Tag Archives: wealth

The Numerology about Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

In the aftermath of the death of Singapore’s founding father, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015), a number of numerological tidbits (or numerical curiosities, to put it mildly) floated on social media, which got a number of apparently self-professed innumerates pretty excited. Here are three such postings that I saw in my Facebook feed and on WhatsApp.

RIP: Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015)

A numerological message that was circulated among WhatsApp users in Singapore
(© Unknown)—A numerological message that was shared among Singapore WhatsApp users

The WhatsApp message gives the impression that it was the works of some “pseudo-mathematician,” but it could very well have been the digital footprints of a “mathematical crank” or an amateur-numerologist, who wanted to tickle mathophobics with such numerical coincidences.

Did Singapore’s numerologists (or pseudo-mathematicians) fail to point out some of the following numerological absurdities?

The digital root of Mr. Lee’s birth year is 1 + 9 + 2 + 3 = 15, which stands for the last two digits of the year he experienced his last heartbeat.

The pollution index for that week was in an unhealthy range, and the average PSI for the six-day mourning period was about 91.

Or, were there exactly 91 priests on vigil at an undisclosed Roman Catholic Church, who were interceding for Mr. Lee to ensure that his heavenly destination is 100% secured, although his manifold deeds to the nation inarguably exceeds the number of his political faux pas, especially vis-à-vis his political enemies or opponents?

Or, did 91 senior monks and nuns (or did I mistake them for disciples of Shintoism?) resort to “synchronized chanting” to ensure that the highest level of enlightenment be bestowed on the late Mr. Lee, who might be reincarnated as a future Buddha for his numerous selfish deeds towards his oft-ungrateful and unappreciative fellow citizens?

And did any police personnel verify whether there were 91,000 odd mourners in black attire on that Black Sunday, not to say, 91 VIPs or Heads of States who attended the eulogy, depending on one’s definition of a VIP?


The Numerology of the Old Guard

One Facebook numerological factoid that circulated in the first post-LKY week was the following:

Singapore’s political fathers who outlived the biblical three-scores-and-ten lifespan

At face value, these nonagenarians had their blessed lives prolonged up to “four scores and ten and one” years. Sounds like their good earthly or political deeds were good karma for their longetivity? Are they the recipients of the following success equation?

Sacrifice + Service + Incorruptibility + Risk  = Political Success + Longevity

Observe that simply taking the difference between the birth year and the death year of Mr. S Rajaratnam suggests that he died at the age of 91; however, if we look closely at the month dates (Feb. 25, 1915 – Feb. 22, 2006), he was still 90 years old, when he passed away. The same argument goes for Dr. Toh Chin Chye (Dec. 10, 1921 – Feb. 3, 2012), who wasn’t yet 91, when he died. So, always take the pseudoscience of numerology with a grain of salt. As with fengshui charlatans, a degree of skepticism towards numerologists of all sizes and shapes isn’t an option—wear your critical-thinking cap when meeting, or reading about, these paranormal folks!


Fortune via Misfortune—From 4D to 5C

(© Unknown) Punters used combinations of the digits related to Mr. Lee death date to lure Lady Luck.

To rational non-punters or non-gamblers, betting on someone’s death date, whether he or she was poor or rich on this side of eternity, seems like an extreme case of bad taste,  or simply showing zero respect for the deceased and their family members. However, in superstitious circles, that practice isn’t uncommon among mathematically challenged or superstitious punters, who think that bad luck paranormally translates into good omen, if they bet on the digits derived from the death date or age of a recently deceased person.

In fact, during the nation’s six-day mourning period for its founder, besides the long queues of those who wanted to pay their last respects to Mr. Lee at the Parliament House, another common sight islandwide were meters-long lines of 4D or TOTO punters, who wanted to cash in on the “lucky digits” to retire prematurely, hoping to lay hold of the traditional 5Cs (cash, car, condo, credit cardcountry club), coveted by hundreds of thousands of materialistic Singaporeans.


Number Theory over Numerology

Fengshui in the Gym
(© BBC) Chinese numerology in the gym? Or, is it just a mild form of deification of a political figure?

Instead of promoting a numerological or pseudoscientific gospel based on Mr. Kuan Yew’s death date or age, which only helps to propagate superstition and pseudoscience, perhaps a “mathematically healthy” exercise would be to leverage on the D-day to teach our students and their parents some basic numerical properties—for example, conducting a recreational math session on “Number Theory 101” for secondary  1–4 (or grades 7–10) students might prove more meaningful or fruitful than dabbling in some numerological prestidigitation, or unhealthy divination.

A Search for Patterns

91  is the product of two primes: 91 = 7 × 13

91 = 1² + 2² + 3² + 4² + 5² + 6²

91 is also the sum of three squares: 1² + 3² + 9²

Are there other ways of writing the number 91 as a sum of squares?

91 = 33 + 43


Non-Numerological Questions to Promote Problem-Solving Skills

Let’s look at an “inauspicious number” of elementary- and middle-school (primary 5–secondary 4) math questions, which could help promote numeracy rather than numerology among students and teachers.

1. Sum of Integers

Show that the number 91 may be represented as the sum of consecutive whole numbers. In how many ways can this be done?

2. The Recurring Decimal

What fraction represents the recurring decimal 0.919191…?

3. Palindromic in Base n

For what base(s) will the decimal number 91 be a palindromic number (a number that reads the same when its digits are reversed)? For example, 91 = 101013.

4. The Billion Heartbeat

Does a 91-year-lifespan last less or more than a billion heartbeats?

5. Day of the Week

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew (September 16, 1923–March 23, 2015) died on a Monday. Using the 28-year cycle of the Gregorian calendar, which day of the week was he born?

6. One Equation, Two Variables

If x and y are integers, how many solutions does the equation x² – y² = 91 have?

7. Singapore’s New Orchid

A new orchid—Singapore’s national flower—had been named after Mr. Lee: Aranda Lee Kuan YewUsing the code A = x, B = x + 1, C = x + 2, …, , does there exist an integer x such that ARANDA sums up to 91? In other words, does there exist a numerological system such that  A + R + A + N + D + A = 91?

8. Singapore’s Coin Goes Octal

Singapore's "lucky" octagonal one-dollar coin
The alleged involvement of Mr. Lee in Singapore’s “lucky” octagonal one-dollar coin

There is an apocryphal story that had circulated for many years linking Mr. Lee Kuan Yew with Singapore’s octagonal one-dollar coin. A high-ranking monk had apparently told Mr. Lee that Singapore’s fortune would continue to rise only if Singaporeans were to carry a bagua—the eight-sided fengshui symbol. That prediction allegedly prompted the Monetary Authority of Singapore to issue the octagonal shape of the nation’s one-dollar coin.

That rumor was later put to rest by no other than self-declared agnostic Mr. Lee himself in one of his books, Hard Truths. He remarked that he had zero faith in horoscopes, much less the pseudoscience of fengshui.

What is the sum of the interior angles of the Singapore’s eight-sided coin?

9. Show that the largest number k for which the decimal expansion of 2k does not contain the digit 1 is 91.

© Yan Kow Cheong, April 26, 2015.

Resurrection isn't an option in Singapore!
Resurrection isn’t an option in Singapore!

Selected Answers/Hints

1. One example is 91 = 1 + 2 + 3 +⋯+ 13.
2. 91/99.
5. Mr. Lee was born on a Sunday.
6. Hint: Show that x² – y² = 91 has 8 integer solutions.
9. Hint: Use a computer to verify the result.

Singapore math authors-millionaires


Mr. Chow’s new revised grade 7 textbook—a US edition is also available, which competes with an equivalent title in the “Math in Focus” series.

It’s an open secret that two of the well-paid math authors in Singapore are Dr. Fong Ho Kheong and Mr. Chow Wai Keung—two non-Singaporeans who have made it to the Millionaire Dollar Club. Also on the Forbes’ Singapore Math List are local folks like Dr. Y. H. Leong, Andrew Er, Fabian Ng, and Lee-Ann Goh, albeit their names are most likely alien to those outside Singapore.

Obscure writing, obscene royalties

A talking point in the local mathematical community is that both millionaires-authors “can’t write”—their titles are notoriously heavily edited or ghostwritten by editors. For instance, there is a decade-long local joke that over a hundred editors have their “editorial footprints” on Dr. Fong’s dozen odd titles.

Form or substance

As for Mr. Victor Chow, his critics remarked that his series of no-frills Discovering Maths titles—apparently a canned version of his ill-written books, which have been poorly received in Hong Kong—is ironically (or miraculously?) doing pretty well in Singapore, in spite of the fact that the competitors’ authors have been household names in math education for decades—many of whom are still teaching teachers.

Many attributed the decent or successful adoption of the Discovering Mathematics series in local schools, primarily because of better sales and marketing strategies by the publisher, as compared to those used by its competitors—form has allegedly triumphed over substance, thanks to lateral (and often shady) marketing.

Interestingly, that many in academia and in local publishing circles subscribe to the above views or rumors, whether because they’re jealous and envious of their “obscene” royalties, is understandable. Apparently, they rationalized that Dr. Fong’s and Mr. Chow’s “below-average writing skills” didn’t match their deserved earnings.


Dr. Fong co-authored latest grade 1 textbook, based on the new Singapore syllabus.

A mix of jealousy and envy and …

Having had the opportunity to speak with some of Dr. Fong’s ex-colleagues, and those who know him personally, it sounds to me that jealousy and envy feature high in discrediting him for “earning so much,” as they feel that they “can lecture better” and “have written more quality research papers” than him.

The argument is that writing textbooks (even successful ones) are for second-rate math educators and mathematicians—unspokenly, first-rate math folks write papers and speak at conferences; second- and third-rate folks write textbooks, or become consultants of these textbooks.

What is seldom talked about is that a number of these so-called seasoned lecturers feel marginalized or “blacklisted” by local publishers for not approaching them—many are still waiting for publishers to line up outside their offices to beg them to write for them. As a result, it’s not surprising that a number of them condescendingly blame local publishers and editors for choosing second-rate writers to author the school textbooks.

Dr. Fong—Singapore’s math popularizer

What we seldom hear, though, is that albeit Dr. Fong might arguably be a “boring presenter or lecturer,” as remarked by his critics, he nevertheless had the guts to promote his books in public, unlike his fellow ex-colleagues who think that it’s a “degrading job” to become a salesperson in promoting their titles at math conferences. Today, who’s having the last laugh to the bank?

In fact, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that other than Fabian Ng and one or two ghostwriters, it’s Dr. Fong who helped popularize the Singapore model method and the problem-solving strategies locally, through his supplementary math books and public talks in the nineties, written for both students and parents. Yes, long before the Andrew Er’s and Yeap Ban Har’s books were spotted in the local market.


An assessment title of yesteryear—a forerunner of Dr. Fong & Company’s titles.

When risky wasn’t the new safe yet

At the other end of the wealth distribution curve, we’ve dozens of local math writers who wouldn’t dare to being a full-time author, simply because they’re more likely to end up begging than earning enough royalty to pay their bills. Unless you’re a shrewd textbook author-entrepreneur like Dr. Fong, the rest of us write more for our egos than expect any financial rewards, albeit few would admit it.

Negative royalties

I’ve also heard of local math authors who had earned “negative royalties,” which means they owed the publisher instead—they had sold zero copies, and dozens of free copies were given, as part of some book promotion or launch.

Math can make you rich!

Dr. Fong and Mr. Chow both show that you needn’t be the best writer in town, not even a decent one, but if you work hard and smart, and ignore your critics; and if you’ve faith that your publisher has a good sales and marketing strategy, it’s possible to make a decent living in math education.

And what’s even more amazing is that both are foreign-born writers, who have seized the opportunity to make it big in Singapore, when the majority, some of whom are no doubt smarter and better than them, have let their intellectual or mathematical pride and arrogance prevent them from contributing more to raising the standard of mathematics education in Singapore.

© Yan Kow Cheong, June 30, 2013.

Postscript: The author (@Zero_Math and @MathPlus) is a self-professed zeronaire, who is “infinitely jealous and envious” of these authors-millionaires, who have shown us that with hard work (and some luck by the side) “one can get rich with math,” infinitesimal as the chances may be.