Everyday Matters: Money matters

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BY the time you read this piece, the month of Ramadan 1436 Hijrah would be over. The fasting and conscious exercise of one’s will over one’s desires over 30 holy days would have ended too. And in the best of my Malay-Muslim tradition, I wish you Selamat Hari Raya.

Sitting in Bristol’s great cathedral this afternoon, attending my daughter’s convocation ceremony, I cannot help but feel relieved on so many levels. Firstly, she has successfully completed her university education. Secondly, she is finally coming home to work and thirdly, the last of my “big-ticket” expenditure is finally over. Phew…

Many parents will agree with me on that last point, especially when the present exchange rate involving the ringgit is at an all-time low. Our continuing political squabbles and power plays have had a marked impact on the demand and supply of our currency. I wish we could end it quickly as I feel for our import-related industries. But the outstanding issues are complex and there are no cut-and-dried solutions in the near horizon.

I also have a niggling concern about Eleena’s job prospects. This is exacerbated by a recent comment by a young law practitioner, who told Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin that newly minted graduates cannot live on the salaries paid to them and that essentials such as cars and houses are beyond their reach. The present system, she says, is stacked against them.

Her speech went viral and judging by the immense interest it garnered via sneering snide remarks and downright angry comments, I believe few words in the English lexicon have the power to provoke such extreme human emotions as money.

Malaysians rarely speak about money in public and conversations about the subject can get intense and emotional. Especially online — where people are cloaked in anonymity — those without any real knowledge or financial mastery tend to promote their own theories with such vehemence and passion that their fervour often hides the fact that they know very little of what they speak.

A lot of us refuse to even talk about money directly. In polite company, we may discuss “wealth” but only the crass and the untutored would talk about money explicitly. To many, the money topic is raw, and garish, and intensely personal. It can make people feel guilty when they have it — or ashamed when they don’t.

It is a shame really, to not speak about money and financial literacy openly. There is a strong need among Malaysians to understand money and how to master it in our lives. For most of us, money is vital and crucial but not paramount. It is simply a tool used in service of others and a life well lived. We either master money or on some level, money will master us!

We are well aware that there are those among us who are consumed with such a hunger for money that it generally ends up destroying them and everyone around them. They are even willing to give up things that are far more valuable to get it — their health, their family, their self-worth and, in some cases, even their integrity. Gordon Gekko’s mantra, “Greed is good”, becomes their overpowering core.

That notwithstanding, the young law practitioner has a point. We owe it to our children to educate them about money. We need to show them how to increase the quality of their lives by developing the one fundamental skill that the vast majority of Malaysians do not have — the mastery of money.

You know, the plan used to be so simple: go to school, graduate from college, get a job, work very hard and then retire with a pension. Well, that world is over.

Thanks to scientific and medical advances, we live longer now on less money. New technologies keep coming online, stoking a system that often seems designed to separate us from our money instead of helping us grow it. Our greatest fear is that we will outlive our money.

Our children need to understand the changing rules of the game, so that they may play to win. No more the reliance on pensions and annuities. They need to learn to grow their wealth so that they may enjoy a better life than we do now.

The problem is when it comes to money, everybody has an opinion. Everybody’s got a tip. Everybody has an answer. But there rarely is one that can really help you.

My earlier life as an investment banker has shown me one truth: Success leaves clues. People who succeed with money at the highest level are not lucky. They develop an ambitious masterplan and they stick to it. They live with a relentless hunger to learn and grow and achieve. We can too.

Just imagine, how would we live our life if we could wake up each day knowing there was enough money coming in to cover not only our basic needs but also our goals and dreams?

The truth is, a lot of us would keep on working because that’s the way we are wired. But we would be doing it from a place of joy and abundance. Our work would continue but the rat race would end. We would work because we want to, not because we have to.

We would be doing justice to our young ones, including the newly minted law practitioner who courageously addressed our senior politician, if we can teach them that money and the modern life goes hand in hand. They need to find out what works, clarify it and systematise it in a way to help them achieve more. Then, and only then, will the system be working for them.


Zakie Shariff is CEO of a state-owned GLIC and co-founder of hCap Associates, a talent search company

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 20 - 26, 2015.