Ooi Kok Hin

Recently, there was a report which stated that young people are grappling with higher debts than they can handle. We borrow to buy houses, cars, and even basic necessities, such as tertiary education.

The same report also claimed that “Malaysia has the highest personal debt among 14 Asian economies, with the rate jumping to 88% of gross domestic product from around 60% in 2008”.

Part of the problem lies with young people for not making wise financial decisions. Moreover, there is that deprivation of financial literacy in our education system.

I do not get why we are not teaching personal financial management in school. It is not like most of us are going to utilise the knowledge from chemistry, biology and civics classes anyway.
The only thing that I applied from two years of physics was when I used inertia to put ketchup into my food. But this article wanted to direct us to another aspect that is seldom examined: social reality and expectations.

We, the young graduates and working adults, have always been told that we need a job to survive. It is often along the line “get a stable job, rise up the ranks, buy a car and house, get married, save and invest, buy a property or two, and buy more stuff”.

We seldom question the veracity of this age-old narrative, as if it is a verse from the scripture for the modern times. The question is, can we live a fulfilling life by sticking to this routine?

For those of us who had just graduated, it is crazy. Just a few months ago, the toughest thing we had to do was probably figuring out how to divide the bill during dinner outing with friends.

We were told that we were not mature enough to talk politics and make our own decisions. We were told that all we should do was focus on our studies, get a string of As, and receive that paper scroll.

Suddenly, we are expected to make decisions which will bind us for the next 20 to 30 years. We are bombarded with the expectations that we have to embark on a stable and financially rewarding career, preferably a position with social prestige as well.

We have to own a nice car, they said (by “they”, I mean the conglomeration of individuals, groups, marketing, and societal expectations). Let us take up loans that will put us back five, seven, or nine years to pay off for a car which costs RM40,000 to RM60,000.

Keep in mind that the scope of financial dilemma that we face prior to this juncture is often trivial matters compared to this big purchases, for example, “should we go to TGIF or the mamak stall?”, “should I buy that Nike shoes for RM200?”, “should I buy that rare book?”, or “should I take the taxi or the bus?”

Then they told us that we have to get a nice car and soon, a house. We are talking about a decision that involves a huge sum of money.

While not denying the utility of such property in this capitalist society, we cannot succumb to social expectations so easily without examining whether it is what we want to do and be.

At the end of the day, it is us who have to bear the burden of debt and pay it off for the next half a decade. That’s a few years of our lives. Why don’t we buy a cheap second-hand instead of a brand new car?

We do not want to work and live like indentured servants for the sake of pleasing others. My dad made a point that people who drive imported cars “look nice from the outside”, but they borrow money to buy the car and need to pay it off for a long time.

They are not that rich after all.

When we take loans to buy things, we accumulate debts which necessitate us to have stable income throughout the payment scheme.

Not only do we have less freedom to determine our career choice (such as working freelance in another country, or starting a startup), we also have less disposable income which could be used to provide quality living.

For example, I used AirBnB for my work trip to Singapore. I got a private room in a bungalow which I will probably never be able to own. I buy books as if they are chocolates.

I take flights on a weekly basis. I can do all that while earning fresh-graduate-income because I don’t have commitment and loans I need to pay off and I don’t own much things. Once I start to tie myself with debts, I would have less room to maneuver and do the things I want.

There will be some who might accuse those of us who questioned this standard career path of stable income and debt accumulation as “a bunch of whining graduates who want to be spoon-fed”.

Honestly, I don’t care what other people think. I would even admit there’s some truth in their statement. Yes, it’s an elitist privilege to be able to do what we want. Not everyone has the background, freedom, or capabilities to break away from the standard narrative.

But I think I do have a choice. I think many people who read this article have that choice. The fact is that we are relatively well-educated, well-to-do, and endowed with certain set of skills and capabilities.

We may not earn that much or own many things, but we can be ourselves and do what we want to do.

I shuddered when my Uber driver told me that it will take up to 30 years for Singaporeans to pay off their HDB (Housing and Development Board) houses. For me, it’s like signing away 30 years of your life and bind yourself to work like indentured servants.

It’s not like I would want to stay at the same place for 30 years anyway (I get bored easily). Another way of looking at property ownership is to invest and sell. That is actually more rational, but it would mean that I will be practicing a philosophy which I criticise, such as the scheme of buying houses for investment, thus inflating the price of houses and depriving others who need a house for real.

Sometime ago, I read that a person is either green and growing, or ripe and rotting. Maybe I am rebelling against social reality and expectation because I am afraid that if I stay and stick to the routine long enough, I will forget my dreams and be ripe and rotting.

I would become comfortable, and less likely to take chances and try new adventures.

Like my boss said, there are many things we want to do in life and let us not waste time on things and people we do not want to deal with. There are approximately 196 official countries in the world. I have only been to six.

I still have not explored all the 13 states and three federal territories. I have not written books and journal articles which can be considered an important work and significant contribution in my field.

I have not climbed Mount Kinabalu, Gunung Tahan, and the amazing national parks of the United States. I still want to go back to Grand Canyon, the most beautiful work of God (or nature) that I have ever seen, and hike through the various trails.

It is risky of course, but I want to live dangerously than safely rotting away. I would rather die as myself than to live like an indentured servant.


Originally published on The Malaysian Insider