Some things money can't buy

I, too, was caught up in the $13.9 million Toto Hongbao Draw fever. There's no harm dreaming, is there?

A dozen middle-aged men were standing in line in front of me. The smell of cigarette smoke and beer hung heavy in the air.

I kept my head low and my eyes peeled to my phone and willed the queue to move quickly.

It is embarrassing buying Toto. I feel like a desperate gambler.

But there I was at an outlet at a sports stadium near my house. Like the men in the queue, I had one number on my mind: $13.9 million.

This year's Toto Hongbao Draw on Friday, Feb 19, was the largest-ever lottery amount. Thousands of people placed bets and I was among them.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

In fact, I bought Toto tickets three times.

The first was on the Tuesday before the draw.

I went for a walk at the stadium after work. I don't normally carry money when I exercise, but this time I did as there's a Toto outlet there.

The queue was long and smoky and I nearly chickened out.

You won't win if you don't buy, I reminded myself.

Besides, in a Toto draw the week before, one person had taken home $9.5 million, the largest amount ever won by a single person.

The winning ticket was sold at an outlet less than 1km from the sports stadium I was at. Maybe Lady Luck was still smiling on the neighbourhood?

I have ever bought Toto only once before and had forgotten how it worked. I tried Googling on my phone, but the queue moved too quickly and it was soon my turn.

I handed over $30 and told the woman at the counter: "Computer." (You can get a computer to pick random numbers for you - that much I knew.)

She said something in Mandarin I couldn't understand, but I nodded. She punched some keys and out came five slips of paper. Each held six rows of six numbers from 1 to 49. One row cost me $1.

She very pleasantly wished me good luck.

Phew. That wasn't too bad, I thought, slinking off.

After I got home and did more research, I realised that what I'd bought were "ordinary" tickets. I would win the jackpot amount only if all six numbers in a row were drawn.

There are other types of bets which give you more numbers, hence a higher chance of winning. These are "system" tickets.

The next evening, I went back to the stadium and bought two System 7 tickets. It got me two rows of seven numbers each and cost $14.

On Thursday, I told a colleague that I'd spent $44 already on Toto.

"Hmm," she said, "44's not a lucky number, is it?" She was right.

So, back I went to the stadium that night. I bought one more System 7 ticket, which meant I'd spent a total of $51.

In case you're thinking I'm an inveterate gambler, I am not.

I seldom gamble, not casino, not football, not mahjong or card games.

I'm risk-averse and believe the best way to grow my money is through fixed deposits, never mind their very low interest rates.

But I like the occasional flutter.

If I'm invited to the Turf Club (rarely), I'll place bets to spice things up.

When the World Cup comes around, I put money in the office pool so that I'm more invested in the matches.

If I'm at a petrol station and there happens to be a big Singapore Sweep draw on, I'll buy one or two tickets for the heck of it. You never know.

And when the yearly Toto Hongbao Draw comes around, I happily join the office pool.

One year, a group of us actually won a few hundred dollars each.

It's fun being part of an event that gets the country excited. One would be a party pooper not to want to get into the spirit of things or to get all moralistic and sniff at it, I think.

There's also the thrill of fantasising.

Big lotteries come with such unthinkable amounts that the mind can run wild with the many impractical ways you can spend the money on.

The daydreaming is almost entertainment, like buying a ticket to the movies.

In any case, surpluses generated by Singapore Pools, which runs the various lotteries, support sports, charity and the arts, which makes me feel less bad about wasting my money on such bad odds.

On the face of it, buying lottery tickets is irrational because the chances of winning are so small.

Singapore Pools says on its website that the odds of a Toto ordinary entry winning the jackpot is one in 14 million. A System 7 entry has odds of one in 2 million.

This means there's a higher chance of being struck by lightning (one in 7,750,000) or dying in a plane crash (one in 500,000) than winning Toto.

The draw is random, which means that those theories you hear about "lucky" numbers? Not true.

Statisticians note that every draw is independent and a fresh start.

The draw gives equal chance to all numbers and combinations, so forget about trying to decipher a pattern, favourite number or combination.

The Singapore Pools website debunks another myth - that some outlets are "luckier" than others.

"This is a classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy," it says.

When word has it that a certain outlet has sold a winning ticket, many flock there, hoping to be the next lucky winner.

As more people patronise the outlet, more tickets are generated there. As a result, the mathematical probability of that outlet producing a winning ticket becomes higher.

But as an individual, your chances of winning are no better, whichever outlet you choose to go to.

Lotteries are often criticised for making the poor part with their money.

It is a fact that lower-income people spend a higher percentage of their income on lottery tickets than wealthier folk, even though doing so harms their already precarious finances.

For them, lotteries are akin to an investment opportunity and a magic ticket to escape their poverty.

An interesting piece of research done by Carnegie Mellon University academics in 2008 threw light on why poorer people love lotteries.

The study said the poor see lotteries as an equal-opportunity chance to correct their low-income status, a "social equaliser" as it were.

"A game of chance, in a sense, levels the playing field and gives the poor the same opportunity to win as everyone else," said the authors, Emily Haisley, Romel Mostafa and George Loewenstein.

"This would make lotteries disproportionately attractive to low-income individuals, since they may feel they rarely get such fair odds relative to those from upper- income classes."

In the run-up to the big Hongbao Draw, I spent a few pleasurable moments each day wondering how I would spend $13.9 million.

I decided I would be prudent and save $12 million for a worry-free retirement. The rest I'd use to renovate my house and play Santa Claus to family, friends and the causes I like.

On Friday night, I tracked the draw with some anticipation.

Of course I drew blanks and my $51 went down the drain.

Ah well, I thought as I went to bed, the dream was fun while it lasted.

Early the next morning, I went for my much-dreaded annual health screening.

As I waited my turn for the tests at the hospital, it struck me that no amount of money in the world can buy you good health.

On Sunday evening, my mother, H and I went for dinner at a neighbourhood mall. It wasn't a fancy meal, but we were all in a jolly mood and had a pleasant time.

All the money in the world, I concluded, can't buy you a happy family or people who love you and whom you love.

Monday was the start of another work week and even as I had to drag myself up at 6am to get ready for the office, I said a word of thanks.

Winning $13.9 million can't guarantee that you have a job you like and find meaningful, or colleagues whose company you enjoy.

I am not saying I don't wish I had won the Hongbao Draw, fanciful though that thought was.

But there really are some things money can't buy, and if you have them, your life is really quite rich already.


• Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Some things money can't buy'. Print Edition | Subscribe