Thursday, April 25, 2013

Age Disqualification

You know how sometimes you get a mosquito bite and you just can’t stop scratching it? Especially if it’s on the heel of your foot? Even when you draw a little blood, you just keep scratching because that itch is all you can think about?
            That’s kind of like the obsession I’m currently having. From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, it’s all I can think about. All day, it sits there at the back of my head, irritating and nagging me.
            For once, I’m not obsessing about ‘24’. (For those of you who came in late, I’m currently on a box-set binge. I started with episode one of season one and I’ve just not been able to stop watching. As we speak, I’m a quarter of the way through season seven. Then I have one more season to go and I can claim my sanity, life and eyesight back.)
            So, the other thing that’s obsessing me right now is just when can I retire?
            In my parents’ time, you started work in your early twenties and you basically stayed with that firm, growing noticeably older in the mirror with each passing year. Forty years later, you retired with a gold Rolex and a big office party. Then you went home and spent the next twenty years of your life progressing from mahjong and babysitting the grandchildren to adult nappies and a walking frame.
            I’m not sure that’s exactly how I want the script for my life to read, but I know with absolute certainty that it’s not this.
            “But how?” was Saffy’s question when I announced at lunch that I wanted to retire early. “We need lots of money in order to retire early!”
            I paused. “Uhm…‘we’?”
            Saffy’s breasts inflated. “Well, you certainly don’t expect to leave me rotting all alone in this flat, do you, while you swan off into the sunset with your CPF?” she demanded. “I’m coming with you!”
            Barney Chen looked up from his plate of chicken rice. “I’m coming with you, too. I think I’m going to be doing drag shows till I’m eighty-five. I can barely afford a tube of eyeliner these days.” He paused as his thick eyebrows knitted together. “It’s so depressing.”
            Amanda looked gloomy. “Just think of all the money we’ve spent on rent over the years. I could have bought so many Louis Vuitton bags!”
            “You’re a lawyer, Amanda!” Saffy snapped. “You make more money each month than Jason and me combined!”
            Amanda bristled. “Excuse me, but do you think it’s cheap to step out the door each day looking the way I do? I have a lot of expenses!”
            “Imagine if you also had to factor in fake eyelashes, glitter, wigs and sequins!” Barney growled.
            When my parents were my age, they’d already had their three children and a big house with two cars parked in the driveway. My father was president of his company and my mother was well on her way to becoming a champion mahjong player. There was enough savings to put each of us through school and plenty left over for family vacations. Retirement, though still decades away, was a rosy glow in the distance.
            As Amanda pointed out, these days, we’re lucky if we manage to make our rent payment on time.
            “How did our parents do it?” she wondered as she sipped a glass of chablis. “I don’t even think I could afford to buy car let alone an HDB flat! Everything is just so expensive!”
            Leave it to Sharyn to put things into perspective. “Aiyah, must ma-lly, first! Don’t ma-lly, cannot buy HDB! But first, hor, must have boyfriend. Don’t have boyfriend, cannot ma-lly!” She stared owlishly at Amanda who later said that Sharyn had just shot to the top of her list of People to Push Down the Stairs.
            These days, every spare moment we have, we stare at our bank statements and obsess. Saffy says she can’t believe that after all these years of working, she has saved just enough money to buy a purse from G2000. “Last season’s!” she clarifies.
            Of course, it doesn’t help that according to, she’s among the world’s richest 1%. “Whoever came up with this list sure doesn’t live in Singapore!” she shouted when her number came up.
            Meanwhile, Amanda says she has saved up enough to buy a three-storey mansion in Angola.
            “Where’s that?” Saffy asked this morning.
            “It’s in Africa. Where they have all those bloody civil wars!”
            “Yes, exactly.”
            Me, I’ve probably got just enough money to buy a book on how to retire early.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Almost Famous

You know how you’re always reading in gossipy magazines about some down and out actor/writer/singer who’s on a plane, minding his own business when suddenly he discovers the passenger next to him is a famous director/editor/producer?
They start talking and by the end the plane touches down in Monte Carlo (in these stories, nobody is ever flying to Penang), the famous director/editor/producer is so impressed with the nobody actor/writer/singer that he offers him a contract. And the next thing you know, this nobody has a hit movie/book/album.
And in all the interviews between now and the time he dies from a drug overdose/burnout/nervous breakdown, he’ll always be telling this story about how if he’d been sitting in another seat or missed the flight, none of this (and here, he would gesture around his marbled mansion or plush Four Seasons suite) would have been possible?
Well, I’m thrilled to report that after a gazillion flights and a magillion miles spent criss-crossing the sky, none of this has ever happened to me and let me tell you that I am not in the least bit impressed about it.
You would think, would you not, that I would at least bump into the secretary to the personal assistant of some big-wig publisher who just loves the stuff I write and tells her boss about it, who in turn, decides that I might very well be the next Dan Brown or Stephanie Myers? Or something.
But no, I’m usually stuck sitting next to Pete O’Mara from Omaha, Texas who spends the entire flight from Singapore to Seattle telling me all about his prostate problems. Somewhere over the North Pole, I will have developed a migraine that just won’t quit.
I really don’t know how this can be. I always dress nicely for a flight (since you’re always reading these articles about how you never know when you might be able to get upgraded and you definitely won’t if you dress like an incognito Hong Kong film star). I shower beforehand. I comb my hair and floss religiously. I smile at fellow passengers and always have a copy of the Economist peeking out from my cabin luggage to convey the impression that I’m a fairly worldly kind of guy and that I deserve to be in Business Class.
By right, I fit all the criteria of someone who is most likely to randomly meet and strike up a life-long Emmy/Pulitzer/Grammy award winning partnership with Steven Spielberg or George Clooney.
And yet, I’ve never met anyone remotely famous on the plane. Well, except for that time I sat five rows behind some government minister who, for some reason, was slumming it in economy class, but even then, I was so jealous at the amount of attention he was getting from the crew.
Meanwhile, one of my best friends, Andrew, who is a big shot lawyer, regularly emails me and tells me who he meets in various airports around the world. For example, an average email might read, “I was in the First Class Lounge the other day at Milan airport and who should be sitting across from me than Kate Moss!” (No one really liked Andrew at school. Now, I know why.)
My flatmate Amanda once found herself sitting next to Andy Lau. “I wonder what he was doing in Business Class,” she mused later. “If I was him, I’d be in First Class all the time!”
Saffy later said that if Amanda goes around talking like this, she wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Amanda has no friends left.
I suspect my complete lack of success has something to do with the fact that I’m always flying Economy. That rules out meeting anyone of note. Because if you’re a VIP, or at least Someone Who Makes a Difference to Random People’s Lives, you would expect to be sitting in, at least, Business Class.
Which makes me wonder how those down and out actors/writers/singers get to meet their famous fellow passengers in the first place. Because, if those gossip magazines are anything to go by, these people are usually out of work waitresses, waiters, petrol station attendants or something who live in their friend’s garage or couch. How could they afford to sit next to the VIP or SWMDRPL in the first place? Because Fann Wong does not do Economy.
The whole thing is so unfair. A seat number is all that separates me from my much deserved fame and fortune. My advice: be alert and vigilant with your CV ready. Because you never know who you’re going to be sitting next to. Why, it could be Fann Wong’s maid. But it’s a start.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Home and Away

Let’s take a little trip down memory lane, shall we? Back to a time when our fathers used Brylcream for hair control; when our mothers set their hair in a contraption that largely involved a shower cap with a nozzle attached to a glorified vacuum cleaner set on blow; back to a time when kids played Police and Thief, and tossed little bags of sand called five stones. Back to a time when you actually had to get up from the couch to change channels on the TV set.
Do you remember? For those of you who can’t, trust me when I say that they were the best of times, the golden years of our childhood and innocence.
Those holidays are etched in memory. I remember large rented homes by Changi beach; entire families disgorging out of aging jalopies, boxy Mercedes and Ford Cortinas, packed with baskets, pillows, bags of food and a whole lot of cheer, each of us looking forward to a week of sand castles. Back then, no one really knew how to swim, so ‘swimming in the sea’ was a metaphor for wetting our toes and screaming loudly when a tiny wave rolled up to our waist.
Those holidays were the highlight of our year.
Of course, there were always tales of Auntie So and So taking her kids to Malaysia, to Cameron Highlands. It might as well have been the moon. You can’t begin to imagine how glamorous Cameron Highlands sounded. And when Uncle Whatshisname took his family to London, it was as if they were going to have tea with the Queen of England. “They’re going on a plane? Wahhh!” we cried with envy, our little brains – apparently sophisticated beyond words by school holidays by the beach – unable to comprehend an event of such magnitude. “They’re going to see Big Ben?”
So much has changed. We’ve changed. We take a holiday every few months. We hop onto a plane to anywhere that promises Wi-fi coverage, a cocktail and a shopping mall.
Recently, my mother grumbled to me, “You young people take the plane like the rest of us take the bus. You need to save money! Work hard now. Enjoy yourself when you retire!” she said sternly, pointing her chopsticks in my direction over the dinner table.
My sister rolled her eyes. “Ma, we won’t be able to lift our luggage by then, let alone get on a plane! We’re traveling now because we can! Besides, flights are so cheap now. Not like in your day!”
It occurs to me that we take so much for granted these days. No one ever takes a holiday at home anymore. Do you? We’re always on our way to somewhere. We’re on a perpetual rotation roster in airport lounges. We speak in code – Why are you taking SQ? I thought MH had a better deal. EK goes to Melbourne?
 In their day, our parents took holidays because it was a treat. Today, we take holidays because we need to. Our lives are a pressure cooker of deadlines and rushing impatience. Recently, I tried to imagine a life without instant messaging, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, emails, overnight couriers, roaming handphones and immediately felt light headed.
A holiday abroad represents a chance to get away from all this madness, even if it’s to other pressure cookers like Bangkok or Beijing, but at least it’s someone else’s madness. You’re just there on a holiday.
A holiday is now a fantasy, an escape from our unbearable present into a parallel universe that involves only a passport, an air-ticket, a room key, a bottle of suntan lotion and, in the case of my flatmate, Amanda, a separate suitcase filled with all her string bikinis.
A holiday is our one true lifeline to sanity, our only escape from the spectacularly stressful drudgery that is our life in the twenty first century. It makes worthwhile all those ridiculously long hours spent slaving in front of the computer, those appalling appraisal meetings with the boss you loathe and that tiny dog kennel that you call your flat and for which you need to work another 30 years to pay the mortgage.
So, yes, we need our little tender mercies. And if that means booking a flight to another pressure cooker city (hello Hong Kong!), then more power to us.
But what scares me the most is that one day, a generation from now, someone will look back on all this and announce, with authority and conviction, that these were the best of times, the golden years of this generation’s childhood and innocence.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sounds like a plan

One of the things about growing older is that you’re able to filter very quickly the important stuff from the stuff that’s, well, not.
It’s like when I’m in a taxi, I am able to dip in and out between the news on the radio and the uncle taxi driver complaining about ERP charges in the CBD. I ignore boring unimportant bits like global triple dip recessions and filibusters in the US Congress, while having a bit of a gossip with the uncle about which politician is having an affair with who, and instantly tune back in for breaking news like who got voted off American Idol and Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy.
It’s an important life skill and it’s saved me a whole lot of grief over the years.
Like the time I was back at home to visit my parents, and my mother decided to embark on a long lecture about the importance of saving money for a rainy day.
I barely paid any attention to a single word she was saying, devoting all my powers of concentration instead on the delicious xiao long bao she’d made for lunch. Every so often, I’d mumble, “Mmm, that’s so true, Mum!”
I was inhaling my eighth dumpling when my radar picked up a crucial key phrase. “Plan B? What Plan B?” I asked through a mouthful of perfectly steamed skin, sweet pork and soup.
Mother lifted a perfectly manicured eyebrow. Her eyes flicked over to my father who, by his downcast eyes and close attention to his plate, I could tell was also busy filtering. Mother rolled on. “You must have a Plan B in your career! What if you suddenly decide you don’t want to be a lawyer anymore? Or you get fired? What will you do then? How will you live?”
I thought for a moment. “Uhm, I’ll move back home?”
Silence descended over the table.
“No?” I said, eventually.
“You must always have something as a back up,” Mother said firmly. “It’s like if your daddy ever divorced me, I’d be able to survive for years just by selling my jewellery. What would you do if you suddenly lost your job tomorrow?”
The question haunted me and though, at the time, I’d just started my career as a lawyer, something told me that this was an important bit of advice that I needed to think about.
As it turned out, my Plan B was writing and so, the day after I quit my job at Ong, Yi & Wu, I wrote a story for Her World magazine about the best places in Singapore to get picked up, and I’ve never looked back.
“You’re so lucky your mother gave you that great piece of advice,” Saffy said recently at breakfast. “I have no Plan B!”
Amanda looked up from her cereal. “I thought your Plan B was to marry someone hot and rich?”
Saffy’s impressive bosom deflated. “That’s every girl’s Plan B! Can you imagine the long line for that one?” She sighed and poked at her granola with her spoon. “I have to come up with something else. But the thing is, I have absolutely no talent!”
“Sure you do!” Amanda said. “You’re…you’re in HR!”
Even I blinked at that one.
“That’s a job, Amanda, not a skill set,” Saffy said finally. “If you dropped me in the jungle right now, I’d be the first person to be swallowed by a python!”
“Oh, I know!” Amanda said desperately. “You could become an actress! There’s no training required! You’re always reading in 8DAYS about these young girls who go from Ipoh kampong girl to an artiste in low budget productions and bazillion dollar endorsements!”
“I think I’m too short. And I’d need to lose a lot of weight. Where did I read something about fat actresses?”
“8DAYS,” I said, as I flipped the pages of my current issue, demonstrating once again, my uncanny ability to dip in and out of boring conversations. It occurred to me that my Plan C could be a career in spying.
Sharyn says that her Plan B would be an S+M dominatrix mistress. “Very easy, what,” she told Saffy over lunch at Tiong Bahru market. “I all day scold my husband, beat my children, and make the people in my office cry. Why not do for a living and be paid, some more. Right or not?” She leaned back in her stool and pursed her lips with satisfaction.
Saffy says that just when you think you’ve got Sharyn all figured out, she turns around and surprises you. “She says I could recruit clients for her! She’s a genius!” 

Friday, April 05, 2013

Money Matters

Walk into any bookshop or library, and if you’re not looking for teenage vampire lit, you will eventually wander into an entire section devoted to money. Shelf after shelf of scholarly tomes, insightful volumes by captains of industry like Buffet, Trump and Soros; each one explaining in great detail what money is, why we need it, and how we can go about getting more of it. The take home message is that money is good, and it really does makes the world go around.
And wasn’t it ABBA who told us it ‘must be funny in the rich man’s world’? Well, maybe not haha funny, but it’s a lot easier to see the silver lining. Or, at least, that’s the fantasy that those of us without a lot of the stuff cling so desperately to.
In the little flat I share with Saffy and Amanda, we love to talk about money. We’re fascinated by it. Obsessed, even. So much so that we happily jump into massive amounts of debt just to have more of it.
There are, inevitably, party poopers who will tell you that money isn’t everything and that it can’t buy you happiness. That may be true, but as Barney Chen once pointed out with penetrating insight, money may not buy you happiness, but it will certainly make the misery a little bit more bearable. Well, I’m paraphrasing. I believe his exact words were “Honey, that’s because you don’t know where to shop!”
I can’t help but wonder though – why are we, Singaporeans especially, so obsessed with money? Why do we put in all those hours at the office? Why do we spend so much time bucking for a raise, often at the expense of our friends and family. And a life?
The problem is that money becomes important only when you don’t have enough of it. Which raises another question – just how much money is enough?
I remember once asking Amanda just how much money she thought she’d need to retire with. She gave the matter some serious thought and finally replied, “At least twenty million.”
I remember Saffy choked into her morning coffee. “No, seriously!” Amanda said. “That’s like the bare minimum. A nice house these days will cost you at least one million, say. Then a car and driver is half a million. Then you will be traveling first class, so that’s about a hundred grand already, if you assume ten trips a year. And you have what,” her inbuilt computer calculating at warp speed, “18.4 million left. You gotta have a nice house in London, so that’s easily five million gone and a little pad in New York, take away another four million. Which leaves you, uh, 9.4 million of spare change.”
By now, I was feeling a little overwhelmed, not to mention depressed.
“So, say you put that 9.4 into a 5% interest bearing account, and that’s what?” Amanda continued rhetorically, “$470,000 interest a year. How could you possibly live on $470,000 a year? A half decent necklace from Cartier easily costs you that much already!”
Now, there are those out there who will scoff and say that you don’t need a Cartier necklace, half decent or otherwise, to lead a fulfilling and rewarding life. Which brings me back to the original question: Just how much is enough?
There’s a government minister in the UK right now who says that he can live on £53 a week. At today’s ridiculous exchange rate, that’s less than S$100. Saffy says that barely gets you down the road in a taxi these days.
“If you eat char kway teow every day and you walk to work and you don’t get sick and you don’t turn on air-con and you don’t have children, sure can, one!” Sharyn said the other day. “But sure cannot order barbeque sting ray!”
It seems to me, too, that twenty million won’t do you much good if you have, say, a terminal illness. On this point, Amanda says that’s just like saying a plane gets everyone from A to B so there’s no point in flying business or first class. “But there is a point,” she insisted. “It’s how you get there that’s important! It’s so much more comfortable in the upper classes. So, in the same way, if you’re sick, you might as well be as comfortable as possible, and that is where having lots and lots of money makes a difference. You don’t have to scrimp and share a bedpan with your hospital room-mate!”
            Saffy says if that image doesn’t put you off your char kway teow, she doesn’t know what will.