Young&Savvy

An investment exercise through travel

A child using a telescope to view city districts from a tourist viewing tower in Beijing on Aug 25, 2015.
A child using a telescope to view city districts from a tourist viewing tower in Beijing on Aug 25, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

Nothing like looking outwards for ideas and finding out how other economies and people tick

Every time a Malaysian tells me that I'm lucky to have been born in Singapore, I cannot help but agree.

The thing is, for an investor looking at a whole universe of opportunities, coming from Singapore or any country at all can also be something of a trap.

Investors always have to find an angle before they take a position. A growing trend, a policy prediction or a demographic shift could be that angle; it's basically a thesis you can keep testing as time and events unfold.

Our ideas all come from some place. The state and system in which we grew up shape our basic assumptions of world, economy, and what business models should and should not fly.

In Singapore, where things have changed very fast in 50 years, we may be likely to think that we're at the front of the curve and up the value chain, sophisticated customers, workforce ready for the "new economy".

One thing that left an impression was the character of the people I met in Beijing. They're big-city people - enterprising, fast-talking; they get round problems without much said.

Shortfall? Evolution seems like a thing you embrace or control, rather than a fact of life.

For this reason, you can learn a lot from a change of place.

I visited China this month for the first time. It's different from Singapore in so many ways, ways that have realigned my perception, a little bit. One thing that left an impression was the character of the people I met in Beijing. They're big-city people - enterprising, fast-talking; they get round problems without much said.

I think some of that is a function of the place. When you have people spreading mats on the footpath peddling fake Nikes and Adidas opposite the mall, you don't have to explain to either party what is meant by "disruptive business models" and "industries in turmoil".

The local people I met were also extremely practical about consumption. I joined a local tour group to the grasslands outside Beijing, and as we sat down to dinner one evening - a mix of vegetable dishes, some cold and some warm - the family next to me offered me some raw garlic they had peeled.

They were eating garlic for the simple purpose of killing any germs that may be in the food we were eating. I could not help but agree that that was an extremely efficient way of managing risk in an environment of uncertainty.

That tour itself was like no tour I had taken before. You make a booking as late as the evening before the scheduled departure and await confirmation. A tour guide texts you the licence plate of the coach you will be taking and the meeting point, though you must not ask more questions than that as she has no idea yet which hostel they are partnering with nor the exact details of the itinerary.

Scary? It's also an extremely productive way to run a business, and popular too - dozens of such operators can be found on the mobile travel app Qunar.

As a market, China is also somewhat different from Singapore. For instance, it seems to me that while Singaporeans tend to prefer laptops to phones in so far as it's convenient, the Chinese seem to be happy to do almost everything via their smartphones.

The friend I stayed with in Beijing - an old classmate - did everything on her iPhone: bought train tickets, Groupons for meals, booked DiDi cabs, wrote and sent out job applications. They have apps for everything there.

"Use my phone, it's easier to see from here," she suggested when I asked her how to navigate the Qunar website on my laptop.

Now I'm starting to wonder if I really should give up my phone with the obsolete iOS for one of those ridiculously large phones, if only to stay on top of a whole market that's mobile-based. But I guess that's not even the point of a phone anymore.

In the new economy, phones have transcended "fitting into our pockets".

I definitely saw a lot of China on this trip, though I shall not pretend that pedestrian glances at newspapers and two weeks of tourism are sufficient to draw conclusions about where a nation is headed.

China is huge - far bigger than I had imagined. Some metro stops look like the airport of a lesser city. China is also famously opaque where certain policies are concerned, as the dedicated market-watchers will tell you. China confounds its pundits for good reason.

Even if you've studied one foot of the mammoth, there's so much more that's up in the air.

That said, I am convinced that the Chinese labour force is one to be reckoned with. And a quality workforce, as our national planners like to remind us, is key to boosting productivity, which in turn is one part of sustained economic growth .

Some people travel to source for investment ideas, some to seek out arbitrage opportunities.

But in the simplest sense, travel can also be a fun exercise in diversifying your knowledge sources, mitigating the risk of ethnocentrism, and getting closer to perfect information.

Besides, with our country showing signs that it could be tipping towards a slowdown, we have to practise looking outwards for ideas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'An investment exercise through travel'. Print Edition | Subscribe