Sunday, August 18, 2013


Looking Beyond The Symbols Of Wealth
by Dr Ansgar Cheng

I was born in a very prosperous city during its uptrend era and lived in Hong Kong during its rapid economic expansion. It was and still is a place filled with people, tons of opportunities, abundant ideas, plenty of upward energy, never-ending traffic jams, flooded with newspapers and other information sources. People there are forever hungry for the next best thing.

My family is reaching the end of our first decade of living in Asia. Living in Singapore is an extra-ordinary experience. Singapore is amazing in that it has almost perpetual sunshine and an excellent education system that my family members are grateful and happy to be active participants of. This is a rather sharp contrast to the 13-year experiences that my wife and I had when we were living in North America.

Home front
Many people long for a landed property in Singapore. In many places, landed properties are commonly referred to as houses. On the one hand, people in Hong Kong have close to a zero concept of this ‘landed’ property idea. With probably over 97% of the Hong Kong population living in high-rise buildings, the only people who live in ‘landed’ homes are either the mega-rich or those who are at the other end of the economic scale. A westerner friend once quipped: Aren’t all properties built on land anyway?

Usually houses offer a liberal amount of living space. Price tag aside, living in a house requires a lot of maintenance work that my family does not fancy anyone doing on our behalf, and that we don’t relish doing ourselves.

Working in a hospital environment, I have realized that space is needed to function but excessive space is actually counterproductive. Imagine an emergency patient has to cover a long distance to reach the front door of the emergency department. That is precious time wasted. In Chinese, these may be regarded as“fengshui” but in our modern world this is something simply called ergonomics. Excess is not necessarily better.

If I can easily reach and get most things in my apartment, why would I want a house that is full of space?

Lifestyle - Life in a Style? 
It was a coincidence that I ran into an old friend shortly after I moved to the USA for my residency training. In American terms, residency training means that one has to stay on for a period of time, usually for a few years, in order to complete an in-depth training in a given clinical specialty.

We were chatting away and this friend was telling me that spending extra time in a specialty training program was not a great idea for him as it would compromise his ‘lifestyle’.Well, pardon my ignorance, this term ‘lifestyle’ was totally alien to me at that point of time in life.

I was born in a working class family - my mother was an excellent housewife while my father was running his own little businesses with 3 days off every year. My parents ate simple and had a simple daily routine. My idea of life strategy was simply a biosphere of work surrounding a core of life where there was no room for this lifestyle idea. However, as time passes, I have started to realize that to many people, ‘lifestyle’ means ‘life in a style’, which many times is translated into high expenses in travel, clothing, food, and housing.

From point A to point B 
When I was doing my specialty training at UCLA, I had the honor of being taken under the wings of a world famous professor in dental implantology. His invention in the field, the UCLA abutment, is used by numerous dental implant clinicians, whether they know it or not, on an everyday basis. In short, he was successful, famous and no doubt, financially well off as he had been living in the Beverly Hills area for many years. He first made a name for himself when was 37 year-old, and he was barely 50 when I was his resident.

On a weekly basis, we needed to go to other hospitals for rounds. As I was new to Los Angeles, this world famous professor kindly drove me to those hospitals in a beat-up rusty brown Japanese van! Years later, he sadly told me that the van was eventually scrapped after collecting close to a million miles on the odometer.

In Singapore, the public transportation system can reach most places within 45 minutes from point A to point B. Our family of four enjoys life in the city without feeling ‘deprived’ that we do not own a car. Nowadays, my little girls in primary school cannot believe that their parents actually have a valid driving license! It is outside their reality!

It is mine 
People should have the right to do what they want with the things that they own. That is, providing the ownership is really there. Capitalism dictates that for the transfer of goods and services, there is a following monetary exchange. In aggregate, the money is being held in kind in between transactions.

However, there is a system of ‘free’ exchange that has been around for millions of years.Butterflies and bees have been pollinating flowers for free for years. Their pay out was to have more flowers for the following generations to enjoy. The insects apparently show no ownership mentality and they have little interest to consume more simply because they have pollinated more flowers on a good summer day.

Mankind temporarily owns a piece of the world and we call this our net worth. In the parable of talents in the Bible, our talent was allocated according to individual abilities and we are supposed to do something about it for others. Our worldly worth, which commonly is indexed with numbers, is probably to do something for mankind at large too.

Less may be indeed more. Excesses may not necessarily lead to more happiness but it is certainly harder to sustain from one high to another.

Our children have never had the traditional birthday parties with friends coming over, and with clowns and magicians to provide the entertainment. My wife and I have always considered the inevitable deluge of gifts to be poor economic allocation. Most kids would be so overwhelmed with the large number of presents received that the gifts may not be appreciated as much. That being said, we have always ensured that our girls know they are cherished, and we celebrate birthdays in a family setting with a special gift. When they were younger, we also had cupcakes and tiny goodie bags at the day care centre, but that was the extent of the celebrations.

On the subject of children, we also tend to be minimalist about children’s toys. We have been blessed to have hand-me-downs from relatives with older kids, so our two girls have never lacked for toys, books and clothing (even until now when they are 9 and 10 years old respectively). We have taught the girls to happily walk into a toy store to play with the toys and to equally cheerfully say good bye to the toys as we left without purchasing one for them. Books, rather than dolls, are their favourite companion, although they do have some dolls and soft toys at home.

Wish list 
I am not so sure how many things I want in life. However, I am absolutely sure that there is one thing I certainly can do without – that is a complicated life.

One time, an octogenerian was asked about his secret to longevity, he calmly quipped: “I figured out where I am going to die, and I have never been there since.” Deep down we probably all know what our basic needs are in life. However, it is probably not so clear about the volume of our wish list.

Being a very risk adverse person, I don’t really want to get things in life which I don’t need because I am worried that someday, I may have to sell the things I need to finance those wants. As Murphy’s law dictates, these things always happen to show up at the wrong time in life. The meek should be blessed but I really have no idea what to do if I have the earth all to myself.

I am content.

Dr Ansgar Cheng is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore and a Director & Prosthodontist with Specialist Dental Group. He is the usual recipient of his wife’s hand-me-down phones. The Cheng family zip around Singapore via buses, MRT or taxis and walk their kids to school.

(This article first appeared in the August-Sept 2013 issue of IMPACT Magazine. For more articles with the focus on spiritual values, concern for family, positive life-style, and civic consciousness, please click here.)

Related article:

A Simple Life - The Root of Sensible Living

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The day when you realise in your heart that you already have everything that you ever needed to live your life despite that you do not yet have everything you ever wanted is the day you find happiness. The quest to fully meet one's needs is doable while the continuous quest for endless gratifications is insatiable.