Need to wise up quickly to the ways of the world

September 13, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

“We sat through a talk yesterday on land investment in Birmingham and was shocked when my friend immediately ploughed in S$25,000 (RM60,000) to buy a 1,076 sq ft parcel,” an Internet surfer recently wrote.

“It had no planning permit and might take seven years to get one,” he added.

Yet she took the plunge. Why?

“She was enticed by the gifts – a S$600 (RM1,440) camera, S$100 (RM240) in shopping and S$50 (RM120) in dining vouchers and two bottles of wine,” the writer explained.

He was commenting on the government’s search for people with special qualities for posting in China.

“They’ll be hard to find since 90% of Singaporeans – and 100% of civil servants – don’t have them; they are very naive, easy to be eaten alive unknowingly,” he concluded.

I had long wondered before this case what ingredients were needed to pull off a successful scam.

When I was a news editor in Hong Kong, I put this question to a retired head of a cheating syndicate called Tin Sin Kuk, which had existed among the Chinese for ages.

The ring consisted of five or six men and women, who would select a victim – always a rich person – to take part in “swindling” another person, who was actually a gang member.

Needless to say, the rich person himself was the target.

Sitting in my Causeway Bay flat, the old man said: “For the cheating to succeed, the victim must have greed in his heart, the greater the better,” he said. “If he’s honest and not greedy, we cannot swindle him.”

A little naivete helps, of course. High education is no safeguard, he added.

Are Singaporeans too simple-minded – or greedy – to be able to survive unscathed in this era of sophisticated scams and financial sharks?

Protected by a system of laws and a stable environment, they become vulnerable when exposed to sophisticated swindlers and Madoff-type con men.

The old magic stone tricks have made way for modern online frauds, credit card cheats and money schemes in which black and white are not always distinguishable.

“The average Singaporean is honest and law-abiding, and tends to think the world spins like that,” said a retired manager. “If a well-dressed Westerner spins an investment plan, he’ll likely lap it up.”

As children, Singaporeans are over-protected by parents; and as adults, by strict laws.

“I know of 12-year-old students who are not allowed to take a bus by themselves.”

When he was commenting on reports of Singaporean businessmen being cheated in China at the time of its opening up, university researcher Wang Shouqing had said: “The Singapore company is good in a very mature environment, but not good in emerging markets.”

His implication was that Singaporeans were too sheltered to be able to deal with the less scrupulous world outside. Many tend to take people’s words too much at face value.

Erik Wang, Singapore’s Consul-General in Shanghai, was quoted as saying that there was a simple lesson for Singaporeans investing in China: “Know how to cheat others more than they cheat you.”

Sharing the sentiments was controversial Taiwanese legislator Li Ao, who commented on TV several years ago that Singaporeans were stupid because they came from “poor genes”.

He ranked them lower in natural intelligence (despite their high education) than the people of Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“Taiwanese are scoundrels, but lovable, Hong Kong people are craftier, (Chinese mainlanders are unfathomable) and Singaporeans are stupider,” he said, adding that it was partially due to genetics.

One Singaporean reacted: “Some Singa-poreans can be very simplistic, because we have grown up in an engineered environment.

“The average Singaporean is good at academic studies and works hard, but falls short on individual initiative and street-wise qualities, relying too much on the government for help.”

As affluent Singapore opens its doors wider to foreigners, it will likely attract the wrong type of people to come and work their schemes here.

In recent years, cheating has been on the rise. Many originate from half a world away – through the Internet.

This column has also reported on numerous cases of retirees being cheated of their savings by pretty, sweet-talking Chinese women.

A recent headline said that on average at least one Singaporean falls prey to lottery scam fraudsters every day, and this remains a concern to the police.

Con men sell dreams and fakes ranging from college degrees to job contracts. They organise online “auctions” and make off with people’s money.

The most prevalent are lottery scams, which is a worldwide scourge. In a seven-month period there were 210 Singapore victims, cheated of S$2mil (RM4.8mil).

The amount is, of course, a far cry from the US$50bil (RM175bil) that Bernard Madoff cheated Americans of, including some of the most savvy investors. Such is the sophistication of this criminal art.

Singapore has its own investment scandal, albeit on a much smaller scale as a whiplash of America’s financial crisis.

An activist for clean governance Tan Kin Lian explained on his blog that it began in 2006 when US investment banks were saddled with mortgages and corporate debts that were turning bad.

“They had to get rid of these assets.”

They looked for countries with weak protection of consumers which were convinced about the merits of using “the light touch” to regulate the financial sector and encourage financial innovation.

“They found Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan,” said Tan.

As a result, some 10,000 Singaporeans, many of them retirees, lost S$500mil (RM1.2bil) of their savings to what they were led to believe was a “safe investment”.

So far, only a fraction of the money has been recovered.

http://thestar.com.my/columnists/story.asp?col=insightdownsouth&file…