What Great-Grandmother Taught Me about Economics

Hang a banker a week until the others improve.” These extraordinary words were uttered by Ken Livingstone, formerly London’s mayor, in a speech in February this year.

His words clearly incite hate, but in the West of today, hating bankers and business, especially big business, seems perfectly acceptable. Livingstone is far from alone. “Outrage over £13 billion lavished on bonuses for bankers while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet,” screamed the MailOnline on 20 September.

With such righteous indignation, it was hardly surprising that two poets, Alice Oswald and John Kinsella, withdrew from the TS Eliot prize on the grounds of its ‘tainted’ sponsorship. The money for the prize was to come from investment firm Aurum, which manages funds of hedge funds. “The business of Aurum does not sit well with my personal politics and ethics”, said Mr. Kinsella, who described hedge funds as being “at the very pointy end of capitalism.” Fair enough. It is laudable to stand up for what you believe in. I only hope Mr. Kinsella never plans to retire, because his pension fund, if he has one, is likely to have exposure to hedge funds (or to mutual funds which employ hedge fund techniques).

Into this charged atmosphere, it would be interesting to see the response to my début novel in which private entrepreneurship is celebrated. My protagonist Chye Hoon fully embraces capitalism, because it offers her and her family opportunities. In colonial Malaya, there is no other lifeline, no entitlement: life is what you make of it. Chye Hoon cannot even read or write but this doesn’t deter her, because she can count. She starts a business in Malaya in 1910, making and selling the delicacies with which she has grown up – the Nyonya kueh of her childhood. On the first morning, Chye Hoon stands in her kitchen inhaling the smells of steaming coconut milk and pandanus leaves, and she knows she will make money.

This she proceeds to do – very successfully. Bahh, you may say. Your book is fiction. Maybe, but my protagonist is based on my great grandmother, who personified the traits of many overseas Chinese. We are the descendants of those who dared leave China. There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories from among us, and all are true. (When I say rags, I mean literally rags. Here is one of many photographs of newly-arrived immigrants at the Chinatown Heritage Centre in Singapore, an excellent museum.) 

Great-Grandmother shared the absolute determination of her Chinese ancestors to succeed. She might even have taught Gordon Brown a thing or two. Ipoh, where she lived, was a mining town, its fortunes tied to tin. And the price of tin, Great-Grandmother knew, went up and down. She understood intuitively that there would be good years as well as bad. If she had heard anyone say, as the former Chancellor did in his pre-budget report of 1999, “Under this Government, Britain will not return to the boom and bust of the past”, she would have exclaimed, Malaysian style, “What? He crazy ah?”

In the good years, Great-Grandmother worked and saved, to prepare for the bad years that were always just round the corner. In the bad years she worked just as hard, but saved less. There was no point complaining, and no one to complain to. Great-Grandmother lived in a world in which no safety net existed: there was no unemployment benefit, no healthcare, or pension. She provided for herself and her children, all nine of them.

At some point Great-Grandmother made enough money, and was approached by others for loans. That was when she became a money-lender in Ipoh. My own protagonist Chye Hoon also becomes a money-lender in my novel. Chye Hoon discovers an under-served niche (women), and her activities play a vital role in the growth of micro-enterprise in her town. In writing about how Chye Hoon builds her business, I drew from twenty years of experience as a banker and entrepreneur. 

Business is about survival, and growth. Always, you have to make sure you survive, no matter how large your business. This is the stuff of life. It’s what I write about in my novel. In the anti-capitalist discourse of today, we sometimes forget that businesses serve needs. As does banking.

Make no mistake: Great-Grandmother’s enterprise may have been small, but she was as keen on profit as any large corporation. Without profit, she could not have survived; our family wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be completing a novel.

As I read some of the headlines in the West today, I can’t help thinking about her. Her golden rules were simple: work your butt off, save like crazy, and take advantage of every opportunity. Oh, and don’t borrow. This last was ironic, given her money-lending activities.

But perhaps a dose of such conservatism has its uses. At the last count, Britain’s households held £1.4 trillion of personal debt. This means that the average amount owed by each person in the UK represents 117% of average earnings.

Some people say this level of debt doesn’t matter (BBC News: The Truth about the UK’s Debt). Perhaps, but surely having less debt could do no harm.

In any case, are bankers solely responsible for the debt mountain? The facts speak for themselves: personal debt climbed during the go-go years between 1997 and 2007.  Loans were given too freely then, but no banker forced anyone to take a loan under duress. Somewhere in the narrative of entitlement, personal responsibility has got lost.

My novel goes against that grain. It is about identity and loss of culture yes, but it is also a story of personal responsibility, and the power we have as individuals. In this time of crisis, it offers a message of hope. Against all odds, a woman faces the Great Depression of the 1930s on her own, with no help whatsoever. She succeeds on her own terms. We can too.

3 Comments

Filed under Identity, Malaysia, Novel

3 responses to “What Great-Grandmother Taught Me about Economics

  1. This is very similar to the Russian psychology: never borrow, if you had to, pay it back as soon as you can. It was difficult for me to take the mortgage when I was in London…

  2. Frieda Fuchs

    I remember someone once telling me –pick yourself up by your bootstraps–fine and well, but what happens if you don’t have any bootstraps.

    There is another expression: the early bird catches the worms–however
    I always wondered what happened to the worms.

  3. Foo Khong Yee

    Chye Hoon reminds me of my first visit to China in early 80s when I could feel the pent-up urge of the chinese to venture into business or go overseas to seek employment for a better lifelihood. It is hence no surprise to see the unprecedented economic boom that is China today, surely the result of many Chye Hoons. But your character is even more impressive to venture out so early, surely a woman ahead of her times. Looking forward to read more about her even though fictional in part.

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