February 26

I’ve lost $17k: Here’s what I learnt about how to invest in Singapore


In July 2022, when Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong announced the Forward SG movement, I scratched my head.

Was this really the most important thing he was debuting as prime minister in waiting?

But as I spoke to more people, I realised what he was doing.

He was compacting the unity of Singapore, and the residents who stayed here, to prepare Singapore for a world of disruption.

Budget 2024 might have started dark, but it ended brightly.
Budget 2024 might have started dark, but it ended brightly.

Read his Budget 2024 speech, and you would be surprised at the dark tones it takes.

The post-Cold War era that began in the early 90s and fostered three decades of peace and stability is over.

We are now in a new era of conflict and confrontation, and there is no turning back.

Page 6, Budget 2024 Speech

He then shares what we can expect.

It will be more violent. We already see a growing zone of impunity involving armed conflict and terrorism that cannot be easily resolved by the global community.

It will be more fragmented. Because the major powers are prioritising national security over economic interdependence, and the traditional modes of cooperation are breaking down.

It will be messier and more unpredictable. Because there will be diminished willingness and capacity to tackle global issues, be it responding to future pandemics or tackling climate change.

You might wonder why I’m beginning an article on learning to invest, with ideas from Lawrence Wong.

It’s because his perspective on the world, will influence the policies Singapore will pursue, and how investors based in Singapore can eventually look for a way to position themselves so that they win.

The focus of this article

As an investor whose bulk of investments are in the Singaporean stock market, I will share

  1. How you can learn how to invest better
  2. How you might want to approach a changing world
  3. How you would want to invest in a changing world

Learning to invest, is about learning not to lose

When I first started investing, I didn’t know what I was doing. I stupidly bought SATS and Raffles Medical because they were the only two companies I knew of.

They promptly lost me more than $5000.

As a 22-year-old then, it was big.

But as I’ve grown, I’ve seen that the biggest, most important advice I would give myself over and over again, is the same as Buffett’s.

His two rules?

  1. Don’t lose money.
  2. Never forget rule number 1.

People forget how this starts from first principles. If you reduce all the investment advice you’ve heard into its core, it’s about a desire to make more money, with less.


Focus on the margin of safety.

But the problem is, in a complex, changing world like this, with challenges like COVID, and the coming climate change, how do you do that?

Moving from efficiency to resilience

On 23 February 2024, during an IREIT investor briefing call with Tikehau Capital, the deputy CEO, Thomas Friedberger, he observed that the world is shifting from a focus on efficiency, to a focus on resilience.

Tikehau Capital offers some impressive alternative thinking.

In his CIO Letter in October 2023, he said,

This globalised development model, centred around Western culture, has

prioritised efficiency over resilience,

global over local, lower prices over higher wages, companies over individuals and standards over human beings.

CIO Letter, October 2023, Thomas Friedberger

Thomas had some alternative thinking that really blew my mind.

Big words.

What does it mean?

He observed that our 20th century focus on optimising efficiencies, with the use of technology, financial capital (spurred by low interest rates), and a rapid extraction of the Earth’s resources, has pushed our Earth into growing instability.

Tikehau Capital, a European investment house, identified that the key strategy was in taking advantage of the megatrends.

We have identified two of these megatrends in which Europe is perfectly placed to create more financial value than anywhere else in the world:

the energy transition

and acquisition finance aimed at turning national industry leaders into European ones.

CIO Letter October 2023, p16, Thomas Friedberger

For Tikehau, it’s meant investing in companies that support this move away from efficiency, towards resilience.

Take for example the European leader in aerospace, Airbus.

Following COVID’s decimation of the aerospace industry, Tikehau now manages a French fund to boost the aviation sector, alongside public investors and large European aerospace companies.

These funds are intended to consolidate the aviation value chain by building stronger, better-capitalised industry leaders through acquisition.

The underlying issue here is the energy transition in air transport, which requires major investment.

What can we do here in Singapore?

And faced with such realities, what can we do here in Singapore, a tiny country that may not have the scale of Europe?

I think the first, is to learn from Lawrence Wong’s approach to recognising the hard realities of our world.

That also means adjusting one’s portfolio accordingly.

But then the next part is about moving one’s investments to take advantage of the growing move away from efficiency, towards resilience.

What does resilience look like, and why is it important?

Resilience is reliability

When you look for businesses to invest in, this might mean moving away from the businesses that emphasise speed, efficiency, towards those that emphasise reliability.

One clear example is the comparison between DBS and UOB, and their approaches towards the digitalisation journey.

In their 2022 Report, UOB used a tree to symbolise how its not just growing for itself, but to grow a shade for the communities around them.
In their 2022 Report, UOB used a tree to symbolise how its not just growing for itself, but to grow a shade for the communities around them.

You might be familiar with the spate of 5 outages that occurred within DBS over 2023, alone.

Whilst they continued to introduce fancy terms like “AI”, and how they were beginning to become more a tech company, than a banking company, DBS failed in their most basic function – to be a bank, when people needed a bank.

Compare that to the approach of UOB.

Some might say that the UOB banking app, or their web version, looks antiquated compared to the fancy graphics you might have in DBS.

But in rolling out their new platform TMRW, Ee Cheong talked about how they actually tested this in the smaller market of Thailand, before translating it here to Singapore.

It’s why you’ve continually seen them reliably providing services, and then being the fastest, just in terms of banking.

If you look at UOB, they have constantly been the fastest. Data based on personal measurements of the app speed, replicated for accuracy.
If you look at UOB, they have constantly been the fastest. Data based on personal measurements of the app speed, replicated for accuracy.

Looking for resilience, means looking at a business’ approach towards change

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to put DBS down.

But if you look at the approaches towards change, you can see quite different approaches. DBS piloted an innovation triangle comprising tech hubs in China, India and Singapore. Whilst they are constantly experimenting with what has changed, they seem to have forgotten what will not change.

I repeat this because it’s an important point – emphasised also by Morgan Housel in his book ‘Same As Ever’.

Want to improve stock performance? Look at how they think about what doesn’t change, rather than what does.

It’s easy to look at what changes. But when planning a business, often it also helps to look at what won’t change.

Those are the core, first principles that one works from.

And if you look at UOB, their core principle of ‘Right by You’, means placing the customer’s needs at the heart of what they do. Whilst they don’t have headlines talking about how they are using Machine Learning in the bank, they do provide a great experience.

As a customer, I will be the first to say that I admire them for their customer-centricity. Simple example.

Go into their app – and getting in to see your deposits, loads within 2.95s. Compared to DBS, the supposedly ‘technological’ bank, which loads up in 4.67s.

Call UOB, and you will get connected within 10 minutes, tops.

DBS? Perhaps 22 minutes.

It’s asking,

After all these changes, what do retail customers want?

And for UOB, it seems like it’s always been:

  1. Peace of mind, with them keeping most of their branches still open in heartlands
  2. Grow wealth, as demonstrated by their ability to offer the most competitive rates for wealth solutions like Fixed Deposits,
  3. Save money, as shown by the best debit card on the market, the UOB One Debit Card, which offers cashback of 3%,
  4. Be there, when your customer needs you, as shown by their commitment to great phone customer service.

Do DBS customers really care that you have a $3 Paylah cashback if they have to queue hours after outages? Or even 10 minutes to get cash at the ATM?

Has DBS lost its way in serving retail customers?

Should you try to be a startup, if you can’t even be a good bank?
Should you try to be a startup, if you can’t even be a good bank?

I will leave you to answer that question for yourself.

But it shows that when one prioritises the resilience of the business, meaning its reliability, you might have slower returns in the short term, but greater returns over the longer term.

Its not just about ‘green’ sustainability, but the business’ sustainability

To invest for outperformance, I think it’s tempting to jump onto the bandwagon of businesses saying they are building a more sustainable future.

But if you step back and look at sustainability, it would mean the business’ ability to reinvent itself, again, and again, persevering through the odds.

One example I want to point out here is Multi-Chem, a small cap in Singapore.

It started as a supplier to printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturers.

In 2002, they diversified into providing cyber-security solutions to companies.

Since then, they have never looked back. If you look at this key change in their business, from manufacturing, to being a service provider in selling and implementing cyber-security solutions, it’s a great example of how companies can be hard-nosed about realities.

They pivot and change their business.

Looking for these kind of businesses, who are able to adjust and change to reflect realities, can start by looking at companies who have shifted their business models.

Whilst there might be temporal pains reflected in the share price, should there be strength of execution, you might find that stock outperforming.

Learn to cope with change

Investing is never easy.

And in a complex world, filled with interconnections, it might be even more difficult.

Those that win, are those that can face and accept reality, whilst being willing to position themselves for the growing move towards resilience, away from efficiency.

It’s not about doing things faster.

But about building a business that can be ‘anti fragile’, so that it gains from disorder, as so brilliantly put by Taleb.

If shocks happen, your business grows, rather than shrinks.

Find a business built like that, and you might be better off than chasing the next shiny stock.

I will leave the last word for Thomas Friedberger, who reminds us:

Because, whether we like it or not, reconnecting with the

living world has major implications for business:

the social aspect rebuilds human connections (getting to know your tenant or borrower) and restores the importance of local solidarity (mutual aid, solidarity economy, fulfilment from producing and consuming locally);

the environmental aspect, for reasons that are now obvious, helps mitigate financial risk (energy savings, insurance costs and the cost of capital in relation to increasing ESG factors);

and the governance aspect will prove essential to ensure proper allocation of capital in a context of deglobalisation and ecosystem relocation.



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