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S’pore needs to break away from risk-averse culture

Yee Jenn Jong /

Picture from www.nonprofituniversityblog.com

SMU don, assistant professor Chung Wai Keung, is spot-on in his interview with the Straits Times on 6 April. (“Our risk-averse culture hinders social mobility”, Straits Times 6 Apr 2011). In it, Prof Chung pointed out that Singapore’s risk averse culture weighs down its social mobility because it discourages entrepreneurship, a crucial means by which the low-income can scale the social hierarchy. He stated that while the government encourages Singaporeans to take risks, the whole system discourages students from doing so. It becomes more rational for students to just find a job after leaving school.

I know, because I am a product of our system. I studied entirely in Singapore, from kindergarten to university, and continued onto postgraduate studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS) immediately after graduation. I was told to study hard from young and to do well academically. I did so obligingly. The only reason I did post-graduate studies was because I was conditioned to keep going as high as I can academically as it is a safe route to take. Midway through my PhD studies, I decided it was not what life should be, as least for me. I moved progressively to take more risks, going first into a statutory board, then as a professional manager for an entrepreneurial SME before initiating a technology start-up company.

In running a start-up in the highly competitive dotcom environment, I quickly realised that none of the academic qualifications I had mattered. To the customer, it was about whether we could deliver our products and services to them in a cost-effective manner and about customer service. It was a humbling experience to be questioned by customers if ours was yet another one of the many “me-too” dotcoms and by staff if the company had any potential at all. The experience taught me many things the books and even my MBA studies could not. We survived only because we responded constantly to customers’ needs and kept innovating.

The move eventually paid off when we grew the business to become a leader in its field and sold it off to a public-listed firm after 7 years of hard work. I did not regret my move in any way along the journey, even when there were times I nearly became poor or even bankrupt at some points in our fledging business. In various periods during the initial years, we had just enough to pay expenses for the current month. I am however, an exception amongst my peers who have moved on to good-paying safe careers.

We often hear Singapore is a small market. We make it even smaller because there are few opportunities to develop good start-ups. Government officials play it safe by preferring large companies for contracts, even when smaller companies can fulfil the requirements at a lower cost. We run GLCs so well that its leaves SMEs little space to develop. We suck the top talents up by tying them down with scholarships at a young age. We make things too safe in Singapore because we are afraid to fail. We label people who fail - in school, in work and in business. We teach students there is a right and a wrong way to do things. Hence they become progressively afraid to try unconventional ideas.

In this 21st century, we need to figure how to train students for job types that they will do 10-15 years later that do not now exist. We cannot use the same approach as we did when Singapore need only train good manpower for MNCs. We need to train creative people to take on the world. We need resilience in our people to dare to try, dare to fail and dare to rise up again if they fail.

Unfortunately, I feel we have missed the mark in our approach. We missed it in our education philosophy, we missed it in the way we develop our SMEs. We pay lips service to promoting entrepreneurship. In my letter to the Straits Times forum on 14 August 2010 (http://yeejj.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/st-forum-aug-14-2010-dont-tie-down-talent/), I suggested a few things for the Minister in charge of Entrepreneurship to consider. I like to suggest again the following:

  1. Cut down the number of bonded scholarships by government and statutory boards. Don’t tie down talents while they are young and do not continue to propagate this mindset that you need to get a scholarship to get into the elite circle  in order to succeed in life.
  2. Actively foster links between our tertiary institutions and overseas tertiary institutions known for churning up entrepreneurs. Immerse willing students in offshore programmes to develop them and to cultivate ties for the future.
  3. Have an active cultivation of innovation, entrepreneurship and risk-taking in primary and secondary students through schools’ curriculum and activities. Review the over-emphasis on academic achievements and re-evaluate how else we can educate students to have a balance of academic knowledge and life skills.
  4. Change the mindset of government officials to not play things safe and award contracts only to large companies if small companies can meet all the requirements at a lower cost. It can even be implemented such that GLCs and MNCs do not compete for contracts that are smaller than a certain size to allow SMEs the space to bloom.
  5. Review accessibility of funding to SMEs, both in tems of loans and access to venture funds.

Singapore needs to be bold, to think radically and to revamp itself to continue to stay competitive through innovation and enterprise in this 21st century.

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Jenn Jong has started various education businesses, the most notable of which is ASKnLearn, used by some 50% of schools in Singapore today for their e-learning needs. Since selling ASKnLearn, he has taken the plunge again by creating more start-ups and mentoring other start-ups. He believes that one must live life without regrets and we should all learn to take the plunge to do things passionately rather than regret later for not trying at all.

Jenn Jong also blogs at http://yeejj.wordpress.com