Sunday 7 February 2010

Who wants to be the richest guy in the cemetery?

Is death really the great leveller?

When Singapore's richest man Ng Teng Fong died on Tuesday, it was front page news.

Three days earlier, Tan Eng Yoon, who represented our country in the 1956 Olympics, was killed in a road accident and also made the news, but the coverage was nothing compared to what Ng's death was getting.

When I die, no one besides my immediate family will know because I won't be able to update my Facebook status. Maybe I'll tweet something.

Coincidentally, on the night before I learned of the death of Singapore's richest man, I chanced upon YouTube video of a 2007 joint interview with two great business rivals, Apple's Steve Jobs and Microsoft's Bill Gates.

The latter, of course, has been the world's richest man for the past two decades or so, occasionally giving up the top spot to stock picker extraordinaire Warren Buffett, depending on the vagaries of the stock market.

Asked if he envied Mr Gates, Mr Jobs replied in the video: "I think the world is a better place because Bill realised that his goal isn’t to be the richest guy in the cemetery."

Mr Jobs was referring to Mr Gate's 2006 announcement that the Microsoft founder would relinquish his day-to-day role at the company to focus on philanthropy and giving away some of the billions he made through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mr Jobs, on the other hand, was more focused on launching a new Apple product, the iPad, last week. Judging by its name, I'm guessing it's a revolutionary digital feminine hygiene device.

Maybe Mr Gates was heeding the words of another iconic entrepreneur who said: “There's no reason to be the richest man in the cemetery. You can't do any business from there.”

That iconic entrepreneur was Colonel Harlan Sanders. Yes, that Colonel Sanders.

Anyway, the day after I saw the video, my colleague Paik Choo mentioned that she had been assigned to cover Mr Ng's wake and I thought of what Mr Jobs said.

Whether it was his goal or not, Mr Ng will probably be the richest guy in the cemetery.

According to reports, he was a reclusive man, but a generous boss. No mention of any philanthropy though. However, that could just mean he donated millions to charity but chose not to send press releases about it.

Where does that leave the rest of us who have yet to make our first billion? What will be our legacy?

Like Bill Gates, I can never get a good haircut and my goal also isn't to be the richest guy in the cemetery.

No, my goal is to be the wealthiest pile of ash in the columbarium. And the world is a better place for it.

But for now, I just want some fried chicken. Extra crispy.

- Published in The New Paper, 7 February 2010

UPDATE: Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died on Oct 5, 2011. He was 56.