Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Steady Ride

It’s been something of an interesting year. On the global scale the year was marked by disasters in the aviation industry. Malaysian Airlines lost not one but two flights in the space of a few months. As the year comes to an end, it was the turn of Malaysia’s star airline from the private sector to suffer a crash.

In terms of the global economy, we saw a comeback of the world’s largest economy, the USA. On a more positive note, the Obama Administration did something unusually courageous; it talked to Cuba and finally took positive steps to end a 50-year old embargo that had only served to keep the wet dreams of the Miami Cuban Diaspora happy. Hopefully this tropical island will boom in the way that it deserves to.

There were no big family events this year. My cousin Lucas got married to Cheryl, his long term girlfriend. She is a delightful addition to the family and we all look forward to the day when they start a family. Mum, Auntie Frieda and Uncle Adrian made an appearance.

For me, the Family Court decided to be kind and granted the adoption order to allow me to adopt Thuy, my favourite evil teen. She has since changed her name to Jennifer Tang and we are currently trying to get her settled on a long term basis in school. She’s settling into school slowly. Not sure if it’s a good thing but she’s got an aptitude for visual arts, rather like my sister who is born twenty years and one day before her.

The career front was ordinary. Unlike the preceding years there was not grand project with either the IIT or IIM Alumni, though I admittedly continue to be friends with members of both associations. I still keep in touch with Supriyo Sircar, of Polaris who continues to encourage me to write. I also remain on good terms with Suresh Shankar of Crayon Data and V. Harihairan of Third Wave Power.

The most prominent PR work was for Girija Pande, the current Chairman of Apex-Avalon and former Chairman of Tata Consultancy in Asia Pacific. I guess I had a stroke of luck, the Chinese President (China’s strongest leader in a generation), decided to visit India, which had elected Narendra Modi with one of the largest majorities ever enjoyed by an Indian Prime Minister. Suddenly everyone wanted to talk to a man who knew Sino-Indian Business Relations like the back of his hand and I had that person.

I remain at Bruno’s Bistrot. Have become part of the furniture and the owner and I have become after work buddies of sorts. I bring in the revenue and he allows me to snack and buys after work beer.
I’ve also become closer to my neighbours like Eintein David the bar manager of the Japanese restaurant next door and one of the nicest additions to life is the friendship of the Deveraux Family.

This year’s big change comes from an unusual source and my hero for the year was the most unexpected. I met Farooq Mann over three years ago. Not sure what happened between us but he decided not to speak to me for three years and then out of the blue he decided to return to my life.

And return he did. He’s brought me into the world of liquidations and insolvency work. I deal with an area of business that I never dealt with before and I’m grateful to him for helping me discover a new side of business.
Steady employment from two jobs hasn’t made me rich. I am ending the year without cash but I’ve built up my CPF reserves more quickly that I have been for a while. I’m not out of loser ville yet but I’m walking away from it. I’ve nearly doubled the account within the space of a year.

Not sure what happens in 2015. While I haven’t ended this year in the position I would have lived to end it in, I think the foundations for something better appear to have been laid. I look forward to the challenges of 2015.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The God of Revolutions.

I’ve decided that it’s time I need a bit of intellectual stimulation and so I returned to my academic roots and decided to pick up a copy of Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The book is written by Reza Azlan, scholar of religious studies and professor of creative writing at University of California, Riverside.

The promotion of book was a master piece in public relations. Professor Aslan got himself interviewed on Fox News and ended up making Lauren Green, his interviewer look like an ignorant child. Ms. Green played into Professor Aslan’s hands by constantly harping on why a Muslim would write about the life and times of the Founder of Christianity. The more she harped on about the fact he was a Muslim, the more he talked about his academic credentials. The result was an instant success for the good professor and the book became an instant best seller. The interview can be seen at

I’ve enjoyed reading the book. It’s brought back memories of what I used to do at A-Level and was expected to do at university. He’s delved into things like “Source Q” and talked about the link between the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Mathew and Luke). At times, the book does sound simplistic in that its premise is started as the one and only. However, on the whole, the book lays out a thought provoking idea. 

The professor’s argument is simple – when we look at the life and times of Jesus or at least the Jesus of history (the man who lived) in the context of his times. When you look at him in the context of his time rather as a spokesman of a “religious” message, the picture of who Jesus was becomes rather interesting. The professor argues that Jesus was not the “pacifist” who came to unite the world in a peaceful, loving embrace. He was, if you look at him in the context of his time, a radical and revolutionary who hopped to overthrow the established order of the day.

Jesus, as Professor Aslan notes, lived in a time of great social inequality. Jesus was a rough and barely literate peasant who lived in a society where people like him existed to serve the powers that be – which in this case was the Jewish Priesthood and the Roman Empire, which supported them. There was, in his day, extreme poverty for the masses and the “chosen” few lived a life of luxury at the expense of the masses.

When you look at Jesus in this context, everything Jesus said was a dangerous and political message to the established order of the day. Professor Aslan argues that Christian messages like “the meek shall inherit the earth,” were powerful political messages to those who held power – it was a warning that God would make the poor and weak into the strong and blessed, whereas those in power (the strong and rich) were about to get their comeuppance by God. If you were to bring this argument into the modern context, Jesus was a revolutionary figure akin to the great Communist leaders like Mao or Lenin.

When you look at this argument, you got to start thinking – would Jesus, the revolutionary described by Reza Aslan, exist in the modern world.

I think of the little City State where I’ve lived for the past decade – Singapore. This little city state has become a beacon of modern success. We are consistently nominated as the best place on the planet to do business. Everyone who moves to Singapore praises the country as the ideal place to make vast amounts of money.

While that’s true, I can’t help but notice that our society is developing many of the things that Professor Aslan described in Jesus’s day. We are, for a start, becoming an exceedingly unequal society. If one looks at the Gini co-efficient, it leads to the view that wealth in Singapore is concentrated in very few hands. We have the world’s highest paid ministers and we are increasingly becoming the preferred home for the world’s billionaires. However, if one walks the streets of Singapore, one cannot escape the fact that there are people who are sleeping on the streets and people who barely have enough to eat.

In Jesus’s day, the centre of life revolved around a rather opulent temple, which was run by a select and wealthy group of priest. Back then, there was only one religion. In Singapore we have a growing number of opulent religious buildings. Ironically, many of them are run by churches, headed by charismatic leaders who claim to have a special relationship with God.
Religion is business. Interestingly enough, this was also the case when Jesus walked the earth. 

Professor Aslan points out that it wasn’t uncommon for people to make a career as exorcist, healers and men of God. He argues that what made Jesus different from the rest was the fact that he provided services (healing etc) free of charge. Interestingly enough, if one looks at the way “religious enterprises” work, you’ll find that they charge for certain services – one only has to look at the fund raising powers of the likes of the New Creation Church (S$21 million in 24 hours).

Our modern society is seeing the conditions that existed in Jesus’s day. So, the question is, would Jesus gain the traction that he did, had he been around today?

I worry that the answer, especially in Asian societies is no. Somehow, the concept of gathering as much for yourself as possible has become psychologically ingrained in us as being part of “success through merit.”

Furthermore, if one looks at Singapore as an example, the powers that be have given the general population such a stake in society that few would entertain the idea of overthrowing the established order.

Ironically, the churches like New Creation and City Harvest thrive on this. Jesus’s message has been repackaged as a means to find salvation in the current social order rather than a means of bringing about a new social order. I remember the Pretend Girlfriend with No Benefits bringing me to one of New Creation’s sermons. The Pastor spent a good amount of time talking about how prayer would lead to prosperity rather than a redistribution of it.

To be fair, to the Churches, Eastern Religions can’t escape the idea of prayer for prosperity. Huong, my better half, tells me in moments of affection that she’ll pray for my business prosperity.

Religion and God have become part of the established order and people who preach a message otherwise, are cast out as dangerous radicals. I worry that if Jesus were to step into a society like Singapore’s, he’d be arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for being a dangerous radical. If anything, we’d crucify him before he got the chance to give the Sermon on the Mount.

I’m older now and I guess I’m less inclined to think that the only purpose of the established order is to be fought. However, I worry that we are becoming increasingly focused on preserving the status quo and our role in it that we have lost focus on the fact that God might have wanted us to disrupt it and make it better for us. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Where does Good Customer Service End and Where Does Abuse Begin?

The restaurant owner and I had drinks with one of our higher spending customers. The young lady in question happens to a member of a family that owns a small shipyard and the young lady in question and has the ability to spend a good amount in the restaurant. Unfortunately, while she’s been blessed with financial resources, she’s been blessed with a rather low emotional quotient (a quality not uncommon in well to do Singapore Chinese girls).

After she left, I mention to the restaurant owner that the young lady has a habit of treating our chef like her personal valet (her idea of being nice is to invite him out to her table for a glass of wine. Then, in front of him, she will proceed to pour out every half-drunk glass into a single glass and offer it to him). The restaurant owner just shrugged, said he knew but it made her happy and she spends money and brings her friends who spend money at the restaurant. His sound bite was simple – “it’s business.”

That got me thinking about one of the biggest challenges that business, particularly those in the service industry face – when does customer service end and where does abuse begin.

The restaurant owner has a point. Business depends on paying customers and life is such that very often, the key differentiator is service – or should I say the ability to make the customer happy. Products have become such that they’re virtually indistinguishable and so the business has to find another reason to get the customer to spend money.

Let’s look at the restaurant. In Asia, the key ingredient to success is good food. One of the signs a good hawker meal is on how rude the said hawker is to his or her customers – it’s a sign that the guys food is so good that there will be a million customers outside his stall waiting to eat what he makes. Things are, however, different at the higher end of the market (a place where Bruno’s is). Your food has to be good but you need something else too (At that level – every restaurant cooks good food). The distinguishing factor is usually in the service and building up the relationship between customer and the establishment.

So, in our case, it makes good business sense for us to allow the young lady direct access to the chef. It makes sense for the chef to provide her with special off beat items that are not on the menu. She, as the customer is willing to pay and who are we to reject her money.

However, there is a point where this “special” relationship between the customer and the establishment goes beyond the requirements of good customer service and becomes abuse. In the case of the restaurant, the point is quite clear – the chef is clearly being abused when the customer believes he should come out of the kitchen whenever she summons him so that he has the privilege of drinking the dregs left behind by her dinner companions.

While this is an extreme example (as most of them in Singapore’s restaurant industry are), it is not the only one. I think of my days back in the agency business when it was common for the client to call you just as you when you were about to knock of work – and it was always because the client had a hair-brained idea that he or she thought was necessary to execute at the last minute.  

Service providers work on the principle that success is whatever makes the client happy without getting ourselves into legal entanglements. Hence, in every agency, the key operating procedure is to get “client approval.” Every action you perform as a member of a service provider has to be blessed by the client. Law firms are particularly good at showing the world that everything they do is blessed by the client –“Instructed.” As far as lawyers are concerned, they are merely acting under “instructions” from the one paying them.

The word “instruct” has helped the legal profession find that balance between demonstrating their competence with the client’s blessings. Other professional service providers are less good at this. Advertising and PR professionals (particularly the independent ones) are one of the worst at balancing the need to keep the client happy and demonstrating their expertise. I’ve been in too many situations where we, as the service provider have been so keen to make the client happy, we’re practically taking dictation from them.

The problem here is that when things go wrong, the client will blame – you. Yes, the client signed off on everything but at the end of the day he or she will turn around and say, “You never advised me.” This will inevitably be followed up by the phrase, “You’re the expert – not me.” It doesn’t help that the client may have an entire department of “experts” telling them what to do too. In such cases, it’s clear that the in house experts have got you, the external expert hired because – well, you’re there to take the blame.

What does one do? I remember telling someone that at the end of the day, you got to respect the client’s decision because it’s their money and their business that your business services. However, you need to place on record that you “advised” them. You as the service provider are there to ensure that they follow advice and get it half way right.

I’ve tried to take this mindset from PR into the restaurant business. Too often waiters see themselves as here messengers between the customer and the kitchen. The easy part of the job is that it doesn’t require any brains. The difficult part of doing this is that people tend to shoot the messenger first whenever things go wrong.

So, I make it a point to try and “advise” customers as what they should try. I do qualify that I am not a wine sommelier and I do make it a point to stress that what I recommend is based on what “I like.” However, I still give an opinion and if one were to judge by the results – that approach seems to work. I’ve managed to become the most successful sales person.

I want people to respect my professional opinion and I have to ensure that I have professional knowledge. In the case of the PR work, I write for the press so that I know what the press will buy. In the restaurant work, I eat at the restaurant so that I know what’s good. Somehow, I get it right for the customer more often than not.

The other flip side to getting people to respect you is having the ability to say “no.” Saying “no” can upset the proverbial paymaster, but sooner or later, people find a way of respecting your opinions. My chef, makes it a point of not serving dishes if he knows the ingredients are fresh. As long as people see you are trying to look out for them.

I think of PN Balji who used to tell me, “We are NOT prostitutes.” A prostitute has do whatever the client wants. All prostitutes will tell you that you are the world’s best lover because this is what you want to hear. How many of us will provide a prostitute with repeat business if she tells you you’re hung like an ant?

That’s prostitution and the business of prostitution. Other professions depend on the “respect” that people give it. Respect, is often in doing the right thing or at least not doing everything .....  

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Delight in Unreachable Pennies

Singapore’s main pension system, the Central Provident Fund (CPF) has been going through a bit of bashing recently. The finance industry has been capitalizing on the fact that CPF savings are insufficient for people to actually retire on and the newly found group of activist have had a field day accusing the government of misusing the “people’s money.”

Some of the bashing is deserved. The biggest source of frustration lies in the simple fact that CPF money is the money of the individual. Unlike “Social Security” in the USA, where the funding comes from the current generation of workers, CPF functions pretty much like a giant savings account. The individual stashes away 20 percent of his or her gross wages, while the employer matches another 13 to 16 percent. The funds pile up on a monthly basis and every year there is an interest payment of two to four percent (compared to commercial banks paying 0.025 percent on a fixed deposit). In theory one is not allowed to touch these funds until one reaches 65. The main exceptions to this rule are when one wants to buy a house (hence Singapore’s high percentage of home ownership) and when one needs emergency medical treatment.

However, this simple scenario has been tweaked so much that things are no longer simple. The retirement age has been raised from 55 to 62 and now to 65. With increasing life expectancy, there’s no reason to imagine that the age may be raised yet again. This is on top of the limitations on the things that one is supposed to be able to use the money for. The biggest example is the case of medical care. My dad found out the hard way. When he needed to go for a hernia operation last year, he found that he could only use S$5,000 of his MediSave (the portion of the CPF system devoted for medical needs) to pay for an S$30,000 operation. As such, having it done in Thailand proved to be a more economical option.

The reason for everyone’s frustration is obvious. This has become a game where the goal post have shifted constantly. Imagine working hard for 40-years, expecting to get your savings at the end, only to find that you can’t.
Having said all of this, there is another side of the story – namely life without CPF savings, which was pretty much my position until 2012, when I took the job in the restaurant. I escaped self-employed contributions to my MediSave account and cruised below the radar of the Central Provident Fund Board.

I call what I did youthful arrogance. I thought I could plunge straight away into doing my own thing. I left my first job with a local printer/designer because I thought the Old Rogue was offering me a chance to build up his magazine. There was no steady CPF but it looked more fun and so, much to the annoyance of my father, I jumped ship. I did get a small salary and I did earn a bit of commission. Then in my second job, they decided to cut the CPF portion to save the company money. I went along with it because it felt like what a good employee should do and I had the boss telling me, “Ehh – better for you – you get more money.”

What I didn’t learn until much later on in life was that its virtually impossible to save money unless you have cash flow and that life’s unexpected expenses have a way of popping up and thumping you on the head on a rather frequent basis. It didn’t help that I had a few hanger on’s who seemed more content to add to my bills rather than my wallet. So, whatever little savings I had, found a way of drying up pretty quickly.

With the exception of the stint with Asher Communications and BANG PR, I actually made through life without a CPF contribution. I had retainers from Alcon and Mark Goh & Co and a few pennies in savings thanks to the Indian IT industry.

However, the retainer clients did not continue and the projects dried up. I also didn’t realize that the poor are sometimes the way they are because they deserve it. Thought God might actually benefit me if I put an unemployed friend of mine to work trading hi-fi (he’s a hi-fi enthusiast) equipment. My savings went into buying hi-fi equipment, which never got sold but buying him decent meals didn’t exactly stop.

So, at the end of 2010, I was stuck with no income, no savings including the ever elusive CPF. In short, I looked like I’d end up old and broke.

I am not going to say that I won’t die old and broke but I’ve reduced those chances. Ah Huong tells me that marrying her was the best decision I made. I leave time to be the judge of that but I will credit her with doing things like finding odd jobs for me whenever I’ve been down. There’s also plenty to be said about having a somewhat emotionally stable partner in life. I had a more intense relationship with Joyce, but I ended up being less productive.

Downgrading on the social scale to work as a regular waiter proved to be a good decision. The income was low and remains low, especially for the hours I work. However, I had an income to pay my daily expenses. What money I made from projects like SIPF and IIMPact 2013, went into the cash savings that are now locked away with RHB across the Causeway in a fixed deposit. Passive income from that is not great but there’s enough to buy myself a cup of tea.

The part of having a regular job so to speak is the fact that I got CPF contributions. The contributions were small but grew bigger as I worked longer hours in the restaurant. 

Since IIMPact 2013, I’ve not had a big project. However, I’m now working two jobs. By day, I work in liquidations and I continue at the restaurant. Both jobs pay me CPF and while I’ve not saved cash in the conventional sense of the word, I’ve managed to grow my CPF.

In my last CPF statement, I’ve managed to double the total amount in my CPF in the last 15 months. The job in liquidations has helped with larger and more regular contributions.

This is money I can’t touch. So I can’t say that my lifestyle has improved dramatically. However, there’s a hope of sorts.  I can entertain the idea of buying a house from the government. CPF savings are partially paid by someone else and they are steady enough to keep the banks happy. I can even afford to get sick, though I wouldn’t rush out to expose myself to every germ known to man.

CPF is not a perfect system and I don’t think it has been managed as well as it should be. However, I think of my Dad who, upon hearing I left a CPF job said, “You’re not going to make any money without CPF.” It’s my personal shame that I took so long to understand that he was right. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Poor Should Drink Less and Work More – Gina Rinehart

Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest woman doesn’t make for a sympathetic character. Unlike other “folk hero” billionaires, like Bill Gates or Richard Branson, Ms. Rinehart inherited the bulk of her fortune. Unlike China’s Jack Ma, Ms Reinhart’s fortune is built on an old fashioned, dirty and exploitative industry – coal. Unlike Mr. Warren Buffet, Ms. Reinhart does not make public declarations against the official perks of being rich.
If anything, Ms. Reinhart’s public statements about the less fortunate in life can come across as downright crude and crass – think of her statements about the poor dragging down the country into debt thanks to “welfare.”

While Ms. Rinehart’s remarks may offend, I have to ask myself if what she’s saying has a grain of truth to it. One of her most poignant remarks was that, “The poor should work more and drink less.” If I look at the examples around me, Ms. Rinehart is right.

If I look at my own family, the most glaring example is between my Dad and his older brother, my Uncle Richard. Both men had talent in abundance and the confidence to get it used, noticed and both made pots of money. Uncle Richard died in what was effectively a pauper’s grave. Towards the end, his body had aged 20-years and the only pennies he had were what my aunt could spare him. By comparison, my Dad has paid of his house and lives a healthy and happy lifestyle.

What was the difference between the two brothers? Uncle Richard was a drunk. What he made ended up being spent on booze. When he made money, he got drunk. Eventually, the drink affected his reputation and his work. Nobody wanted to hire a drunk. Dad, by contrast, knew how to control the booze intake. Instead of hitting the bottle when things went down, he got working and before you know it, he pulled himself back up.

The same is true of my circle of friends. I have exceedingly successful friends and friends who are..well, you could say they’ve seen better days. What makes the difference between them?

Well, one of the clearest signs is the fact that the successful group have managed to keep their vices in check. It’s not to say that the members of this group don’t go out and have a drink or two. Nor does this group avoid going for a smoke.

However, they manage to live for something more than the next drink or the next smoke. We go out for a drink and we laugh. Everyone talks and has a laugh. Conversations are based on mutual respect. Then, we go home because …..well there’s work the next day. Work comes before having a drink.

By contrast, the less successful put their vices before everything else. During their broke stages, instead of saving the pennies they have in their pocket, they spend it on booze or cigarettes or whatever their vice happens to be. Somehow, the need to have the next fix overrides everything else.

Getting the drunks to work can be a challenge. Many, particularly the ones who were once successful find it difficult to accept that they are no longer successful. Instead of working their way up, it becomes easier to scrounge for the next drink and relive old war stories than to try and build a new present and future.

Being a piss head in your twenties is fun. Being a piss head in your forties is kind of sad……  

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Thing That Every Business School Fails to Teach

The last two weeks of September 2014 were exceptionally good for what’s left of my PR business. I managed to get the Executive Chairman of my remaining client,Apex-Avalon onto Channel NewsAsia, the BBC, Bloomberg TV and CNBC Asia in the space of two days and for good measure, the Edge Review ran an article in which he was quoted several times.

During the course of our interactions, I was asked if I had been lucky. My reply to him was that, I was lucky and I knew how to be lucky.

I state that I was lucky because news events favoured me. Chinese President, Xi Jiping was visiting New Delhi and India’s newly elected Prime Minister, Nahrendra Modi. As such, everyone wanted to talk about China-India relations. As it so happed, I happened to have a client is an expert on the topic – Girija Pande is an Indian(now a Singaporean) who was appointed by the Mayor of Guangzhou to be a specialeconomic adviser. The time was right. I had pitched the client earlier on in the year and was constantly told that I had to wait for a better time.

So, I was lucky but I also maintain that I was knew how to be lucky. In this instance, I knew that the elements for success were there and all I had to do was to bring them together.
I think of this conversation I had with Mr. Pande, because I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Hans Hoefer, the founder of Appa Guide books, as I was getting ready to leave university and wondering what I’d do with my life. Hans, had showed up in London out of the blue and invited me for lunch. During the course of our conversations, he told me that in his life’s experience, he found that, “The one key thing that all business schools fail to teach is – CHANCE.”

A lot of success in business and in life, comes from being at the right place at the right time. Luck plays a largely misunderstood part in success. Most of us think of luck as the element that helps us win big in the lottery or at the Casino. Then there are those of us who write off luck and attribute everything that they achieve to their own skills.

Both these extreme views misunderstand the real meaning of luck. Let’s face it, we get certain things in life because we are lucky. Being born into the family that you’re born into at the place where you’re born is a matter of luck. If I take myself as an example, I am exceedingly an exceedingly lucky person. I was born in Singapore, a little red dot that had peace and stability in the 70s. My fortunes could have been very different – I could have been born in another part of Southeast Asia, like Vietnam or Cambodia, which at the time, were going through a series of nasty wars. I am also lucky that I was born into a family that believed in education and so I went to a series of good schools.

However, luck can only bring one so far. Things like skill and hard work often play a key role in success. You need preparation to succeed in life. I remember making some remark about how boxers like Mike Tyson earned several millions for a few seconds work. My uncle pointed out to me that the average boxer trains two hours more a day than what most of us work in a day. Mike Tyson admits that the reason for his historic loss of Buster Douglas was because he partied beforehand while Douglas was training for all he was worth (Buster Douglas would lose his title eight months later because for pretty much the same reason why he won it – only this time he was the guy having fun instead of training).

If you listen to enough successful people talk about their success, you’ll find that they often try to down play their luck. I mean seriously, who wants to attribute success to something as random, unpredictable and indiscriminate as luck.

Being clever and hardworking are important. However, just as the world is filled with people who rely on dumb luck, it’s also filled with clever, ambitious and hardworking people who never get anywhere.

Real success comes from being able to understand and are prepared for luck. In golf and snooker, we have the examples of Gary Player and Steve David who are both reported to have said, “The more I practice, the luckier I become.”

Real luck needs to go with preparation and you have to be able recognize the lucky moments and to be prepared for them. Both Mr. Player and Mr. David can make “lucky” shots because they’ve been preparing to make them. Then when they need to, they are able to do so.

Luck constantly flows and the key element is being able to get hold of the right moments when it flows in your favour. If one plays poker enough times, you’ll realize that throughout an evening of Poker, the various players will go through various lucky streaks where his or her cards will always be coming out tops. The one who survives and tops the evening, is the one who knows how to maximize his or her lucky streaks and minimize losses during the moments when luck is down.
How does one recognize when the flow of luck is against him or her. It’s the moment when you recognize that all the elements are there and all you have to do is to be able to bring all the elements together to make things happen. I had one of those moments two weeks ago. More successful people are the ones who work hard and prepare themselves for the right moments.

I think back to what Mr. Hoefer said. How does one recognize chance and how does one capitalize on it? I get lucky in PR and creating stories because I’ve had ten-years to prepare for it. I’ve been less lucky in other things because I’ve probably been less prepared and less able to recognize those moments.

Luck is probably the key ingredient between failure and success. However, understanding it and recognizing it is the skill that most of fail to master and as such miss the opportunities that are presented to us.  

Friday, August 08, 2014

Praise of a “Bad Ass” Nigga’s ……

I’ve just finished reading the biography of Mike Tyson, the former undisputed heavy weight champion of the world. It was a surprisingly good read. With the exception of the infamous night in an Indianapolis, Hotel, he did not spare a single detail in dealing with every aspect of his tumultuous life. The book is written in exactly the same fashion as he speaks. Everyone who is close to him is called a “Nigga” and kicking the crap out of people seems like a natural thing to do. He proudly admits to being a “horrible drunk” who enjoyed cocaine and alcohol at the same time.

What makes Tyson’s story so compelling is that it is full of ups and downs. His relationships, particularly with women are totally dysfunctional. He makes the point that for him “base-line normal” is something close to total destruction. The man climbed his way out of Brownsville in the Bronx. Made an outrageous amount of money from his boxing career. Spent even more of it and got himself bankrupted but is finally living an easy. In a nut shell – Tyson is everything that most sensible parents spend their lives trying to make sure their kids do not become.

Tyson is the man who proudly admits that he wanted to be the “villain” from a very young age. His image as a “beast” was something that he psyched himself into becoming. Eventually the image took over and became the reality of who he was and we get the Tyson that we all know about.

I remember watching Tyson at his best. I was living in the UK at the time and one of the great highlights was his fight with Frank Bruno. Somehow Tyson managed to go through a divorce, a car accident and then he returned to beat the crap out of Bruno. You got to love the guy.

Tyson is special. Here is a character who has done awful things and been a total shit. Yet, somehow he brought us. People who would never watch boxing, would somehow do it when it was him. I suppose we managed to identify with the man because he did all the crappy things that most of us would love to do but always held back on because we had responsibilities and so on.

Say what you like about the man but he made boxing interesting. Seriously, how many of us can name the heavy weight champion of the world today? The only boxer who seems to elicit much interest these days is Manny Paquiao. With all due respect to Mr. Paquiao, one has to ask if he’d get adoration that he does had been born in one of boxings more traditional power houses like the USA or Europe? Paquia has become a hero in a society where there are so few of them. 

Tyson gave life to the boxing game. I think what made him so special was the fact that boxing was probably the only thing he knew he was good at and so he put everything into it. While Tyson made money – serious amounts of it, his ultimate purpose in life was to kill anybody he met in the ring. In short – he had the one ingredient for his job that too many of us lack – passion.

I’m probably not one to talk but too many of us these days become obsessed with being sensible. We avoid doing certain things because we are afraid that they may not work out and that we will be thought of in bad way. While there are merits in doing this (a fact my father often reminds me I should have done earlier on in life), there are times when playing it safe is …..dull and the antithesis to success.

I am not advocating that one should start drinking and doing cocaine. However, I do believe that instead of trying to suppress characters, we should be encouraging them. In a world where we focus so much on safety and regulation and sticking to acceptable norms, we sometimes forget that life isn’t exactly safe and sometimes we need to leap of faith and follow our passions regardless of anything else.

I think of Clark Kent, the mild mannered reporter who becomes Superman. Most of us are Clark Kent. We do our jobs and go about life quietly. We try to stay safe and on the right track because we think we need to.

However, in doing only what is expected of us, we lose the opportunity to follow our passions and to unleash the Superman within us. Perhaps that Bad Ass Nigga wasn’t such a bad ass when it came to giving his all fighting in the ring and his life.  

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Problem with Superstars.

The routes that both teams took to the final were quite different. The Germans had been exceptionally successful and made history by crushing the host nation, Brazil (A nation that considers the World Cup its birthright) by seven goals to one. The Argentinians by contrast scrapped through all their games and were to all intents and purposes, saved by Mr. Messi’s talents.

World Cup 2014 has been a success by most counts. Despite protest against the World Cup, the football on display has been spectacular with a record number of goals being scored.

What’s been especially wonderfully pleasing about World Cup 2014 has been the fact that this has been the year for teams from obscure nations without great superstars. The biggest of giant killer was Costa Rica, which defeated both Uruguay and Italy in the first round and were only knocked out in a penalty shootout against eventual third-place finishers – the Netherlands. You could say that it has been an occasion for the triumph of the team over the superstar.

This is not to say that superstars aren't important. A single brilliant individual can make the difference between success and failure. One only has to think of Diego Maradona, who inspired Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986 (My English friends will no doubt remind us that he did cheat a little via the “hand of God” incident) and despite the lackluster performance of the Argentine team, he managed to get them into the final of the 1990 World Cup.

However, while we all admire brilliance in an individual, depending on a single individual player is downright stupid. The biggest example was found in the host nation, Brazil. The Brazilian team of 2014 was built around of the brilliance of their striker, Neymar. While Brazil did reach the semi-finals, it often looked as if they needed Neymar to either score or create the scoring opportunity. Then Mr. Neymar had to be carried off in a stretcher after the quarter final against Columbia. This proved to be the beginning of the end. In the semi-final, Brazil was humiliated with the 7-1 drubbing by Germany and couldn’t salvage any pride in the third-place play-off when they lost 3-0 to the Netherlands.

By all accounts, the Brazilian team, which had brilliantly conquered all in the Confederation Cup a year earlier, was lost without Mr. Neymar.

By contrast, the Germans knew what they were doing. There times when they struggled but by and large, the German team had found a way to play tactically sound and yet exciting football week. The Germans, as an article by Businessweek stated, had planned this moment over forty years. After a low moment in the late 1990s, the Germans invested in things like talent development and management. The results proved to be spectacular, with Germany coming third in both 2006 and 2010, losing only to eventual Champions, Italy and Spain.

Germany has been played as a team. Traditionally, the Germans were considered a team that played defensive football. However, the latest German team has found a way of becoming more exciting in attack and yet remained tactically careful in defense. The results speak for themselves.

Somehow, Germany has avoided the trap of building its strategy around a single individual. The focus has been on the team.

We may yet see Mr. Messi provide that stroke of genious that inspires Argentina to World Cup Glory. Many will be hopping to see the World’s Best player make some magic.

However, it may healthy for Germany to win. It will remind us that football, like much else in life, is often a team effort, where success is a combination of many efforts. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

When Decency Was Not Enough ......

The world’s largest democratic election has just come to an end. The result went as expected, Mr Narendra Modhi of the opposition BJP party won. What stunned the world was the extent of his victory. This was a landslide of the highest margins. Mr Modhi needed 272 seats to form a majority – by time polls closed on Friday, 17 May, 2014, Mr Modhi was well ahead in 336 seats. Mr Modhi, who is currently doing his post-election rounds, will be the first Prime Minister of Indian in 30-years to hold such a commanding majority.

The reason for Mr Modhi’s victory is obvious. The ruling UDA alliance with the Congress party at its core had misruled the country for a decade. Economic growth was low. Inflation was high. The currency was trading at all-time lows against major trading partners and throughout the course of the 10-year government, corruption scandals blossomed – one only has to remember how the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games turned into a PR disaster.

To make matters worse, the Congress Party decided to field Rahul Gandhi, the son and grandson of former Prime Ministers. Unfortunately for him, Mr Gandhi represented everything the voters were fed up with (rich, entitled, princeling), while Mr Modhi was everything the voters wanted (rags to riches through hard work and competence).

It really should be no surprise that the UDA alliance lost miserably in this election. India and Indians around are delighted with the result. The stock market and the rupee shot up upon hearing of Mr Modhi’s landslide. Mr Modhi’s task is simple – he has to deliver.

Much is being said about Mr Modhi and the government he will form. There is also plenty of news ink devoted the rise and fall of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for most of its Independence. Nobody seems to have noticed one of most crucial figures of the last decade – the outgoing Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.

Mr Singh has been a rather pathetic figure. To put it crudely the only people who seem to like Mr Singh are in the BJP – he’s the reason for their landslide win. To the electorate, Mr Singh is the face of an ineffectual government that’s made life harder for ordinary folk. To members of his own party, Mr Singh is the very reason why they’ve been crushed at the polls. Everyone seems to have a bone to pick with him.

While Mr Singh does need to shoulder responsibility for things, one needs to look at how Mr Singh arrived at the state that he did. I remember when Mr Singh became Prime Minister. I had started working for Polaris and everyone in the office was exceedingly happy that he had taken over. One of comments was that this was a brilliant move. The reason was simple – Mrs Gandhi would take care of politics and Mr Singh would take care of the country.

Everyone liked Mr Singh in those days. Unlike the average Indian politician, Mr Singh had a reputation for competence and honesty. Mr Singh is an Oxford trained economist and in 1991, it was Mr Singh, as finance minister 1991, who opened up the Indian Economy and started India onto the road of becoming a serious economy.

So, how did a man who was an effective and highly regarded finance minister become ridiculed as a weak and ineffectual Prime Minister?

I guess the answer lies in the fact that being good at one thing doesn’t make you good at everything. Mr Singh understood finance and economics. When he ran the finance ministry he dealt with what he knew. By contrast, the Prime Minister is expected to know a little about every ministry and above all the Prime Minister needs to take care of the politics.

Mr Singh didn’t have the skills to manage his minister and the politics were simply beyond him. It was the President of the Congress Party, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, who ran the politics and it ended up appearing as if he reported to her. For most of his premiership, Mr Singh cut a rather pathetic figure, who seemed to know what needed to be done but didn’t have the arms and the legs to do it. Between his own party, coalition allies and the opposition, Mr Singh was often caught in between a rock and a hard place.

Nobody doubts Mr Singh’s personal integrity. Nobody doubted that Mr Singh had the right qualifications. What he lacked was the hunger to get power and in a politician that is a fatal flaw.

I think of Singapore’s good fortune of having Lee Kuan Yew. In his early days, Mr Lee had the strength of character to surround himself with capable men and he allowed them to get on with it. The biggest blessing for Mr Lee was the fact that he had Dr Goh Keng Swee. The paid complemented each other. Mr Lee took care of politics and Dr Goh built up the institutions. This was a symbiotic relationship. Dr Goh needed Mr Lee to give him the resources of government and to keep vested interest of his back. Mr Lee needed Dr Goh to do the job in such a way that Mr Lee would have the “moral” power in his political battles.

It was also very clear who was boss in this relationship. While Dr Goh Keng Swee did get his views to prevail on many occasions, it was always clear that Mr Lee was the boss. Dr Goh was allowed a free reign to do things because he was a subordinate who didn’t have his eye on the bosses job.

Mr Manmohan Singh had a similar situation when he was the finance minister in 1991. There was a Prime Minster called Narasimha Rao above him. Mr Rao was able to take care of politics while Mr Singh was able to take care of the economy.

It also helped that in 1991, Mr Singh faced a major crisis. India’s balance of payments and she needed to get funding from the IMF. Messers Rao and Singh were able to use this crisis to get the necessary measures passed. This helped to get the Indian economy moving.

Things were very different for him in 2004. Officially he was supposed to run the country. However, he couldn’t do much because the politics was controlled by Sonia Gandhi as the President of Congress. The voters looked to him for leadership but the real levers of power belonged to the leader of the largest party – which was someone else.

Then there was the fact that Mr Singh as Prime Minister, actually presided over one of India’s highest growth rates – seven to eight percent and it even hit an all-time high of nine percent in 2007. As such there was no immediate economic crisis for him to utilize in the same way he had in 1991 and he was never able to use his success to push things further.

Furthermore his early success could be used against him. Think about it – if he could push through nine percent growth in 2007, why couldn’t he do the same in 2014? As far as the average voter was concerned, a large part of the reason was because he never seemed able to reign in the corruption.

As such, Mr Singh ended up limping towards the end of his term. Like John Major in the UK, Mr Singh will probably remembered as a decent man who didn’t understand or love power and was hobbled by a horrible political party.

In a way, Mr Sigh’s premiership also represented one of the best things about India – it was a democratic and tolerant Asian society. He was a Sikh who became Prime Minister in a country where 80 percent of the electorate is Hindu.

However, much as we appreciate honesty and integrity and we admire clever and educated people, it wasn’t enough. While you could admire Mr Singh for never being personally corrupted by the power of his office, you could only despair that such a decent and clever man never knew how to use the power he had to get things done. Decency alone is unfortunately not enough to get things done. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Staying in the Job

The hottest news at the moment is from the world of sport. After less than one full calendar year on the job, Mr David Moyes was sacked as manager of Manchester United.

The reason for Mr Moyes’s sacking was simple – under his leadership, Manchester United hit all-time lows. The facts were simply against the man. Manchester United which had been used to being either number one or two in the Premier League, suddenly fell to number seven. They faced back-to-back defeats at home within a period of four days and they were knocked out of the 2014 FA cup by a lesser club (Swansea). In short – the team screwed up and Mr Moyes was held responsible.

There are arguments that his sacking after ten-months was harsh. It was, as they say, just a season and history has shown that leaders can make come backs from disasters. One only has to think of former New Zealand All Black Coach, Graham Hendry who led the All Blacks to their worst ever World Cup Performance in 2007 (knocked out by fourth place finishers before the semi-finals) and then retained his job long enough to lead them to World Cup glory in 2011. There’s no reason to suspect that Mr Moyes’s could not have done something similar if given enough time.

However, Mr Moyes’s sacking reflects one major reality of the modern world – a low tolerance for failure. In the corporate world, CEO’s live and die by their share price. In the world of sports teams, managers and captains are assessed by the team’s performance. Mr Monyes’s was sacked after 10-months on the job because the team slumped. By contrast, his predecessor stayed on the job for 20-years because he was exceedingly successful.

The reason for this fact lies in a certain logic – this is the era of high salaries. Top performers from business to sport are paid more money than ever before. The ranks of the super wealthy has swelled to proportions that have been seen before.

However, there is a slight snag to this. People who pay a lot of money also expect a lot in return. People are no longer people but assets that organisations and stakeholders invest in. Shareholders will only tolerate a CEO earning millions if the said CEO makes them many more times their investment. In sport, people expect a winner on a regular basis.

There are exceptions. Jeff Imellt, the CEO of General Electric presided over several periods of low stock prices and the loss of GE’s AAA credit rating. How did he do it? The answer was clear communication and the setting of expectations.  Like Mr Moyes’, Mr Immelt had a legendary predecessor. However, Mr Immelt was able to communicate the things that were in his control – September 11, 2001 was not one of them and the shareholders allowed him to deal with the crisis.

More importantly, Mr Immelt was quick to make it be seen that he was doing something about problems. One only has to recall the way Mr Immelt went to Mr Buffet and got to him to invest in the company. The new was good for GE stock price and that in turn helped Mr Immelt stay in his job.

In the modern world, past glories are quickly forgotten. What counts are results in the present and if you can’t get results then one needs to be seen to be doing something about it. It’s a fact that anyone demanding high pay needs to be consider. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Dignity of Unemployment

One of the most prominent moments in my short career as a waiter was when a customer (who was trying flirt) asked me if I was from the “Yellow Ribbon” program (Yellow Ribbon being the organization that deals with reformed criminals). She said that something was out of place – someone who speaks like me shouldn’t be working in as a waiter. This wasn’t the only occasion when that point was made.

I remember this incident because it lies at the heart of a common dilemma faced by Singaporeans – the seemingly unavailable number of well-paying jobs available for graduates today. It seems that graduates are not finding jobs and those who do find jobs that are way beneath their pay scale. I am, as they say, not the only graduate who’s had to do a job beneath his or her qualifications.

To a certain extent, waiting tables is a dead end job. The hours are long. In theory you should start work half an hour before opening and you should leave half an hour after the last order. In practice, things can drag on. In truth, you only really leave after the last customer leaves. This can go long after midnight.

Pay isn’t very good either. One of my favourite ex-colleagues loves to send me job offers in other restaurants. Tells me in an excited manner that I can earn about S$2,000 a month (this is what I started out with in my first agency job). McDonald’s used to pay workers the princely sum of $4 an hour – though I’m told they’ve raised it to S$8 an hour. At that rate, you will need to work 125 hours a month to make S$1,000. Not exactly, a living wage in what has been dubbed the world’s most expensive city in the world for expatriates.

These factors on their own don’t make this an attractive job. In the West, this is a job for students or aspiring artiste waiting for their big break. In Singapore this has become the job for migrants looking to build up some savings for the folks back home.

The refrain for many Singaporeans is that these are wages that are way too low for Singaporeans to do but somehow acceptable for foreigners from developing Asia.  How do you support a family on less than S$1,500 so the argument goes? As such, Singaporeans with more than two functioning brain cells shun jobs in the service sector.

I find this logic rather strange. How is the same dollar low for a Singaporean but a fortune for someone else when both are living in same city. Then there’s the inevitable fact that many of the people who tell me that 
I’ve lowered myself by working in a “low paying” job are the very people who need me to top up their bus card.

Sure, I am officially a “pleb.” I am earning less than I did when I first started out in the PR and advertising world. As I approach my 40th birthday, I am slowly but surely becoming a statistic that the government worries about.

However, instead of feeling resentment, I’ve found that it’s better to make the most of the situation. I make more from a single free-lance job than I do in a single month of waiting tables. However, this job is steady and what I make from the job ties me over when the PR work is nonexistent.  More importantly, I’m able to use my freelance earnings to build up savings and the job has also helped me to start up building my nonexistent CPF funds (the Provident Fund is Singapore’s main pension system).

I have very low pay, yet I’ve manage to survive. I’ve found that having a badly paid job makes you a little more interesting to people.

There are, however, people who disagree with my experiences. They, as I’ve said earlier, the people who need me and my low wages to top up their bus cards. Apparently this group have reached a stage in life where they know it all and the concept of labour is insulting to them.

They argue that there is no way one can survive on low pay. Doing things like washing dishes, sweeping the streets and dare I say, waiting tables. Apparently, being seen to do these jobs is somehow shameful and one should not do or be seen to do these things.

However, it seems to be perfectly acceptable to their social standing to do things like search through ashtrays for unsmoked cigarettes so that they can have a smoke and bumming drinks of people like foreign workers. Apparently there is a lot of pride in having holes in your shoes but owning a $100,000 hi-fi set.
I don’t know, but having shit and lousy pay beats having no pay at all. Life in the F&B industry has made me more sympathetic to our foreign arrivals from developing Asia. These are the guys who come here and take shit. Somehow, they make their lives better.

By contrast, you have the crowd that thinks there is shame in dirty labour. Somehow, it’s always someone elses fault that they’re not getting the jobs they think they are entitled to and while we are continuing this discussion – could you please buy them a meal. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Le't's Give it Up the Bum

You got to hand it to Singapore's fundimentalist relgious community but they really have a knack for finding the most trivial things to get upset about. If that was not enough – they have the ability to make an “all-powerful” governmen take note of their objections and to give them the time of the day.

I for one, have never understood how a rational government that has been a by-word for common sense on most things could actually cave in to the concept of “anti-gay” laws. As things stand, it is illegal for two consenting adult men to have sex in the privacy of their bedrooms. This law has existed on the stauate books since colonial times and it continues to stay there despite every concieveable argument for keeping the law being demolished by events. The only protection a consenting gay man has is the fact that the government has promised not to enforce a law (and that's in a country that prides itself in having “rule of law”). How has this happened? The “Relgious Establishment” (or those claiming to speak for it) has kept the government under pressure from ever considering abolishing a law that makes no sense to any rational person.

The latest storm comes from the fact that the Health Promotion Board (HPB) had the audacity to publish a list of FAQ's on sexuality. These FAQ's had the audacity to suggests that homosexuals were capable of having “normal” comitted relationships. That little comment has got the religoius establishment up in arms. One Member of Parliament (Lim Biow Chuan – Mountbatten Single Member Constituency) has gone public in denouncing HPB for going against the government's policy of promoting heterosexual relationships as the only acceptable ones.

Seriously, are we really so devoid of things to do that we need to cause such a storm over things like this?

OK, I admit, not everyone is comfortable with homosexuality. I don't want to poke another guy up the bum nor do I wish to be poked up the bum. That fact will remain true whether it was legal or not. I also wouldn't like any son of mine to come up and declare he was gay and bringing home a bloke.

Having said that, this is a personal view and just because I feel a certain way doesn't mean something should be illegal. While I may not like any son of mine being gay (a fact I used to think of when Yooga was hanging around), I'd rather he be happy with his chosen partner and enjoy the necessary legal protections. His happiness and well being must be my concern rather than what I like.

I also look on the fact that homosexuals exists in every society and amongst every ethnicity. London was filled with gays from “Macho” societies like Spain and Italy. The guys from societies that did not allow them to be gay left and moved to more accomodating places. Gays will always be with us, whether we like them or not. In the case of Singapore, where every human is assessed on their ability to contribute economically, you'd imagine that efforts would be made to ensure the gay community contributed as much as they could instead making laws against them based on spuroius facts?

We need common sense when it comes to policies regarding sexuality. We've done it for nearly everything else.

Then one has to ask the question – why does the relgious establishment get so worked up over who people poke when there are more pressing issues at stake.

Let's take the issue of inequality as an example. Singapore has one of the worst rates of inequality in the world today. We have billionaires rushing here so that they can enjoy goods and services at third world backwater rates.

Yes, the Bible and other Holy text are not kind to the homosexual community. However, Christ had far more to say about poverty and inequality than he did about homosexuality. Christ stood for aliviating human suffering not increasing it.

So, if this is the case, why don't you hear any of our religious figures speak about real issues connected to poverty and inequality? Pastor Lawrence Kong and the Family Thio have been so busy talking to God about the sex lives of homosexuals that they forgot about the poor and the needy. I mean I don't speak for God but surely humanity depends more on relieving the suffering of the poor and needy than it is about stopping people who are inclined a certain way to behave in the way that nature has intended them to behave.