Reflections At 50
By: Ronald Hee
Ronald Hee at his graduation in 1988:
"My parents were rather chuffed; the first grad in the family!"
t shocks people when I tell them I am older than my country.
It’s true. Next year, my country Singapore will celebrate its 50th year of independence. This year, I celebrated my 50th year of existence. That makes me indeed older than my country.
For long lost friends who do know how old I am (and who wonder why I haven’t aged much), I give them another shock – I retired six years ago at the age of 44.
Wanna look young? Retiring young helps. Wanna retire young? Why are you out pubbing every weekend and blowing your money?
Yes, I am indeed older than most of you reading this - quite possibly all of you reading this. In my day, computers were still in the province of the men in lab coats, so there aren’t that many 50 somethings lurking on the Internet. Can you imagine it? The Internet did not exist 50 years ago. Nor did Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Phones were only as mobile as your phone cord would allow.
Reflecting on the Singapore I remember 50 years ago, I think there is a lot to be thankful for. I think it’s a time few of today’s generation can even conceive.
I grew up in a wooden shack out in the sticks – and we were not poor. The poor were people who stayed in squatter settlements. Over half a million (a quarter of the population) lived in disease-ridden fire traps, smelling of pigs, chickens and unwashed people. There was one settlement just beyond my backyard. In our middle-class home, we had our own toilet rather than communal bathrooms, but we didn’t have a flush toilet until the 1970s.
Yes, we had a hole in the floor.
The very last bucket toilets were phased out in the early 1980s I think. You want hot water? Here’s a kettle. Go boil on the stove then bring it in with you. It was a big day when we finally got air conditioning. But it was only in the living room, where the family gathered to watch one of four black and white channels. As the youngest, I was the remote control. Not that there was that much to control.
Things were tough then; I was blissfully unaware in my happy childhood playing on the road with the neighborhood kids, then later with the kids from school. True, these days playing with your neighbours unsupervised isn’t something you do. Well, now you have the Xbox and computer games. We had sticks that became guns and swords. Not. Our favorite game was Police & Thief, not Grand Theft Auto. Later, we got plastic M-16s that prepared us for military service. Not. Girls got dolls that prepared them for domestic bliss. Not.
For my parents, getting food on the table was a struggle which I don’t recall them losing. Though I do remember some meals were rather sparse. Dad would go to work and on frequent business trips.
I don’t recall wanting for anything, only wishing I saw more of him.
Chinese New Year was a special time back then. It was the only time we feasted and the only time us kids got new clothes and more than just pocket money. It’s only later that I heard of the tough times my family went through. Their goal was to shield us from the woes of the world as much as they could, to provide for us as best as they could, and beat us on the fanny if we didn’t do the best as we could in school.
Things were not easy in the wider world beyond my playground. There were race riots and industrial unrest, but I was thankfully too young to experience those. Denied full access to the Malaysian hinterland after 1965 and with the British military pullout in 1971 (which at the time contributed 20% of the economy), there was widespread unemployment in the 1970s, hitting 12%, which my dad managed to avoid by running his own wee business (which nearly went bust more than once). Crime was rampant, but again I was too young to experience much first hand. I don’t remember all that; I do remember the second Bukit Ho Swee fire, which made 3,000 homeless in 1968, because some families came to stay at the temple next to our place with little left but the clothes on their backs.
In the next half a century, Singapore has rushed ahead to be a country that surprises many. It’s the country I choose to call home. Not that the island republic is not without its flaws and shortcomings, far from it. But having travelled to several countries and read widely, I cannot see myself being anywhere else. Not that I am without choices; I have family in Australia and Canada, and might have joined either. Perth is a temptation; breathtaking countryside, perfect weather … but that’s another story.
"Part of the Singapore skyline today. Different from just five years’ ago, let alone 50!"
Pluck ‘me’ from my childhood to modern Singapore, and the little boy would be gobsmacked. Not just at the vast changes in technology, but in the basics. The country is so clean and so safe it’s world famous. It is indeed true that a woman may walk unaccompanied on any street at 2am in the morning, and the worst that might happen is someone may ask, “How much?”
And no, in all my 50 years, I have never been mugged, or seen any street violence. Got my pocket picked twice and that’s it. And the picker was nice enough to leave my wallet where it would be found so I wouldn’t have to replace my various cards. I recently lost my wallet and some kind soul returned the whole thing, down to the last penny.
In 1965, our per capita GDP in current dollars was US$516; last year it was US$54,776. Unemployment is now hovering just above 2%. About 90% of citizens own their own homes, most in the form of subsidized public housing. And it’s public housing unrecognizable in most countries. The best public housing, especially the latest ones with their full height windows, balconies and landscaped spaces, beat the worst private condos in the country. And welfare programs are expanding, not contracting, not just in housing, but also in education, healthcare, transportation, for the needy and for us old folks. True, there is much that is still to be done to make this country a land fit for heroes, but we are on our way and in my opinion, ahead of the pack. If nothing else, we’ve got lots of money to throw at the issues, rather than scrambling to find money to meet current obligations.
Still, we are Singaporeans and we love to complain. One complaint is about rising costs. First off, we need to accept costs will rise, and that’s everywhere in the world. That’s OK. So will your salaries. Then, what do people really complain about? Just two things; the high price of housing and cars. Those that complain about housing haven’t bought their home yet; after which, who wants the value of their property to go down? As for cars? Hmm. Air conditioned buses that go everywhere, even the most obscure street out in the sticks, there will be a bus nearby. An MRT system that true, needs to catch up with demand, but it’s still superb. I’ve commuted by train or bus in a few countries. No comparison. Especially the bus in Jakarta: Wow, I can see the road beneath the floorboards! News flash, folks: in 99% urban Singapore, you really don’t need to drive. When you need to, try sticking out your hand and shouting a four letter word that begins with “t” and ends with “i.”
So, in high priced Singapore (recently voted the most expensive city in the world, which I reckon is wrong, you just have to know where to go).
Ronald Hee showing some new friends one of the new Singapore towns being planned.
Some Parting Words of Wisdom About Money
How is it possible to retire young?
There’s a good article entitled “Freedom at 44.” Google it and you’ll find it explains how, it is applicable to most people in most countries. I know it’s a good article because I wrote it six years ago, about six months before I decided to retire.
The article basically says you ain’t gonna get enough by working, and don’t depend on an inheritance or striking the lottery. Save like a squirrel, invest like a fox, or find a foxy financial planner (a real one, not an insurance salesman). Don’t live extravagantly and you can retire gracefully. It doesn’t take that much. I suggest putting aside just $100 a month and investing that well. Don’t think you will invest that well? Put aside $200. Just be disciplined about it and do it every month. Don’t have a hundred bucks to put aside? How much did you just spend on pubbing? Or that pair of shoes / dress / shirt / handbag you will hardly use? I recently joked with a shoe crazy friend, how many pairs of feet do you have? Either do something for your own future now or whinge about how your job / boss / pay sucks and how you wish you could retire.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of managing one’s priorities. You could for example, work really long hours and stab your way up the corporate ladder and hope you will be able to afford that dream yacht before you are too old and decrepit to enjoy it. Or you could focus on the experience and accept that pride of ownership is fleeting and can come with huge costs. Consider renting a yacht for the weekend instead!
Why own something you are so busy working to pay off you can only enjoy once in a while?
If you’re reading this and in your 20s, great! You have time to let compound interest do its magic. If you’re in your 30s, your superior income can make up for lost time. If you’re in your 40s and 50s, well … still start now, and consider it a ten-year plan, possibly longer. Just like Singapore’s success story, your successful retirement requires long term planning, and by you and you alone – don’t rely on a government, a parent, a brother or a spouse. Start now. Financial freedom, take it from me as someone who has known poverty, is very liberating.
In the meantime, dear reader, may you live long, and prosper! BW
Ronald Hee at his 50th birthday. Doesn't he look young!
Ronald has channelled his humour and passion into his book 1,001 Things You Didn't Know Happened in April: The History of the World in 30 Days. Sort Of