Sunday 31 December 2023

Month of December 2023

The travel bug might have been still itching as the wife suggested an overnight trip to Malaysia. It's probably around six years since I last drove in. The jam at the Causeway was expected as we took two hours to clear customs at 9am on a Friday morning. Johor is so close yet feels so unfamiliar. We were conservative as fears of car and police incidents played in our minds. So without stopping for a break, I drove to Mid Valley Shopping Mall which came highly recommended by friends and it's also where our hotel is situated. At that time, the only thing to do was to have breakfast at the only cafe that was opened. As more shops slowly lit up, our first activity was to indulge in a head spa. It's a new realization that an oily scalp can still have dandruff. I had been using wrong types of shampoo all these while! Well, a simple treatment was better than no treatment although I'm rather skeptical of the result unless it's consistently applied. Lunch was rather light since we had a massage appointment lined up. In the end, we spent the entire day in the mall. The next day, we stopped over at KSL City for Kuay Teow Soup before doing some grocery shopping. Traffic back home was unimpeded as we passed immigration in ten minutes. Overall, it felt like being in Singapore yet spending just that little bit lesser.

Still, my family prepped ourselves for the final trip of the year, this time with a bunch of friends and their kids, totaling 23 people! We were going to Bali. Yeah! One of those places that I missed for so long. Travelling in such a big group brought a different kind of challenge from accommodation to transportation and activities. Thanks to a friend who's basically been a regular here for the past few years due to his business, he and his wife helped organize every little detail. It was a jam packed 5D4N experience. We did a day of water sports, half day of golf followed by beach club party and another day of water rafting and ATV. Our time was split around Ubud, Seminyak and Kuta. In between, we were introduced to cafes with delicious food and views. The consensus was clear that the favourite was Pison Cafe as we visited twice after being impressed by its range of items. I thought golf at Handara was wonderful with the cool mountain, easy terrain and pure relaxation. The most challenging was the rafting adventure. From the beginning, it rained heavily. For the young ones, walking twenty minutes down steep steps to get to the riverside was nerve-racking. Occasional lightning flashed overhead. It was cold and reminded me of my army days in the field camp under similar condition. However, even with rain, once the activity got going, everyone had fun riding the quick rapids and being splashed by muddy water. It was amazing that the group dynamics worked out well. Each family had a fulfilling moment. The ladies enjoyed their hair wash and massage while the kids happily played among themselves. A few of us learnt to play Bridge. My youngest son enjoyed paragliding and surprisingly, the rafting. However, there's an unfortunate remark to the trip. The villa we stayed in fell way below expectations. The rooms were not clean, some had air conditioning issues, water pressure from the shower head was mostly low, my mattress creaked, the pool looked slightly greenish with overgrown bushes etc... I mean, I could list down many more points but we stuck it out and didn't let this spoil our spirits. Be warned, do not stay at The Light Bali Villa @ 11 JL Tunjung. Even our Pasir Ris chalets offered better.

Tip: Macallan Classic Cut 2023, pleasant honeyed nose, a dash of cinnamon and soft dew

Friday 22 December 2023

Closing Out 2023

I closed my eyes to recall and the first thought that came to my mind was, "What just happened? A year has passed again?" Nothing in particular stood out as it felt like moments went by too quickly to leave a significant imprint. My colleagues recently commented my hair seemed to be greyer than before. That's probably right, it's been so gradual that I didn't notice such a change. Perhaps it's because my health was more of a concern. According to the app, things have improved. Number of average steps clocked have increased by about 500 per day, 80 more calories were burned daily along with higher distances. A drop of 3.5kg body weight is the result of the effort made. Considering that I was sidelined by a nose operation and post recovery period of two months, the overall state is quite decent.

At work, the team achieved its target once again. They celebrated and morale was high. Inside, I felt mental stress, nil excitement and waiting for the pay cheque. My mind often drifted to when the next break would come. Social engagements were less as I declined a number of requests. Maybe it's due to me being more discerning about meaningless gathering for the sake of it. Most people I met remained as corporate contact, there's hardly any follow up unless required. We usually add each other on social media and to me, it's just a method to keep connected although I have also stopped wishing others on events like birthdays, congratulations on baby arrival and anything of note. I can't pinpoint what's caused this change. All I know is my work tank is running on empty. Even a few holidays this year couldn't re-energize my spirit. Those were mere distractions.

On the other hand, my financial journey is on track. Watching online videos on financial independence provided some joy and ideas to apply. I'm happy there's been real progression. This is well documented in the other posts of this blog. Markets are complex so it's been a good experience this year to manage new investment products while trying to find a correct mix. It's a looping process and more shall be done. I've been blessed in this aspect.

Just hoping to discover the mojo in life and improve myself.

Tip: Le Petit Smith Haut Lafite 2018, ripe currants, inky flower petals, mild herbs, commendable

Friday 15 December 2023

Finance Investment Movement 40

The most anticipated event of this month just ended and the Fed Chairman had changed strategy on the inflation fight. Employment numbers were healthy, consumer prices looked to be steadying, supply chains had normalized and a recession possibility was banished. In response, the stock market went into immediate front loading, anticipating juicy interest rate cuts in the coming year. Looks like the skies are clear, or is it not? I thought it was very clever positioning by the Fed. They needed to bring cheer to the people not just because Christmas is coming but also kept in mind there were other major events happening next year. Several presidential elections will happen (US, Indonesia, Taiwan) and big money is required to finance projects for supporting a couple of small wars, build massive infrastructure, invest into technology and pull ahead of a competitor who's gotten too close for comfort. All these are dependent on people's support but the key is whether the US can generate more income than expenditure. My take is, inflation is here to stay!

My investment window has sort of closed for the year. I'm preparing to join the SCB Priority Banking program so as to gain access to other products and get preferential rates. I'm still contemplating whether to apply for Jan SSB. The more exciting part would be to tabulate my overall portfolio status at the end of the month.

Tip: Baron Gaston Legrand Armagnac, dried fig infused toffee, almost like an alcoholic tea

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Another Trip Completed

This was quite a last minute trip so the itinerary preparation was a little rushed. Luckily, it's to a country where we had been before but there were several firsts achieved which I shall elaborate below. Taiwan is such a beautiful place with friendly people. Though I had been there close to ten times, there will always be something new to enjoy.

Day 1: Taoyuan
It was our first experience flying with Starlux Airlines. When I booked it, the App felt incomplete as it couldn't perform check in function. There was only one flight per day. I had prepped everyone to expect a Scoot-like environment but was glad to be proven otherwise. The seats were comfortable, equipped with a multi-plug charging point, hot meals were served and in flight entertainment was available. We arrived in the evening, booked out the Wifi router and found the rental car after ten minutes of searching in the basement carpark. I had chosen Goodcars to rent a Luxgen M7. It's a locally branded MPV and the reservation process was a little dubious as everything was done online. Communications were done via Whatsapp, documents were uploaded there and full payment made before the trip. The vehicle was collected via self service so the keys were left in the glove compartment. And I had to get used to left hand drive in an unknown car model. Quite challenging for a start.

Day 2: Yilan
Departure was early at 9am as the journey to the next location would take around 2.5 hours. The Google map became our trusted navigator as I drove carefully towards Sanxing Sinbow Farm. Along the way, a refueling stop was required and it took us some time to find a petrol station. Taiwan's road design is rather haphazard and there are almost non existent service areas between inter-cities, unlike say Japan. One should not conveniently exit the highway unless necessary as it's a big loop to get back on. We managed to arrive at our destination just before noon and purchased the full package experience. Part of this included the petting area for ponies and simbar deers although I felt the amount of feed given to each person was too little as it's basically a small cup of pellets. The greying weather was kind enough to hold out as we got into the muddy field to harvest a handful of spring onions each, wash and roll our own dough. Happily, the fried pancake turned out delicious such that even the picky eaters also finished their portions. We left around 230pm to head towards our accommodation for the next three nights, a private house in the outskirts of Luodong. A spritely lady (XP) welcomed and showed us around. She took our orders for breakfast the next day and left us to rest. An hour later, we were on the move again for dinner at Leshan Spring Ramen in Jiaoxi. The temperature at night can get rather cold. We adjourned to a nearby park where there's a public foot bath and soaked our feet for half an hour before calling it a day. My wife did a round of laundry while I fell asleep.

Day 3: Yilan
The door bell rang at 815am. All of us had changed and ready for breakfast. XP laid out a feast of salad, Cheong Fun, Shao Bing and juices. It was too much for stomachs that had barely woken. We struggled to finish half before leaving for the next activity. The roads were quite empty on the way to Kili Bay Pearl Milk Centre. Its museum area is small and unimpressive. Our main activity was to DIY a cup of milk tea which took 15 minutes to complete. Soon we were off to lunch at Nanfangao port even though my breakfast had barely digested. The port is home to a fishing village and surrounded by mountains, providing a safe harbour. Shops mainly sold dried and fresh seafood, fruits and sauces. We ended up at an eatery to have fish soup, tuna sashimi, small squid, braised pork rice and vegetables. All these for less than S$30. With our bellies full once again, the next stop was at National Centre for Traditional Art. This is a huge compound comprising of shophouses promoting local cultural products such as wood, black jadestone, soap etc. It was 2pm and a street opera performance was going on. The crowd moved along with the actors who were enacting a scene to find a thief and that eventually ended up at the performing theatre. We strolled leisurely, bought some souvenirs and fed a school of hungry carps. Then proceeded to dinner at Qing Gou Night Market. This was set at a main street which cordoned off to cars at 6pm, motorcycles continued to weave among the visitors to make quick pit stops for food purchase. We had pizza, fried boneless pork rib, candied fruits before taking away braised meats and stir fried beef udon.

Day 4: Yilan
Another day of hearty breakfast, this time with burgers, nuggets and fries. That provided the energy to play among the cute animals (goats, deers, capybaras, kangeroos and tortoises) at Zhang Mei Ama Farm. By the time we left, large groups were queueing which testifies to its popularity. Lunch break was at Artemis Garden before a visit to Jim and Dad Brewery. These two spots were sparse and meditative, with the food quality average. Since there was time, we searched and ended up at Xin Xin Family Farm. This was an authentic place with free roaming geese, chicken and a very pregnant pig. Other animals such as goats and deers were in enclosures. The boys enjoyed feeing the racoon with live meal worms while my wife disbursed the unlimited bundles of grass. Essentially, we paid to become farm workers while the owner sat in a corner with his friend, munching peanuts amid conversation. The grounds may be a little dirty but that's to be expected. I would love to visit it another time. This night, the kids stayed in while my wife and I went to Luodong Night Market. We settled on mutton soup, sweet potato balls, meat skewer, green bean shake and took home a hamburger alongside noodles. As per the previous night, it was supper and beer with the local entertainment TV programs.

Day 5: Hualien
XP served up our last breakfast here comprising of Youtiao, meat bun, soya bean and fruit platter. She reminded us to leave the parking tickets at the reception table of which she would make payment as part of the accommodation package. We thanked her and left the property soon after to head towards Li Chuan Aquafarm. Along the way, it was mostly paddy fields as the skies dimmed inland. The drive was pleasant with 2.5 hours passed. Upon reaching the destination, there wasn't much people as we contemplated whether to pick clams from the muddy pond. The thought of doing this barefoot kept us away so we did the next best thing, that is to eat lunch featuring clams of course, in soup and stir fried versions. The size of these clams were small but plump, and the generous serving meant we probably ate 200 pieces! Straight after, we headed for coffee break at the very iconic containers of Starbucks in this city. It's located outside a grand looking mall but pathetically empty inside. We helped a bored looking employee by purchasing tickets for the kids to go into the world's longest indoor slide. Barely five seconds of fun for S$10 per person. The coffee we had later costs less. After half an hour inside the cosy container, we could finally head for hotel check in. For dinner, it was simply ten steps walk to the cafe beside and it served a surprisingly yummy mini hotpot. While the kids went back to the room, my wife and I decided to do a recce at Dongdamen Night Market which was three minutes walk away. It was filled with many game stores and the usual food variety. One notable point was the big number of students hanging around.

Day 6: Hualien
Today's the designated scenic drive day. The Hualien coastline is renowned for its beautiful ocean views and we were treated to good weather throughout. First, we stopped at Xin She Rice Terrace which is really an over-rated spot. It allowed me to take a break from driving, inhale proper breaths of fresh air and a family photo opportunity. Shortly, we left for Guangfu Sugar Factory. It's a big compound showcasing an once active sugar mill, demarcated into working, living and dining spaces. After a quick walk, it was time to lunch on beef noodles, fish noodles and curry rice. Big servings and decent taste. This is the kind of place good enough for one visit and no more. Next, our ride took us to an elevated area where the Li Yu Lake awaited. There were options to self paddle, self drive an electric boat or be ferried around in a guided boat. As the sun would set in about two hours, we decided on option two. The boat didn't go above 15km/h as we slowly navigated the lake perimeters. The boys took turns to be at the helm while I sat back to enjoy the tranquility. We talked, observed birds and marvelled at low clouds that hung over the mountain. One hour later, the peaceful ride ended. The road traffic back to hotel was smooth and daylight remained as we settled for a Japanese donburi each for dinner.

Day 7: Taoyuan
We left early so as to gain more time for Gloria Outlet shopping. About 45 minutes in, the GPS took us off the highway as there was anticipated bad traffic jam. Ok, perhaps the small roads could be less utilized. Barely a few kilometers later, the navigated route went towards the same highway again. Right, quite a long winded way to drive, I thought. But the GPS didn’t know that police had blocked off side access roads so we couldn’t get onto the desired path repeatedly. Instead, I had to make a U-turn after going backwards to the exit spot where we had originally come from. This particular turn took an hour. If traffic had been good, by this time, we would have been close to the destination. Yet here we were, less than halfway. Hunger crept in, luckily we had snacks and water. When the bladder threatened to give way, we had no choice but to let the youngest son use a water bottle. The rest of us just held on. Traffic was slow and rain made it worse. A journey of four hours became seven. When I related this to the hotel concierge, the staff just smiled and said, “Never drive from Yilan to Taipei on the weekend. This is normal.” A day spent purely on the road.

Day 8: Taoyuan
A last minute change occurred. The farm visit that was planned wasn’t open. I found out after searching for its information the night before. So we detoured to Pushin Ranch. Similar to those before, we paid an entrance fee but had to fork out for the animal feed. By comparison, this was the least impressive place though an unsuspecting first timer to Taiwan would still enjoy. Then a petrol stop was needed to get the needle above 25% tank capacity. Lunch and outlet shopping was next. We didn’t buy much since the prices were not enticing. After putting the boys back to hotel, my wife and I drove to the car return point which was five minutes away. The self service option meant I had to take photos of the car’s condition over six angles, the dashboard and the glove compartment that contained money for highway toll incurred. The level of trust must be high to leave an unattended vehicle in a public car park and a Whatsapp message to thank me for the patronage. I was quite impressed how this worked out.

Day 9: Taoyuan
We wanted to give the boys a taste of Taipei so it’s onto public transport today. Taking the HSR and metro to Ximending took around 40 minutes, excluding waiting time. After days of Chinese food, it was timely to eat something they had been craving i.e pasta. Following that was foot massage, shopping and more food eg Ah Zhong Mian Xian, tempura assortment and honey bittergourd juice. By 4pm, our minds were empty and thus headed back to hotel. The rest of the evening was to pack the luggage and enjoy a drink at the hotel bar along with dinner. The boys played a game of darts.

Day 10: Singapore
The hotel airport transfer service costs NT$1400 and took us at 615am to Taoyuan airport in 20 minutes. Check in and immigration were surprisingly smooth. The plane entered sunny skies as the youngest one requested for two servings of the chicken meal. We were glad to return home. I estimated the all-in bill to be S$10000.

Tip: Taiwan Beer 18 Days Draft, smooth malt with light hop, a delight

Thursday 30 November 2023

Month of November 2023

A Dutch friend dropped by in town and we met for a quick catch up over lunch. He's much more travelled and experienced than me, when allied with his effusive nature, shared interesting perspectives of what's been going on in his life. One of our topics referred to the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel. He was quick to rebut what his government had done. As we know, much of Europe relied on Russian gas for their energy needs. Add that to the intention of being a climate friendly nation and thus the Dutch government decided to reject natural gas for cooking. By next year, most homes must stop using gas stoves. Petrol vehicles are also being phased out. The Dutch are big proponents on human rights as well. So obviously, they are sympathetic to refugees and protesters alike. But according to my friend, there's been much abuse of the system. In his city, once a week, a group of people hold sit down protests. Their choice of location is usually at a busy or major road, blocking entire traffic for hours. That's because the police can't disperse them easily. No water guns, no tear gas and not even pushing people off the streets. In the end, someone came up with the idea to create human trolleys and cart them off. A laughable solution. Worse, such people are usually unemployed and yet they continue to receive benefits to the tune of around S$2200 per month. Compare that to a service staff who earns S$2500. Our conversation sometimes drifted into his business. He's as passionate as ever, with plans to explore opportunities in Asia. If things go well, I'll probably see him again next year.

There's been a rather alarming rate of announcements with regard to people getting scammed. Singapore is among the top nations in terms of amount lost. I have received a fair share of phone calls, emails and social media invitations and been fortunately safe thus far. What I have done is especially to keep a close eye on credit card transactions, checking them monthly and looking for odd vendors in the list. However, something else happened. Recently, I was walking along Marina Square and just window shopping while waiting for my wife. A voice called out in Chinese, "Hey brother, hey.." I looked back, saw a pair of mother and daughter and the former waved at me. They looked like tourists and likely needed directions. I walked over and nodded. The mother said, "We just arrived in Singapore and waiting for a friend who's late but we're hungry and have no money. I'm not asking for money but can you treat us to a meal?" The time was around 4pm. I paused to think and the daughter quickly added, "It's fine if you can't help. We'll just wait." They appeared decently groomed. The mother maintained her smile towards me and probably saw my hesitant look. "Well, tell me which hotel are you staying at?" I replied. Now it was their turn to turn hesitant and the daughter, a little impatient, tugged at the mother's hand to pull her in the opposite direction and her parting words were, "That's ok, we will be fine, bye." It was a strange encounter.

Tip: Ratafia Solera 90-16, nutty grape with tea infused wood

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Finance Investment Movement 39

Given the current state of global economy, it's difficult to predict amid many significant factors in play at the same time. Over the past month, I gather there's two wars, uneven corporate results, multiple ongoing trade politicking, high profile bankruptcies and persistent interest rates. To make things worse, the weather in Singapore was scorching and I see food inflation everywhere. Well, my wallet's mood isn't that good at the moment. Sure, there are always two sides to a coin. One could read this as a volatile environment, either ripe with opportunities or traps. Singapore, being the sampan in the sea (as what DPM Heng described), has to find a way to stay afloat in the changing tides. This is how I feel about my portfolio as well. I reviewed my assumptions of a mild recession this year and concluded it won't happen. But what about next year?

Therefore, the challenge now is to build up my net asset value when investments are marked down while expenses climbed. Luckily, there's comfort in the strong SGD and having disposable income although the former is surely a temporary effect. So I have been looking for places to park cash and then two heroes, Scb and Hsbc, stepped forward with offers of 3.7% yield in return for $100k deposits. The timing is not ideal as I don't have enough floating cash to move around. I did a redemption of an older SSB to reinvest into the next tranche. Put together, it's almost at the halfway mark of achieving my goal of $250 payout per month. I'm putting some renovation on hold as the quotation is quite steep but likely only delayed for another few months. Meanwhile, a TCM package was purchased for $500 which I consider as money well spent!

Tip: Harugokoro Tokubetsu Junmai Another Series, a slow burner that shows soft water and minerals

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Month of October 2023

It's been a long while that I attended a relative's wedding dinner. Among my younger cousins, there are some who choose to remain single or some who just want to ROM and one who held dinner with only guests of my parent's age. I guess that's the trend nowadays. The propensity for grand celebrations has slowly disappeared. Why so? It's probably a combination of dinner costs, shifting expectations of the older generation and changing ideals of married couples to go for an experiential trip instead. What a big difference compared to my wedding. In my time, the entire village of relatives (regardless of age) would be invited by default. This time, perhaps due to the limitation of the venue to 18 tables, I got to meet about a quarter of the usual faces. It was held at Skai restaurant, atop level 69 at Swissotel Hotel. The emcee was good, fantastic ambience but a little let down by the food execution. Nonetheless, I cherish the opportunity of such a gathering as we Yum Seng several times and brought the party to another round at Chijmes. I was flat out the next day.

Over a weekend brunch with the kids, we decided to go try out a nearby and recently opened cafe. It was a surprise to see T, an ex neighbour whose wife still keeps in close contact with mine. We chatted a while and then settled down in our seats. T is a Chartered Valuer who worked in several GLC and finance firms over the years. In between, he took a year off to be a stay home dad, even though his wife was a willing housewife. Something which not many would go through especially when their children were still young. Soon, our coffees arrived and it was T who served us. This was his first day at work. He had gone through a barista course and starting out as a service crew to gain experience in a new full time role. I applaud his courage in pursuing a passion. His reason for leaving the previous job? Burnout.

The television is such an important part of my life. Most families would have at least one set though I know a friend who doesn't as he strictly enforces the 'No TV' rule to promote home interaction and lessen media influence. Well, I obviously don't follow that and instead have two sets in the house, one in the living room and the other in my room. The children already have regular screen time via their ipads and phones so rather than taking those away, I prefer to see the television as their alternative. During dinner, it's switched on and always tuned to Channel 8. What usually comes on is the news segment and critically, spoken in Chinese. Sometimes, I use some of the reports to teach certain words or question the children's understanding, hoping they hear, learn and make that slight improvement. On the other hand, the television in my room is used solely by the wife and I for night entertainment. Before turning in, we would be eased in bed, typically choosing Taiwanese talkshows or Netflix. This month, it was a rewind back to 1990s as we revisited a long forgotten series, The X-files. It's such a good show as we mused along the mysteries, laughed over incredulous costumes and appreciated the ingenuity of the producer and casts. For almost every night we watched, the wife would fall asleep first while I carried on for another episode. Luckily there's another 150 more to go!

Tip: Pt Leo Estate Pinot Gris 2019, aromatic, fresh guava with a little pink sea salt

Sunday 15 October 2023

Finance Investment Movement 38

Another month, another new record. Whoever bought that Bishan HDB maisonette at $1.45m just helped to raise the bar for many aspirant sellers and their hopes of a coming windfall. This unit might have been unusually bigger and while the psf achieved was not as formidable, a good number of units sold breached the $1m mark. Even if million dollar HDB flats are the minority of the overall transactions, the regularity of such big ticket sales is uncomfortable to me. This coincides with the current all time high for COE prices. Why would an ordinary person pay $150k when other necessities are getting more expensive? But if I'm a rental car business owner, then it makes sense as it's still a profitable venture. A simple calculation of renting out at $150 per day means a rough breakeven point of four years. My opinion is the government has gotten it wrong by mixing personal and commercial car usage under the same COE category. This has isolated different groups of people but I feel especially for families with young children and elderly parents. Even general businesses will be affected as the cost of logistics becomes a heavier burden. It will be a social policy disaster if the price trend continues. I will be watching keenly from the sidelines and conclude in 2025, when the next election is due. Meanwhile, just have to work on saving for a next car. In any case, this decision would only be due in 2026.

There weren’t much options to shift idle funds as I couldn’t meet the requirements for both Scb and Hsbc accounts. Although there are other bank accounts offering decent deals, I decided not to open any more new ones unless something irresistible pops up. So it became a case of investing into money market funds (moomoo and poems) and 2000 shares of CICT at $1.78, a price last seen a year ago and which I thought gave a decent yield. Given the expected longer period of high interest rates, I’m prepared to wait to pick up more Reits shares if the prices are attractive. One happy moment was when I invested OA into Tbills for the first time and received that unexpected 4.07% yield. This month's SSB should see increased demand and I'm definitely applying for it.

Tip: Chateau Prince Anjou Blanc 2019, stone fruit, medium palate, walnut in the background

Saturday 30 September 2023

Month of September 2023

For my school going children, this must be one of the best months in recent years. Their holidays began on 1 Sep (due to Presidential Election) and lasted till 11 Sep. Then there were other days where it's either HBL or PSLE sessions, therefore necessitating that they stayed at home. To make life more interesting, we decided to go on a quick getaway. So I had already done the search for flight and hotel deals a month before and came across a good one with Scoot flight to Phuket for an average of $188 per head, including luggage. Finding a hotel was more difficult not because of availability but rather for the right price. In my mind, I had settled on Kamala beach area and the options were quite pricey for the better locations. One fine day, I was browsing online and found a suitable two bedroom apartment at Hyatt Regency. I didn't expect such a luxury choice and was excited on the arrival day.

We landed in the evening and were shuttled to the hotel. Check in was smooth and we wanted to have a quick dinner before resting for the night. When we got to the apartment, a shock awaited as the two bedrooms actually had a shared bathroom in between them, meaning if one was to shower, two sets of doors needed to be closed. The wife's face turned further pale upon realizing the doors had no lock and it was too late to do anything. She had to endure sharing the bathroom with a bunch of messy boys. Our concern was made known to the reception after breakfast the next day. The shift manager came over, checked the computer and promptly offered to transfer us to interconnecting rooms. Thereafter, we proceeded to Kamala beach for half day soak in the sun and sea. The boys enjoyed frisbee and just bobbing in the waves. A simple meal later and we were back to the hotel. The wife was much happier after moving into the new rooms and the sea view was a plus point. After shower, around 5pm, the day turned better as we wind down at the hilltop Regency Lounge which presented a breathtaking view of sunset as we munched on a buffet of food and drinks, all free! Our third day was spent lazing at the hotel pool followed by a visit to Patong area for massage. It was crowded with beachgoers dressed casually (maybe too little at times), hanging around cafes and roadside stalls. The last day was a very early morning flight back, so we had to miss the delectable hotel breakfast. All in, this was an enjoyable vacation with a great hotel, food and pleasant weather throughout. The timing was about right as it's 70% tourist capacity and the monsoon season has yet to begin. Total expenses came up to $3000. We are already contemplating whether to do the same next year, in separate rooms of course.

Soon after, I had to go on a one day business trip to KL. Finished walking an exhibition, met a few new people and caught up with old friends. The atmosphere was lively and a working day was over just like that. The most interesting thing I ate was at Din Tai Fung (halal certified) as I ordered their signature dumplings. Instead of pork, the filling used chicken which was alright but I prefer the original recipe. Simply based on the food bills, it's clear that average locals would be tight on budget, much like Singapore's situation.

Tip: Michel Genet Blanc De Blanc 2014, fantastic find with balanced stone fruits, a crowd pleaser

Friday 15 September 2023

Finance Investment Movement 37

Two months ago, I wrote about food inflation (see here). Now, I'm sad to find out that my favourite wanton mee stall has closed for good.  There was no notice pasted during my final visit. Then when I walked past later, the spot was already vacated. The owners (mother and son) decided to retire. They chose not to inform and kept it low profile. This loss of a two decades relationship was too sudden and I would have loved to thank them properly for feeding my family. In its place now is another wanton mee stall (the irony) but this one comes with a "branded" name that operates many branches across the island. The ongoing cost of running a business is not easy. In the industry where I work, there's a message floating around that contains a list of companies with late or missed payment recently, indicated with one to three red flags. Among them, there are well known names as well as those with a long history. Something doesn't feel right. For all the reassurance that Singapore would not go into recession this year, to me, it's like a gradual decline in that direction. Next year will highlight the effects that one year of high interest rates have on our economy.

For many months, I have been investing on the safe side by putting most funds into SSB, T bills and fixed deposits. Occasionally, I do a few trades on options. These will likely remain the strategy for the rest of the year as I look to save cash and dip into high yield dividend shares when the price corrects. The Aud fixed deposit was renewed for one month at 2.81%, a terrible rate as I was hoping for closer to 3%. Then RHB came out with a 4.55% offer which is the deal I have been looking for. Unfortunately, I do not have a bank account with them and the money is already committed. Next month, I face the issue of having to park excess cash from SCB Esaver to somewhere as the current interest rate promotion will expire.

Tip: Tenbu Junmai Ginjo, fruity melon, savory rich with a medium body

Thursday 31 August 2023

Month of August 2023

Updated finance page.

Having lost a few kilos and trying to reduce more, I was thinking how to keep myself motivated. It's tough having to eat less so I rather burn more calories. That meant more and higher intensity activities. I did badminton with new friends and was breathless after an hour. Also tried new jogging routes near home and at Botanic Gardens. The furthest distance achieved was 4.7km and the cramps lingered for a couple of days. Walking was easy but the time efficiency value wasn't great. Among the various exercises, the most convenient was planking. It started with one minute in the morning after I wake up and then increased to two minutes at which I'm maintaining for now. The weighing scale remained stuck when compared to last month.

There were a number of meet ups with friends and business associates from overseas. Somehow, they managed to spread out and there was lunch/dinner appointment every week this month. In between, I visited Batam for site survey with two of them and stayed overnight. It's been such a long time since my last trip there and much changes were in store. New department malls, outdoor cafes and industrial developments sprouted everywhere. For a while, it felt like Singapore, where construction and road digging were part of the landscape. But there were also many empty storefronts and factories. Cost of living was affordable.

The best moment this month was to celebrate my wife's birthday. By some luck, we sneaked in last minute and watched the latest Mission Impossible movie at a Gold Class cinema. It's amazing how this franchise lasted so long and able to keep us captivated for almost three hours! Ethan Hunt will have to retire some day so let's enjoy while it lasts. Fortunately, I managed to refrain from visiting the restroom after restricting myself to a cup of ice lemon tea. Straight after, we went for dinner at Claudine. We already had fries and chicken wings earlier, so decided to manage the portions and ordered a pork terrine, tomato salad, cod and scallops. They came well plated like a garden and tasted delicious. The masterful technique was certainly a French culinary display, with the Ponderosa tomato dish a standout. Despite our full bellies, the meal rounded off with two desserts and a lovely digestif. Sometimes, we just have to indulge ourselves a little.

Tip: Iyo Kagiya Black Junmai Ginjo, nice aroma, mild candy floss and pear, supple finish

Friday 18 August 2023

Sharing HDB Notes To My Boss

**Before you read further, I want to qualify that the below is purely a work of creative thinking.

Since the Prime Minister decided to talk about the topics of HDB and CPF, I thought it would be fun to chip in some ideas. Let me put myself into the shoes of Perm Sec MND and dream a little.

To start off, I'm outlining some basis and assumptions that guide this post's direction. 

a) A HDB flat is meant for stay, be affordable and not for investment. The current situation requires ways to address flat affordability, uneven wealth distribution, inclusivity for poor and elderly and help for young generation to start a family. As shall be shown, my measures are meant to reduce BTO price and curb resale values, essentially rebooting the system with new rules.

b) CPF is for retirement. As a safety net, the CPF must not be allowed to fluctuate too much from its contributed amounts. Its goal is to be a long term accumulation tool and ensure a stable payout at the appropriate time.

Now, the dream begins. Even if some figures below may be farfetched, it's because I didn't do in depth calculations. So this is a broad outline and my personal (maybe somewhat controversial) take.

1) The BTO scheme will be revamped and prioritized for Newcomer (defined as first time married couples and/or singles above 29 years old). Such applicants must choose a flat if their queue number permits, otherwise they lose the status of a Newcomer for three years. Any leftover BTO flats will then be opened to others on a ballot basis with families having at least one Singaporean child given five times additional chances. The MOP is 20 years but has an option that allows the owner to sell the flat after 10 years. If this happens, the transaction value is subjected to 20% tax, decreasing 1% each year from the 11th year onwards, on top of point 2 below.

2) A new tax scheme, Seller's Windfall, will be introduced for resale flats. The first S$400k of the transacted flat value shall be exempted and amounts above that are placed in tiered categories and imposed a taxable percentage, up to 60%.

3) The BTO salary ceiling will be revised to S$12000, housing loan payment via CPF shall be capped at S$1000 per person per month, therefore the remainder is by cash. The lending value of a house loan is capped at 70% of the valuation or sale price.

4) For private housing, each couple or single (above 29 years old) can own 1 HDB and 1 private apartment. Landed owners (defined as non strata titled land) will not be allowed to purchase a HDB flat. If a landed owner sells away his house, he becomes eligible to do so immediately. Any violation of holding both a landed property and HDB concurrently for more than 6 months will be heavily penalized. A year long exercise will be launched to check all residents' stated NRIC address against actual living address. ABSD for second apartment purchase (exclude HDB in calculation) and above starts from 30%.

5) Existing grants will be removed or reduced and focused mainly on the lower income tier and couples below 35.

6) The EC and PLH scheme will be discontinued.

7) HDB is to embark on a 10 year building plan to achieve 30000 flats per year. During this period, the aims are to sooth supply constraints, encourage those with expiring leases to move and young couples to start a family early. Among the new BTO flats, these include a variety of one to four bedrooms (up to 1800sqft). Certain floors eg second to fifth levels in certain blocks are earmarked for retirees only. These are one or two bedrooms flats strictly on a rental basis. The household nucleus for this may include the retiree (with spouse) and son(s)/daughter(s). A retiree's grandchild is not included and therefore the parent(s) must move out. Once the retiree (including spouse) passes away, the flat is returned and prepared for the next occupant. 

8) State clearly any flat upon reaching 99 years will be returned at zero value. Only a small percentage of flats may be eligible for SERS and the probability decreases while point 7 is being implemented. HDB will commit to make an offer to acquire flats with leases less than 15 years (amount expected to be token value contributing partly as down payment for next flat). It is a one time event and requires 80% resident's support. If rejected, then the flat follows its due course.

9) CPF in OA can only be used for housing (per point 3). CPF in SA can only be used for government securities, fixed income instruments or fixed deposits.

10) The interest rate for the various CPF accounts will remain for now but starting from the next review and subsequently, it will be adjusted under the formula (6 month Sora - 0.5%), subject to a minimum of 2% in OA and 4% in SA/MA.

Tip: Chateau Ferrande Graves Rouge 2017, tobacco and woody, inviting bouquet, slim finish

Tuesday 15 August 2023

Finance Investment Movement 36

The political space in Singapore had been in overdrive in the past few weeks with various scandals and investigations happening. This is not the staid environment that I'm accustomed to where our government operates with a robotic touch. While the rumour mill continued to swirl, my focus was elsewhere. I watched the National Day speech with keener interest. Even though it was a short one, the sneak preview given by the Prime Minister will generate even more excitement until the rally date on 20 August. That's because he had touched on two issues closest to every citizen's heart; HDB and CPF. It meant something was brewing and the status quo no longer worked. I had mentioned before (over here) about my observations and glad the government is going to address such sensitive topics. My guess is there will be some measures to help the poor and elderly (maybe singles as well), tweaking eligibility rules and enhancing retirement. There's just too many areas and possible solutions (A side note: I don't support higher grants). In my opinion, the housing issue must be tackled now as any misstep will lead to a disastrous outcome, affecting the entire society strata as a house is the most expensive asset/liability. In about two decades, when more HDB flats come close to reaching lease expiry, the anxiety will be felt if nothing is done to reset expectations. Obviously, the government will not want to crash the market but neither should it allow seemingly unabated price increase. Therefore, it must start shifting existing policies to allow time to sink in, hopefully transitioning within a decade. As per Singapore style, let's put in another decade as buffer. Because if things don't work out, 20 years from now, the generation of new home buyers, existing home owners and retirees of that time will look back and ask "what if" questions with regret. I believe given the long term vision of our wise leaders, they have a plan and hope to gift the incoming Prime Minister a nice platform to begin a new era. Otherwise, I see this as the biggest sabo of a lifetime.

There is something unusual in the bank deposit rates. As the US Fed raised interest rates, our local banks have gone in the opposite direction by offering lower mortgage and deposit interest. Corporate financing rates remained high at around 6.5%, which meant the banks earned about 3% in interest income for such transactions. Why is this possible? I reckoned that's to do with the status of Singapore as a safe financial hub. Given the uncertainties in other countries, global depositors have basically transferred excess cash into Singapore based banks, causing an indigestion, so much so that DBS could even lend money to MAS! To small retail customers, the banks could afford to be stingy such as the HSBC EGA bonus program being taken away or GXS reducing its interest rate to 2.68%. I think the banks will be even more selective, thus it's important to lock in quickly if a good deal presents itself. My investment since the last update was adding another $1000 into the Pimco GIS Income Fund. At the end of the month, I will subscribe to the SSB as it can be used to replace an older tranche that gave a lower coupon rate.

Tip: Vergelegen Chardonnay 2020, lemon and toasty, heavy acidity and dry

Monday 31 July 2023

Month of July 2023

Updated finance page.

The recovery from my nose ops is going well. I'm able to take deep breadths through the nostrils compared to perpetual stuck feeling previously. The doctor was optimistic that things should get even better after the scabs from healed areas drop off eventually. Yet, I have to live with reduced sense of taste and smell for now and it's probably at least two to three months later that I could enjoy an aromatic meal properly. At the moment, there's a weird dried blood and rotting smell lingering in the nasal cavity. Also, I was advised to lose at least 8kg in order to achieve a better outcome post surgery. Well, after being on a light liquid diet for almost three weeks, half of that was gone! The bigger challenge lies ahead.

The National School Games season started for the youngest son which took place over two weeks. His rugby team had to play nine games, each lasting ten minutes. Last year, due to Covid, the rules were tweaked towards touch rugby but that changed to full contact now. It was rather entertaining to watch the boys of various sizes going up against each other, in full sunshine and muddy conditions. My boy did pretty well as he started all the games, compared to last year when he was mostly a substitute. It was a swift transition from being hesitant to unafraid of going in a tackle. His ball handling improved and there was a semblance of tactical team play.

There was another business travel clocked as I headed to Jakarta with a colleague. We arrived on a weekday evening, had dinner and headed to bed early. The next morning, the alarm went off at 3am as I freshened up to go to the airport once more. We had planned a day trip to Palembang for a site meeting and plant visit. Our hosts were very kind to provide snacks and meals which were mainly fried and fish related as they were near the sea. Everything went smoothly until the evening when we encountered the notorious traffic jam, reaching the check in counter forty minutes before flight time. Dinner was a disappointment as we settled for A&W and got served a very dry beef burger while root beer was out of stock. The highlight of this trip was I took four flights in four days, using three different airlines where two were for first time experience (Batik Air and Citilink).

Tip: Marc Soyard L'Equilibriste Rouge 2019, light natural wine with mini bubbles on an inky palate

Saturday 15 July 2023

Finance Investment Movement 35

During a morning visit to one of my favorite wanton mee stall, I was taken aback that a bowl now costs $4, up from $3.50 from about two years ago. Prior to that, it was $3 for as far as I patronized it. The portion remained the same. On the one hand, I can empathize the tough life of being a hawker. Yet, this latest price jump is starting to pinch my wallet. Nowadays, a simple meal with my family easily comes close to $40 or more. For an entire day, there might not even have spare change for $100. What this means is that I have to be more prudent in discretionary spending and find more ways to increase income.

This month, I recycled $9000 of redeemed T bills into the latest tranche for 3.99% yield. Also, the Aud fixed deposit matured and was renewed at 2.96% for 2 months. I chose a short tenor as I felt the interest rate will go higher by then. Whenever it can offer 3.5%, I will lock in for the longest period available. As for SSB, I can finally proclaim to have completed the ladder formation to receive coupons every month for the next ten years (as mentioned). The average yield is 3.11% although the total amount invested is still rather small at $40k. I consider this phase one completed. Going forward, phase two is to achieve at least double the amount at higher returns. Hence, I have decided to skip this month's offer. Then, phase three would be to continually monitor, swop for better rates and extend the life of the bonds. At least that's for the short term if interest rates remain elevated.

Tip: St Hallett Black Clay Shiraz 2021, lifted black currants, mild spiciness with a soft touch

Friday 7 July 2023

That Little Nook In Our Heart

The author is a former journalist who went to ten countries in pursuit of one objective i.e to answer the question of what makes a person happy. Could it be related to religion, culture, financial status, living environment or something else? It was this very interesting context that I decided to give this book a try. 

I like how it’s written from his perspective as a traveller who experiences first hand and speaks to locals who more often than not, are quite sure they are happy but offer no common reason across the board. Based on research results, he tries to ascertain whether the world happiness ranking is indeed relevant. Along the way, through the many conversations, one could learn new knowledge of a country such as Moldova being a poor place yet having the best fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s also fascinating that Icelanders view failure as important and they are all DNA related if you go back far enough the family tree. The occasional witty remarks on people, government policy and certain quirks keep the reading enjoyment going. For example, “Bhutan’s generously named National Highway is the only road in the country and barely a road at that, wide enough for one car.”

Despite it being 345 pages, it took me a long time to finish. Partly because I enjoyed it really much, partly also the concept of happiness is that elusive as to how it relates to me. There’s no answer yet but this should keep me thinking for a long while. Another highly recommended book that will keep you entertained throughout.

Trivia: Inspired by the book, I did a search for Singapore on the internet and found it is ranked 68th although it can vary between 30-70 depending on which index used

Tip: Catena Malbec 2019, quiet performer that comes forward with meats

Friday 30 June 2023

Month of June 2023

It's the school holidays and many families were heading out of Singapore, away from the heat as well. Last month, we planned for a trip to Desaru in mid June and after booking the hotels, then realized the eldest son's passport was expiring. Quickly, the renewal application was done in end May and we reckoned there was enough time. As for me, I had to make a different trip in the first week of June. Some cousins and I arranged to visit our Aunt C's family in Australia. She had passed away three months ago (as mentioned here). In the day time, we visited places like South Melbourne Market, Queen Victoria Market and Mornington Peninsular. At dinner, it was spent with one or more of the family members, depending on who was free after work. Our final night coincided with my late Aunt's birthday. So it was a large gathering with hotpot and BBQ, one of her favorite activity and a celebration of her life. But the tears would not hold back as we sang a birthday song for her, toasted using her self kept 30 year collection, a Martell Cordon Bleu. I think we achieved closure of sorts and my sister in Singapore later told me she dreamt of my Aunt that night who looked happy before walking off without a word.

After returning home, the email from ICA finally came to collect the passport. Alas, I had mixed up the passport renewal! Somehow, my blur self input the details of the second son and there was probably no time to make another one. But we tried and hoped for the best. In the end, it was futile and we had to miss the Desaru beaches. It's my fault, I should have double check. So I promised the kids there would be a trip at year end.

Since the above happened, with a week of break, an appointment to the ENT doctor was made to diagnose my snoring problem. It was a Friday morning when the visit was made, a quick half hour endoscopy and the doctor concluded I had to do a sleep test that night. A device was issued and I just followed the instructions before going back the next morning to submit the results. The two main points I heard were; my sleep breathing stopped an average 14 times an hour and oxygen level was terrible, not the worse but getting there. A reading below 95% indicated concern and my situation certainly belonged to the more serious spectrum. Medically, I had sleep apnea and affected about 30% (and growing) of local population, the doctor said. The options were clear, it was either machine assisted breathing or surgery. I chose the latter. This was scheduled two days later. It was my first surgery under general anesthesia as it involved straightening of the septum, shrinkage of turbinates and adenoids, uvula reduction and shaving of tonsils. Lying on the surgical table, I looked up at the many hands moving around and heard the quick commotion to set things up. Then, the oxygen mask was put on my nose and a voice said, "Now I need you to give me five deep breaths. One....two....three..." I didn't make it to count four. Recovery is now well underway.

It's been a wish of mine that kids need to at least learn swimming and cycling as life skills. While my kids achieved the former in their kindergarten age, the lack of bicycle and space delayed the other development. Starting four years ago, the eldest began riding. Today, they can hop onto two wheelers without fear after the youngest completed his lesson recently. Next, I hope to bring them together for short PCN rides to cafes and explore our sunny island.

Tip: Chief's Son 900 Standard Single Cask, balanced sherry with slight oak, noticeable spice and smooth going

Thursday 15 June 2023

Finance Investment Movement 34

For at least two months now, I had been contemplating an overseas property purchase either in Australia or Japan. It could have been for rental income purpose or perhaps used as an accommodation if one of the kids ever needed it for overseas education. Also, I had a good experience investing in UK property previously having made some money but lost the gains in an ill-informed venture. The most preferred option would have been to invest in Singapore property but ABSD basically destroyed the appetite. This time, my budget was around half a million SGD on a leveraged basis. After a long internal debate, factoring in exchange rate, tenant and liquidity risks, slowly the idea became rather unappealing. That's because I'm looking at yield in the immediate period. My opinion is that good consistent yield that could comfortably offset loans, fees and expenses is difficult to sustain in view of inflation and interest rate stickiness. Hence, I have decided to suspend the investment property dream and turned my attention to other instruments.

As mentioned in other posts, there's a war chest on standby but the anticipated stock market crash has not materialized. I don't think it's good to sit idly and wait although recent bank savings promotions helped to attain helpful returns. Ideally, I would have liked 5% net yield but this was a tough barrier to cross. CPF aside, what else is there to make 4% or more in this situation? I reckoned some risks have to be taken and consider whether to self manage or by third parties. It came down to options trading, ETFs or unit trusts. Maybe I could split among them but in what proportions? No decision yet but one clear thing is that I will only touch a small portion of the idle funds while waiting for a bigger opportunity. Meanwhile, the Fed decision is a sensible one, giving room for a breather and allow the market to recalibrate.

Tip: Chateau Phelan Segur 2016, great rounded texture underlined by soft dark fruits

Wednesday 31 May 2023

Month of May 2023

This was a rather chaotic month as various events were compressed week after week.

It began with a sudden declaration by my helper that she was pregnant. She had just returned from her home leave two months ago and consented to a new two year contract. Omg right. The immediate thought was that she needed to be sent home soonest possible. However, this shocker was delivered three days before I was due to make a business trip. So we came to an agreement that she could leave right after I return in ten days time. The next day, a slight hysteria ensued as she said she experienced bleeding and wanted to go home. That's when I knew this was just play acting as I offered to send her to hospital yet it was refused. A couple of panadols was all she needed. In the evening, an air ticket was purchased for next day's morning flight and her work permit was cancelled. My wife and I sent her off and the parting was amicable even though we were disappointed.

The business trip to Taiwan was hectic from the start as the travels took me from North to South and back over five days, each day ending pretty late and starting an early meeting the next day. Then, it got better as my wife joined me over the weekend in Taipei for a foodie revenge escapade. There were simply too much to eat and the one I missed most was braised food (Lu Wei). We took public transport, drank artisanal tea, visited Xian Tian Gong, walked Linjiang night market, shopped at Ximen, did foot massage and even hiked Elephant Mountain. It was a vertical steps climb and luckily the weather was kind. This trip made me wonder whether it's possible to spend an extended period of time here in semi retirement.

Once we returned, the focus went back to the kids. They were having exams and sometimes stayed late in school for various activities. So we had to do ferry service and dinners were mostly takeaways. The reward came when we attended a ceremony to award the younger two for achievements in character behavior and CCA. Meanwhile, the eldest son requested to change subjects from pure to combined science. He felt it gave him a better chance to get into a poly course of his choice. Hopefully, his choice turns out correct. Grades may be important but I think it does not beat a well rounded development. As a parent, my wish is for them to grow up to be fine and healthy men.

My schedule is rather tight next month, with potential travels for work and leisure. Fortunately, I managed to squeeze some time and completed some tasks such as taking the IPPT, dental cleaning and reading.

Tip: Nabeshima Aiyama Junmai Daiginjo, mild sweetness, clean and short body

Monday 15 May 2023

Finance Investment Movement 33

Recently, I went on a couple of business trips and met about 20 friends/associates. In meetings and mealtimes, there was a sense of pessimism even though we have not met since Covid. Conversations centered around the fragile business environment. Most of their forecasts predicted a slowdown attributed to unresolved global events and risky conditions such as high interest rate persistence. Are we heading towards a major disaster? To avert it, there was a surprise consensus on the solution. Everyone pointed their gaze at China. The country that's sizable enough, the mischief maker in the seas, the creditor of the Belt and Road initiative, the technology competitor, the relations and opinion divider in the various ongoing wars. However, there's a big concern. China had overstretched itself financially in its Covid fight and there were anecdotes shared that government payments were delayed. It will need time to repair its finances but time is what we lack now. Anyway, it's broadly agreed this year's results appear to be a lost cause.

Business aside, I spent time looking for new products that could provide decent yields. One of these was endowment plans with regular premium for a limited time. But as I read through various companies' brochures, a few thoughts bubbled. Vanilla endowments used to be just like a long dated time deposit with a little insurance cover. Now, its function has expanded to offer payout after a certain time, much like an annuity, even up to 120 years. If required, after a few years, the policy can be terminated and funds are returned with bonuses and capital intact. Otherwise, by holding till expiry, the policyholder stands to enjoy many multiples return. The catch is the guaranteed and non-guaranteed portions that's determined by the company. That got me thinking how is the reversionary bonus determined, are there formulas that the public can access and how closely is it audited. Basically, the concern lies with the reliability of the payouts as claimed (of course each and every company is smart to include all sorts of caveats).

Tip: LaDame De Montrose 2017, fresh and lighter fruit than previous years, needs more time

Sunday 30 April 2023

Month of April 2023

There's an unpleasant theme being carried over from last month. My dad called me while I was in office. His eldest brother had just passed away in the hospital. Aged 74, leaving behind his wife, two married children and two grandchildren. Uncle H was a small built man with a healthy tan who worked the tough jobs in construction. As far as I could tell, he and my auntie went through a challenging life in raising their children. They could be considered below average income earners and Uncle H did odd jobs from his fifties after physical exertions took its toil on his weary body. Their livelihood was very uncertain and difficult. Yet, every CNY, they gladly welcomed us with a sumptuous seafood hotpot, until one year, we stopped visiting and I never saw them thereafter. That was about ten years ago. So I finally got to reunite with my cousins and auntie at the funeral. From them, it was established that Uncle H suffered from lung cancer that spread to the brain. One chemotherapy session later, he waived off further treatments and his condition rapidly deteriorated. From diagnosis to death was a mere six months. He was what a doctor call a classic case; heavy smoker and drinker since young who met his fate. Rest well, Uncle H, what's past is now over.

Then, I got to experience a surreal moment in a conversation with my wife. We were on the way to dinner and I was driving. She put down her phone after a series of texting and gave a little sigh. Our friend and ex neighbour just informed that she has stage 2 breast cancer that spread to the lymph nodes. Seriously, what is happening! She's in her late forties with two school going children. Fortunately, a treatment plan is in place and she's determined to follow through, even if it includes removing her mammary glands. There's a saying that bad news come in threes and I'm witnessing that within a month, all related to people whom I have known for a significant part of my life.

During lunch with a banker friend, he disclosed his recent medical check up results. It was part of his annual health screening that he passed without fuss for the last 20 years. This year, red flags were raised. He was borderline high on cholesterol and blood pressure but felt fair enough due to his nature of work and perhaps stress induced. What concerned him more was a similar pattern observed in blood sugar and that completed the trinity of the three highs! I could see his eyes getting a little misty, unbelieving of what was presented. He exercised twice a week, looked fit and was within acceptable weight. Absent of any signs, this was like suddenly falling into a deep hole without realization. Refusing medication, he's going to try to modify his lifestyle and watch the diet. I wished him the best.

Maybe it was coincidence that an insurance friend called me. We met up for coffee and she began by warning me that a newly revised policy on Medishield for cancer claims had been implemented. In short, coverage was restricted to MOH's cancer drug list and within individual claim limits. So a consumer has to decide whether to buy additional cover. My thoughts are the claimable amounts were too little and cancer seemed to be prevalent, even if medical advances meant bigger recovery possibility when detected early. Without hesitation, I purchased the Singlife Cancer Cover Plus (for my wife and I) which has an annual claim limit of $1.5m and allowed any medication. The official business was done and we enjoyed a great meal of rosti with ice lemon tea. I was impressed by the skillful cooking for a small cafe that focused on waffle and ice cream. My kids would love the many other delightful items and I hope to bring them soon. By the way, the name of the place is Carrara. A slight tongue twister and one that I almost mistook for the Porsche icon.

Tip: Kamimaru Junmai Daiginjo 40, good acidity, mellow scent and heavy body

Saturday 15 April 2023

Finance Investment Movement 32

A Japanese friend suggested to buy property in Japan for investment. His rationale is as follows. Interest rate is ultra low (0.5%), decent rental yields (5%), freehold and demand came from urban migration and young people cannot afford down payment. In the conversation, what struck me was the optimism regarding a foreseeable long period of low interest rates. It had always puzzled me how does the Bank of Japan manage to suppress rates when everywhere else are raising theirs. The revelation was a simple answer. More than half of Japan's debt is to its own people in the form of pension system, much like our CPF. Keeping interest rates low is key and by extension, inflation is also controlled. With its huge foreign reserves, it has bargaining chips when external debtors come knocking. Therefore, another important matter for Japan is to ensure competitive goods export while continuing to invest abroad with cash generated. No wonder the Yen is considered a safe haven and devaluation does not adversely affect its status. While I think a property investment is possible, it's not likely to happen soon since other instruments can achieve close to 4% returns at the moment.

Besides being allocated $5000 worth of April's SSB, there wasn't much financial activity as I continue to observe market movements.

Tip: Lawry’s Private Label Napa NV, blackberries to the fore, short and smooth finish

Friday 31 March 2023

Month of March 2023

"Hey Pa, I bought something cheap in school today. Guess what?" 

My youngest son asked me as I picked him after school ended. He sounded excited and gesticulated five fingers at me. "$5?" I said, hoping to elicit more clues.

"Yup and it's something that's limited edition." Came his reply.

So my first guess was a pen since the only thing I could associate with was to do with stationery. Then I wondered aloud whether it was an edible snack. "Yes!", out came the hidden package and it was one of his favourite food, a chocolate bar. To me, it looked ordinary and then he explained this was the Mr Beast newly released merchandise only available in the US. Also, because of his good connection, his friend sold it to him at half price ($5), gave him additional discount to conclude the deal at $4.70. He was mighty proud when we reached home and proclaimed to his brother on his achievement while holding the bar aloft. I was amazed to see the look of the second son having that jaw dropped admiration. After lunch, they ripped the package and happily indulged in the moment, as if they were one of the first few people on the planet to experience it. I got offered a bite. It was fine. The marketing folks behind this did a good job making my sons really happy. I guess that's simple life pleasures.

There were other joyful moments during the month. A friend's wedding at Shangri La, reconnecting with a primary school classmate through sheer coincidence, a visit to Lawry's the Prime Rib after more than a decade and my wedding anniversary was celebrated at FLNT, a gorgeous looking restaurant with a sky view and matched by delightful Japanese Peruvian cuisine.

When you are on a emotional high, sometimes a reminder arrives to reset perspectives. I was out having dinner with my parents when the phone rang. My mum picked up, stepped aside and came back after a quick conversation. She calmly said, "Your Aunt C had passed away." Was that a mistake in hearing? She's after all only 68 and in the pink of health. The cause was colon cancer and that's all she heard. Immediately, I texted relatives to seek information. A cousin on business trip called from Thailand and tearfully confirmed it. Her funeral was slated two days later. Worse, we wouldn't be able to attend. Aunt C led a uniquely different life. She got married in her early twenties and reluctantly migrated to Australia under the request of her accountant Singaporean husband. When I was younger, my cousins and I would visit them during school holidays and it was during this period of time that I developed a fondness for nature through our adventures in parks, seas and mountains. Each visit could last up till a month and I enjoyed the family bonding in a foreign country, as well as appreciating the cool weather. Aunt C also made it a point to return to Singapore at times to catch up with friends and relatives. Her children were born and identified themselves as Australians but she never gave up her citizenship due to her strong attachment to home. However, even though she lived far away, various issues related to her parents, siblings and children occurred during different moments in her life. It was dramatic at times. Aunt C fiercely guarded her family and held the fort. She fought through and eventually settled herself to be a grandmother in her later life. The last time we met was about four years ago. Today, she's gone and while I respect her request for privacy, I just wished someone had given some hints on her health status. I, along with most of my relatives, was unaware of her secret struggle against stage four cancer over the past one year. She was beloved and will be very much missed. Farewell, Aunt C, you were amazing.

Tip: Louis Jadot Meursault 2019, a tinge of citrus harmony, vanilla and watermelon

Wednesday 15 March 2023

Finance Investment Movement 31

Are we seeing the first signs of crack from the unabating interest rate rise? The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank was a surprise. Took just a couple of days for a liquidity problem to emerge and then buckled under. I believe it's a bank relatively unknown to most people. The reaction thus far? Pretty orderly and that's where I felt slight uneasiness due to the hysteria usually associated to a bank closure event, even more when it's the 16th largest bank by assets in US. Soon after, another one namely Signature Bank was foreclosed. Although the markets did sell off, the depth of despair certainly isn't that bad, compared to 2008. Perhaps strong indicators in payroll, jobs creation, tightened banking environment etc are giving people confidence that past lessons have prepared the market well to absorb such an impact. Still, those companies who deposited money with SVB will feel the pain. If they were to quietly fade away, nobody notices and the contagion effect is dismissed, like an occasional gust of wind. The above is a good learning moment. Even when rules and accounting were properly followed, it doesn’t mean a bank is healthy. The point here is to scrutinize the assets and liabilities held in the books of a company. After all, items can be valued differently and unfortunately, SVB forgot to give a discount factor to market realities when a fire sale is required.

Personally, I feel the interest rate effect is biting and likely to worsen in the next six months. What I will be looking out is the tipping point of affordability. When expenses overshoot income generation, that's when worry sets in and eats into daily lives. As a third party, we can't tell from appearance whether a person is jobless or having stress over a mortgage payment. So the better observation would be to look at people's spending on the wants (think cars, electronics, restaurant visits, holiday trips, luxury investments). I liken the current market to walking in the streets with overcast skies. The SVB example is just a slight drizzle. For those companies and people living on the edge, it's time to take take out the brolly and look for shelter, the weather is about to turn. The next SVB is likely round the corner if central banks do not give confidence in their coming actions.

Now, for some positive news, I managed to get $5000 worth of T bills at 3.98%pa payout. Also made a purchase of 200 shares of OCBC at $12.48 (before SVB came out). The next plan is to continue SSB purchase and a side glance at US stocks. It's tempting to go out buying when prices fall but I think the safer option at the moment is to be patient.

Tip: Maboroshinotaki Junmai Ginjo, tasty spring water imparted with medium crisp

Tuesday 28 February 2023

Month of February 2023

I'm sure many people tried and willingly spent effort standing in the hot sun, all for that improbable shot of winning. But it was in vain as three winners scooped the grand Toto prize for CNY. For days leading up to it, my colleagues and I bantered about what we'll do if we won. In a last minute action, we added more bets on the actual draw date using the convenience of the app and not joining the crazy queues. As per countless years, it turned out to be a dream and we didn't manage to submit our retirement letter the next day after results were announced. My wife later commented that none of the major Toto winners in previous draws had bought their tickets via app, suggesting that I join the masses in queue. I don't think so.

It was time to pick up tools and do some DIY at home. The kitchen light was changed, plants got repotted, leaky gaps were sealed, aquarium had a touchup and toilet seats were replaced. Now, it's waiting for the rainy season to stop before a little painting can be done. However, there was nothing I could do as my car tyre got punctured. The moment he opened the door, my son alerted me to a gushing sound. I thought about rushing to a nearby repair shop but the deflation happened too quickly. This was the second time within a year and I don't think it was by coincidence. Rather, there had been many renovation contractors moving in and out during this period of time and someone likely accidentally missed picking out the debris. I had to call in the mobile tyre repair service who arrived an hour later. A chatty young man appeared in a truck and did the patchwork in less than ten minutes. I was rather impressed by the well equipped vehicle as this was a one man repair shop on wheels. Paid him $70 and off he went for his eighth appointment of the day. It was 4pm, business must be going well, he told me the company had two trucks on the road at any time.

By some good fortune, I had the chance to visit two new restaurants. The first was Brasserie Les Saveurs for a weekday afternoon tea. The set came in a beautiful three tiered assortment of tarts, scones and cakes, served with a tea or coffee of choice. The taste, however, couldn't keep up to my expectation as I found them just ordinary, not one item but most. The calm ambience, aided by wonderful natural light and tall ceiling, did provide a little redemption. Don't think I'll be back unless someone invited. The second was Olivia Restaurant on a weekday night. The place was packed and specialized in one of my favourite cuisines, Spanish tapas. My friend and I ordered the jamon, octopus and beef cheek ragu, accompanied by a delectable Verdejo. This was meant to be a quick bite as we had a meeting straight after. We were done in 45 minutes and the impression left was a good one. Finally, to round off the gastronomic indulgence, my wife and I dropped by a stall that we patronized since school days. This was at the Holland Village XO Fish Head Bee Hoon. The owner was as usual, seated at the order counter with pen and paper in hand waiting for customers. He's obviously aged but looked fine and his sprightly voice confirmed it. The food was as delicious as before, underlined by years of dedication to his craft. Hopefully it's not another five years before I have this again.

Tip: Basa Blancos De Rueda 2020, lemon straw, light ham with a soft body

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Finance Investment Movement 30

It's been a few weeks of feeling good in the financial markets. The Nasdaq, in particular, had been on steroid booster after the US Fed sort of kept investor expectations in check. When I see the green highlights in a stock code, there is almost instant relief. So while basking in this positivity, something also don't feel right. There is an obvious inflation beating exercise going on, corporates are starting to report downbeat numbers, cut jobs and no major economy can confidently say it has recovered from Covid. I get that investors are forward looking and pricing in those expectations but I am skeptical. Is this the calm before a storm?

This month started with paying Careshield premium and my wife's life insurance. Upcoming would be the kids' insurance and taxes. I was looking at fixed deposit rates and then got alerted by HSBC about the latest account promotion. Any incremental balance in fresh funds for the next three months would enjoy 4.55% pa interest payout. Without hesitation, I quickly transferred excess cash over from SCB.

I'm happy to receive the first dividend payout from last month's investment in the Allianz fund. It worked out to 9% pa and while it showed price fluctuation throughout, it didn't matter as I was mentally prepared. If this continues on its current positive trajectory, further investment would be considered. On the other hand, I also wished to DCA into bank stocks. At least there's choices and I have time to think.

Tip: Michisakari Choutoku Daiginjo, clear and dry, a workmanlike drink

Monday 13 February 2023

Wake Up From HDB

Back in August 2021, I wrote an opinion piece (here) on the issue of HDB affordability. Currently, it seems like the situation has further escalated into more anxiety for potential first time home owners. Resale prices continued to rise and into its 31st consecutive month! That's against a backdrop of a recovering global economy, political tensions and inflation. I kept wondering how could this be when personal income is climbing slowly, cooling measures are in place and the most important factor, that all HDB flats are 99 years lease which mathematically would reduce to zero at the end of it. So at this juncture, I have arrived at the following pointers.

1. People have still not woken to the fact that the HDB flat is a depreciating asset. They are leasees who happen to be given the option to sell any remaining lease period. Perhaps the first 50 years of a flat can be traded but the value should fall thereafter given the lease decay and natural wear and tear condition. Therefore, if prices continue upward, someone in the end stands to hold this hot potato and get burnt.

2. The HDB flat may have been mistaken to be holding certain intrinsic value throughout its tenure. Singapore was growing when the first HDB was built and as people became wealthier, prices naturally increased. But being a mature economy now, there would be limited upside in its ability to achieve continuous high growth figures, yet the HDB price is showing otherwise. Rising prices in older flats are simply unsustainable, even in the best locations and biggest units. I think the asset enhancement policy touted by the government is working its "magic". Despite several reminders by ministers that majority of flats would not be enbloc and have to be returned when time is up, this has fallen on deaf ears or maybe blind faith?

3. The government had taken pains to emphasize that HDB flats were heavily subsidized and various metrics showed that the average BTO remained affordable. What's missing in their narrative is the great buffering action taken so far. They have been kind to absorb any interest rate impact by keeping the lid on HDB loan rate. That, in my opinion, perpetuated the idea of affordable home ownership. But for how long can the budget allow such benevolence? The taxpayer better be prepared for bad news.

4. People can choose to be oblivious but the government is the only actor who can defuse this situation. It can guide a free market into the preferred direction through a series of rules, incentives, policy changes, interventions etc. The sense I get is that the minister in charge and his wise council know the problem but do not know when is appropriate to take a tough stand. A jolt is needed, not some teeny measure to tame the HDB price exuberance and expectations.

Tip: Longmorn 18, apple orange peel, lightweight and toffee in the middle