How I Ended Up Wearing Three Hats in Tropical Malaysia
By Stephen Yong
The story of how I ended up with three different hats in my life and how they contribute to my passion for personal finances and financial planning.
(Author: no that’s not me but a stock photo chosen by my editorial team)
Writing this is like an autobiography of sorts. Just that this story is about personal finance, money and me. Like the cliché song goes, “Money makes the world go ‘round.” The only difference is that it is now my everyday real-world life starting conversations about money with Malaysians. How did I end up running a popular Malaysian personal finance site? What are these mysterious three hats the writer of this story is talking about? Like all good stories, it starts at the very beginning….
The Early Years
The formative years
I grew up a happy (and dumb) middle-class kid in Bayan Baru, Penang before the malls and township really sprang up. My days were spent cycling (and being warned to keep my eyes open), reading (I envy the days I read on average eight books a week), and playing games with friends (which evolved in being the game master/story-teller for a group of friends battling fantastic beasts in dungeons). I also enjoyed tinkering with ideas of various projects including a now long-lost sketch book filled with sketches for vending machines selling cool stuff, a restaurant in an airplane, and a faraway hidden green hotel in the middle of a rainforest.
In school, I did well in English and all the mathematics (as I didn’t have to study for it) but came close to failing biology (because I had to study for it). At this time, I was already taking baby steps in the world of personal finance by tracking my finances and dabbling in investments, but I did not think I was doing anything special. Instead, my dream career was to be an engineer because my father was one. And so, after completing my Malaysian Certificate of Education (SPM) examinations, I took up some jobs in engineering firms. I then realized that that path was not for me. I next decided to go into Information Technology (IT) at a local college (re: middle class on FAMA1 scholarship) which was the rage at the time, choosing a course sophisticatedly named Information Systems Engineering (hey, engineering!).
1 FAMA: Father Mother “scholarship”
The unexpected journey
My college years were spent in both Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Then, it was time to step out into the real world. Most of my friends stayed within the expected world of IT, although some did become business owners in various non-IT industries. As for me, I stayed with the world of IT and did an internship as a programmer. I then realized that although I was decent at coding, I did not want to do this daily for the rest of my life. Hmm, what next?
Over the next few months, I “worked” hard as a “farmer” and accidental guild master in the world’s most popular MMORPG2 World of Warcraft ®, from the comfort of home. And, I promptly went to way of many idealistic young Malaysians by falling for a money scam. In my case, I lost RM30,000 (then my entire investment portfolio) to a dubious multi-level marketing scam. The burn was bad and I fell back to “farming” to get over my disappointment.
Only after my mom threatened to kick me out of home, did I finally begin really adulting with my first full-time job in IT. I started out as IT support and was blessed with a quick rise up the ranks to division manager within a span of five years.
2 MMORPG: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (each letter is pronounced individually)
I enjoyed my job. I got the hang of dealing with demanding clients and managing a large organization including some individuals who were older and more traditional in their ways. However, as with most career paths, the decision making responsibilities became more pronounced as I climbed the ladder. For me, the turning point was when I found that certain decisions I was encouraged to make to grease the wheels of business did not sit right with my personal ethics. And so, despite the comforts and rewards offered, I tendered my resignation.
All the while I was not sitting idle after office hours as I had been wooing the love of my life. As my career in IT reached its crossroads, I wedded the best woman in the world, took her on a romantic honeymoon in Bali, and came back jobless. What a way to start married life!
“Like a SIR”
Although jobless, money was not a pressing concern as I had set aside one year of savings (I now recommend two years worth of savings if you’re planning to quit without a plan). I did not want just another job, but rather I was seeking a vocation.
“A vocation is work you do for its own sake; you almost feel like you’d do it even if you didn’t get paid. The rewards of wages and prestige are peripheral to getting to use one’s passion in a satisfying way. Those in a vocation feel that their work has an effect on the greater good and an impact beyond themselves. They believe that their work truly utilizes their unique gifts and talents. This is what they were meant to do.”
After much prayer and soul-searching, I felt called to do something to that would help people grow. Since my teenage years, I had been tracking my finances and dabbling in investments. Friends who knew about this had from time to time approached me to ask me personal finance questions and I enjoyed sharing my knowledge. So, why not help people grow their personal finances professionally?
Truthfully, the idea of switching from working for someone while investing on the side to starting up something on my own had me quite scared. I thank God that He showed without a doubt through people, prayer and circumstances that this was His calling and vocation for me. Thus began MyPF.my which bore the cringey tagline “Like a SIR3” and the logo of a monocle man in a top-hat (it was the age of memes).
3 SIR: Save, Invest, and Retire well (Until today, my own personal finance sharing WhatsApp group name has the top-hat emoji as a nod to our roots)
MyPF.my – The slog, the scams, and the sue!
Writing a personal finance blog is not easy on your own. It requires discipline and most folks fizzle out in the first three months. I was not new to writing a personal finance focused blog having blogged for years (from before a blog was called a blog). Yet it was a slog trying to write regularly even if for just once a week. I wrote as a one man (blood and) sweat shop on wide ranging personal finance related topics from budgeting to investing.
An early topic on MyPF.my that generated a fair bit of buzz was a series of articles slamming money games and ponzi schemes. Penang was (is?) the hotbed of money games, and we covered the red flags to watch out for, common con tricks, and how to evaluate investments objectively.
Having lost money to a scam during my young adulthood, I was adamant other people should not fall in the same trap. My future-tech-head and I did some investigative journalism on a certain then trending money game company. We found out that the scam in question was mostly smoke and mirrors including misleading public information, and that their whole scheme was a rehash of an older scam (they didn’t change their server IPs which we traced, hah!). We were then promptly sued by the company we mentioned, but simply ignored their invalid summons at the advice of a good friend who is the managing partner in a legal firm. Thankfully, no action or losses resulted from their fear and intimidation tactics.
Overcoming the challenges of the early days of blogging, I felt true confidence that I could and can indeed make a difference in helping people grow. My true calling was here.
Founding My Personal Finances
I have always believed that if you deliver value, you don’t have to worry about money to pay your bills and this has proven time and time again to be true.
As my image as the personal finances guy grew, more friends approached me with questions related to personal finance. With full sincerity, I freely shared my own personal finance spreadsheet which had evolved over a period of over a decade covering cashflow, net worth, insurance, and investing. Friends started insisting as well that they wanted to pay me for helping them look at their personal finances.
I decided the time was ripe for me to continue my professional development. I got licensed in financial planning through insurance, investment, and Certified Financial Planning (CFP Cert TM) professional certification. I was now ready to give professionally licensed advise to paying clients.
It was also time to grow beyond a blog by a single writer into a sustainable business organisation that would help a larger number of Malaysians simplify and grow their personal finance. In 2017 January, MyPF Services PLT as a company came into fruition. Today, MyPF is the top three personal finance site in Malaysia, has a team producing content daily, and is read by thousands of Malaysians every month. We know that our financial education is making a difference with the positive comments we receive that our content is simple, unbiased, and helps people take steps to improve their personal finances. Interestingly as well, we have a very balanced proportion of male and female readership, unlike most financial related sites which is predominantly male.
The Three Hats
Today, I find myself wearing multiple hats on an almost daily basis in my different roles. Using the same hat analogy, I find myself not running around changing hats like a bad comedy show. But the experience is more akin to wearing all three hats simultaneously and choosing the right priority hat for each situation and circumstance.
CKO of WVA
At a financial advisory (FA) level, I am the Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) of Wealth Vantage Advisory (WVA). I joined the management team of a relatively new financial advisory firm who had a lofty goal of leading industry transformation in a holistic and technology enabled manner. What does a CKO do? (And no, I didn’t make up the job title). A CKO is not a hipster term for a Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Technology Officer (CTO). While CIO/CTO is responsible for IT or technology, a CKO is responsible for Knowledge Management (KM) using knowledge and data as a competitive advantage to improve performance at an individual, team, and organisational level.
At WVA, my key roles are as follows:
To help financial planners and staff benefit from knowledge resources.
To work closely with all departments to build knowledge creation and culture.
To actively promote the knowledge agenda within and beyond the firm.
We are currently only at the initial baby steps phase in KM. The vision for knowledge starts from top management and grows in a diverse environment where people are permitted to make “meaningful failures” and are incentives to innovate. We aim to form Communities of Practice (CoP) which is “A group of professionals informally bound to one another through exposure to a common class of problems, common pursuit of solutions, and thereby themselves embodying a store of knowledge” (Stewart 2001 in Botha et al 2008). An example of an early KM work done has been recognising that there is way too many acronyms used by our firm and the financial industry which led to us writing a Knowledge Base (KB) reference listing down all commonly used financial jargon and acronyms so the entire firm is speaking the same language (and not starting to resemble the Tower of Babel), and documenting best practices and frequently asked questions.
For my small select group of clients, I am their licensed financial planner helping to advise and work with them to achieve financial independence. I find that there’s nothing like real world experience and I myself use the very same tools and solutions as my clients. It’s an interesting journey and a humbling experience working with clients of different ages, backgrounds, and aspirations. My clients get a benefit of a blend of experience, best practices, and access to financial tools.
Technology has and continues to change how financial planning is done. Imagine, not too long ago some financial planners were still using pen and paper! Financial technology (FinTech) helps financial planners and clients to work more efficiently, and effectively with lesser chance of errors. Financial planning clients get so much more today with lowered costs to engage a licensed financial planner, easy access to online financial tools, and strong backend support including paraplanners – all connected with technology!
FinTech is changing the world we live in with a new economy of companies using technology to make financial services more efficient. This results in a decline in traditional product-based agent sales, lowered costs and fees benefitting users, and a growing demand for tech savvy financial planners. Or as Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM)’s ex-Governor Datuk Muhammad Ibrahim himself puts it
“FinTech is challenging the status quo of the financial industry. New business models will emerge. Delivery channels will challenge existing norms. Transaction costs will be reduced. Rather than looking at the FinTech revolution as unwelcoming, financial institutions ought to embrace an opportunity”.
CEO of MyPF
Last but not least, MyPF is looking to embrace the opportunity lying at the convergence of finance and technology. We continue heading on in our mission to help simplify and grow Malaysians’ personal finances through financial education. All this through our online portal, free written and video content, free online personal finance tools and leveraging on technology. We also help Malaysians who need sound financial advice get connected to licensed financial planners.
The Crystal Ball
Globally and in Malaysia is a growing need for holistic needs based financial planning. Overall there’s a slow decline of agents (except super agents) as fees go down and clients experience the benefit of working with a financial planner who represents your interests first.
FinTech with the convergence on finance and technology will continue to lower costs, lower fees and make finance more readily accessible to everyone. This will be especially true for mass market and retail investors.
Financial education and literacy – in our homes, schools and everywhere. It is heartening to see more financial content being created whether on websites, Instagram or YouTube. A further push is required to make financial education a reality in our schools and for a national financial literacy strategy to be more than a dream.
Personally, it is totally unexpected that I would end up being a financial planner, part of the management team in a financial advisory firm, and the founder of a startup. Nor did I imagine that my eclectic mix of experience and skills in writing, finance, and technology would come together as a triple-hat wearing Malaysian. I am so blessed to be where I am just focusing on my faith, family, and personal finance.
I hope that my story and experience inspires others. If there’s one big audacious habit or goal (or BAHG as we say on PodCat) that I would want you as a reader to take action, it is to set your very own meaningful personal finance (PF) goal. Write or type down your smart PF goal, review it regularly, and take one small purposeful step towards your PF goal daily. May the FIRE be with you!
Do you have a story about wearing a different roles in your life before settling down with your current passion/career? Share with us.