Sunday, March 13, 2011

How Much You Earn ah.......?

One of the things that I really have to remind myself of whenever I travel to Europe, is to refrain from the temptation at guessing people's income. After living here for a decade, I've become so used to discussing salaries and earnings, that I have check myself when I leave this little island of 'meotheism.' Discussing salaries and the value is real estate is actually downright rude in other parts of the world, but in Singapore, it's a national past time.

Singaporeans are obsessed by how much other people earn. It's like we need to throw out figures just for the sake of spoiling someone else's day. Everyone's favourite question these days is,"How much you buy your house for,ah?" The second favourite is,"How much you earn, ah?" The standard answer to these questions is usually,"I don't believe that's any of your f*** business." However, this question is gleefully answered in Singapore - "Eh, I get vely cheap ah....only $3.8 million ah,' or "Me, knn, my boss vely stingy, only give me $5k ah."

Of course, it's not just about telling people how much you make that counts. You to show people that you have it too. Anyone who is anyone needs to be seen in a standard Mercedes and they should make it a point to wear a "Lolex" (Rolex). I actually know of a cash rich salesman who hangs around Geylang Lorong 6 (picking up Indonesian hookers, so that he can cheat them of $5 - standard market rate for an Indonesian girl from Batam is $30 for a short time) who had a habit of needing to position his arm in such a way so that you had to notice he was wearing a "Rolex," (which was fake). Such people are unfortunately, not rare in Singapore. I have the PGF, who in a moment of weakness ( I was going through an in the money phase and taken her out to a 'cheap' place that only set me back $150 without alcohol), confessed -"I really like your company......but you have NO money." Then you have Joyce's mother who decided that it was better for her daughter to go back to the man who beat the shit out of her because I did not drive. Then you have the Young Pariah from Pasir Ris GRC who constantly brags to you about how he's serving the nation by taking his girlfriend to Les Aimes (swish restaurant) every week.

Sad to say, but the mentality of this crowd rules the roost in Singapore. Who do you blame for this? Well, I'd blame the politicians who run the place. If you look at Singapore's development, you have to divided into two eras. One is pre-1984, when you had the likes of Goh Keng Swee in the Cabinet. Dr Goh was a brilliant economist who made it a point of keeping things in order. More importantly, he was the one person who had a way of ensuring the Lee Kuan Yew, the then Prime Minister ran the show like "Primus Inter Pares." Once Dr Goh stepped down and faded from the public eye, the powers that be decided that we needed to "attract and maintain" top talent in politics. So, before you know it, Singapore's politicians decided to announce to the world that they were going to raise their salaries beyond the dreams of avarice.

To a certain extent, I can see the merit in the argument. Paying people enough "over" the table, reduces the need for people to look for money "under" the table. You also send out the message to bright young chaps that they don't need to rush of to JP Morgan to make their money - politics is a viable option.

However, there was a side-effect. When the politicians announced they were going to raise their salaries, we all became very interested in what everyone else was making. Suddenly it was vitally important that you not only made more money than your neighbour, but you were seen to be making more money. As far as the leaders were concerned, all they had to do was to create "growth" to keep the money flowing in. The people were happy because they were too busy bitching about other people to actually do anything for themselves.

We simply get over what the other chap is making. When Pastor Prince made $21 million in 24 hours, nobody made a peep. When TT Durai gave himself an 18-month bonus on a $600,000 yearly salary, we joked about peanuts and then let Durai slip away to Dubai to earn a mere $25,000 a month. Now, we have Susan Lim who sent a patient a bill of about $25 million.

We simply cannot get over the fact that there are people who make more money in a day than what most us poor saps can ever dream of making in a month. If you read the blog postings on Susan Lim, you'll find that there is a common thread - doctoring is a noble profession and you should not be a doctor is you want to make money. If you were to believe everything in cyberspace, you might be lead to conclude that Susan Lim's bill to the Sultan of Brunei's family is the single cause of rising health care cost for average Singaporeans.

There's no logic in this sentiment. Susan Lim has always been an entrepreneur as much as she's been a doctor. She's always charged premium rates to very wealthy and she's never been known to work in the public sector. Of course, she's going to try and make money.

However, the idea that someone else can make more money than you irritates people. Right now everyone is upset with doctors. Not only are they upset with Dr Lim for having the audacity to make money, they're upset with the doctors who didn't seem upset that Susan had 'marked-up' their bills. "Hang the Greedy Doctors," is now the popular mantra and the medical profession won't be the last to be at the end of this sentiment. Bankers upset people with their bonus's and stock options. Lawyers upset people with the way they bill (It was nice talking to you over that 2-hour lunch, here's my very reasonable bill for $1000)

May be there's justification to this public outrage. In the case of TT Durai, I could understand it. TT was supposed to be running a charity - living of the good will of the public. Instead, he was more charitable to himself than to the people he was supposed to serve (The auditors found that only 10 cents of the dollar was heading to the patients). I dislike Pastor Prince because he makes his money selling "hot air" to the gullible - which, although is perfectly legal, is not necessarily moral.

However, if you look at the professions, you have to accept that as much as we might like to think of them as "noble" and being about something more than just the money - money is a vital part of their survival and in the area of private practice, the professional skill is a business product to be sold to the highest bidder, just like any other business. My favourite litigator does his share of "pro-bono" work but at the end of the day, he needs to pay his rent and the salary of his assistant. Dr Susan Lim is involved in charity work but also needs to pay bills.

It's easy to focus on the sale without understanding that what is earned is not necessarily kept. It's also quite common to ignore the work that people have to do to earn their money. My favourite example is the example of how the Middle Class love to go on and on and on about how the 'char kway teow' man can afford to drive a Mercedes. What everyone seems to forget is that the 'char kway teow' man has to stand in front of a hot stove, frying noodles in the tropical sun and works something like 24/7. Another example that comes to mind is an aquaintaince who kept going on about how much money hookers make for very little work (lie there, say "ah,ah,ah" and can collect money.) I noticed he wasn't pushing his daughters into the business.

It's pretty much the same when it comes to professional practice. I remember telling Zen, that although I don't see the pricks (as in penis not person), I also get fucked for a living. As such, the best business mentors I've found, are the Chinese street girls in Geylang. These girls have understood the basics of business - "collect the money before you get fucked." When you work in a profession, there's a lot to be said about "being professional," but at the end of the day, you need the cash to come in to pay your basic living expenses. If you are the head of a business, you have a moral obligation to pay staff salaries and commercial rents. That moral need has to override any obligation you have to be nice to clients who mess around with your payment.

We're all getting worked up over Susan Lim's $25 million charge but did we ask ourselves what Susan Lim had to do to earn that money? Did we consider the fact that this was for work done over a 7-month period?

Much has been made of the fact that this issue of "overcharging" might be a case for the 'regulators' to introduce "guidelines" on what doctors can and cannot charge. Might be an ideal world if people were willing to pay more taxes for a more "socialised" system of healthcare.

Then as one private practice doctor said,"If we get a cap on what we can charge, will there be a cap on the rents we have to pay and the staff we need to hire?" Cap the money you make - quite possible - you're making it. Cap the rent - you got to be joking - the landlord needs to make money (guess who is the biggest land lord in Singapore? Government)

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