06 March 2006

The 5 C's Reexamined

Over at Tomorrow, this page provides a link to Singapore Dreaming, where Colin Goh and Jocelyn Woo have reproduced an old article about their thoughts on leaving Singapore to pursue their respective dreams in New York. Mr Wang remembers reading the article years ago, but it remains quite thought-provoking, so you may want to read it too.

Mr Wang does feel, however, that in a few ways the article has become somewhat out-of-date. Here Colin and Jocelyn talk about the distinction between the Singapore Dream and the Singapore Plan:
"You wake up everyday and work from Monday to Friday, and often, Saturday too. If you finish work early, you and your partner go to your parents’ place for dinner and see your child for a few hours. If you work late, you buy a packet of char kway teow from the hawker centre but eat it at home because it’s too warm to eat there. You’re not crazy about the job but you know that if you keep at it, you can afford a car in 3 years’ time, and in 5 years’ time, buy a condo close to the primary school you want to send your kid to. Your conversations with people are either for the purpose of networking, work, or for familial obligations you cannot avoid. On weekends, you play golf with your friends at your country club or watch a movie with your partner. Once a year, you go on a ten day vacation to New York, London, or Paris, and when your children are big enough, Disneyland.

Alternatively, you wake up and you have no idea what is going to happen today, tomorrow, 6 months or a year later. Ironically, because of this uncertainty, all possibilities exist for you. You can be the Prime Minister of Singapore, you can make a movie, you can cook a meal you have never cooked before, eat at a place you have never eaten before, you can color your hair red, you can skip instead of walk, you can volunteer at the school you have always wanted to volunteer at, you can write a book, or you can have a baby even though you don’t have a maid. You have conversations with people who set your heart palpitating and your mind on fire. Your weekday is not so different from your weekend because everyday you are thinking, creating, and more important, imagining.

Most of us recognize the first story and its pursuit of the 5 Cs of “cash, condo, car, country club, credit card.” It is the Plan, which imposes a conclusion on you, and you work in order to make all the pieces fit. A bus stop advertisement I saw recently said it best: "We spend all our youth chasing money, and when we attain it, we spend all our money chasing youth."

A Dream, on the other hand, carries you on its wings to worlds that your heart and mind have never known.
Why does Mr Wang say that this article has become somewhat outdated? Because Mr Wang feels that at the time the article was written, the 5 C's still epitomised what it means to be successful in Singapore, in other words, to have "arrived". However, this doesn't seem that true anymore. These days, the popularity of 5 C's as worthy goals to strive for has already taken a severe beating.

By that, Mr Wang does not merely mean to refer to the many, many Singaporeans who, due to unemployment, retrenchment etc in recent years, no longer see the 5 C's as attainable. No, Mr Wang also refers to the ever-increasing number of Singaporeans who have come to realise that the 5 C's are not even necessarily worthwhile goals to strive for, even if you could.

Yes, they are still a minority. But then the wise are always a minority in society. They see first what the others will only realise later. And so you can expect the thoughts of the wise today to become conventional wisdom someday in the future. But not so soon.

And now Mr Wang turns to each of the 5 C's, to show you why all that glitters may not be gold:
Country Club Memberships: Please see Mr Wang's old post on this. It has become a rather odd idea, quaint and old-fashioned, to desire a country club membership. Club prices have in fact plummeted over the years. Not fashionable any more lah.

Credit Cards: These are death traps to the spendthrifts. They are status symbols only to the foolish - how much status can there be in a product where the bank's salesmen hang around in public places and chase after you with brochures and free gifts, beseeching you to sign up?

Sensible people like Mr Wang regard credit cards as merely convenient payment tools, and in this sense, not that different from a NETS card.

Do you REALLY think that the waitress or the salesman would respect you more, just because you pull a Visa card out from your wallet? They probably wish you would pay by cash or NETS instead, so that their establishment can avoid the bank charges involved whenever a customer pays by credit card.

Condominiums: Now that the property market has been in the doldrums for years and years, I think that people are pretty much aware that condos aren't necessarily a good thing to aspire to. In fact, condos tend to have rather poor resale value.

The other consideration, gleaned from actual experience over the past 10 years since the 1997 Asian crisis, is that it is probably a smarter move to live down, rather than live up, because you really don't know when you might be retrenched in the future. Better to own a property which you can more easily afford. The days are long gone when unemployment was a problem that plagued only the lowly-skilled and the lowly-educated. Read also Mr Wang's old post about owning an executive condo (among other things).

Cars: I think that they are still viewed as desirable. But people are more aware that owning a car in Singapore can really bleed your money, not just because of the cost of buying the car, but also because of road tax, ERP, COE, petrol etc. Frankly, the public transport system is pretty good, if you happen to live next to an MRT and also get used to booking taxis regularly. That would be a lot cheaper than owning a car.

Cash: The only C that still makes sense to Mr Wang. Except that if you're still young, you DON'T really want to sit on too much cash. That would be very dumb for your long-term financial health. You need to park a good chunk of it in equities. Or at least bonds. Or at the very least, money market instruments. With your conventional savings account interest rates at 0.2%, it's slow death to sit on too much cash.
Does Mr Wang personally practise what he preaches? Certainly. Mr and Mrs Wang are both fairly senior lawyers, commanding considerably higher salaries than the average Singaporean. But:
1. They don't own a car. They don't intend to. Mr Wang doesn't even have a valid driving licence right now.

2. They live in a HDB, even though they can afford a condo. In fact, years ago, when they first applied for the HDB flat, their combined income was already too high to disqualify for the $40,000 government grant for living near Mr Wang's parents. Mrs Wang quickly resigned from her job so that the Wangs could pocket their $40,000. (A month later, Mrs Wang resumed work at a new organisation).

3. They pay all their credit cards right on time by GIRO. Mr Wang thinks that credit cards are a nuisance because the banks keep sending you so much junk mail and promotional materials.

4. They do have a country club membership, but that was all due to Mrs Wang's foolishness. Mr Wang still feels irritated about it.
The other part of Colin's and Jocelyn's article deals with the pursuit of dreams. More on this, another time. Mr Wang needs to attend a meeting now.


Anonymous said...

Hey Mr Wang, long time reader, first time commenter.

This article from Colin and Yen Yen from a long time ago has inspired me greatly. I've not lived my life any differently after reading it, primarily because I can't afford to pursue my dreams with all the non-personal commitments I have, but I've always yearned for the day when I can do what they did.

As to your point regarding the 5Cs, I'd much rather say that most Singaporeans are now struggling so hard with their lives, the dream of 5Cs no longer even applies. My wife and I are both degree holding professionals, yet we struggle to save up just that little bit every month.

Then again, you say that people no longer aspire to those 5Cs listed, but I wonder what you think people now really aspire to? Very interested to hear what you have to say about this. Personally, I just aspire to one day live a financially worry-free life, and be able to spend more time with my wife.

Always respected your experience in life. Hope you can share some more thoughts.

NotesSensei said...

Well spoken. I came here as an Expat but quickly realized that the hunt for the 5C would degrade quality of live. So no Car, Condo, Country Club for me either.

Anonymous said...

This is a real surprise, Mr Wang. As a former solicitor general, you must be very comfortably middle class. But no car and HDB flat, and your wife a working professional that at that; you must be a statistical anomaly. Wouldn't a set of wheels be essential to send the feverish baby to the clinic/hospital or for the weekly grocery run?
I grew up in a HDB flat my father bought. But after graduation and a couple of years, my engineer's pay meant I had to apply for a HUDC unit because of the cut-off limit then. For about 4 years, my wife and I occupied only one of the three bedrooms. Even when baby arrived, they were bare because mother-in-law wanted to take care of him and I had to do the daily shuttle to drop baby and go to work. When Primary school beckoned, we moved to a condominium to near a good school. The HUDC was unoccupied for two years, since it was paid up, and we didn't need the rental income. Finally we bought our landed property. I just bought my fifth new car, to cash in the expensive COE for the current cheaper one. We used to own three club memberships, but two of them went bust and we decided to stay with the present one for the kids to swim at weekends. The house and the new car is paid for by cash, so I'm debt free. But I'm no scholar, richman's son or towkay with a lucrative "lobang". Just a humble engineer who worked and worked, and oh yeah, paid my taxes faithfully, and lived within my means. I ignored the saleman's advice to buy a European car instead of Japanese make, ditto I resisted the property agent who wanted us to buy a bungalow instead of our terrace house. Would I go back to a HDB flat? No. Not because of the bird shit or tree sap on my car, or passerbys looking in from the common corridor, but the privacy of my little domain in Singapore.

hugewhaleshark said...

Sorry people, but I am more perplexed than inspired by Colin and Jocelyn. In fact this is the first time I have read their article in its entirety. Years ago, I could not get past the first few rambling paragraphs.

Why am I perplexed? Because (and Colin admits to this in theory), what so extraordinarily difficult about chasing your dreams in Singapore? You want to be a teacher extraordinaire? You can (look at Trisha). You want to be a family man and an award winning poet? You can (look at Gilbert Koh). You want to be a gay activist? You can (look at Cyril Wong).

My point is this - it's not obviously harder to chase a dream in Singapore. Sure, we don't have a hippie environment which encourages you to live your life with wild abandon. But as Colin admits, neither does mainstream America, nor (I suspect) England, nor Japan. Folks this may come as a surprise, but chasing your dream is hard - anywhere.

If anything, I think Singapore is a pretty good place to chase a dream. If you were a professional, and if you live in a HDB home, and don't have a car or country club, you won't have to hold a job which works you like there's no tomorrow. You can still have a kids. You can choose not to work them like there's no tomorrow. You have the choice. And it's possible because you have the HDB, and decent public transport. What's so bad about that?

Frankly, I wonder whether people who complain really do want out of their rut. Trading guru Ed Seykota said "Everyone gets what they want from the market". I think this is true of life in general. To those who complain, ask yourselves, if you want out of the rut, why are you not out already?

Anonymous said...

hello all,
Correct me if I'm wrong but I believe the trouble with Singapore, like many other developed countries, is the presence of a huge middle and upper middle class. The middle and upper middle class usually has a strong desire to improve their 'situation', with the usual keeping up with the Joneses'. I say this from observing the expatriate and Japanese society here in Japan. There is always this pressure to create an image of upwards mobility. After a while, the pursuit of material wealth becomes a aim within itself.
Almost all these C's we speak of, are all aspirations of the middle class everywhere. It does not help that Singapore is so small and micro managed and offers very limited options - one cannot just pack up and decide to live a kampung life.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

It's back to Myer-Briggs again, HWS. Your personality type (ENTP) has many clever ideas and sees possibilities everywhere; therefore you are not so easily inclined to feel stifled by Singapore society.

My personality type (INTJ) is inherently non-conformist and unconventional and resistant to enculturation; therefore I feel little pressure to do anything just because everyone else is doing it.

But we are statistical accidents.

Most people are not INTJs and they are not ENTPs.

Anonymous said...

Hmm.. that wasn't the point, no? The idea was about chasing material needs and achieving society's definition of success, not of the 5 Cs per se.

And it's much easier to condemn all these while you're on the high pedestal of high income earners. No offence intended. :)

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

But the 5C's represent Singapore society's conventional definition of success.

And I have to make clear again that I *don't* condemn the five 5 C's. Neither did Colin actually. Some people could be happy / fulfilled chasing or attaining the 5C's. And there are people who, thanks to family background or individual capability, achieve the 5 C's fairly automatically & easily - and still have time to pursue other passions or interests.

But the problem arises if you are one of those people:

(a) who desire the 5 C's very much, but cannot attain them, and cannot shake the (erroneous) idea that the 5C's are all-important in life;

(b) who put in a lot of energy and effort into the 5 C's chase, but suspect that the 5 C's are not what they really want, and wonder what they should really be doing with their lives; or

(c) who know what their dream is (and it's not the 5C's) but feel pressured to sacrifice their dream for the chase of 5C's.

Groups (b) and (c) are the people who are caught in the tussle between, (in Maslow's language), between their Deficit Needs and their Being Needs.

Group (a) is the less-developed group; they are struggling to satisfy their Belonging Needs and Esteem Needs within their "Deficit Needs" category.

There are some people who never experience the need to self-actualise. (I called them the "happy little mindless ants" in my other post). They attain their 5 C's, satisfy their Esteem and Belonging Needs, and they're satisfied - they need nothing more.

Anonymous said...

Guys! JBJ is back! He has applied to pay off his debts!

Bring on the Anson/Ching San Spirit of 1981 and 1997!


Today's ST

-JBJ 'There's a job to be done. It's not finished yet - to bring democracy to Singapore'

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

And JBJ, btw, is a truly inspiring fella. Most Singaporeans his age are already doddering around into senility.

Anonymous said...

I have this feeling that only a select group of people fall into the trap that Colin and Joycelyn fell into ( and later denounced as a Singaporean thing). The lifestyle they describe (what with working hard with the sole purpose of owning things like cars and condos), sounds as boring and inane as hell and I'd rather die than be tied down to my desire for material goods. I mean, everyone wants to have the best, but few would become corporate slaves for material possessions. Many people are married to their work simply because they are unable to stop (think newton's laws of motion. a body in motion stays in motion. Until an opposite force makes him change his course. In our case, it's either an epiphany that work isn't everything, or a stroke, that makes corporate slaves change their life perspective)

To define one's life goals in terms of one's bank balance or possessions sounds meaningless for modern Singaporeans simply because flats, though unglamourous, are so liveable. The public transport system is quick and efficient, and there is no real need for a car. Modern Singaporeans are used to having an okay standard of living, and I don't think the majority of us hanker over ostentatious goods like country club memberships.

However, most Singaporeans may be stuck in boring jobs deemed as not at all romantic and not "dream-y" because we have no entertainment industry to speak of, and most of us have no inspiration to produce groundbreaking literature. Our competitive advantage would never be in the industries which those purusing their dreams seem to flock to.

Just one question though. How ethical is it to advertise one's movie on a page about the infamous leaked phone movie? And a main investor in Colin Goh's movie is someone who has loads of cash (Woffles Wu), which somehow indicates that at the end of the day, you can't run from the fact that money talks and everyone needs it.


Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Mugster, some interesting observations there, but I would disagree with this part:

"However, most Singaporeans may be stuck in boring jobs deemed as not at all romantic and not "dream-y" because we have no entertainment industry to speak of, and most of us have no inspiration to produce groundbreaking literature. Our competitive advantage would never be in the industries which those purusing their dreams seem to flock to."

Dreams are highly subjective and individual; and I would hesitate to say that any particular kind of job is inherently non-"dream-y". It mostly depends on the the individual, and how he perceives it. Certainly I would not agree that dreams are mainly the stuff of the entertainment industry or of literary-minded persons. Even if you sell char kway teow, you could have a dream of one day becoming a great chef.