June 30, 2007


'Poster girl' had to empty piggy bank for son's $100 medical bill

3 properties and Merc - she learns hard lessons of living beyond her means

By Gabriel Chen

SHE was a poster girl for success in the boom economy of the mid-1990s. She was buying designer clothes without flinching, dining at fine restaurants, and driving a spanking new Mercedes-Benz.

Ms Jacqueline Suah, an interior designer, and husband Francis were also earning enough to own three properties - a landed home and a shophouse in Bedok and an apartment in Changi - before the crisis.

Then, in 1997, they had to give up their comfortable lifestyle when Francis' construction business folded due to bad debts that ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ms Suah's own interior design setup, Design Tray, also suffered; the recession meant contracts for her services were few and far between.

They sold all their properties, keeping only the apartment. They also sold their car and bought a lorry because it was cheaper to maintain, and could also be used to transport furniture for her business.

Piano lessons for their son Jian Feng, now 15, and playschool for their daughter Yi Jing, now 12, were luxuries she could no longer afford.

The 44-year-old told The Straits Times : 'Every month, I was worried I couldn't pay my utilities bills. I would pay a bit, then accumulate the rest. I always prayed my kids won't get sick.'

Once, when her son had an asthma attack, she and her husband 'emptied their piggy banks' before rushing him to the hospital. They had only $130 with them.

'Luckily the doctor said he did not need to be warded. The bill came up to $105, and both of us stared and simply smiled at each other,' Ms Suah recalled.

She admitted they were borrowing and living beyond their means during the boom years. At the height of the crisis, they were paying about 9.5 per cent interest or about $15,000 a month on all three properties.

Their financial woes almost led them to divorce. They bickered endlessly.

Fortunately, they worked through their problems.

'We bought a pair of Rolex watches in 1989 for $10,000,' she said.

'During the recession, we didn't want to pawn them, though we needed the money. Both Francis and I still wear them today.'

It was during her most desperate moments that she realised who her true friends were.

She remembers being at the lawyer's office discussing financial matters and needed $12,000 urgently.

'I asked a close friend if I could borrow $12,000. She could easily have afforded it. This was the first time I opened my mouth to ask for help. It was a hard thing for me to do, so I called her in the toilet, as I was so embarrassed. She couldn't commit,' said Ms Suah, as tears welled up in her eyes.

Their frugality allowed them to settle their debts in 2000.

They also received around $150,000 from her father-in-law, but have since returned the money to him.

'My father-in-law was conservative and lived in an HDB flat. He wasn't like us. We dreamed too early, we bought too many houses, we lived beyond our means,' she said.

In 2000, when she had run out of storage space at home, Ms Suah hit upon a design idea: seating or display platforms that could double up as storage boxes.

After 18 months of research, she launched Systemind Platform - basically boxes, priced between $85 and $130, held together with nuts and bolts that can be easily dismantled.

They proved to be a hit. Today, Systemind Platform is sold in Singapore, Italy, Japan and Mexico. Total sales rose from $700,000 in 2001 to $1.8 million in 2005.

Life today is simpler. While they have bought back the shophouse they sold during the crisis, Ms Suah is more frugal, driving a Toyota Rush instead of a Mercedes-Benz. She has cut down the number of credit cards she owns to just one.

'I teach my children not to spend extravagantly,' said Ms Suah, who added that she would not be investing in apartments in the current property fever.

'I see people in a very good mood. People feel like buying and seeing showflats. I tell myself and tell others not to be greedy. Everybody has nice dreams but nobody tells you the bad dream,' she said.

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'I see people in a very good mood. People feel like buying and seeing showflats. I tell myself and tell others not to be greedy. Everybody has nice dreams but nobody tells you the bad dream.'

MS SUAH, about the current property fever