Last night I was taking a late night cab home with my friend Grace. The taxi driver was a pretty nice, old Malay uncle over 60, but yet still hip enough to play pretty cool 80′s music. Grace was happily singing along behind; I was happily just closing my eyes and enjoying the moment – it seemed like a pretty relaxing end to a long night.
We dropped Grace off at her place about mid-way through the ride, and as we were about to reenter the Pan Island Expressway, the uncle casually mentioned, “things are getting really expensive these days”.
“I totally agree,” I replied, having heard quite a number of taxi drivers complain about how difficult it is to survive in Singapore. I thought he was going to complain about the government not doing enough, about foreign talent stealing jobs, about it being so difficult for the everyman to just keep living in this competitive, meritocratic society. I was wrong.
“The most important thing is to have savings. Always try to put aside some for a rainy day. When you get any money, do your best to put away 20% of it. If you can’t, put away 15%. Even if you really can’t, at least put away 10%. What’s important is that you pick up the habit soon, before it is too late,” he continued, with a look of resignation and regret on his face.
It all made good sense to me. I believe in putting money aside for my personal investment and venture capital purposes and have recently picked up the habit too. I told the uncle that I agreed with him and I thanked him for the thoughtful reminder, but then he went on.
“Make sure you take that advice to heart. If not, things can get very bad,” he continued. It was already getting pretty late and guess it wasn’t the first time that I heard such advice, so I just gave a smile and a slight nod of agreement. It was getting late and I was losing interest by the second.
“Did you know that uncle used to drive a Mercedes, not a taxi, and used to own several travel agencies? I used to take the kids for month long vacations overseas and spent lavishly on them. But it ended up all for nothing.”
This time he had my full complete attention. “What happened uncle? Why did you decide to drive a taxi then?” I asked.
“It all goes back to the savings I talked about. Back in 97′, during the Asian financial crisis hit Singapore, even though I thought I managed my company’s debts pretty well, because I had to write off a lot of my debtors debts as bad debts, and when that was through, my company went bankrupt,” he related. “Bad debts… bad debts… you know bad debts right? When everything came through, we just couldn’t survive.”
“It gets worse, when my wife realized that I lost it all, she left me, along with my four kids. Money really is everything. Without money, no one respects you. Even your wife leaves you for another man,” he added, with bitterness ringing clear in his voice.
“At that point in time I was really just so close to ending it all by jumping off a building. I had lost it all – my business, my wife, my kids. The one thought that kept me going on was the fact that I didn’t want my children to be teased for having a father that took the easy way out. I couldn’t have that.”
When the cab reached the drop-off point, the bus-stop outside my dorm, he added, “I hope you remember what I told you. It’s a tough world, but I wish you luck.”
I never went on to ask the taxi uncle why he didn’t give his business another shot, or another try or what happened after that, but I left the cab richer because I learnt two important things – one, I was reminded about the importance of saving, and two, that say what you want about it, but money’s a really important issue in the world as it is. A lack of financial prudence can easily destroy one’s life.
I woke up today more inspired to put my best foot forward and make the most of what I’ve got. Dear taxi uncle out there that lost it all, thank you for having the courage to talk about your pain, and for your kind advice. I wish you the best of luck too.