Columns
HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:

Family Money

Personal Directions

The Doctor's Consultation by Dr. Iain Corness

Agony Column

Camera Class by Snapshot

Recipes from Rattana

Family Money: Pensions in crisis

By Leslie Wright,
Managing director of Westminster Portfolio Services (Thailand) Ltd.

Those of us who have chosen to settle in Thailand are fortunate in many ways. The climate is balmy, the cost of living is relatively low, and we don’t have to pay tax on inbound remittances.

If you’re working as an expat, you’re probably earning quite a bit more than you spend, and paying rather less local tax than you’d have to pay ‘back home’. You may even be paid part of your salary package in offshore hard currency - which you are wisely salting away to fund your eventual retirement.

If you’ve retired ‘early’, you’re probably drawing down an income from investments – which may have produced rather less income in the past three years than the previous three! Or you may have been eating into capital, which now that you’re not working any more, cannot be replaced.

Or you may be drawing down a state pension, and you may have a personal or corporate pension too. In any case, you probably don’t give much thought to the next generation’s pensions – let alone how they’re going to be paid for. You probably haven’t given much thought to whether your own pension is sufficiently funded to last you the rest of your life.

Private loss, public cost

Most countries in the EU run “pay as you go” (PAYG) systems, where pensions are paid to retirees directly from current workers’ contributions. But the population in developed countries is ageing fast, while birthrates are still falling – in some cases to below replacement levels.

Forty years ago there were three workers for every retiree across Europe, making state pension liabilities easily manageable. That ratio has steadily fallen to two-to-one today, and by 2040 may have dropped to nearly one-to-one.

Up until now, the solution was gradually to reduce people’s dependence on state pensions while nudging them towards private or corporate pension schemes. The expectation was that these schemes, run by clever investment managers, would take advantage of ever-rising stock markets and deliver far better pensions than the state ever could. But company after company is finding its pension schemes in trouble.

Already the trend has moved from “defined benefit” corporate schemes, where pensions are based on a proportion of final salary, to “defined contribution” (DC) schemes, where your pension depends on how much you have paid into your personal fund. In 1991 expatriates’ final salary schemes constituted 79% of employer pensions; in 2001 this had dropped to 42%.

But over the past decade projections for these more modest – and safer for companies – DC schemes fell by half, and the market falls of the last three years have had a disastrous effect, with many DC schemes now facing significant shortfalls. Ten years ago, a 30 year-old paying 10% of his salary into such a scheme could expect to retire on 55% of his final salary. Today, for a similar 30 year-old in a DC scheme, that figure is just 24%.

So well before the middle of this century, we won’t be able to afford our pensions. Of course, those who have already taken retirement here probably care very little about what will happen to state pensions or even corporate or private pensions 25 or 30 years hence. It’s their children and grandchildren who will pay the bill and not reap the benefit.

Bad luck for Baby Boomers

The pensions problem is not unexpected. The population in the developed world has been gradually ageing as the Baby Boomers have grown up and had fewer children, later. Many Baby Boomers will be expecting to retire in the next 10-15 years, and collect their state, corporate and personal pensions, and enjoy the next 20-25 years of comfortable retirement.

By that time, however, the state will have run out of money, corporate pensions will have underperformed expectations made back in the heady days of the equity boom, and personal pensions – which may have been invested even more aggressively than corporate pensions – may have fared even worse.

By the time Baby Boomers’ children come to retire the state pot will be empty, and personal pensions under-funded. How will governments handle that problem?

Many governments are now talking about raising the age of retirement. The UK government, for example, recently announced that many workers would have to keep going until they are 70 to get a liveable pension out of their state entitlement and their own savings. The ridiculous excuse used by the politicians is that people nowadays want to carry on working longer… Ask any expat retiree on Jomtien beach if he would agree.

European governments have already begun to put reforms in place, albeit stutteringly. Germany, France and Italy – all with generous PAYG pensions systems – started throughout the 1990s to turn their systems around. Final benefits have been cut, contributions have been raised. Italy is struggling to get workers to agree to longer working lives and lower pensions.

Crucially, there has been a realisation that fully funded private or quasiprivate systems must come in alongside the PAYG systems. Foremost in EU politicians’ minds are the examples of Chile, which adopted funded pensions in the early 1980s, and the US, which set up its famous 401K legislation in 1980, allowing workers to build a tax-friendly pot of retirement money. Both these countries’ pensions programs are now relatively solvent.

Another alternative is to increase immigration flows of young workers to offset ageing EU populations. This has worked for the US, where both immigration and birth rates are high. But in the EU, some 56 million young immigrants would be needed to offset a similar fall in the present 15 states’ working-age population between 2010 and 2050. That is three times the current level of immigration – and would be a politically very risky option in an environment which is becoming increasingly right wing.

Pensions solvency

Lower expectations, longer working lives, and allowing more immigrant labour may be necessary if a pan-Europe pensions crisis is to be avoided. Selling these ideas to the voting public will be difficult. The main solution has to be higher personal and public savings.

It could be argued that the collapse of the equity markets has sobered people’s expectations. While stock markets looked as though they would continue rising forever, there was little incentive to raise savings rates. Now the idea of putting aside only 10% of your income with the expectation of retiring at 55 on half final salary is dead in the water. Coming generations will have to pay more, work longer, or get less – or all of the above. Across the developed world, reality has begun to bite.


Personal Directions: Put a bit of life into it!

By Christina Dodd,
founder and managing director of Asia Training Associates

It’s always rewarding to finally see participants in a training seminar rush to fill the front seats! And when it happens, it’s like the penny has finally dropped, and someone is actually getting some benefit from all the effort that goes into training. It makes it all worthwhile!

Recently I ran a customer service program for staff dealing in everything from pantyhose to fresh vegetables to champagne and wine. At the beginning of the program they were all a little apprehensive as to what would ensue, probably because this was the first ever training program they had attended, apart from the very basic product knowledge courses.

As the program progressed, it became evident that they were not only gaining some valuable information, but actually enjoying the style of the program and the techniques used to impart the information. They began to fill the front seats more eagerly than before; they stopped talking amongst themselves and started paying attention with a very sharpened focus; they were wanting to participate in the role plays and the group activities.

This aspect of training is one that I place great importance upon because once people start to enjoy what they are doing and to enjoy the way knowledge is being passed to them, it is much more likely that they will absorb it and take hold of it with enthusiasm and zeal.

That’s what it’s all about!

My colleague and chairman of Asia Training Associates, Dr. Chira Hongladarom, is a great proponent of this approach to learning. Only the other day we were both attending a forum on reform in the civil service and one point Dr. Chira made most emphatically was that, “It was time that we, as educators, stopped lecturing and handing out copious amounts of notes that no-one reads and started creating more interest in the classrooms through dynamic interaction and practical activity.”

The training rooms and classrooms of companies and educational institutions need to be filled with interested and eager individuals thirsting for and taking in new knowledge and information. If this is done only through theory and lecturing, then no interpersonal exchanges will take place and little individual development will result. Of course a certain amount of theory is necessary, but it shouldn’t overshadow and dominate the methods of imparting knowledge and maximizing knowledge retention. It shouldn’t be given at the expense of audience participation.

It’s refreshing to have people fill the front seats and it is equally refreshing to see them open up and start to participate. Some are quite shocked that they actually do get involved because normally in Thailand it is the case of sitting back and waiting for others to speak first. As individuals participate they gain more confidence and with confidence comes a heightened awareness. One is able to draw upon hidden strengths and abilities and as a result become more willing and more motivated to grasp what is being imparted and to retain it.

The whole experience is interesting and enjoyable. Learning should be informative and it should be fun. It should be something that everyone likes to do. For a trainer nothing is worse than being in a room filled with people who have no enthusiasm about what you are doing or trying to say. You may as well pack up and go home because you have lost them - you probably never had them in the first place.

I always get a real boost from training. I make sure that everyone involved is happy to be there. If not, then they can make up their minds as to whether they stay or not. Nine times out of ten all my participants have a great time and go away with new thoughts and tangible ideas. In some programs people literally run back into the room after the break, as opposed to sauntering down the aisle. They don’t want to be late and miss out on anything! They enjoy the training and so do I.

The training room should be a place people want to be. Not a place that they have to be.

And that goes for the office or workplace as well. It also goes for boardrooms and meeting rooms. Usually when people go to meetings you see them drag their feet and carry their files as if they weigh a ton. The atmosphere is lethargic instead of being charged with energy. Any type of gathering is an opportunity and should be recognized as such. Staff tend to shy away from meetings because they usually see them as ineffective, drawn-out and sometimes boring. A lot of staff are reluctant to get involved in discussions and tend to withdraw. Okay, there are times when issues need to be addressed and matters given due and serious thought, but these things can be done in a manner that doesn’t have people grabbing for the slightest chance to leave the room. Managers need to review their styles in terms of conducting meetings and getting their people together.

In fact it is not such a bad idea for managers at any level to review their behaviour and management styles and to take stock of their interpersonal skills on a regular basis. The response of staff to management has a lot to do with the way management appears and behaves. It’s very true. I don’t mean that you should be running through the office singing, bounding and overflowing with gushes of exuberance. I do mean though, that most managers should get out there and be a touch more excited about where they are and what they do. Let the staff see it because it can have tremendous results!

As I said in one of my very first articles - enthusiasm doesn’t cost a penny, it’s absolutely free! It doesn’t hurt and you don’t need a college degree to acquire it. There is virtually no restriction to sharing it with anyone, anywhere ... anytime.

If you are interested in finding out more about how our training programs can assist you or your staff, please contact me at Asia Training Associates (see advertisement) or at [email protected] co.th

Until next time, have a great week!


The Doctor's Consultation by Dr. Iain Corness: You are going to die!

by Dr. Iain Corness

Great way to start this week’s column? No? They say there are only two things that you cannot avoid in life, and that’s death and taxes. While there are many trying to avoid the latter (especially in Thailand), there are none of us who are going to avoid the former. We are all going to go one day. Even me! It’s just a case of when and where, I’m afraid.

I was reminded of this the other day when reading a medical discourse in the journals on whether patients should be told of impending death. For my money it is a total no-brainer. Of course patients should be told. Why should the doctor not divulge such information? Surely the person would want to know just how much time they have got? Even if just to clear out the bank accounts first! If you know “when” then it gives you the opportunity to inform loved ones, get the house in order and do the last crazy things that you’ve always wanted to do.

When this subject comes up at dinner parties (bring a doctor to the dinner table if you want a really morbid evening) the main reason that those who say they don’t want to know is fear. Not so much fear of dying, but fear of loneliness and the unknown. And fear of pain. And let me point out that this is natural, very natural.

Let’s deal with pain first. With modern pharmacology, pain relief should be a thing of the past. There was a period when we withheld the big painkillers for fear of making the patients into “addicts”. What a load of all cobblers! Worrying about addiction in someone who is terminal? Totally misguided logic in my book, and fortunately modern medicine has also decided that pain relief should be given in as large doses as is necessary. We do not have to suffer pain before we shuffle off!

Knowing that one’s time is approaching means that the family members can band together, visits are made, arrangements for people to just be around the place are put into the family timetable. Fear of loneliness can be overcome by prior discussion.

Fear of the unknown is a little harder to combat, I must admit, as apart from some antediluvian records, there are no real histories of people who have made it all the way to the pearly gates but had a change of heart and returned. If there were, my Dad would have come back and made a fortune writing a book on the experiences. Please note there is a difference between this and the religious concept of reincarnation. However, those people who have had near death experiences generally say that the only feeling was one of floating above their body and watching the people resuscitate them below. It was not described as being an unpleasant feeling and the return was usually done with difficulty, so it apparently seems an easy way to the hereafter.

So there is not too much to fear, from the sketchy reports, but remember that life is for the living and we should all keep a cheerful eye on the future, and enjoy as much of it as we can. It really just means we should try and remain as fit as possible to get the most pleasure from whatever is left (or is coming) to us.


Agony Column

Dear Hillary,

My problem is with bad breath. Not mine, but my girlfriend’s. In the mornings it would peel the paint from the walls, but she does not seem to know this as she happily kisses me and expects one back in return. I have tried holding my breath, but that doesn’t work as I have to come up for air after thirty seconds. Have you any ideas that might help?

Hal

Dear Hal,

Is that short for “Halitosis” I would imagine, but do not despair, help is at hand, without having to go and hire a SCUBA set for the early morning wake-up call. However, the first thing you have to ascertain is that it is really your girlfriend that has the problem and that you are not experiencing ‘blow back’ in the early morning. Try first by jumping out of bed and throwing the toothbrush over the gums before the morning snog. If there still is a problem, make flossing and teeth cleaning the family fashion before retiring at night. If that does not fix the problem you are left with two alternatives only, look for a dentist or start looking for another girlfriend.

Dear Hillary,

I have always tried to keep my cars looking nice, I always wash them and take pride in their upkeep and appearance. Recently I have noticed that I am getting scratches along the side of my car and sometimes when I come out I have got a flat tyre, yet when I take it to the garage there is nothing wrong with it. I think that the local motorcycle taxi boys are doing this, but I can’t prove it. What do you suggest? Before they destroy my car altogether.

Angry Andy

Dear Angry Andy,

First, don’t get angry. It does not do you any good, and especially in this country. If you get angry with people they think less of you, not more. I presume that you must have offended somebody if you believe they are deliberately damaging your car. If you think the taxi bike boys are responsible then you have quite a few options. You can employ a security guard to look after the pride and joy, you can go and park somewhere else, or even more craftily, offer the motorcycle taxi gang some money to look after the car instead. Personally I would go for the cheap option of parking elsewhere, but I do not know your circumstances. Hope this helps. Finally, don’t get angry, my Petal. It never works in your favour.

Dear Hillary,

With St. Valentine’s Day nearly here, what do you suggest I get my lady friends (I have two). Last year I gave them your favourite food of chocolates and we all shared a bottle of champagne sitting on the balcony, but I’d like to do something different this year. Have you any suggestions, Hillary? I have taken them to shows and stuff like that before too.

Two Dogs

Dear Two Dogs,

Well, aren’t you a lucky chap! Or perhaps you are, as the old saying goes, as silly as a man with two “dogs”! Keeping two ladies happy at one time is no small feat. Or is that no small feet? Those are big shoes of yours. However, really, Two Dogs, how would Hillary know what your ladies would like? They might be into knitting for all I know. Surely you are not so wrapped up in yourself that you don’t know what your two ladies preferences are? My only suggestion is to keep everything light hearted, as St. V’s day is supposed to be. You aren’t going to be proposing marriage now, are you? Or are you, Petal? Two Dogs, with two ladies, you might be capable of anything. Or on the other hand you may be bragging a little.

Dear Hilary (sic),

A few weeks ago there were some letters trying to get information about who you really are, as I don’t believe you are really called Hilary (sic). I have heard that you are a divorced lady in your 50’s. Can you tell me if this is correct? If I am right I will share a bottle of champers with you, as I am also in my 50’s and my wife walked out on me recently. This could be the start of a new life for both of us!

Hoping

Dear Hoping,

You are being just so provocative, Petal. You are hoping that the call of the champers bottle will be so strong that I will say you are correct anyway, and risk the rejection when we meet up for the sharing of the promised bottle of bubbly. Unfortunately, just hoping is not enough. You should be doing far more detective work than that. Just listening to idle gossip, or in the case when you’re talking about me, it’s “idol” gossip, is not the standard I expect, my friend. You should not be listening to rumours at your age. No wonder your wife went for a long walk and never came back. Or was that just a rumour too? However, you are correct when you say my real name isn’t “Hilary” - it’s “Hillary”, Petal, with two “l’s”. OK!


Camera Class: When all else fails - read the instruction manual!

by Snapshot

I was rung from overseas the other day by a semi-pro photographer who was having a camera problem. It was related to the viewfinder instruction (FEE), in the manufacturer’s code, and the photographer did not know what was meant. Fortunately I have the same brand of camera (Nikon) and I was able to point the photographer in the right direction, but all this expensive overseas telecommunications was really unnecessary. The instruction manual explained it all, but it had remained firmly closed!

When was the last time you scanned the golden truths in the pages of your camera’s instruction manual? For that matter, do you know where it is? Now I have to admit that I am just as guilty as the next photographer on this one. This was brought home to me the other day when I came across the instruction manual for my cherished old Nikon FA. Now you have to remember that I have been using this camera for the past sixteen years, so I am fairly au fait with the use of this camera, yet it was amazing just what I had forgotten about the capabilities of this camera.

For example, the double exposure facility on the top of an FA, next to the rewind lever. I had been thinking about doing some double exposure shots and will give you some ideas on those later. The self-timer, stop-down depth of field preview and the ability to change the exposure metering had all slipped my memory, as had the knowledge that when you run the camera in “manual” mode, the metering pattern is different from the other modes.

In fact, it was an enjoyable half hour to read through the book again. It even stimulated me to get the camera out of the bag and just fiddle with the forgotten controls while reading.

No, the instruction book that comes with your camera is really a very important operating document. The manufacturers have spent much time, effort and money to make it as accurate as they can, and we, the ace photographers that we are, chuck it in a drawer and forget about it.

I suggest that you do as I did and dig out the manual and re-read it (for some people this will be the first time, I am sure) and explore the different capabilities in your expensive investment. It is worthwhile. You will be able to do much more with it.

Let’s now look at Double Exposures. Almost every camera these days has a multiple exposure facility, even the mid-range point and shoot compacts. This gives the photographer lots of artistic licence to compose and create all kinds of different images - but there are a few wriggles to remember to do this successfully.

Since you are superimposing separate images on to the one frame of film, it becomes very easy to over-expose the background. By the time you have taken three exposures, for example, you have now overexposed the background by a factor of three and you will have an over-exposed mess.

First rule - select as dark a background as possible. Black is the ultimate, as you can keep on shooting as many exposures as you like. Consider shooting the double exposures at night, using flash and with the subject positioned a long way in front of any background, so that it is not lit by the flash burst.

The second important point to remember is that if your subjects overlap in the photograph, you will get a ghostly image. To get over this, divide the viewfinder into the number of exposures you are going to put on the one frame. Into halves if it is a double exposure or into thirds for a triple exposure. Then by positioning the subject carefully within the marked off sections you can stop too much overlap. Use marker that will wash off, or you will have permanently affected the viewfinder!

Read your instruction manual today and try some double exposures this weekend.


Recipes from Rattana: Burmese Beef Curry

This is another easy dish and is similar in many ways to the southern Thai beef curry (masuman), but many of the recipes from SE Asia have some similarities between the cuisines of the neighbouring countries. This is a dish that can use the poorer cuts of meat as the cooking time is long - three and a half hours, so even the toughest of cuts can be rendered more tender.

Ingredients Serves 4

Lean braising beef 650 gm

Sunflower oil 4 tbspns

Onions, chopped coarse 2

Garlic crushed 2 cloves

Ginger root grated 2 tbspns

Ginger syrup (or wine) 3 tbspns

Lemon or lime, small, quartered 1

Salt and ground pepper

Cooking Method

Cut the meat into cubes around 1.5 cm. In the wok, heat the oil and quickly stir-fry the meat until browned on all sides. Add the onion, garlic and ginger root and continue stir-frying until the onion is transparent. Add 200 ml boiling water and the lemon or lime, sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir well. Reduce the heat and cover and simmer very gently for three and a half hours. Top up the liquid during the cooking so the meat does not dry out. Five minutes before finishing simmering add the ginger syrup and stir.

Serve with boiled rice and vegetables.