Saturday, 25 February 2017

Thoughts on Scholarships

Arrived home yesterday to find the annual "Scholarships" edition of tucked between the papers. It's the season of the year again when the GCE A Level results are announced and the scholarship application frenzy officially kicks off.

Just thought I'll provide my perspective on taking on scholarships, that might hopefully lend some use to the hopeful 18/19 year old folks out there who are considering taking on scholarships. My perspective is obviously shaped by my journey through the education system, and my employment as an investment banker for more than 8 years where I have had the opportunity to work alongside many ex-scholars, most of whom have broken their bonds. 

My Education

My educational certifications, are at best, "above average" when compared against the national standard, with an L1R5 score of 10 points for my O Levels and an A A B for my A Levels. Those scores were obtained in the first couple years after the Y2K celebrations, and if you account for grade inflation that seems to be the norm these days, they look downright "average". I was more focused on my "after-school" activities (such as my real CCA and chasing skirts) and playing bridge with friends in JC than my studies, and the only driving factor behind getting grades good enough for the next leg was my parents insisting that I will have to fund my own studies if I was not able to get into a local university. Pretty sure neither my parents nor I was aware of the "Ivy-League", else I might have turned out differently. LOL  one can only hope...  
With those grades, I managed to wiggle my way into a local university where I did a Business degree with a finance major. Things did change quite a bit during my national service days and it slowly dawned on me then that I had better put pedal to the metal when I went off to university, so as to attain maximum optionality. I hadn't quite figured out what I wanted to do before university, but I guessed that getting a top grade for my degree would keep maximum roads open, so I hit the ground running from day 1 and managed to squeeze out a first class honours / summa cum laude degree.

Except for a couple of study awards received for taking on exchange programs in university, I was never a recipient of a scholarship. My dream when I was in my teenage years, obviously unduly influenced by too many movies of the "Black Hawk Down" genre, was to receive a academic study award from the SAF and join up the SAF as a special forces soldier, but I ended up out of course during my army days, which put an end to that. I guess you can say I got pretty lucky to get kicked out of course... 


If there is just one word of advice I can give to teenage scholar wannabes  it is optionality. Now receiving an invitation to take on a scholarship, at your stage in life, will perhaps be the culmination of your achievements then. Your parents and family will be proud of you, and will perhaps exert undue pressure for you to sign on the dotted line. It is however, your entire responsibility to ensure you know absolutely what you are getting into. 

And my humble suggestion is to look for something that will give you the maximum optionality in life. Ideally you will want an all expenses paid scholarship to an institution and country of your choice, that is bond free.

Prestige is something that is secondary at this stage in life. I have known many a PSC scholar who decided to break his bond and join banking to a tune of a S$250k bond breakage fee that Mom and Pop could probably have afforded to send him to university with, or even less (the breakage fee is subject to a interest rate that dissuades the scholar from breaking hid bond) and perhaps somewhat a bit of emotional baggage for depriving someone who could have really used the scholarship (I like to think that scholars in general have empathy and heart - isn't that what the scholarships board normally look for?).

When you are 18/19 years of age, there is quite a high chance you are not entirely sure of what interests and drives you, and what you think could be satisfy you from an intellectual standpoint. Thus, it doesn't really make sense for you to sign on a bond for 4 to 6 years, and then embark on your learning journey through university, where I dare say would be the most formative four years of your education from a personal development standpoint.

Well if you really desire to be an educator, work on defence policy in MINDEF  lead troops in exercises in the SAF, help fix the broken rail transport systems with LTA / SMRT  or bring in MNCs with EDB  go for it, but please know what you are signing up for. I would strongly suggest doing some internships in relevant positions to get a taste of what is to come before you pledge away the first 4 to 6 years right out of school.

I would even go as far as to suggest that taking on a local university scholarship that is bond free, would probably make more sense than taking on an all expenses paid [insert relevant ministry / stat board / company] scholarship that allows you to attend an Ivy-League college. Fact is although a local university degree isn't as marketable as an Ivy-College degree, you still need to be in the top tier of your class to get one of those top paying banking or consulting gigs. And another fact is that these top jobs have actually started to hire more local university kids than in the past.

So please put aside the beaming smiley faces (is it me or do those look less and less genuine these days?) that look up at you from the papers and those scholar interviews before you sign up. Think about whether you can really see yourself working for that organisation in that particular role for 6 years after university.

Keep your options open as much as you can, for the worst thing you can do is to commit to something that you don't have particular exposure to, in the prime of your life, and find yourself stuck, either financially (in debt from breaking your bond) or for the next six years right out of university. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Man's search for meaning

When I first started out in the work force more than 8 years ago, I came across the aforementioned statement but did not really pay much heed to that.

Goals back then were pretty simple and revolved largely around trying to get as far up the learning curve as possible and grab on to those handrails on the gravy train without getting flung off. I shudder at the thought off getting thrown off a train moving at more than 200km/h. Yikes. It has been more than 3 years since I started riding a motorcycle, but to this day, I still feel the fear of human flesh (mostly mine) scrapping the hot asphalt in every single instance when I mount my motorcycle, which makes me feel more alive. 

The numero uno goal was to save up SGD1.0m and scoot off to find something more meaningful to do - like my mate Bono from that great band U2 sings: "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" and have been trying since day 1 to determine what something meaningful in the corporate world comprises, maybe corporate and meaningful are mutually exclusive? 

Those goals made it possible to endure the long sleepless nights, the stress that came with the job, the condescending corporate stench and poor ventilation that encourages flu and cold pandemics to sweep across the entire building, the terrible morning commute on the pride of our nation (SMRT - you should be happy you got taken private), and [insert your choice in the non-exhaustive litany of office hate in here], etc. And most of all, like the proverbial banana placed in front of a monkey (that image in your mind is not too far off from the truth there buddy), it kept me going, even in the instances where the payday had to take a hit or be frozen.

For the uninitiated, investment banker bonuses (typically my description across this site for investment banking is applicable to someone who works in the front office of an investment bank in an advisory and underwriting role (think of a merger & acquisitions adviser, equity capital markets, debt capital markets, etc.)) are typically a substantial amount of the monkey's compensation. It can make up more than 50% of annual compensation, so when bonus season comes, every freaking monkey slows down foraging for more bananas (fees) and starts posturing for as many bananas as possible from King Kong. The groveling that happens is sometimes a sight to behold :) I have even heard what sounds like slurps emanating from King Kong's office at times and I'm pretty sure King Kong does not slurp smoothies and has gotten over the novel brain freeze that comes with every 7-eleven slurpee (or has he, since he still acts like a little kid at times, hmmm), so what in the world is that noise... *gasp* 

What I can accurately say is that total compensation has gone down throughout the years. Even the productive monkeys find their share dwindling as they climb up the ranks to appease other member sof the tribe (*gasp* does that sound a tad bit like communism, oh my the irony in what can be described as the most capitalistic corporate ever). So for a dumb mid level monkey like yours truly who has not found productive uses for those pile of bananas, such as purchasing real estate, a sports car, a sports bike, a luxury [audemars piguet] watch, hookers and booze, tinder and paktor flings, cigars and cigarettes, drugs, or [insert your choice of vice here], it certainly begs the question of why the fuck am I still going around gathering more bananas?

Couple of plausible reasons below:

1) Squad Goals vs Self Goals - King Kong: "RB35, you have done a great job foraging for food last year and outperformed your peers by a wide margin. However, structurally the industry is suffering and thus, we will have to pay you [20]% lower than what your peers got at the same level historically. I have tried to fight for you, but this is what you have ended up with. Be appreciative as other monkeys were put out to pastures with less abundant bananas. As you know, the bar is always being adjusted higher, so this year, we expect the team to have a [30]% increase in fee revenues and I trust you'll put your tail down, and work hard to gather more bananas."

SGD1.0m was a number I had when I started off as an Analyst. More than 8 years in, this number has been inflated to SDG2.5 - 3.0m to take into consideration a higher standard of living, setting up a family, taking care of unknown kids/alimony, exploring new opportunities, [insert self rationalisation for random inflation], etc. After all a yearly annual income of SGD120k based on a safe withdrawal (safely withdrawing in a physical context also helps with maintaining this in a congruent fashion ;p) rate should be pretty safe no? My current safe withdrawal rate is SGD72k. Question then becomes whether I need the additional SGD48k of buffer... Yours truly has tried recording down historical spending data for the last 2 years or so, you know the saying goes what gets measured gets tracked (or vice versa), but I still don't feel secure with just c. 2 years worth of data. 

2) Ego - A part of me fears leaving the job for the unknown and regret when my friends and acquaintances rise up later in life to build a crazy net worth, or have better toys or luxuries to indulgence. It's a bit of projecting into the past and wondering what could have been if I went down this path. I find a tad sad to admit this, but I do agree to a limited extent with what Goh Keng Yeow wrote in his Sunday times piece today (19 Feb 17) about folks finding their identities in their job. For better or for worse, a part of my identity will always be that of a banker. A disclaimer that I don't enjoy the recognition of being called a banker, and in fact the fewer the folks who know what I do for a living, the better I feel. Case in point, I felt a huge sigh of relief when my cousin told me a few years back that I should put my head down and work hard so I can be put on the fast track management trainee program. That was done with good intentions but was not applicable to my situation. The ego in identity is more intertwined with being able to survive and (some might say) thrive in the fast paced industry. A bit similar to Man vs Wild, except in a corporate context. So the question then lies in, what do I replace that identity with and fill up the gaps? 

3) Meaning - Given the context to a decreasing accelerating pay scale and being more senior now has allowed me the time to explore other interests outside of the job. There have been a few things outside of the corporate context that has caught my interest, which are in line with self improvement (i.e. meditation, physical training, investing), but there isn't any one defining thing that would readily replace the scheduled work-life (or whats' left of it). Refer to reasons 1 and 2, which instills a fear of not being able to go back to prison camp if things fall apart and I can't get any more meaning if I pursue those things that I am interested in. I do admit it's mentally challenging to actively choose to leave a path that pays good money (albeit a soul sucking and dreary one, but which I have found able to manage somewhat well. However, I swear that I still lose a bit of my soul each day I walk through the hallowed gates of hell the office). After all, isn't one bird in hand (even if the bird is chomping on your mitts) worth two in the bush? 

These are some challenging thoughts I have got to figure out for myself. It's a bit strange that the closer I come to FIRE, the harder it gets to actively pursue it. I have been tremendously doused with the luck of the Irish (not being sarcastic here) and blessed with a wonderful opportunity right out of college to earn, save and invest to get to where I am, and it seems the challenge lies with managing emotions (fear mostly) and pulling the trigger. 

I suppose the one thing that helps in the above is that I have been getting underpaid relative to the market (whether rightly or wrongly, that don't matter here), which makes it less stressful for me in a work context. I mean, if you were getting overpaid you'll feel obligated and more motivated to jump higher for King Kong no? This monkey now hesitates a little less to give the finger and send a kite when the situation calls for it.
For those Singapore based folks who have obtained FIRE and left their job in pursuit of the unknown, can I kindly enquire about the below?
  • Was there a personal "drop-dead" date and did you execute that according to plan? 
  • How did you conceive of your post job plans and how did it turn out in reality?
  • Any particular regrets so far? 

2017 looks like a big year ahead in search for the meaning in my life. I'm excited and looking forward to what pans out, for better or for worse. Cheers.