financial protection for your dependents, term life insurance generally works better than other types of life insurance, which try to add in some element of investment. The reason is that these other types of insurance pay out much less, if you die.

Financial Investments

If you've got spare cash left over, it's time to think about investing it. In my opinion, the average man in the street should avoid structured products. I would recommend ETFs and/or unit trusts for most people.

Don't buy unit trusts through a brick-&-mortar bank, because you can buy the same unit trusts more cheaply, through an online distributor such as Finatiq, Dollardex or Fundsupermart. If you feel that you need some financial advice on what to buy, there is a somewhat sneaky thing you could do. Visit a bank, talk to the financial consultant, ask your questions, get all the advice and answers you want and then say, "Well, I'm going away now to think about this matter." Then go and buy the unit trusts through an online distributor.

Dec 14, 2009

Money and the Big Picture of your Life

An email from a reader, J Singh:

    Dear Mr Wang,

    Having been an avid reader of your blog for over 2 years now, I feel somewhat inclined to write in to you to ask for your advice. While it is common knowledge that you are in the finance industry and have made a successful life for your family and yourself, it would not have happened without sound financial planning. It is on this subject that I would like to seek your thoughts on, if you can spare the time.

    As a fresh graduate, I find it hard to reconcile the fact that there is close to nothing in our education system that touches on how to prepare oneself financially for the years ahead. Now that I am out facing the world on my own, my lack of preparedness is telling especially since I have taken an issue like this for granted. It seems that the onus is upon the individual to read, source out elders and common media to seek their advice on what insurance policies to purchase, how much should one save and where should one invest one's savings, what does one do with the CPF accounts(invest, insurance?) and how is one ever going to afford a HDB flat (among other pertinent questions).

    These questions are mind boggling and daunting for someone trying to make a mark in this world. My peers in the US, of the same batch not the same age due my NS obligations, are way ahead in this respect as the literature suggests that one should start such planning around the age of 22 to ensure success in the long run. Perhaps, I digress by sharing my fears with you and you would rather I come straight to the point.

    My point is, what do I do? Where do I start? What do I need to know to make the S'porean system work for me to ensure that my future will be a comfortable one? I have financial advisers bombarding me with tons of insurance policies and insurance-savings plans while others are recommending unit trusts, stocks and other instruments. I have turned every single one of them away as I fear committing to something I can't grapple with. I don't think you will have the time to tell me in detail what needs to be done but I would appreciate if you could point me in the right direction. Admittedly, depending on an individual's preference, background and risk appetite, the advice doled out would be different but I am certain there are some basic tenets of financial planning that everyone should do or know about. Your thoughts .....?

Well, it's not as complicated as that. Or maybe I should put it this way - you don't need to know everything there is to know about money, in order to manage your own finances with reasonable soundness.

You could start by listing your own financial goals and needs, and identifying which ones are most important. Then work out a plan for your most important goal/need, and put the plan into action. Repeat with the next most important goal/need.

People have different goals and needs (because their circumstances are different) and what's important to one person may not be important to you at all. For example, life insurance is important to the average parent with young kids, but it's not terribly important to a young adult with no dependents.

Also your goals and needs will change over time, so you need to review and adjust your plans periodically. Don't look for a magic formula to the question of how to manage your money. There really isn't any. Money issues are intimately linked to almost every part of your life (for example, your home, your career and your family's needs) and basically, life is too complicated to be reducible to a single magic formula.

You will need some long-term strategy, but the fact is that as the years pass, you'll probably end up revising and changing it beyond recognition. Nobody really knows what will happen, in 30 or 40 years time (to you, Singapore or the world). That doesn't mean that you shouldn't plan for retirement. It does mean that you'll keep changing your plans many times as the years pass.

In other words, life is complex and uncertain. And you just have to get comfortable with that.

A Slow Death for Diaries and Other Old-Fashioned Things

    ST Dec 14, 2009
    Corporate diaries harder to come by
    Such year-end gifts are drying up as firms cut back on costs or go green

    THE wave of corporate diaries and calendars that usually washes over workplaces this time of the year has dried up, with 2010 looming as the year people will just have to buy their own.

    Banks and manufacturing companies - noted for corporate gift-giving - are handing out fewer goodies, which means firms that make these freebies are hurting, with their sales down by as much as 50 per cent.

    Mr Frankie Chia, president of the Gifts Association of Singapore, said: 'Sales of corporate diaries and gifts are generally much worse this year as corporate customers cut back on their budgets.'

    Retiree Tammy Leong is feeling the pinch as well. December is usually her favourite month, with corporate diaries, calendars and Christmas hampers flowing in from her bankers and insurance agents.

I think that it's not so much to do with the economy, but the fact that many people don't use paper-based diaries and calendars anymore.

They would rather use some electronic tool to achieve the same purposes. For example, you could use your handphone or PDA or Blackberry; or the calendar and to-do functions on your Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes; or some free online application such as Google Calendar.

I am a bit of a dinosaur. For my personal matters, I still use a paper-based filofax (remember those?). But at work I use the calendar and to-do functions on Lotus Notes to keep track of my appointments, meetings and tasks.

I still remember how the legal profession was like, when I first graduated (and that wasn't so long ago, just a decade or so). Senior lawyers would invariably advise a junior lawyer about the importance of maintaining, building and updating his own collection of "precedents".

What does that mean? Well, as time went on and you worked on different types of legal matters, you would photocopy useful legal documents and organise them nicely into thick ring files, for your own future reference. Effectively, your personal collection of legal precedents represented the sum total of your legal knowledge and experience, and was a valuable professional asset to be guarded carefully. A senior lawyer would easily have dozens of precious precedent files lining his shelves.

That was then. Now I have everything I need, on one thumb drive.

Dec 12, 2009

December Shopping in Myanmar

I've said it before - my poems have a tendency to travel to slightly odd places. Now see what we have here:

It's a page from a fashion magazine in Myanmar. Most of the text is in Burmese, but notice the words in English - "Gilbert Koh" and "December Shopping". Yes, one of my poems got translated and is now circulating in a Myanmese magazine called Crown.

The translator is Zaw Myo Nyunt, a Burmese national and Singapore PR. Zaw comes from a rather literary family - his father is a publisher; his mother is a novelist; his brother is a journalist and his sister runs a bookstore. Zaw had read my poems, he enjoyed them and he wanted to try his hand at doing a translation. So that's how my poem December Shopping ended up in Crown.

A Burmese fashion magazine seems to be an odd place for Singaporean poetry to appear. Zaw's explanation is that many Myanmese people are very interested in all things Singapore. They want to come here for work, education, medical treatment and yes, for the shopping. So that's the excuse for December Shopping to appear in Crown.

Anyway, here's the English language version of the poem. It's really about the materialistic and consumerist side of the modern world:

      December Shopping

      Here comes Christmas. Take it, strip it down
      wash it clean, then doll it up, prettify,
      package, add a ribbon. Now offer it up for sale,
      an orchard road product made new again.
      See the santa claus reindeer at centrepoint,
      touch the gold-dusted wings of angel
      mannequis, feel the softness, the warmth
      of cotton-wool snow, meltproof against
      the little coloured blinking bulbs.
      Do you not rejoice, would you not sing
      along in a fa-la-la-la-la sort of way?
      Meet baby jesus and holy mother,
      starring as takashimaya decorations,
      the three wise men as props.
      The crowds are awful, the roads too long,
      for roads that lead nowhere,
      but the lights are bright and the sales -
      oh, the wonderful sales! - are truly
      a shopper's paradise. What you buy is
      what you are, and what you are is here,
      on display, for sale, at a discount,
      very, very cheap. What joy! What happiness!
      What a birthday bash! Give thanks
      for the power of visa, the size
      of your December bonus, for this
      great offering of material things.
      Let us eat, let us feast like gluttons,
      swarm like flies, drown in proverbial milk
      and honey - it's christmas, after all,
      Singapore's greatest shopping season.

Little Pieces of the Past

Another year draws to a close. Soon we'll be saying goodbye to our home, moving away and lugging ourselves to a new life elsewhere. This is as good a time as any, to start discarding the old and making space for the new. I've been tossing out all sorts of items, from clothes to books to electrical appliances. It's a kind of cleansing process.

Today I'm tossing out my chess trophies as well. I had to deliberate somewhat, before arriving at this decision. Felt a little sentimental about them. I decided to take a photo, before they all go into the bin. There:

I still have another collection of trophies in my parents' home. Left them there, after I got married and moved out.

These are just silly pieces of metal, wood and plastic, but I have some fond memories attached to them. I used to represent my secondary school, junior college, university and constituency. As a teenager, I also used to go around to different community centres (or clubs, as they're now known) to take part in chess competitions.

Among other things, I've been the SJI individual champion; the VJC individual champion; and the NUS men's individual champion. In team competitions, we've won the National Inter-Clubs first division several times. From secondary two up to junior college, I won a medal in the National Junior Individuals' Chess Championships every year. I even competed overseas a few times.

But also I enjoyed chess, because it brought me into contact with many quirky, interesting people whom I otherwise would not have met. And many of them became my good friends.

I think I gained a lot from this game. It taught me to be comfortable with complexity and uncertainty (and that's often how life is, complex and uncertain). I also learned to stay cool and think sharp under pressure, an attribute which has helped me in exam halls, courtrooms and corporate boardrooms. Another lesson I learned was to neither underestimate nor overestimate people, based on their appearances. Because appearances can be very deceptive ....

There's a fairly recent book by ex-world chess champion Garry Kasparov. It's entitled How Life Imitates Chess. I've not really read the book, but only browsed through different chapters at a bookstore.

It's not your usual "How to Play the Sicilian Defence" or "How to Play Rook Endgames" chess book focusing on some technical aspect of the game. Instead it's a book where Garry uses analogies and examples drawn from the game of chess, to discuss strategies for business, personal life and politics. (Note that after Kasparov retired from chess, he ventured into politics, and in fact, was a candidate for President of Russia in 2008).

I found it interesting to browse through Kasparov's book. Like many other serious chessplayers, I had realised long ago that many chess strategies are also applicable in real life. However, Kasparov's book is the first which really attempts to discuss how lessons learned at the chessboard can also be valuable elsewhere.

But in the end, I didn't buy the book. Because by the time I came across the book, I had already stopped playing chess for years. Much as I used to love this game, it's now a thing of the past for me.

And that's why I'm throwing out my chess trophies too.

Dec 7, 2009

Virtual Realities, Roller Coasters and Casino Gambling

Just back from our holiday in Japan. Among other things, we gorged on a feast of theme parks, spending a day each at Universal Studios, Disneyland and Disneysea. Roller coasters, 4D reality, Spiderman, haunted houses and all the rest of it.

It was really fun. Not just for the kids, but for me as well (however Mrs Wang got somewhat terrified by the Tower of Terror).

Now I'm looking forward to Singapore's own integrated resorts on Sentosa, especially the Universal Studios that will form part of the Resorts World IR.

At the same time, my Japan trip somewhat reinforces in my mind the drawbacks of Singapore's approach. Because of the casino element, we're inevitably going to face a host of social ills, such as prostitution, loansharking and gambling addiction.

In contrast, Disneyland, Disneysea and Universal Studios in Japan offer clean, wholesome, family-friendly fun. They are also huge attractions in their own right, drawing an endless stream of tourists and visitors all year round. Nothing sleazy about it.

Why did Singapore have to choose the sleazy route? Ah well, too late to ask now.