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Towards A More Entrepreneurial Singapore

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Singapore has come a long way from ­being a labour-abundant and ­capital-scarce struggling economy to a ­labour-scarce and capital-abundant ­country. The country now needs to ­advance to the next stage of innovation and ­creativity to remain competitive.

It has been conceded that a dire need exists for building a class of entrepreneurs who will take the national economy to greater heights. This must mainly be done by the private sector but the government must ensure that a climate for innovation, creativity, and risk-taking exists.

A decade ago, the Singapore ­government openly admitted that ­entrepreneurial spirit was lacking in its general population. Lee Kuan Yew told the Institutional Investor in an interview that ‘there is a dearth of entrepreneurial talent among Singapore’s four million people.’ What Singapore must do, therefore, said the former Prime Minister, is overcome this anti-entrepreneurial ethos by promoting ‘little Bohemias,’ informal enclaves where the typical Singapore order gives way to creative chaos so as to generate ­innovation, stimulate entrepreneurship and ultimately spawn the kind of foment seen during the stages of early Silicon Valley.

This weakness is also reflected in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) ­report. In its first study (circa 2000) on the level of entrepreneurial activities, ­Singapore has been found to rank ­relatively low in comparison with the other countries. Singapore was ranked 17 out of 21 on the total entrepreneurial activity ­index.

Shortage Of Entrepreneurs
In his National Day speech in 2002, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong ­commented that the shortage of entrepreneurs is due to the rigid, structured education system stifling creativity and risk-taking. He ­noted that studies in the United States have shown that entrepreneurship is closely related with the level of cultural vibrancy. Studies have also shown that the arts can help individuals to become more creative in areas beyond the arts.

Singapore’s education system was originally geared to meeting the ­labour and skill requirement needs of ­multinational corporations. Students were streamed into various courses of study at an early age. Educational pathways were stratified according to ability and ­aptitude. The ­government’s contention is that streaming prevents waste by reducing the drop-out rate.

The merits of our education system are evident with our large number of honour roll graduates in institutions ­worldwide and our numerous achievements in ­international Olympiads. However there is an inherent issue in our ability to ­translate our academic prowess to results in the applied fields. In one Newsweek article, it pointed that Singapore students top global science and maths rankings regularly but they do not become world beaters 10 or 20 years later. Singapore has produced few scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, businessmen who are truly top-ranked in the world. In contrast, American kids, who test much worse in the fourth and eighth grades seem to do better later in life and in the real world.

It is now felt that early streaming ­deprives students of a broader education and stifles creativity. The creation and promotion of a scholar-led bureaucracy means that the best and the brightest are ­recruited to enter the government. Hence the private sector is deprived of talented entrepreneurs.

Some of the roots of this problem may be entrenched in our culture. ­Singaporeans have taken the government’s efficiency for granted and rely on the government to do many things for them. The local ‘­kiasu’ culture is not helping either, creating a social dogma that considers failure as an ­embarrassment. In other countries, failure is more acceptable as it is considered a ­process of learning.

Former Minister Raymond Lim, contrasted Singaporeans with Taiwanese: ‘People say that if you are a chap working for a multinational company in Singapore and you leave to start up your own company, your friends will ask you, “What went wrong? Why are you doing this?” In Taiwan if you start a career in an MNC and after a certain time you are still there, your friends ask you, “What’s wrong? Why are you still there?” ’

When Koh Boon Hwee was ­chairman of Singapore Airlines, he was asked why ­Singaporeans were not more ­entrepreneurial. He responded, ‘In ­Singapore, the ­problem is people aren’t hungry.’ China, like Singapore, has a ­Confucian culture but entrepreneurs thrive there. ‘The people are hungry,’ he said.

A New Paradigm
The Singapore Government has launched the Technopreneurship 21 ­programme to foster entrepreneurship in a variety of ways.  One aspect of the ­programme is to inject a greater ­emphasis on entrepreneurship into the education system to encourage creativity, risk-taking and a spirit of lifelong ­learning. Another ­aspect is to make it easier for new ­enterprises to obtain start-up ­funding through a US$1 billion venture fund to ­support local ­entrepreneurs or to fund ­foreign ­entrepreneurs attracted to ­Singapore.

Other schemes includes micro loan schemes and letting ­technology ­entrepreneurs use their residential ­premises as home offices and hence ­reduce costs significantly. Awards also came into the scene. One Phoenix Award recognises entrepreneurs who have failed previously and then found success. It hopes to change public perceptions of business failure and is designed to ­encourage more ­entrepreneurs to take necessary risks and persevere in achieving their goals despite setbacks.

MP Indejit Singh, who started ­several ­businesses said, ‘In the past, if you were not a multinational, you were a local company.  You’d face tremendous ­problems, even if you were a ­Member of ­Parliament trying to start a ­company. In fact, most of the ­government ­agencies were not receptive, not very helpful at that time. Today, I think that has mainly changed.’

Mavericks Wanted
A review committee ­reported that, ‘Singapore’s education formula needs to move from uniformity to diversity, from rigidity to flexibility, from conformity to resilience, and from molding to ­empowering’ It is important that instead of just raw grades, schools are fostering creativity and ­innovativeness. The focus at all levels will now be to nurture flexible mindsets, shift emphasis from teacher to learner, and move from being a productive society to a creative and risk-taking society.

Government initiatives have moved into schools with schemes like Young Entrepreneurs Scheme for Schools and Young Entrepreneurs Scheme for Startups. The ­objective is to create a more effective learning process and convert more aspiring youths to become innovative entrepreneurs. Participants as young as nine-year-olds are involved.

Lee Kuan Yew once said that for a ­society ‘to make the big leap forward, you need your mavericks, your geniuses, your people who can think outside the box,’ something he didn’t realise the ­importance of when he was building Singapore. Mavericks inherently possess, as the Minister described, a ‘culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom.’

Even in the selection of scholars, companies are gradually expanding the criteria they are looking for. Previously they would look for good grades, ­active CCAs and leadership qualities, now they are accepting mavericks and people with interests that they pursue passionately, even if these interests are not quite ­relevant to the employers.

It has been said that scholars who do well would find it extremely hard after six years to move out of their comfort zone into the risky world of ­entrepreneurship. However, it is ­possible for scholarship providers to work with their scholars towards a more ­entrepreneurial environment. Companies could engage more personally with their scholars and other staff to explore new businesses. They could invest in their start-up ideas. Some R&D projects led by scholars could be released back to them for commercialisation, not as an employer but as a partner.

It is commonplace in ­companies to have some workers who are ­unconventional and who don’t like to ­follow the rules. These ­opinionated people always irk their superiors. They constantly offer their two-cents about how things should be done yet at ­meetings they always look bored. These are traits of people who are the likely ­entrepreneurs, whom given the ­opportunity and interest will slouch day and night to nurture a seed into a plant, an idea into a stream of revenue. What usually happens, even in companies that claim that staff are their most important resource, is that the ­potential of these irksome people remains untapped and they are not given the opportunities to help the company takes some risks to branch into a new arena.

The benefits of promoting ­entrepreneurship are not limited to more start-ups, innovative ventures, new jobs created and more profits. ­Entrepreneurship is a key competence for all, helping people to be more ­creative and self-confident in whatever they undertake and challenging them to be always learning and catching up with the latest ­developments.