What You Possess Does Not Define You

I was born five years after Singapore’s independence. My late father came from Malacca during his teenage years to work for the Singapore Traction Company, which ran trams. It was a blue-collar job that required him to stand under the hot sun and in the rain to operate a system that decided the direction the trams would take. When Singapore Bus Services started, he joined them as a bus conductor before being subsequently promoted to become a bus driver.

Our first house was a rented one-room flat, which meant that there were no bedrooms, just a living room and kitchen with a bathroom and toilet. At night, we would take out the mattresses to sleep in the living room, and when morning came, the mattresses would be folded up again. While my late mother, who was a homemaker, ensured that we never lacked anything, I knew at a young age that we did not have a lot of money.

When I was in primary school, many boys wanted to join the Boy Scouts. Somehow, there is something about wearing smart uniforms with plenty of badges on them. It makes you feel superior to the rest of the boys. But when I went to my mother to ask her if I could join this uniformed group, she disallowed it because she said that we did not have the money to pay for the uniform and she was also afraid of unforeseen expenses that we might have to incur in the future. That incident had a huge negative impact on my young life. It made me believe that if you don’t have money, you will be inferior to others, and it was the first incident in my life that caused me to equate the lack of wealth with being not good enough.

As a result, I grew up always feeling inferior and lacking confidence in all that I do. Thankfully for me, a transformational experience changed that thinking. I was accepted into Officer Cadet School after my Basic Military Training, and after 10 and a half months of grueling training, I graduated as the top cadet of my platoon and was conferred the Sword of Merit. It was my first realisation that I could still be good in certain areas of life without the need to be rich. Over time, I developed three perspectives/principles about wealth and other possessions in life.

Firstly, the world judges how successful we are based on what we have or do not have. While some may not openly agree, many times, people decide how successful we are based on how much money we have, the kind of houses we stay in, the type of cars we drive, or even the brand of handbags we carry. But this does not just apply to wealth or material possessions alone. It also applies to the schools we go to, the universities we attend, and the titles we carry on our name cards.

Recently, I did an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session for Reddit, a social news aggregation, content rating, and discussion platform. One of the participants asked me how much wealth I have because, to him, he does not see how a person can advise others who are richer than him. Wealth was used as a benchmark for advisory competence.

Some years back, while attending a conference, I was in a VIP suite that was filled with many prominent senior executives in Singapore. While waiting for the event to start, the group that I was interacting with started chatting about the schools that they came from. Coincidentally, all of them came from the same two famous schools in Singapore. Suddenly, one of them turned to me and asked, ‘So you must be from X or Y school too?’. When I cheekily replied that I graduated from Singapore Polytechnic (which I did), for a few seconds, there was an awkward silence, probably because I did not fit the stereotypical definition of success that was going around the room that day.

While we may not agree with this worldview, it is not easy to change it. But we can make use of this worldview by getting what we need in life so that we can have the opportunity to positively influence others. Over the years, I completed a postgraduate degree from a reputable university, founded a company, managed a sizable amount of assets, became more competent in my job, and built a reputation. And because I became more ‘successful’ by the world’s definition, I have been given more opportunities to share my money convictions through various platforms, and so my voice could be heard.

But once we have reached a certain level of success, do not do the same thing by judging how successful others are based on what they have or do not have because that is wrong. The person who asked me about my wealth on Reddit may not understand that to become rich and to stay rich requires different skill sets. My job is to help my clients remain wealthy, and I don’t need to have the same level of wealth as my clients to be able to have the wisdom to advise them well. Every role, no matter how seemingly lowly, is important in society, and its success cannot be merely measured by wealth, education, or titles alone.

Finally, do not allow the world to judge you based on what you have or do not have because that is not your identity. This is a difficult principle to follow, even for me today. When I was younger, I had an elder who was a very wealthy man, and he liked to introduce me this way: ‘This is Chris; he is trying to advise people on how to manage their money.’ And then he will end that introduction with a sarcastic laugh. That hurt me a lot. Up till today, whenever I bump into him, he will never fail to make me feel that I am not good enough. If you have similar experiences as me, I want to encourage us that we are all a ‘work-in-progress,’ and so do not give up rejecting this lie. It is not what you have or do not have but your values and how you have impacted people that define you. Your identity comes from the people who love you and care for you, not from your possessions. Whenever I doubt myself, I will draw courage from my loved ones, my colleagues, my clients, and readers of my writings who will from time to time email me to encourage me.

As the year draws to a close, I hope that this article will speak to all of you in different ways, and may you experience the love, joy, and peace that the message of Christmas brings.

The writer, Christopher Tan, is Chief Executive Officer of Providend Ltd, Southeast Asia’s first fee-only comprehensive wealth advisory firm and author of the book “Money Wisdom: Simple Truths for Financial Wellness“.

The edited version of this article has been published in The Business Times on 18th December 2023.

For more related resources, check out:
1. Achieving Contentment Is the Greatest Gain
2. Here’s Why We Charge a Higher Fee Than Robos
3. A Year in Transition: Reflections on a Challenging 2022

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