About 20 years ago, when Singtel first went public, the media started a flurry of educational videos, explaining what stocks and shares were all about. All this came about at the start of the property boom (bubble) when people literally made money by moving their homes. I watched in awe as friend and colleagues maxed out their credit cards to pay the deposit for condos they could never afford. One even quit his profession to become a property agent. During my incamp training, everyone was talking about this idiot-proof way to riches. People who had made it and were going in for a second and third kill wanted to kiss the government’s toes. But what about those who could not afford properties and dared not speculate? In late 1993, another craze was started.
I remember watching these educational videos on TV with the characters engaged in casual and contrived Q&A sessions delivering over-simplified or even misleading statements like “when the company makes money, you make money.” No names were mentioned, but that was late 1993 and Singtel had just announced its IPO.
With statements like this coming from the trusted authorities, the kiasu response which followed was so predictably Singaporean. Because shares could be paid for with much less money, the response from the public was nothing short of overwhelming. I didn’t witness the mayhem first hand, but according to some reports, there were a couple of fainting incidents in the crowds and queues that flocked to subscribe to Singtel shares. In the days and weeks that followed, friends who only had a fuzzy notion of how the stock market works started opening accounts with securities firms in order not to be left out of what seemed like another bao jiak (sure win).
Then I found out that my friend C has been hungrily snapping up shares. And she is very well-do-do, a well-educated professional living in big house already worth more than a million back then. Out of a mixture of curiosity and concern, I asked C how she picked her stocks. Her answer shocked me.
“Just buy the shares from companies owned by the government lor. Bao jiak one.”
Her portfolio comprised only government-owned companies. She didn’t bother to question whether the frenzy had pushed prices too high. The next few months after Singtel’s debut on the stock exchange saw its share price sliding. As property prices hit new highs, the relatively slow-earning stocks began to lose their lustre. Euphoria turned into disappointment. Some people panicked. Some were even angry. At a Singtel counter in town, an auntie approached an innocent receptionist and stunned her with the statement: “Do you know your share price has been falling?” What does the poor girl have to do with Singtel’s share price? She was only a receptionist. Never mind, auntie just needed a punching bag.
Meanwhile, my letters to the press had all mention of misleading “advertisements” and “overpriced Singtel shares” edited out. Somehow, the message must have gotten through, probably on usenet which the government must have been monitoring. If you have time, you may want to check out the archives. Anyway, our then PM Goh reassured everyone that Singtel was doing well. If the shares were kept for their children and grandchildren, the value was sure to go up. To PM Goh’s credit, he did warn investors about the potential pitfalls but I don’t remember anyone condemning the educational videos which gave the uninitiated folks out there a false sense of bao jiak. A lot more people could have been saved if they censored this sort of misleading ads instead of scenes depicting sex and nudity in our films.
In 1996, the Asian financial crisis swept through the region. Banks recalled loans or demanded equity top-up. I saw people crying on TV. My friend who quit his profession to become a property agent went bankrupt. I didn’t ask C what she lost, but she sold her house and moved into a flat. Impulsive, greedy moves and the sheep mentality came home to roost. Thanks to the much better corporate governance in Singapore than neighbouring countries, Singaporeans did not suffer as much as its neighbours.
Once we were out of the woods, people started pushing their luck again. But how real is this wealth? I’m not your typical Singaporean. I’m scientific in my approach to most things, but I’m also an artist. I can appreciate the finer things in life, but I’m also an adventurer who can sleep in tents. Unlike most Singaporeans, I bought the cheapest home that I was allowed to buy. I have no wish to own a car. I have no credit card and practically no debt. Except for compulsory Medisave, I have very little money locked up in my CPF.
Why? Because I’m a rebel who refuses to submit to things like COE. I find myself practising more effective Buddhism than those who visit the temples regularly. By rejecting these “measures of success”, I actually shield myself from a lot of the stress that afflicts most Singaporeans. And they cringe when they hear all this – especially those who think that I’m in a lucrative profession. Perhaps for this reason, no local woman I had the honour of meeting ever thought that I was husband material. I look pretty hopeless and pathetic, but am I? I can hit the minimum sum in my CPF simply by transferring some cash into my CPF account, but why should I do that? Why do I need to “feel so rich” looking at numbers on a piece of paper? Why should the same set of rules be applied to the sheep and the mavericks?
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana
Time flies. It’s 2015 now. Singaporeans today are a lot better educated. They are also internet savvy and many people have Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter accounts. Netizens are impulsive, impatient and demanding people. They are quick to condemn and they are impossible to please. The government has come under constant fire. But the results of GE2015 show that some things have not changed. Young couples are still deep in debt, choosing to buy the most expensive flat that they can afford after stretching their dollar till it tore. They trust that it’s a bao jiak bet even if it’s only an HDB flat. They may complain to no end about not having work/life balance and indeed, they work some of the longest hours in the world. They may complain about the high cost of living, the overstretched public transport system, the unrealistic educational system, the import of foreign talent which depressed their wages, but at the end of the day, they do realise that they are in precarious positions, burdened by massive loans and mortgages. No, they don’t want to live like Dr Chee Soon Juan, no matter how much they approve of his political correctness. They may shed a tear or two for the old folks pushing cardboards, but they sleep very well at night as long as their shares are climbing. They want “track record”, security, stability and idiot-proof investments which can only be promised by one party. They still want to be guided, protected and assured that everything is bao jiak. If not, there is always a punching bag in waiting.
I’ll end this posting with two song dedications. Written more than 30 years ago, reflecting Taiwanese society back then, they are still very relevant to our society now. Hopefully, these songs will give you some food for thought. Below is one of my favourite songs by Taiwanese doctor turned musician Luo Dao You.
This is my favourite part:
Here is another one of my favourites from Luo Dao You: a classic from his very first album.
My favourite part: