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Where The Fortunes Are

As historians get ready to debate Donald Trump’s legacy, one of the things that they should put on his list of achievements is the fact that he made “being rich” a focus of our attentions. We’ve always been fascinated by the elite but the Donald took that innate fascination that we have with the rich to a new level. In his winning presidential campaign, the Donald would repeat endlessly that he was very rich. We, the mere mortals struggling to pay our mortgages thought that this was fascinating. I remember someone explaining to me as “You know …..he’s a billionaire……he can’t be bought,” as if there was an automatic connection between the Donald’s place on the Forbes list to his character.

The Donald understands that we, the mere mortals are fascinated by the very rich and if you study the Donald, you’ll understand that there’s a very good reason why he made it a point to cultivate an image of being “vulgarly” rich. Truth be told, those of us who follow the rich list have done so for similar reasons to why we would watch porn. It took a while for me to understand that the tens of billions made the yearly differences to Bill Gates’s place on the Forbes list didn’t actually put pennies in my pocket.

However, while the fluctuations of a persons wealth may not add any wealth to my pockets, the list of “richest people,” can be very instructive about the nature of wealth and what it says about the economy of a particular nation. Let’s start with the basic nature of wealth:

In the 1980s, the richest man in the world was Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, chairman of the Seibu Corporation, who had a fortune of some US$18 billion. Mr. Tsutsumi’s fortune was based on vast holdings of Japanese real estate, which was at that time one of the most expensive in the world. A decade later, he was replaced by Bill Gates of Microsoft, who held onto the top spot for nearly three decades until he was dethroned by Jeff Bezos on Amazon in 2018. Mr. Bezos in turn has just been dethroned by Mr. Musk last week.

You can argue that a part of this surge in wealth is due to stock market exuberance. Global stock markets do react emotionally and they don’t necessarily reflect the real life economic situation. However, if you study the “richest man in the world,” from Mr. Tsutsumi to Mr. Musk there is an outline of where things are heading. In the 80s it was all about holding expensive real estate. However, wealth creation moved on to being about creating change in the way we do things and creating value.

If you had money in the 80s, it was about buying the right property, collecting rent, developing and then selling it for many more times than you bought it for. Then along came Mr. Gates who made our access to the computer easy. Thanks to Mr. Gates, it is understood that we do use a computer for most basic task. Even IT idiots like myself do things on a computer. Messers Bezos and Musk have merely brought the IT and innovation drive further. Mr. Bezos gave us a way to do things over the internet that we never thought were possible and Mr. Musk is now applying advanced technologies to create cars that don’t need fossil fuel and space travel – turning the original fantasy into a reality. More Mr. Musk’s aspirations can be found at: [LINK]

National “Rich List” are particularly instructive. Just look at one of the biggest emerging markets to shake up the world order – India. The “sexy” business story from India is technology and IT outsourcing. India, which seemed to miss out of the manufacturing boom that made East Asia, suddenly produced companies like Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Wipro and Infosys, which partnered with the likes of Cisco and IBM on the global stage. You also had smaller companies like Intellect Design Arena and 3i Infotech, which called themselves “product companies” that innovated and created specially for big banks (As a mater of full disclosure, I have provided services to Intellect Design Arena’s predecessor company – Polaris Financial Technology Ltd and 3i-Infotec).

While India has pushed itself as an “IT” centre, a glance of the rich list in India suggests that the “real” money lies elsewhere. If you look at the top five richest people in India, you’ll notice that the only tech-based fortune belongs to Shiv Nadar of HCL Technologies. The richest man in India remains Mukesh Ambani, who inherited a good old fashioned oil refining business and the second spot belongs to Gautam Adani (As a matter of full disclosure, I did work on a project that involved in-laws of the Adani’s) who made it in ports and infrastructure. What does this suggest about the Indian economy?

On a positive note, if might suggests that the biggest source of fortune from India’s domestic economy by providing for basic infrastructure. However, the less positive note, might stem from the fact that very few people have a stranglehold on India’s basic infrastructure. A list and description of the wealthiest in India can be found at: [LINK]

The story in the other Asian giant is slightly different. China built its status as the world’s other necessary economy based on manufacturing. When one thinks China, the automatic assumption is that China is the world’s sweat shop and plenty of the Chinese giants have become so by being the outsourcing manufacturer of choice for international brands. Think of how IBM sold it’s hardware business to Lenovo or how Geely took over Volvo.

However, a look at the top fortunes in China tell a slightly different story. The top two richest men being Jack Ma of Alibaba who went from basic e-commerce to payment systems (though the Chinese Communist Party has recently decided to teach Mr. Ma a lesson) and Ma Huateng of Tencent Holdings, which owns WeChat.

While the Chinese internet giants have been helped by the Chinese government protecting them from foreign competition in China’s massive domestic market, these Chinese have developed technologies that the world recognizes as being of a decent enough standard. As one local Singaporean venture capitalist said to me “WeChat is good,” and both AliPay and WeChat pay are going international.

China does have infrastructure issues but it has been far more successful at using private enterprise and available technology to overcome these problems. China’s banks are notoriously bureaucratic and the fintech provided by the likes of Alibaba’s Ant Financial and Tencent Holding’s WeChat pay have given China’s savers a viable alternative to the problems they’d face when dealing with banks. Technology and innovation are being applied in China to solve every day problems and a list of China’s richest can be found at: [LINK]

How does Singapore compare? In the last few years, the Singapore government has been working very hard at finding a “winner” to propel the Singapore economy into the next level. With electronics manufactures finding cheaper locations and global trade slowing, the government has been desperate in its search for an “economic winner.” This sense of desperation can be seen in the way in which Singapore is promoted as a “hub” for this or that. Singapore’s government is famously aggressive about promoting foreign investment. Whenever Singaporeans complain about outsiders, the government inevitably panics and starts going on about how necessary foreigners and foreign investment is to the basic survival of Singapore.

The government has trying to promote itself as a great hub of advanced technological entrepreneurial activity in the same manner as Silicon Valley. Technology start-ups are supposed to be the new buzzwords and there’s plenty of excitement whenever there’s an investment by a “sexy” industry like Lucas films.

The real story might be a little different. The richest person in Singapore, according to Forbes is Zhang Yong who set up a restaurant and plenty has been said about Eduardo Severin, one of the founders of Facebook. The “local” fortunes remain the usual suspects, who more often than not inherited a real estate or banking empire from someone else. However, rather than creating a sexy start up, Mr. Severin behaves more like a venture capitalist investor, who might throw lavish parties, which should in theory give the catering industry something to cheer about.

The only person on Singapore’s rich list who can claim to have done anything vaguely innovative or game changing if Forrest Li, who came from China. If you look at the top ten richest people in Singapore, you’ll notice that the fortunes are either the old-fashioned ones made from controlling resources or getting people from elsewhere to park their money here. A list of Singapore’s wealthiest can be found here. [LINK]

Now, there’s nothing wrong in not being the most innovative place. However, as a small country, Singapore has to create or find ways to do things differently. I keep looking back at how Covid-19 made people work from home and the landlords got worried and so you noticed that there was a load of stories about the value of returning to the office instead of promoting new ways of working.

Government can spend money on innovation and have the most beautiful laws to attract SME investors. However, these laws are meaningless if the interest of established businesses are protected. Look at the much heralded “fintech” sector, pioneered by our quasai-government bank “DBS.” As Emanuel Daniel, one of our most prominent commentators on the banking industry has pointed out – while DBS has won all sorts of international allocades for developing fintech like PayNow and PayLah, the regulators have made it such that Fintech will never challenge the banks and bright, young, developers are often at the mercy of the bureaucrats in the banks. You need a bank account to use PayNow. By contrast, you don’t need a bank account to use Alipay.

It’s the time the government went beyond talking about innovation and actually took the crucial steps of allowing bright young minds to find ways of disrupting established players. Only then will we have a really sustainable economy.

 

Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.

 

 

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15 Responses to “Where The Fortunes Are”

  • The Ugly One:

    Jack Ma cannot be in singapore, otherwise he is easily recognizable.

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  • 实现的手段:

    要消灭阶级就必须先消灭统治阶级,而统治阶级拥有镇压人民的暴力机器。因此通过阶级斗争来瓦解统治阶级的暴力机器是十分必要, 再通过被瓦解的暴力机器, 一起参与到推翻统治阶级的暴力革命中来。

    在公有制建设的整个过程中要时时刻刻的保持着阶级斗争的警惕性, 总结二十世纪中期的共产主义事业失败的经验就是放弃了阶级斗争和没有运行人民当家做主的体系. 从前苏联作为共产主义国家的领头羊失败的经验,可以证明就是没有运行 『各尽所能 各取所需』的民主体系,致使社会主义中央集权制度的上层建筑很快被私有制社会的腐败的意识形态所侵蚀,最终导致共产主义事业的失败。

    [截自 百度百科]

    与天斗,其乐无穷;与地斗,其乐无穷;与人斗,其乐无穷。

    [毛语录]

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  • xoxo:

    Donald’s legacy- getting TRUMPed ?
    What a lousy way to leave.
    Classic example of Pride comes before a fall.
    If only there was no barriers like GRC n POFMA,some PAPple may go LEE (the ) same way.

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  • Dr. Chan:

    Jack Ma say wrong thing – now ‘disappear’.
    In Singapore, say wrong thing – kenna, sue, bankrupt, jail, exile…
    In USA, also gradually become Commie/Socialist land. Demoncrats control everything, media CNN- big tech e.g. tweeter, Facebook, Supreme court, rigged the whole election with Dominion.
    At the end of day, even with the fall of USSR.
    Communism will spread around the world and win in one form or another.
    Bright young minds will have no chance against the establishment.
    They will be assimilated – ‘resistant is futile’.

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  • support local entrepreneur:

    Support local entrepreneur…
    Open opportunities for them…
    GLCs and Stat boards should not compete with them.

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  • Bad Boy:

    大头宝宝卷土重来?背后真相令人发
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dLmCPweJRYg

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  • Comments Short And Sweet:

    Write so much.
    Is it about Trump? Forbes? Fintech? Innovative disruptions?
    Or YOU not being on ‘Singapore millionaire list’? Eat your heart out, dude.

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  • Singaporeans R Free Riders:

    Dear Tang Li,
    What’s wrong with collecting more money ?

    Money Talk Bullshit Walks

    Out of power = Out of favour….
    Trump will be out of power soon, so he is no longer favour by his sponsor and everyone is abandoning him.

    Don’t believe me? Watch more logical professional debate, not Wayang Party debate.

    少康戰情室 20210113
    美國務院突宣布取消所有訪問 駐聯大使訪台也喊卡!詭?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYWz-fopu6A

    GE2024.PAP.Guarantee.Win.HuatAgain

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  • Dr. Chan:

    @ Singaporeans R Free Riders
    Agree with you.
    Establishment (Deep State) is too strong.
    Trump wants to drain swamp. The Swamp ate him alive.
    PAP too. CCP too. Will eat whoever wants to go against it.
    Jack Ma got eaten.
    Ordinary Citizens are just slaves to the establishment.

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  • Tracey Ching:

    Aiyoh! Stick to your F&B day job. You do not understand India and China’s systems. Your political and economic analysis on these countries are all wrong. This is likely due to your idiocy and lack of relevant education, qualifications, experience and intellectual abilities. In writing school, we are taught to write only what we know. You know very little. Go take the Sinovac vaccine from China. Hopefully you will get adverse complications from it and spare all of us from your tortious and miserable literal diarrhoea.

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  • He can't keep it short & sweet:

    You know the type: loud as a motorbike but wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight…..

    Animi habetis argentum aes

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  • insignificant crumbs:

    //In USA, also gradually become Commie/Socialist land. Demoncrats control everything, media CNN- big tech e.g. tweeter, Facebook, Supreme court, rigged the whole election with Dominion.//

    really or not ?? aiyoh, USA has a bit of this culture of earning big $$$$ (e.g book / movies rights / interview) from whistle blowing / exposing wrong doing lah ?? can even become heroes (machiam celebrities) going on invited tours giving talks (small man taking down Goliath ??) ???

    a small little man with a right expose (information) can bring down a big machinery / institution / person lah ? a lot of institutions (including media) have people from both sides to counter check one another lar ?? and you think lepublicant people (e.g not your average daft sinkies) will just keep quiet and not prove conclusively if the evidence (one or two pieces of insignificant crumbs do not count lar???) is there meh ???

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  • Empty Vessels:

    Like those modified, low-life, so-called ‘sports cars’ that makes a lot of noise on the roads. No balls when they come along-side a Lamborghini or just a Sirocco. hahaha……

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  • Singaporeans R Free Riders:

    Dr. Chan:
    @ Singaporeans R Free Riders
    Agree with you.
    Establishment (Deep State) is too strong.
    Trump wants to drain swamp. The Swamp ate him alive.
    PAP too. CCP too. Will eat whoever wants to go against it.
    Jack Ma got eaten.
    Ordinary Citizens are just slaves to the establishment.

    You can break the slaves chain if you knows how much you needs/wants and stop pursuing it when you reach it.

    Then you can switch path and to pursue other stuff.

    Don’t be like the oppie supporters day in day out hide behind monikers to whine only and expect or instigate others to do their bidding like Martin Lee.

    Martin Lee instigate students to charge at frontline while he Enjoys Dinner During Riot 13 October 2019
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXjSv3Hj-Xg

    GE2024.PAP.Guarantee.Win.HuatAgain

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  • TEMUSIK PATRIOT:

    What is WRONG with “Taking & Making” money through LEEgal ways, here in SINcity is the Best of all Examples of POWER & MONEY that Corrupts COMPLETELY…

    Trump is in the Right Place at the Wrong TIME!!! God is Dead and AI and the Love of Money & Power is alive and well!!!

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