In Search Of A Better Life…
I spent the last few days in Singapore visiting friends and attending some business meetings and will be returning to Thailand tomorrow. During this last visit, I have realized how fortunate I am to have left and built a successful and happier life in
the Land of Smiles.
Many kind souls I've met who know my story have asked me to write a book about my experiences. I've been wanting to do so but never found the time to sit down and pen it down in words…so I guess I'll do myself a favor by sharing with you why I decided to leave Singapore some 5 years ago and attempt to build a new life with very little money and resources.
To begin, perhaps I'll start by sharing a little about myself…
I graduated in Civil Engineering 10 years ago from a local Singapore university, and was fortunate to spend a year in the United States as an exchange student and did my internship there. Although brief, that year I spent in the US made me realize that I wanted to have the opportunity to live and work overseas when I graduated.
My first job was with a Singapore GLC (government-linked company) and although the salary was the lowest offered amongst the 5 job offers I received, I accepted it as the company offered the highest possibility of an overseas posting. Although there was never a guarantee that an overseas posting would materialize, I was willing to take that risk. Looking back, that was my first experience with taking a chance in life even though there was no certainty of getting what I wanted. Fortunately, I got my overseas assignment within a year of starting work and was soon living the fabled expat life that was the envy of so many of my friends in various Latin American countries.
I ended up spending the next few years of my career in different exotic countries and it was during my final posting with the company that it dawned upon me that the fabled life was a borrowed one…that it would end the day my job was done and the company called me back to Singapore. So before the posting was over, I started hunting around for other job opportunities that would allow me to continue the high life of an expat.
In the end, I realized that rather than borrowing a fabled life, perhaps I should own it instead. And so I left the corporate world in 2003 to pursue my dream of becoming an entrepreneur and control my own destiny. My first business was a retail venture in Thailand that ended up in total failure. I lost all my hard-earned savings to a professional Singaporean con-woman and had to call my mum to loan me money to buy an air ticket to return to Singapore on Christmas Day 2003.
Upon my return, I did what anyone would have done and that is to start looking for a job. Lady luck for some reason smiled at me and within 2 months and I received a sweet offer from a corporate paying a 5-figure salary with benefits. At that point, I'm sure many people would have signed on the dotted line without hesitation but I spent many sleepless nights thinking about my life and the thought of living in Singapore…and it was not a very pleasant thought. Although the job would have returned me to respectability and immediate financial security, I knew I would be miserable and bored again climbing the corporate ladder once again, and worse, I didn't want to live a mundane existence in Singapore. So I did what many felt was a really stupid decision…I turned down the offer.
The next few months were miserable times…I was almost 30, broke, jobless and a complete failure. Friends would look at me with bewilderment and even relatives looked at me with sadness and that look that said I was a "ne-er do well". Nobody understood me and with nothing to lose I returned to Thailand to start all over again.
Over the next few years, with the help of a few good men, some hard work and an incredible amount of luck, I slowly built 2 successful businesses which have today allowed me to achieve material success that is the envy of friends…car, driver, maid, nice landed house…the usual Cs that we Singaporeans have been taught to yearn for. Today, I spend a lot of time thinking about planning for that day when difficulty will again creep into my life as I'm sure it will surely come.
Although I am proud of what I have achieved, the things that warm me most today are the relationships and friendships I have, especially with my mum and family whom I was never close to when I was a high-flying expat travelling the globe. My failures and businesses have made me a better person and my life in Thailand has made me a happier person.
I see today many Singaporeans who are in the same boat as I was 4 years back when I was broke, down and out. Although their situation may not be as drastic as mine, I have met many friends and acquaintances who tell me about the increasing cost of living in Singapore and the demand on everyone to pay more and more, and contribute to the GDP of the country.
To be fair, I feel the Singapore government has severe limitations to ensure the survivability of the nation and the well-being of the people…at least from a financial standpoint. For a start, the scarcity of our land and limited natural resources mean that the only way for our GDP to grow would be for prices, salaries etc to keep rising…especially real estate which underpins the entire economy in land scarce Singapore.
This "financial well-being" comes at a very high price. ERP charges, HDB home ownership, medical care…the list goes on and on and I shan't bore you with my thoughts on these. Suffice to say, I was lucky to realize a long time back that it was going to be a losing battle if I stayed in Singapore, and the concept of retirement was a more and more remote concept with each generation.
I had breakfast this morning with an old acquaintance who's a retired senior banker with a foreign bank in Singapore. Before retirement, he was living in a bungalow in the Bukit Timah area, and he shared with he that he recently sold his bungalow and moved into a HDB flat. This for someone who was a senior banker who used to live in one of the most prime districts in Singapore…what about the other normal folks who never before owned a shack in District 10 or 11?
What happened to the leisurely retirement that so many like him were planning for? He tells me he hardly goes out anymore as his son is using the only car available at home and he spends most of this time at home, as it's not convenient for him to take the bus and public transportation.
Moving to Thailand at that time when I was broke and a failure was a decision born out of desperation…desperation that I couldn't accept my fall from the high life of an expat. But at the same time, it was also a decision based on the belief that I had nothing else to lose, having already lost everything. But I really wanted to take a bet on the possibility of a better (and happier) life than the certainty of a mundane and sad existence in the rat race in Singapore.
Looking back, losing everything and my subsequent decision to turn down the job, and return to Thailand to try again were the best things that happened to my life so far. My 4 close friends who stuck me with me will tell you those early days when I returned to Thailand were very dark days…with very little money and the daily crisis of engaging in the business of survival, those nights were filled with darkness, fear and occasionally shedding silent tears because I couldn't see a future for myself…let alone a bright future.
Many people I've met in Singapore tell me they wished they could do the same and be happy somewhere else, but the sad part is when I ask them why they don't simply pack up their bags and leave, there's always one reason or other why they cannot do so, even those single without families, children or debt.
Several of our forum members have written to me expressing their frustrations living in Singapore and their desire to retire or live in Thailand, where life is more balanced and cost of living is a lot lower. But the sad reality is no matter what I say and how convincing I am, at the end of the day, the decision is theirs to make…
It reminds me of something a wise man once said…"if you do what everyone does, you will get what everyone gets."
I realize that many people are stuck in the fear of the unknown…of doing something different from what they were brought up to know. They want the assurance that all will be fine and well if they pack their bags and leave. They want guaranteed jobs that will allow them a comfortable standard of living or otherwise. They will not make that move in pursuit of their personal happiness (in tribute to that wonderful movie!).
But the sad reality is in life there are no guarantees. We can only try our best and then leave the rest to God (whichever God you believe in). I can offer a word of advice. God gets prayers for help and assistance from millions of people everyday. Who should HE help first? I believe that God helps those who helps themselves. Only when he has seen you use up all your oxygen tanks and get down to your very last gasp of air will he throw you a lifeline that will take you very far.
I want more people to believe in themselves. I believe that all human beings have the tenacity and willpower to survive when they reach the lowest moments of their lives. The important thing is to never lose faith and always believe in ourselves. If we don't believe in ourselves, why should anyone believe in us?
Singapore today is built on the backbones of thousands of immigrants, our ancestors who left the their respective homelands in search of a better life. Yes, we may not be facing war and famine, but our hopes and dreams are the same. The saddest thing in life is not failing itself, but the failure to try. We have but only one life to live, and if we don't try it in this lifetime, then when? If you're 60 and retired, the saddest question you can ask yourself then is "why didn't I try". By that time, it's already too late.