Douglas Foo, the founder of Sakae Sushi, a multiple award-winning sushi chain in Singapore, spoke to TOC about his journey to success in the business world, and laid out his vision towards policymaking, in anticipation of his appointment as one of the nine new Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), which will take place on Monday (1 Oct).
Mr Foo, who is also the founder and chairman of Sakae Holdings Ltd., a public listed company that owns Sakae Sushi, believes that in the era of “the new economy,” it is important for enterprises and the government to collaborate in coming up with solutions not only for the present, but also for the future.
He also emphasised the role of individuals, namely workers, in ensuring the robustness of this new economy, which is being done and will continue to be done through the upgrading of their professional and technical skills.
TOC: Considering the fact that you started Sakae Holdings from scratch, would it be right to describe you as a successful, self-made businessman who is currently looking to give back to society through your NMP post? Is there anything in particular that you would like the public to know about you?
DF: I think it has always been in me that I would like to serve … In fact, I have served on healthcare [boards], youth and grassroots organisations, intellectual property organisations, school boards.
Drawing on his upbringing and the origins of his entrepreneurship, Mr Foo said:
I grew up in a middle-income family, like many of us do – my dad’s an engineer, my mum’s a housewife. [During the era in which he grew up] Singapore was going through a phase of attracting multinational [companies’] investment” and “creating jobs for locals”.
Many of my friends are “lawyers, doctors, engineers” for the MNCs brought into the island … What I am doing is a bit “off the beaten path” compared to the rest of my contemporaries.
Having majored in Finance for his undergraduate degree in Business Administration at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, where he graduated with distinction in 1994, he said that he “was hoping to work in a bank” upon graduation, and that his venture into entrepreneurship “was by a stroke of luck.”
“I didn’t plan it that way,” added Mr Foo.
“You know how you can plan [your career path], but the job market cycle does not [necessarily] follow suit … So I grabbed a job with a company called Tokyu. I worked there for a year in the marketing department,” Mr Foo recalled.
He was, however, ready to undertake any tasks within the organisation.
“We learn … and along the way, we meet very good friends,” said Mr Foo, alluding to his friendships with his Japanese clients, which led him to an opportunity to start a garment manufacturing business with one of said clients. The business had set up its first factory in “a little village” in Gujarat, India, and Mr Foo had invested approximately $100,000 from his savings into the new business.
In a bid to diversify his business, he made a foray into the food and beverage industry through Sakae Sushi, which he envisioned to be “like the Starbucks of sushi” through its multiple conveyor-belt casual sushi joints targeted at the middle-class segment of Singapore society.
Citing his experience as a student at Dunman High School, which he described as “a Chinese culture school,” he credits the education he had received — through which “fundamental … values such as magnanimity, hard work, diligence,” as well as “honesty and integrity” were inculcated within him — as the cornerstone of his tenacity and discipline, other than his upbringing.
TOC: Given your busy schedule between Sakae Holdings, your family and other commitments, and on top of that, leading the Singapore Manufacturing Federation: Why have you decided to venture into the world of politics by taking up the appointment as an NMP? Can you also share about the process of being appointed, such as who appointed you, and how the idea take root with the people nominating you? How do you intend to manage or juggle these responsibilities?
DF: I was nominated by the Singapore Business Federation (SBF).
As the Vice-Chairman of SBF, as well as the Singapore National Employers’ Federation, on top of being the Singapore representative for the ASEAN Business Advisory Council, Mr Foo said that his experience in serving on multiple boards of organisations “seems to make sense” in relation to his upcoming role as NMP, adding that it has helped him to “connect the dots”.
This is where I feel like, “Okay, maybe this is the time where, with all of these learning experiences that I have, I could make some small impact in how some of the economic policies [are formed in the Parliament]” … especially in this disruptive, innovative world that we are facing today.
Mr Foo suggested: “I think you can’t … segment the economy versus the rest [of the other sectors], because the economy requires … talent, and the talents [available] is a function of how the education system is evolving”.
The entrepreneur added, in reference to the relationship between the workforce, enterprises, and the government: “We need to have a more agile workforce that is ever-ready to change. We need to have agile enterprises that are going to be future-ready to undertake new opportunities. And we need agile policymakers as well to be able to continue with [this] tripartite relations which have actually brought Singapore to where we are today.”
TOC: There has been lots of criticism regarding the actual role of the NMP, which is a position that is not elected by the people, but is instead nominated by the government. Do you think the position of NMPs is diluting the idea of democracy?
DF: I don’t think it is diluting the idea of democracy, because there are only 9 seats out of 99 [for NMPs], so it’s less than 10 per cent, right? How would that affect a democratic election, so to speak?
The NMPs … versus elected MPs, are not part of any [political] party, so they [we] can speak freely and put across everyone’s views, not just the individual MP’s particular constituency.
I think that as long as [one has] knowledge and passion in conveying certain points, there’s a platform to do that, and that actually brings about a more robust discussion …
At the end of the day, the policies, the Bills that have been discussed will eventually be implemented for the community, and it’s going to be much better than not having such views [from NMPs in the Parliament].
Business need to be innovative if they want to survive in the new economy
When asked about what he thinks are the underlying issues of Singapore’s relatively stagnant productivity rate, Mr Foo said productivity is linked with innovation. So when innovation is stagnant, productivity will be too.
“Productivity is about making incremental output using same resources. But in innovation, when you re-jig your whole business model, when you look at the supply chain and utilise those resources that you don’t have in a collaborative manner, you will be way ahead,” said Mr Foo in an interview with TOC.
Mr Foo noted that when cheap labour is readily available, companies are not driven to innovate simply because they can get things done cheap and fast. However, that model isn’t sustainable in the long term. Mr Foo added, “There’s always a tradeoff and there’s always a social cost. So that can only get you so far. But if you need to bring yourself to the next step, you need innovation.” When you only focus on offering the lowest prices, there’s always going to be some other company out there that will offer even lower prices. The one dimensional competition is not great overall for anyone.
Mr Foo feels that local companies need to start building their brands into something will be long lasting. Though intangible, brand awareness is something that will secure the sustainability of any company. Drawing on an example like Coca Cola which has become a global household name, Mr Foo feels that SMEs need to be able to harness the collaborative effort of the local network to build a company that will last in the long run.
Specifically on work levies and restrictions, Mr Foo pointed out that decisions on this should be made based on the future of individual industries. He says that if a company or industry can prove that they are able to evolve with the market and economy to stay relevant, then authorities are ready to listen and to help them make that transition into the future.
However, not every company will make it. “They need to find their foothold somehow in this new world. So that’s where the Trade Association Chambers have the ecosystem to go in and support them”.
Douglas Foo: Why take on the position of NMP if you are not highlighting issues?
TOC: This coming 1 Oct would be the date of appointment for the NMPs. As one of the new NMPs, what would be the first thing that you would like to bring out as an NMP? Any pet cause or issue that you champion that is somewhat current.
DF: The new economy. Getting everyone — individuals, enterprises, the entire nation — to first be aware, and to be ready for how things are going to come: Very fast, and very furious … All of us need to help one another move together with the big tidal wave.
TOC: All NMPs have 3-4 questions that they could raise in Parliamentary sessions. What would be the first question that you would ask?
DF: Depending on the Bills [being discussed], if there is something that I could contribute or points that I could put across, those are the areas that I could [raise in Parliament].
TOC: Is there anything undisclosed that you would like the Parliament to clarify?
DF: No, not at this moment, because I have been involved in the work of various agencies, so I have been privileged to see quite a lot of things that have been done [behind the scenes] and how decisions were made … [such as] how the policy will be refined so that it will be meaningful, at the end of the day, for the people who will be impacted [by the policies].
TOC: In the event that there is a difference in the stance taken by the government and yourself, would you highlight it openly in parliament?
DF: “I think that platform is there for us to put forth some of the views and some of the thinking behind how the future economy will be. So it is for sure that [it is] our responsibility to bring it to the platform. That is why we are there for. There is a certain impact that you are there for, because if not, why would you take on this position?”