Don’t get obsessed with money

PHOTO: Don’t get obsessed with money

SINGAPORE - For many people, money is literally a life-and-death proposition, a sometimes malignant force that tears families apart and sets the best of friends at each other's throats.

So I was slightly perturbed to find that my colleague Jonathan Kwok is tracking every cent he spends as he goes into an austerity drive. I was worried it might become an unhealthy, all-consuming obsession.

However, what warms my heart is that he has his priorities right.

Some of my friends' adult children still get allowances from their parents even though they have started working themselves. But despite trying to save as much as possible as he strikes out on his own, Jonathan gives his parents some money every month and does his bit to help the less fortunate.

I find his gesture of filial piety touching. More than the money, it is the thought that counts. He has certainly done his parents proud in this respect.

Having worked around the financial markets for 25 years, I can say that getting obsessed with money may ironically not be the best way to make it.

I know many traders who spend all their time trying to achieve a certain return from the stock market every year.

Yet for all their efforts, they are not conspicuously richer than the rest of us. Even those who achieve their objective may not be any happier.

I know of one top trader who surrounds himself with unseen bodyguards for fear that he gets mugged or kidnapped. That is surely not the way anyone wants to live his life.

Markets move in cycles, and it is important to understand that there will be long periods when stock investments offer only a meagre return.

But over a lifetime, you will find pockets of opportunities when share prices fall to abysmally low levels because of the financial crises that flare up with distressing regularity.

I have encountered several of them - the Pan-Electric crisis in 1985, the Asian financial crisis in 1998, the dotcom bust-up in 2000, the Sars crisis in 2003 and the global financial crisis in 2008.

That would be the time to be very greedy in making your investments when others are fearful - to paraphrase investment guru Warren Buffett.

Those of us who have savoured the sweetness and bitterness of life will also appreciate the salient observation made by US central banker Ben Bernanke that money is a means and not an end in itself.

Let me offer an example. My best-ever investment was a small donation made to Temasek Junior College (TJC) where I had been a member of the school advisory committee for many years.

Some years back, the Securities Investors Association of Singapore gave me a prize in financial journalism and kindly allowed it to be monetised.

I persuaded TJC's then principal, Mrs Loke-Yeo Teck Yong, to use the money to establish an award to be given to a student each year for outstanding community work.

I left the committee after that, and I thought that was the end of the story. But recently, a Reuters reporter e-mailed me: "Are you the Goh Eng Yeow in the TJC Goh Eng Yeow Trophy for Community Outreach, given yearly to the student who is a champion of, and demonstrates a passion for, community service?"

It turned out that Mrs Loke had named the award after me and it was given this year to a student named Kwek Jian Qiang who had been flamed online for purportedly having an elitist mindset.

That had followed the poor choice of words he used in drawing comparisons between the run-down facilities at some junior colleges and the much better equipped vocational institutes which attract less academically inclined students.

Jian Qiang was taken aback by the vitriolic attacks and quickly recanted.

But far from getting badly scarred by the experience, he was able to match deeds to words and show that he was a much better man than what he had been made out to be.

He became actively involved in community work, immersing himself in projects such as helping the underprivileged in TJC's Bedok neighbourhood. And his college recognised his efforts by giving him the award that bore my name.

Jian Qiang had been tried and tested and he had measured up, and I am glad that through the award, it had not gone unnoticed.

In stock market terms, my small donation has turned into a priceless investment that reaps a bountiful dividend year after year. When I started out on my journey as a financial writer, I had not expected seemingly small decisions and actions to have such a dramatic impact.

It has been a truly amazing and humbling experience.

So do not get obsessed with money. Learn to use it wisely.

engyeow@sph.com.sg


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