J#20: No investment tips today; but maybe something even more valuable…

investment scale

This is my 20th journal. The majority of the journals so far have had an investment related theme.  I thought this is a good milestone to switch gears, so to speak, and write purely on a personal note.

As I write, I picture myself at the Oscar Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles. Every winner receiving their Oscar inevitably thank their parents in their acceptance speech, and, rightly so.

As parents we spend a lot of time with our children and we play an important role in their up-bringing, the values they develop and their life-long memories and experiences. It is therefore unsurprising that most of the Oscar acceptance speeches I have heard include a “I would like to thank my parents” component.

The same goes for me, and in particular, my Father. Regrettably, as I am now estranged from my own children, my ability to be a positive influence on my children has temporarily diminished and hence writing these journals is important to me. (Kids, I have NOT given up on you!)

My late Father taught me many things about investing.  First and foremost, and as previously mentioned, he taught me the importance of not being possessed by possessions. This is a key lesson with regards to having the right exit strategies in my investment approach.

My Father’s approach to learning (and teaching) was broad. He would introduce me to elderly retirees. Mr. Ken Mellows and Mr. Percy Hayes come to mind, and that story will be for a later day. I consider both these Australians my adopted Granddads.  

I would go fishing or do home handyman work with them (almost on a daily basis) and we would have a good “yarn” and share stories.  This is a habit I continue today at the Tanglin Club, Singapore with friends.

My Father enrolled me in one of the best private schools in Australia.  Sport and character development were a big part of the curriculum.  My Father showed little interest in my grades; as long as I passed, there was no adverse feedback from my teachers, and I made it to university.  I think my Father took the view that I was in the best school and that it was up to me to perform.  His efforts to keep an eye on my schoolwork was merely to ensure that I, at a minimum, kept afloat academically.  Instead, he was more interested in providing me other experiences, skills and a balanced childhood.  

Besides surrounding myself with his “elderly” friends, my Father would have his friends employ me where possible during my school holidays. 

I worked part-time in a fruit store under his mate, an Italian migrant by the name of “Rocky”.  Rocky owned a rock melon farm as well as a fruit store.  I worked as a car mechanic with a German-Australian friend of my Father, by the name of Mr. Schultz.  Mr. Schultz had a backyard car garage where he ran a small business.  Finally, there was Mr. Lindsay Richardson, the Chief Executive Officer of a finance company, West Australian Trustees, where I worked as an accountant.

Only in later years did I discover my Father’s secret sauce – he paid his friends to employ me and in turn, they would use that money (at their discretion) to pay me a salary.  Effectively this provided his friends free labour, and in turn, taught me the value of earning as a result of working diligently. A good formula from a wise man indeed. And for the record, all his friends did pay me a salary (monies they received from my Father) and a bonus too (monies from their own pockets).

In addition to these school holiday jobs, my father also gave me the monthly tasks of mowing the lawn, cleaning the swimming pool, repainting the home, and doing the family’s home repairs and maintenance with his good mate, Mr. Percy Hayes.

I used to get angry thinking that my Father did not care about my academic grades and only thought of me as a “labourer.” This is totally different from the Asian culture where only academics matter. Paradoxically, his “no care” approach only motivated me to (try to) do better at school.  Reverse psychology at its finest!  Years later, I realised he was teaching me that burying my head in books alone is not enough.  It is also important to engage with people from different walks of life, learn different trades by doing them, and to treat all people (from a CEO to a Janitor) with the same level of respect and empathy.  In the end, we are judged on whether we have been a good person or not.  Your memories and the quality and depth of your relationships and experiences with them is what matters the most. 

My Father and I spent a great deal of time on family finances as well. He was in a protracted legal battle in Malaysia with one of his brothers.  We spent countless days with his lawyers over a 5-year period. He would take me to visit tenants of properties he owned. He would get me involved in managing my own stock portfolio when I turned 22, and where and when possible, he also got me involved in business deals.  A rose farm in Karringyup, Australia; a land sub-division idea;  helping a friend in the animal feed supplement business in Sydney; and trying to corner the zeolite commodity supply are some of the ventures that immediately come to my mind.  

He definitely taught me that there are many ways to make money and lack of imagination is, in many cases, one of the main hurdles to success.

Looking back, I had a balanced, happy and privileged childhood.

My Father had a colourful life. He was a prominent politician in Malaysia serving under Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. He had a successful accounting practice and was a land developer. 

Tan tho hong
Source: National Archives of Australia

At the age of 40 he gave all that up to migrate to Australia. He followed his value system of not being possessed by money.  When he had enough for a comfortable life, he chose to migrate to focus on his immediate family and his children’s education.

My Father’s origins were humble. He was born in a country town called Kajang in Malaysia.  As a young boy he used to swim in the local muddy rivers there; help out his father at one of the tobacco plantations they had; and on weekends go door-to-door selling You Tiao (a type of Chinese bread).  In those days he would sell them for 1 cent a roll, they currently sell for 90 cents apiece in Singapore. Shows you what inflation can do!

He looked up to his father, Mr. Tan Eng Seng.  His father came off a junk boat with nothing but the shirt on his back from China and managed to build a land bank of rubber and palm plantations, which they later developed into housing estates.

the no.2 bachelor of commerce in family in straits times
Source: The Straits Times archives.

My Father did well in school in Kajang (so I was told by him) and later his father saved enough for him (and his brothers and sisters) to be one of the first few Asians to study at Melbourne University.

The Straits Times newspaper is the most prominent daily newspaper in Singapore and Malaysia. Studying in a first-world country was such a huge achievement in this part of the world back then that they published an article about my Father and his siblings graduating.  Who would have imagined that graduating from university would be worthy of being featured in the newspaper, let alone on page 5.  It shows you how difficult and prestigious getting an overseas university education was in those days.

My Father loved his father a lot and he spoke to me about him often.

Sadly, I never got the chance to meet my grandfather who passed away before I was born.  I do remember my Father saying that on the day he passed away, my Father had a strange feeling that something was wrong.  His connection with him was that strong.  Soon after his strange feeling, he got the bad news his father had passed from a traffic accident with a lorry.

It is this richness of sharing life’s experiences that, in an indirect way, helped me through life’s ups and downs.  It has also helped me make life-changing decisions such as to work in Japan with Lehman Brothers or to take a risk by buying a shophouse nobody wanted.

I hope you do not mind me sharing the above.  It is not purely investment related and “switches gears” in the content of what I write.  I would love to hear from you as to whether you would like to read, from time to time, journals similar to this one or to keep the writing primarily strictly about investments.  Please send your feedback to feedback@double-digit-dividends.com

A Message for My Children

Your school grades are important but do not forget that experiences are the best teachers in life – just like all the things I wrote about in this journal.  When you have the chance, watch this video from Jay Shetty: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoQ_3m_i4cw