Two years ago, her husband was killed in a freak tragic accident while working at Changi Airport Budget Terminal. When this news broke, donations poured in from the public. Many Singaporeans sympathised with Madam Pusparani, 34, then also working as a cleaning supervisor at the airport, as she would have to raise four children by herself, the youngest barely three months old. With insurance payouts, she received nearly S$1 million. Madam Pusparani listened to the Changi Airport Group (CAG) financial advisor to divide the money among herself and her children, with $200,000 for each child in an annuity plan. She was left with $150,000. After paying off debts of $50,000, and giving away some money to relatives when she returned to Kedah, she invested the remaining $100,000 in her brother’s transport business in Kuala Lumpur, hoping it would give her a stable income.
She scrimped and saved all her life because of the fear of growing old without a nest egg. Her frugal and resilient life started from the tender age of 10, first as a babysitter, then as a washer woman. She was also a factory worker for a while and took on a host of cleaning jobs. Madam Goh Kah Keow, 74, is single and lives alone in a studio flat in Eastern Singapore. Multiple jobs aside, she would also collect newspaper to sell. She would use pieces of discarded cloth to sew curtains, pillowcases and cushion covers for herself. She refused to buy clothes, preferring to make blouses and pants out of fabric scraps instead. She does not travel overseas for holidays, does not own a television set and cooks simple meals for herself. Over the years, her money slowly grew, reaching almost S$500,000 kept in three savings accounts with three different banks, along with three fixed deposit accounts.
Both Madam Pusparani and Madam Goh made news recently. The money is gone. The transport business managed by Madam Pusparani’s brother was doing badly. She withdrew her children’s money without the knowledge of CAG. She then fell out with her brother and did not recover any of her investment. By May last year, she was broke. “I am thinking of going to work in Singapore. But I feel ashamed,” said Madam Pusparani tearfully. “I don’t know how to explain to the people who donated money to me and my children.”
Madam Goh was shocked when five Chinese nationals, who seemed to know the details of her personal life, told her she was possessed by an evil spirit. She wad told to put all her savings and jewellery in a bag for prayer otherwise she would be paralysed by a car accident. The Chinese nationals were con artists who then switched her bag for theirs and escaped. “I was going to use the money when I stopped working. Luckily I did not retire. With no more money, I can’t stop working anymore.” Madam Goh said bitterly.
Madam Pusparani’s experience is the classic case of mismanagement of sudden money. For all her thriftiness, Madam Goh is vulnerable in her own way. Their sudden loss has something in common – they do not have someone they can trust to advise them financially. They are alone in making big fiscal decisions. “Isolation can be big factor,” says Thayer Willis, author of the book ‘Navigating The Dark Side Of Wealth’. “People who are dealing with these challenges of wealth know that most people won’t sympathise. Their attitude is: I should have your problems,” Willis says. I am reminded of the heartbreaking case of 76-year-old Rene Yap. On June 14th, during a CPF forum, she begged MP Hri Kumar to help her get her CPF money back to settle her afterlife arrangements. She has worked as a teacher and a civil servant prior to retirement. She is now alone and does not have dependants.
All these may be extreme cases, but managing money without financial literacy is a problem more relevant to us than we think. It is a discipline we owe ourselves and our dependants. For those with the financial knowledge, it is a worthy service to extend to others, especially older people, who need help. A banker friend has this to say. “If you cannot trust one person, get advice from more people. If you came into money suddenly, let it sit in the bank for at least three months. Let the shock and shift in your mind settle before making any decision. If you are not a business person, having money does not automatically make you business savvy. Ultimately, you must learn to say ‘no’ to yourself, loved ones, friends, strangers, if you feel intuitively you should not spend, lend or invest.”