Mdm Chua Used to Earn $190/month. She Will Soon Retire to Travel the World
All photographs by Zachary Tang.

If there was ever a poster adult for active ageing, it would be Mdm Chua Ah Choo. She might even paint the poster herself. As long as you don’t ask her to draw birds.

In the HDB unit she shares with her husband, a slow breeze winds its way, as if constantly clearing any detritus accumulated by ageing. When she notices me admiring her collection of cerulean teapots, she says, “Look like antiques, right?”

I nod, thinking they must date back to the Qing dynasty, at least.

“No la, all new one. We bought them from Nanjing.”

Mdm Chua, 65, is a world traveller. She has been to over 20 countries and intends to explore more places when she and her husband retire fully.

“On our first trip [as retirees], I want to go as far as possible. Maybe the Niagara Falls in the U.S. Or go on a cruise, the one around North Canada. Can eat the very big crab,” she muses, “But it’s very expensive. Around 4000.”

Mdm Chua, however, can afford these trips because she has managed her finances prudently.

Since she started working as a self-employed insurance agent after leaving the civil service over two decades ago, Mdm Chua has been meticulously planning for her retirement. She wants to make sure that she has the means to accomplish everything she wants to do.

“I don’t understand why [people say] retire already, nothing to do … alamak!”

Cooking, qigong, singing, and painting are some activities on Mdm Chua’s long to-do list of retirement activities. Most of all, she is determined to paint the perfect bird.

“I used to paint bamboo, orchids, birds. But painting the bird’s eye is very difficult. [When I used to attend classes], my teacher always called my bird ben niao [stupid bird].”

Mdm Chua, 65, poster adult for active ageing.
Mdm Chua reveals that she is making full use of her CPF savings to finance these activities.

“I’m also doing investment: shares, bonds, but [these] are not so secure. Not guaranteed. So I invest in CPF. [And] after 55 they give … up to 6% interest.”

The attractive interest rates that her CPF savings can earn are what made Mdm Chua decide to delay her CPF payouts till age 69. 

In addition, the high rates have enticed her to make voluntary contributions from the time she retired from her full-time job more than 20 years ago, such that her savings hit the CPF Annual Limit each year (currently $37,740). She wants to make sure she earns the maximum amount of interest and that she is prepared for any emergency. 

But why did she choose to defer her monthly payouts when she could have opted to start receiving them at age 65? Furthermore, why is she holding off her payouts till 69 and not 70, the latest age to start receiving them? (If she did not indicate when she wants to start her payouts, they would be disbursed to her automatically when she is 70.)

Mdm Chua explains that the trade-off between not getting her monthly payout and the interest she earns from her savings will be optimised when she waits for precisely 4 years. 

“If I wait, will not lugi … will earn the 6%. And I requested the schedule of … the yearly increase. It’s a compounded interest. I worked out, best is 4 years [for my particular financial circumstances].” Besides, if she suddenly needs to access the money in her CPF, she “can withdraw [the savings above her Full Retirement Sum (FRS)] from her Special Account and Ordinary Account anytime. Very flexible.” 

If I am being completely honest, I don’t quite understand her mathematical manoeuvres or why the interest rates are optimised at age 69 for her and may not be so for others. Her confident calculations of percentages and compound interest trigger a slight panic attack in me induced by many a mathematics class in the past. 

But the picture Mdm Chua paints with her numbers is so attractive that I begin to understand the importance of adulting. I want to learn how to draw my very own ben niao too.

The 4-room HDB apartment that Mdm Chua shares with her husband is lovingly dotted with plants and curios from her travels.
As Mdm Chua doesn’t have to tap on her CPF savings for daily expenses, her CPF savings can serve as a contingency fund that doubles as capital for investment.  

This is not because Mdm Chua comes from a privileged socioeconomic background. She used to earn $190 a month when she started work in 1975 (which is equivalent to a monthly salary of $446.53 in 2018); in order to reduce her expenditure, she would bring her own lunch every day.

Even though her days of Tingkat meal-prep are over, Mdm Chua still dons her office suit and heads to work every day. Despite being 65—an age when many of her peers have already retired—she decided to stay in her job because she likes socialising with her colleagues and relishes the sense of being productive.

From a fresh-faced 19-year-old in 1975 to a fresh-faced 65-year-old in 2019 (her secret, she divulges, is the aloe vera plant she cultivates outside her house), Mdm Chua has been earning a steady income, and budgeting it carefully, for 46 years. 

The existence of her savings that she dutifully put aside through her decades of work, along with her monthly income from being a self-employed insurance agent, are why she is able to leave her CPF untouched.

Furthermore, “some of the expenses my husband pay [because] he still working full time, he earns more than me,” Mdm Chua chuckles.

In September, Mdm Chua will visit Kyoto with her husband. “He’s paying all,” she says happily.
The couple has no children either. 

While being childless allows the couple to devote more time and money to each other, it also means that when they enter their twilight years, they have no one to take care of them. 

“When I get older, like my mother—” 

Mdm Chua pauses to collect herself.

“My mother, 3 out of 6 daily living activities cannot do already. Lie down only.” (The 6 basic daily living activities include bathing, personal grooming, dressing, toilet hygiene, functional mobility, and self-feeding.) 

“My mother has children. We take care of her. I have no children. When I get older, if my husband goes away faster than me, then I’m alone. I’m 90-year-old, I sure go to old folks home one. … So the more [money in my CPF], the better la.” 

Mdm Chua is dispassionately pragmatic when she discusses this. Her voice betrays no emotion, except self-deprecating laughter. When I listen to her, however, the reality of needing a healthy retirement plan hit me, hard. 

“This type of thing, must plan. Everything must plan.” 

Mdm Chua then launched into insurance-agent speak: perhaps she could see from my face how ill-prepared and little I knew. Envy the folly of the youth who think they can outlive time. 

“According to [a] survey, after retire, the first 10 years, we spend more money. Because we can walk. We can enjoy our life. Go travelling, good food, shopping with friends or whatever. Then, the next 10 years, we spend less. Because we no strength to walk already. Tired already. Headache. This one that one ache. Medicine take a lot. Spend less. Only medicine. Last 10 years we spend more. We need a maid, need this, need that. Maybe go old folks home.”

Mdm Chua currently takes care of the household chores herself. But she is worried that she will no longer be able to in the future.
Although the initial decade of her retirement might seem like an idyllic stretch of utopia, for Mdm Chua, managing her finances well is not just about travelling to Canada or taking art classes. It’s also preserving her dignity when she is old and has survived all her loved ones.

Before that, however, she wants to enjoy her life with her husband first. 

“In the future, I also want to go to North Korea. Expensive also. But rare la.”

As I prepare to leave her apartment, I spot, atop her display cabinet, a plate with the portrait of a stern but dashing Chinese man.

“This is Zhou Enlai. There was Mao Zedong also. But very windy. The wind broke Mao Zedong’s portrait.”

With the security of her CPF and personal savings, I know that Mdm Chua is more resilient than Mao Zedong. The wind can’t break her; it’ll only billow her sails, propelling her into lands yet unexplored.

This article is sponsored by CPF.

How do you intend to spend your retirement? Do you want to join me in painting ben niaos? Let’s get together at  

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