Simplicity – the Root of Sensible Living

This was an email interview with the Straits Times which together with a face-to-face interview, resulted in an article published in the Sunday Times on June 3, 2012 in the “Me & My Money” column.  My wife, Moon, and I initially had some reservations about being featured in such a column as it is rather personal. However, after much thought, we agreed to the interview, hoping that it may be helpful to some people. The final article can be accessed at  http://bit.ly/1i9vw6R – you can read both versions and decide for yourself how close the final article was to the email responses 🙂

ansgar cheng

Occupational background:

I am a Prosthodontist with Specialist Dental Group at the Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, as well as an Adjunct Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore and an Honorary Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong. I have been a practicing dentist for 22 years, having worked in Hong Kong, USA, Canada and Singapore.

I love creating things with my hands. Prosthetic dentistry involves the making of replacement teeth that look, feel and function like natural teeth. It is based on scientific principles while also requiring an aesthetic eye and artistic skill.

I decided to sub-specialise in the area of maxillofacial prosthodontics because this is a unique field that bridges medicine and dentistry. Maxillofacial prosthodontics is a sub-specialty of prosthetic dentistry that involves rehabilitation of patients with birth defects in the head and neck area, or who have developed disabilities in these areas due to disease or trauma. The most common type of patients that we see are individuals with head and neck cancer.

Educational background:

I received my basic dental training from the University of Hong Kong, and completed my specialty training in Prosthodontics at Northwestern University, Chicago. My sub-specialty training in maxillofacial prosthodontics was obtained from UCLA.

Any interesting details?

Apart from reading, one of the activities that I really enjoy is tinkering with my small collection of vintage radio controlled vehicles.  It not only provides stress relief but also gives an outlet for my creative side which complements my professional training in the area of prosthetic dentistry. My goal is to make teeth and other prostheses look so natural that it would be difficult to differentiate the replacement tooth from the existing teeth.

Are you a spender or saver? 

I am generally a saver but spend when necessary on items that are important and have long term value. Once in a while, we also spend on family to celebrate special occasions.

We do not set a figure or a specific percentage of our income to be spent or saved. We are generally cautious about how we use money. We try to ensure that cash is readily available so that it could be deployed when we see good opportunities.

The bulk of our income is spent on saving and waiting (for the right opportunity) and on strengthening the dental practice of which I am one of the partners. A certain portion also goes to family support, charitable causes and church tithing.

How much do you charge to your credit cards every month? 

Usually, a few thousand dollars is charged monthly on the credit card for professional and household expenses. My wife has this system to pay bills through credit cards so that we can benefit from some of the perks of the credit card companies. We pay the credit card bills in full through GIRO each month.

I learnt that owing credit card bills was a terrible idea when I was studying at UCLA about 2 decades ago – one time I was short of cash and as a result, I paid the minimum payment/installment due on my credit card bill. Upon getting the next month’s statement and figuring out how much interest was charged, I came to the conclusion that owning a credit card company was probably one of the better ideas around!

What financial planning have you done for yourself?

I learnt about financial planning from my uncle Tom when I was young. According to him, “Be a useful person to people around you, be reliable, spend less than you make, and invest the rest. Then you may be fine.” As I could see, this worked out rather well in his case, as he is financially successful, beyond many people’s wildest dreams.

When I was newly married almost 20 years ago, I worried about what would happen to my wife if I had an untimely death. After some discussion, we came to the conclusion that my wife should make use of her talent and invest in her education. She became a highly educated person with a few post-graduate business and law degrees. With some paper qualifications in addition to her exceptional talent and energy, I know she has the best insurance no money can buy.

In general, however, we stay with term life policies. We have also purchased disability insurance, hospitalization & surgical insurance and critical illness insurance for peace of mind.

We are generally conservative in our investments, preferring to look at the long term, and generally adopt a buy-and-hold strategy. We stick with blue chip shares locally and internationally. We also have a three-bedroom condo in the city as an investment property.

Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like? 

I grew up in Hong Kong with a hard-working father who was involved in various small businesses.  He has a great sense of humor, loves his family and lives a balanced life. My mother, who is a very talented woman, made many important business decisions with my father. She is a full-time homemaker and is always willing to listen to her kids. In my family, we were rewarded with good behavior and received fair punishment for misbehavior. As children, we were never told of limits in life and were very much encouraged to be upwardly mobile.

As a result of World War 2, my parents went through limited formal education. However, they managed to pass some very practical DNA to my 3 elder sisters and me. Through a lot of luck and hard work, my parents successfully saw all four children graduate from the University of Hong Kong, which was probably a 1 in a million likelihood. We eventually went on for post-graduate education overseas.

How did you get interested in investing?

My parents ran small businesses. I had heard business stories from them as a boy. Thus the idea of working hard and getting money to work harder was not alien to me since I was young.

If investing is defined a little broader, then we have started off very early with our education. I have my fair share of professional degrees and titles and my wife has four degrees from the USA and Canada. The education that my wife and I received forms the base which enhances our analytical thinking and decision-making abilities.

The best investment philosophy I learnt in the USA was: ‘Invest in yourself!’ The words resonated with me, even though I just happened to read it on a light box. When people know how to catch fish, there is no need to give out fish.

What property do you own?

We live in a  3 bedroom condo in the city, close to our daughters’ school so that my wife and I can walk them to school. We bought it a few years ago at a reasonable price.

My most valuable property in life is my education. Not only did my professional training allow me to have a day job, it allowed me to associate myself with many teachers, highly intelligent individuals, colleagues and interesting people whom I can learn from.

This ‘property’ can never be measured in square footage and its value far outweighs the price paid for any bricks and mortar structure.

What’s the most extravagant thing you have bought?

When I was 6, I collected some red packet money after Chinese New Year. I was made to purchase a tiny golden mouse with my entire net worth of approximately USD$73. That was the time when gold was at about USD$40 an ounce.

I have kept the little gold mouse since then and even at the current gold price of about USD$1600, I have absolutely no use for that piece of shiny metal. Thus, I came to the conclusion that precious metals were fine but with limited practical value.

What’s your retirement plan? 

My folks never retired – they just moved from one thing to another. Therefore, I do not have a retirement plan at all. I plan to keep healthy and busy as long as possible.

I am always financially independent because I consume very little and have close to zero desire for most material needs.

Home is now…

Home is now where my little girls enjoy their childhood. We live in a three bedroom condo in the city which enables us to walk our girls to school daily, while being close to work and public transportation.

I drive… 

I drive only once a year in the USA when I attend meetings. I enjoy whatever subcompact car the cheapest car rental company gives to me upon my arrival at their counter.

What is your worst investment to date? 

My worst investment was in currency! I have kept adding some cash in my little piggy bank after I bought the little gold mouse because at 7 years of age, I figured out that cash had better liquidity than gold. I have long lost the key of the piggy bank but I still have the piggy bank with me after all these years and 4 countries later.

The other day, I managed to pick the lock of the piggy bank and proudly opened it in front of my 2 little girls. I thought I was going to show them some good money habits. Surprise, surprise, the money did not go anywhere but it did not grow as well. In fact, a few out of circulation old dollar notes were so faded that they looked like used tissue paper. Thus, I came to the conclusion that while currency may not go down the drain, it may not be a fantastic investment after all.

What is your best investment to date? 

My best investment in life has been producing an ever increasing compounding result and I can bet with high certainty that it will yield tremendous profit margin over my life time. That is my lovely wife and my family! This is my permanent holding in my portfolio of life and I bet literally with 100% of my whole net worth. I have absolutely no intention to realize the profit as any number would be considered a lowball figure to me. Also, I was told that the notion of trying to realize profit from an ever growing investment is not the smartest strategy.

One of the best financial investment decisions I have made was to acquire a dental practice in Singapore, together with an old friend from dental school days. The investment in time, energy and finances to establish ourselves professionally, and grow the practice from one clinic into three clinics with a team of 10 leading dentists has been very rewarding. Our clinic has won the Singapore Prestige Brand Award 2011 (Promising Brands category) and has been a two-time finalist for “Best Healthcare Experience” in the Singapore Experience Awards 2010 and 2011.

Ultimately, the best investment I have made was the decision to relocate from Canada to Singapore back in 2004.  It has been a very fulfilling time personally and professionally. My wife and kids are very happy here. Having lived in several countries before, we have to say that the Singapore government has been doing an excellent job in running the country and creating opportunities for people.

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