As historians get ready to debate Donald Trump’s legacy, one of the things that they should put on his list of achievements is the fact that he made “being rich” a focus of our attentions. We’ve always been fascinated by the elite but the Donald took that innate fascination that we have with the rich to a new level. In his winning presidential campaign, the Donald would repeat endlessly that he was very rich. We, the mere mortals struggling to pay our mortgages thought that this was fascinating. I remember someone explaining to me as “You know …..he’s a billionaire……he can’t be bought,” as if there was an automatic connection between the Donald’s place on the Forbes list to his character.
The Donald understands that we, the mere mortals are fascinated by the very rich and if you study the Donald, you’ll understand that there’s a very good reason why he made it a point to cultivate an image of being “vulgarly” rich. Truth be told, those of us who follow the rich list have done so for similar reasons to why we would watch porn. It took a while for me to understand that the tens of billions made the yearly differences to Bill Gates’s place on the Forbes list didn’t actually put pennies in my pocket.
However, while the fluctuations of a persons wealth may not add any wealth to my pockets, the list of “richest people,” can be very instructive about the nature of wealth and what it says about the economy of a particular nation. Let’s start with the basic nature of wealth:
In the 1980s, the richest man in the world was Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, chairman of the Seibu Corporation, who had a fortune of some US$18 billion. Mr. Tsutsumi’s fortune was based on vast holdings of Japanese real estate, which was at that time one of the most expensive in the world. A decade later, he was replaced by Bill Gates of Microsoft, who held onto the top spot for nearly three decades until he was dethroned by Jeff Bezos on Amazon in 2018. Mr. Bezos in turn has just been dethroned by Mr. Musk last week.
You can argue that a part of this surge in wealth is due to stock market exuberance. Global stock markets do react emotionally and they don’t necessarily reflect the real life economic situation. However, if you study the “richest man in the world,” from Mr. Tsutsumi to Mr. Musk there is an outline of where things are heading. In the 80s it was all about holding expensive real estate. However, wealth creation moved on to being about creating change in the way we do things and creating value.
If you had money in the 80s, it was about buying the right property, collecting rent, developing and then selling it for many more times than you bought it for. Then along came Mr. Gates who made our access to the computer easy. Thanks to Mr. Gates, it is understood that we do use a computer for most basic task. Even IT idiots like myself do things on a computer. Messers Bezos and Musk have merely brought the IT and innovation drive further. Mr. Bezos gave us a way to do things over the internet that we never thought were possible and Mr. Musk is now applying advanced technologies to create cars that don’t need fossil fuel and space travel – turning the original fantasy into a reality. More Mr. Musk’s aspirations can be found at: [LINK]
National “Rich List” are particularly instructive. Just look at one of the biggest emerging markets to shake up the world order – India. The “sexy” business story from India is technology and IT outsourcing. India, which seemed to miss out of the manufacturing boom that made East Asia, suddenly produced companies like Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Wipro and Infosys, which partnered with the likes of Cisco and IBM on the global stage. You also had smaller companies like Intellect Design Arena and 3i Infotech, which called themselves “product companies” that innovated and created specially for big banks (As a mater of full disclosure, I have provided services to Intellect Design Arena’s predecessor company – Polaris Financial Technology Ltd and 3i-Infotec).
While India has pushed itself as an “IT” centre, a glance of the rich list in India suggests that the “real” money lies elsewhere. If you look at the top five richest people in India, you’ll notice that the only tech-based fortune belongs to Shiv Nadar of HCL Technologies. The richest man in India remains Mukesh Ambani, who inherited a good old fashioned oil refining business and the second spot belongs to Gautam Adani (As a matter of full disclosure, I did work on a project that involved in-laws of the Adani’s) who made it in ports and infrastructure. What does this suggest about the Indian economy?
On a positive note, if might suggests that the biggest source of fortune from India’s domestic economy by providing for basic infrastructure. However, the less positive note, might stem from the fact that very few people have a stranglehold on India’s basic infrastructure. A list and description of the wealthiest in India can be found at: [LINK]
The story in the other Asian giant is slightly different. China built its status as the world’s other necessary economy based on manufacturing. When one thinks China, the automatic assumption is that China is the world’s sweat shop and plenty of the Chinese giants have become so by being the outsourcing manufacturer of choice for international brands. Think of how IBM sold it’s hardware business to Lenovo or how Geely took over Volvo.
However, a look at the top fortunes in China tell a slightly different story. The top two richest men being Jack Ma of Alibaba who went from basic e-commerce to payment systems (though the Chinese Communist Party has recently decided to teach Mr. Ma a lesson) and Ma Huateng of Tencent Holdings, which owns WeChat.
While the Chinese internet giants have been helped by the Chinese government protecting them from foreign competition in China’s massive domestic market, these Chinese have developed technologies that the world recognizes as being of a decent enough standard. As one local Singaporean venture capitalist said to me “WeChat is good,” and both AliPay and WeChat pay are going international.
China does have infrastructure issues but it has been far more successful at using private enterprise and available technology to overcome these problems. China’s banks are notoriously bureaucratic and the fintech provided by the likes of Alibaba’s Ant Financial and Tencent Holding’s WeChat pay have given China’s savers a viable alternative to the problems they’d face when dealing with banks. Technology and innovation are being applied in China to solve every day problems and a list of China’s richest can be found at: [LINK]
How does Singapore compare? In the last few years, the Singapore government has been working very hard at finding a “winner” to propel the Singapore economy into the next level. With electronics manufactures finding cheaper locations and global trade slowing, the government has been desperate in its search for an “economic winner.” This sense of desperation can be seen in the way in which Singapore is promoted as a “hub” for this or that. Singapore’s government is famously aggressive about promoting foreign investment. Whenever Singaporeans complain about outsiders, the government inevitably panics and starts going on about how necessary foreigners and foreign investment is to the basic survival of Singapore.
The government has trying to promote itself as a great hub of advanced technological entrepreneurial activity in the same manner as Silicon Valley. Technology start-ups are supposed to be the new buzzwords and there’s plenty of excitement whenever there’s an investment by a “sexy” industry like Lucas films.
The real story might be a little different. The richest person in Singapore, according to Forbes is Zhang Yong who set up a restaurant and plenty has been said about Eduardo Severin, one of the founders of Facebook. The “local” fortunes remain the usual suspects, who more often than not inherited a real estate or banking empire from someone else. However, rather than creating a sexy start up, Mr. Severin behaves more like a venture capitalist investor, who might throw lavish parties, which should in theory give the catering industry something to cheer about.
The only person on Singapore’s rich list who can claim to have done anything vaguely innovative or game changing if Forrest Li, who came from China. If you look at the top ten richest people in Singapore, you’ll notice that the fortunes are either the old-fashioned ones made from controlling resources or getting people from elsewhere to park their money here. A list of Singapore’s wealthiest can be found here. [LINK]
Now, there’s nothing wrong in not being the most innovative place. However, as a small country, Singapore has to create or find ways to do things differently. I keep looking back at how Covid-19 made people work from home and the landlords got worried and so you noticed that there was a load of stories about the value of returning to the office instead of promoting new ways of working.
Government can spend money on innovation and have the most beautiful laws to attract SME investors. However, these laws are meaningless if the interest of established businesses are protected. Look at the much heralded “fintech” sector, pioneered by our quasai-government bank “DBS.” As Emanuel Daniel, one of our most prominent commentators on the banking industry has pointed out – while DBS has won all sorts of international allocades for developing fintech like PayNow and PayLah, the regulators have made it such that Fintech will never challenge the banks and bright, young, developers are often at the mercy of the bureaucrats in the banks. You need a bank account to use PayNow. By contrast, you don’t need a bank account to use Alipay.
It’s the time the government went beyond talking about innovation and actually took the crucial steps of allowing bright young minds to find ways of disrupting established players. Only then will we have a really sustainable economy.
*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.