A Gift and a Bribe in Oriental Societies

This was originally published when Sensei Michael was in China.

Many westerners who come over to oriental societies have to immediate grapple with one reality – the strong culture and presence of gifts-giving and even bribery that takes place in our societies. It can range from the blatant (Indonesia or Vietnam) to the indirect (China or Philippines) to the “legalised and regulated” (Singapore!).

I remembered my first encounter with gifts as a teacher – I got a very expensive book from a parent. It was very, very difficult for me to return that gift without offending the parent so I approached my principal for advice. Public servants in Singapore (of whom teachers are a part of) have very strict instructions regarding gifts (declare value, report to superiors, etc), to avoid any problems or even appearance of bribery. I decided to make that book publicly available to all my colleagues.

Over at my school, I encountered Korean parents – and I realised that Korean parents took their gift-giving very seriously. It’s something like a mark of respect or even “face” to them to present a gift of nominal value (chocolates, for example) to a teacher they respect. But since I’m no longer a public servant, I could accept them without any problem.

There was one gift I had to return though, and that really destroyed my relationship with the parent (sigh). It was a very beautiful idol of some Indonesian tribe or something, which we suspect to be a totem of some sort. I don’t think it’s very appropriate for a Christian family to have this in the house so I wrote a card explaining my position and returned the gift. That parent never spoke to me again.

I know that God has very serious instructions regarding bribery.

“And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the discerning and perverts the words of the righteous.” Exodus 23:8

“You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous.” Deuteronomy 16:19

“A wicked man accepts a bribe behind the back, To pervert the ways of justice.” Proverbs 17:23

In other words, bribes are given to blind the eyes and to pervert justice. When money is given for the judge to award you his judgement, that’s a bribe. When money is given for a person to award you the contract, even if other parties obviously gives the better deal, that’s a bribe.

How about gifts? What does the Bible say about gifts (remember that the Hebrew society is an oriental one)?

“Many entreat the favor of the nobility, And every man is a friend to one who gives gifts.” Proverbs 19:6

“A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men.” Proverbs 18:16

I think it is very clear here – a gift is an introduction, a means to put ourselves in good standing before a person in an oriental society (I suspect it works in western societies as well!). Herein lies the great power of the oft-acclaimed Chinese guanxi 关系, which literally means “connections” or “relations”. You can get guanxi by being a childhood friend or relative, or by being friends later in life (mostly through gifts – monetary, in kind or by being the leverage for your own personal guanxielsewhere).

What gifts have I given so far that has given me some of this guanxi? I’ve a friend who has connections with government officials – she likes me, and I’ve been a great help to her in establishing herself in Singapore. I’ve leveraged upon my network to create opportunities for the school to perform in public venues – both sides are happy in the process.

I learnt one thing though – that ultimately, we need to be discerning over what constitutes a bribe and what constitutes a gift (I suspect many of my definitions of “gifts” are considered bribes by most governments of today). I believe that as long as we are sure we are not perverting justice or blinding the eyes of the decision-maker, any gifts we give to make room for us in high places would be regarded by God as wisdom. And what is the value God has placed upon wisdom?

My son, if you receive my words, And treasure my commands within you,
So that you incline your ear to wisdom, And apply your heart to understanding;
Yes, if you cry out for discernment, And lift up your voice for understanding,
If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will understand the fear of the LORD, And find the knowledge of God.
For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;

Proverbs 2:1-6

What is Christianity?

I have people, both those who seek God and those who are just curious, ask me this. What I want to say, first and foremost, is that Christianity is not a set of rituals you perform to get you to heaven. Neither is it a set of rules you follow that teach you ‘How to be good’.

No, Christianity is our relationship with God our creator, who loves us. It can be traced to an event occurring nearly 2000 years ago, at the birth of Jesus Christ.

  • The most important aspect about God is His great love for us, and His desire for us to have a beautiful and wonderful life.
    • “…I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.” John 10:10
    • “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good…” Genesis 1:31
  • We men have always wanted to walk our own way, to decide our paths, but inevitably we have always did the wrong thing. Our history of wars speaks clearly of this – peace is so untenable. Even within our personal lives, how many of us dare to claim never to have evil thoughts?
    • “…for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23
    • “…being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful…” Romans 1:29-31
  • We are not able to experience the goodness and love of God precisely because of our evil nature. But God’s love for us is great. Yet His demand for justice must be fulfilled. So to fulfil his demand for justice, to free the way to pour out His love for us, He came down to earth and died for us in the form of the man Jesus Christ.
    • “For the wages of sin is death (emphasis mine), but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23
    • “But God demonstrates His own love towards us in that while we were yet sinners (emphasis mine), Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8
    • “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
  • Since the requirements of justice for our sins have been fulfilled, the price having been paid for by someone else, we can freely receive the love and the goodness God has given us. All it takes is for us to recognise our need for God, and to tell Him to be with us.
    • “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith…” Romans 3:28
    • “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8
    • “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.” Revelation 3:30

My life has been changed as a result of my newfound relationship with God. He has guided me during my years with him, and has given me strength and resources I do not have. He has taught me how to love, and to receive love.

Today, He knocks at the door of your heart. Will you give Him a chance in your life?

The End of the Private Investment Fund and Return to the Rat Race

It has been a wonderful year of 2003. During that year, I lived a life many could only dream of. I had struck out as a realtor and moved on to manage a private investment fund. This private investment fund has consistently returned about 10% every month, and allowed me not to need a job. With the time given to me, I have learnt web design, have continued to minister to children in chapel worship and have even cut a worship album. I founded a company to train pupils in leadership and entrepreneurial skills. I worked only an hour or two each day from home, and supported my wife (by being a house-husband!). And of course, since I still love teaching, relief teaching became a part of me.

Everything came crashing down on me about Oct 2003.

It was nobody’s fault but mine. I knew very well that I could manage about 2%-3% per month without major risks to my capital (due to capital protection measures I took). But I was consumed by greed and wanted bigger yields. I was arrogant and thought my first few successes would see me through. Instead of doing what I know I could manage, I took on positions that could return me 20% a month, and refused to take on any less. But in doing so, I took away the safety net of my capital protection measures.

One dark Wednesday, everything went against me and my positions crashed faster than I could salvage them. When the smoke cleared, I was down to 20% of my capital – most of it belonging to my investors. And I had promised them capital safety. There was no contract except the contract of my word and my reputation.

There is no way I can give my clients the 7% returns promised if I were to use the ‘safer’ method of investing. I knew then that I could do what Ponzi did when he started his scam. Ignore the problem and continued to take money from his clients, knowing that the money will continue to flow in due to the high returns promised, and running away when he could no longer pay up. But that would run contrary to the ethical values etched within me in my 15 years with God. Integrity says that I must face up to it, even at a personal loss. I decided to close the Private Investment Fund – and return the money to my clients out of my personal wealth.

With the closure of my Private Investment Fund, I have no means of support for my family. My company has not been securing enough sales to sustain me. My family and I still have the debts from credit cards and the car mortgage. I had no choice but to return to the rat race, to take up employment once again.

What have I learnt from this terrible financial blow? I have learnt to take the bird in the hand rather than the two in the bush. It is more important to protect your capital than to get higher returns. I have learnt that people respect your integrity. My former clients told me they would put their money with me again if I were to ever return to running investment funds.

Most importantly, I have learnt something about myself. I enjoyed the seminars that I run for the pupils. I enjoyed leading devotion and relief teaching. I realised that my true calling in life is still to be a teacher. That was confirmed when I was accepted for interviews with the Singapore International School in Indonesia (for Vice-Principal) and the Singapore International School in Shanghai (for Head of Department). I chose to go to China. In future, I will stick to my calling. Even when I get to run an investment fund or to start a business again, I will still continue teaching.

It really has been an interesting year for me, and it will have many memories for me. I do not blame anyone, least of all God. I took on the risks willingly, and I will move on with my life. I have taken the talents, and lost it is trading, rather than bury it in the ground. I have learnt much and will move, for I know I have a calling, to return to Him ten talents for the five that I know He will give me. One day I shall return, and fulfil what He has called me to do.

The Dice God

It was always with great amusement that I read in the message boards about the players calling upon the ‘dice gods’ and blaming them for horrible dice rolls (expecially those users of Dicey). Personally, I do believe, not in the ‘dice gods’ but in the Dice God, the Maker of All That Moves, the Creater of the Laws of the Universe. And my Friend.

I remember myself feeling really down recently due to some events at my workplace. I was making the move for US1, when I decided to roll for a Tech. I prayed and told God this, “Lord, I would really love to get a good Tech now. Can I have that please?” I got Industrial Technology.

My wife, a long-time companion and support to me, heard me sighing in half wonder and I told her what had happened. She encouraged me to give a testimony of how He had remembered me even in the small insignificant thing called dice in a small insignificant pursuit called games. I believe the time is due for me to give him the praise that is due Him.

It all began early in my Christian faith, when my gaming buddies and I were playing A&A. Three of them were new converts, while one was a strong anti-Christian atheist. I only remembered that it was a crucial battle, and I was beset by 5 air units, with a huge amount of supporting armour and infantry. My good friend, Joshua, jokingly asked if God is a God of the dice. In my youthful exuberance, and in faith, I declared ‘Yes!’ and proceded to pray for God to bless the dice. The AA gun shot down all 5 units (1 in 7776 chance of doing so), and needless to say, my side won the battle (though for the life of me, I really could not remember if my side won the game!). I believe it was a high point in our lives, both in the new converts and in the anti-Christian friend.

Then, of course, came the phase of my life when I put aside all gaming, and concentrated on studying the Bible and pursuing a strong spiritual life. It was only recently, about 4 years ago, that I placed gaming back into my life.

The first opponent to encounter the Dice God was Fourth Reich, if I do not remember wrongly. I was Axis and was on the losing end, Japan unable to make any headway, and Germany being hard-pressed. History was made and I rolled my very first Tech in desperation in an AAMC game. I remember asking the Lord, “God, I know this is just a game, but I believe you are the Lord of every part of my life. I need IT now. Can I have it please?” I got IT and SS with Germany and the Allies were stuck. The next roll with Japan got me JP, LR and HB, and I proceeded to pound Russia silly. My opponent conceded the game.

The next opponent, who must really be exasperated, was Wings of Victory. He played about two games straight in which his beginning moves were absolutely horrible when it comes to dice. Thinking back, I remember telling God that I would like to have short games for the next few ones (and they were really short!). He conceded both these games, giving me easy rating points .

Of course, I must quantify that the dice did not always go my way (the recent games had the dice really horrible against me) – but it seems that whenever I am really in need and I prayed, the Lord would always answer me. In the most recent case, I had needed something to encourage me, to let me know that He is still with me, and around me. I know it may sound silly, but that IT at that point of time was something very important to me, and I believe God loves me enough to want to cheer me up. It was with a sense of wonder then that I told my wife, who was next to me working on her project, about it.

That sense of wonder, that God cared enough to answer small little prayers, never failed to thrill me each time. He had answered me many times when I just felt really tired and wanted the rain to stop so I could go home (of course, it did stop). He had answered me many times when I called upon Him in many ways and in many things.

Surely He alone is worthy of all our praise!

Have you Ever Thought About Your Life?

As a youth, I have seen the lives of many Christians about me. Some of them made me so sick – they were really hypocritical. But there were two who stood out. I was an atheist then, and I always mocked at them when they talked to me about their Christian God.

But the fact that they still remained friends with me, and still talked to me about this Christian God made me think – what is so special about this religion that they just do not hate me or tried to run me down?

Perhaps it was the Bible? Perhaps I could find out something from there? The thing that made them tick? And the study of the Bible was indeed the very event that brought me on the road to knowing and finding God.

Life with God is very different from life on your own. Truly, I understand why those who are self-sufficient do not want to be Christians – they don’t feel they need God. But surely for all who are humble enough to seek Him, He will give guidance and strength for the rigours of life.

I am one who has known God since a tender age of seventeen. I have been a Christian for 15 years now (2003), as a student, as a military personnel, as an educator, and now as an artiste, businessman and investor (and still educator, actually…). What can I say? Life is not any easier (I still face many problems) but He has been a constant source of guidance, strength and happiness as well.

My friend – can I appeal to you…read just one book from the Bible. Just read the book of John, and you will know why I believe in God, and His love for us. Ask me questions if you want to. May God help me to answer you.

Love,
Michael

Ending a Business and Carrying on with My Life

Somewhere along life’s journey, you get to experience some events that will change your viewpoint of who you are and who you really mean to God.

I have always believed I have the charm and people skills to succeed in everything I do. How wrong I was! If it were not for the Lord’s blessings upon my life in my past two careers, I would not have met the people who mentored me and who gave me the support and chances to excel. If it were not for the Lord’s blessings upon the works of my hands, I would not be able to do half of what I was doing them.

Ten Talents Media was a personal disaster for me. I am a good teacher, but I needed people around me for me to sound off. I needed the security of a fixed salary in my life, without which I become quickly discouraged and fearful. I had none of them when I run Ten Talents Media. Not only that, but I made a mistake of not making back-up plans in case my primary market (my former pupils) failed – which was what exactly happened. But most important of all – I have not committed the running or the founding of the company to the Lord. I suspect that was my greatest failure in the company.

It was then with great pleasure that I welcomed Joe, Jean and Andrew, my good friends, into the company. They were the ones who landed a $10,000 contract for the company. They supported me when I was down (the collapse of the Private Investment Fund). I gladly handed over the company to them when I have to step down as Director due to my commitments in the Shanghai Singapore International School.

Some told me I was silly to hand over a company just like this. After all, was I not the founder of the company? Shouldn’t I have sold it for a certain amount of money? But I could not in honesty do so. What have I done to grow the company? Nothing. Joe, Jean and Andrew were the ones who really brought the company to where it is today. But I am glad that they allowed me to keep the rights to the Money!Money!Money! game I developed and to pay me licensing when they clinched contracts using the game. Where do you find such good companions? Surely it is a gift from God and I will ask for no more. There are some things in life that money just cannot buy.

May this article stir up something within you and bless you in your own search for God’s direction in your life. Remember to always commit everything you do to God. Never, never, trust in your own strength. Learn from the lesson of those who have gone before you,
that you may enjoy a happier life!