Education minister Mr Heng Swee Keat pointed out yesterday that our Singaporean workers lack drive and the confidence to venture out of their comfort zone.
These are the very qualities that chief executives and entrepreneurs singled out to him as being essential to succeed in the competitive global playing field (ST 1 Feb).
I am not surprised that Singaporeans will not venture out very far away from being a worker due to our single-tracked path of using education as the only way to achieving success in life.
Not many are confident or driven enough to go through the mill of being an entrepreneur – someone who has a dream and want to fulfill it at all cost.
Its not about the money even but more of a passionate drive to want to do something different and fulfilling.
Personally, I feel that you can’t really teach a person to be entreprenurial by simply attending some workshops or seminars. The overall business environment, natural push factors and more importantly the person’s personality are all crucial elements that determine whether the person will succeed as a entrepreneur or not.
I was heartened to meet a 26-year-old lady recently who has set up a event business with two other employees. She was confident, articulate and positive and I thought that she will go far as she believes in delayed gratification.
“I don’t have a salary now,” she confided in me over dinner at Hougang Mall foodcourt. “All I got is just an allowance to help me tide over the next few months.”
With all sorts of incentive to help budding entrepreneurs such as tax-free holidays for 2 years and a up-beat business environment, it is still a puzzle why Singaporeans do not take to the entrepreneurial route as readily as our foreign businessmen here. The pot of gold is there but yet our people want to walk away.
Someone told me the other day how one China young lady set up a clothing shop at Bugis Village paying almost $5000/month rental. In less than 3 years, she has set up three more shops and is earning a healthy $20, 000-a-month profit after minusing all her cost.
She will buy cheap fanciful clothings from Shenzhen paying $3 a piece as she bought them cheap in bulk and retail them at $40 a pece at her shops. Once bargained down to $30, she will let the customer has it.
Are foreigners hungrier than Singaporeans? Apparently so…
While working in China, I saw many one-man entrepreneurs setting up shops in dirty back lanes dealing with all kinds of businesses that can earn money. Some deal with photostating stuff whereas others simply sell IPhone covers.
They do not really have huge ambitions to be the next Apple or Facebook inventor but they all manage to survive and outperform those who found work in the government or private sector. More importantly, they are happy and free to manage their business and life the way they want it to be.
I have listed seven reasons why Singaporeans will not easily succeed as an entrepreneur:-
1. Over focusing on educational achievement
We have all along over focus on our educational chievement so much so that we end up feeling like a failure if we don’t go to universities or simply not academically inclined. Moreover, having a degree normally means that the person will go on to look for a well-paying job or else the money spends on the tiertiary programme will be deemed as gone to waste.
That is probably why many non-graduate Singaporeans end up taking expensive evening classes or study overseas to stay on par with the average graduate Singaporeans.
More importantly, non-graduates will feel that they have under perform and even belittled their other natural skills – rendering them to be negative in their outlook of life. Their confidence level is at its lowest ebb and even if he has the aptitude for risk taking, his negative tone and slack body langauge will give him away.
We all knew how great entrepreneuers like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs do not possess any college degrees but yet their lack of formal education does not deny them to become one of the world’s best inventors in the 21st century.
In fact, some friends mentioned that if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs managed to attain their degrees the conventional way, they may lose their hunger for invention and aptitude for risk. It was fortunate that they followed after their dream and pursued after them doggedly – despite some initial personal setbacks.
Moreover, studying hard ususally uses more of the left brain which emphasizes analytical thinking and rules whereas the rarely-used right brain taxes more of the intuition and free association – traits of the entrepreneur.
After studying 15 years non-stop, the left brain of the Singaporean is being heavily over-used thus rendering the person to be compliant and very organised – traits that are anti-entrepreneurial.
Though having a degree is beneficial for one’s career path, the over-emphasis on getting a degree just to enhance one’s employability does not encourage the person to be adventurous and driven.
He merely becomes an educated component of the overall workforce and became a slave of his limited abilities.
2. Low-risk safe environment
When I went to the playground with my daughter many years ago and she was still little, I was amazed at how mums and maids would follow their tiny toddlers around to ensure that they won’t fall.
Little kids already learn how, from young, to avoid taking risks and lost the sense of adventure when mums told them not to do this or go there. They learn from young that taking risks or failing is bad for the health.
The current pampering risk-averse parental skills used on our children will not help us to raise confident bright kids.
They may be book smart but not necessarily streetmark and driven in life. They may even study hard just to please their parents and not doing it because they wanted to do it for themselves.
Successful entrepreneurs tend to day dream alot and have vast amount of space to explore their natural interests. We may not have provided that kind of care-free environment early in life for our kids.
The risk-averse conditioning here continues when we enter national service as stepping out of line means the guardroom or severe punishment.
I am not advocating that our soldiers go against the order of their officers here but frankly the two-year national service stint does not help our guys to be more adventurous and risk-taking.
In fact, it has further pushed us to toe the line more and forced us to follow the crowd – as doing so otherwise will bring forth adverse consequences.
We are being raised in a low-risk safe environment that habitually prevents people from experimenting with ideas for fear that it will jeopardise our comfort zone.
It is for this reason that many PMETs are willing to take on low-waged comfortable jobs such as $1800/month than go on to risk at an entrepreneurial idea.
We rather have on hand three square meals a day holding on to an ordinary job than having a meal a day while out experimenting with a business idea.
3. Lack of acceptance for failure
Our meritocratic philiosophy here also discourages failure.
Many young people I know feel ike a sore loser when they failed at their exams or do not score enough As.
Most businesses unfortunately do not succeed at the first instance.
I have friends who dared to take the first plunge into starting their own businesses but too often chickened back to working when their businesses failed after testing it out for a few months. The appetite for risk taking is really pathetically low.
We all know how businesses normally require a few tries before they become successful. Each failure by itself is a lesson learnt and after a few failures, the entrepreneur who persisted doggedly will have his taste of success.
The fear of failure plus a lack of dogged persistence are the major reasons why Singaporeans do not have alot of successful entrepreneurs.
Moreover, too often a nagging wife – who is very risk-adverse – will be the first one to mock at the failure of their loved one – effectively rubbing salt on to the painful wound of a crushed ego.
Monthly mortgage repayment plus many other bills that need a steady stream of income are further deterrances.
That is probably why married mid-aged PMETs are the worse kind of entrepreneurs as they are beseiged with all kinds of financial repayment schemes that requires a regular steady stream of income.
Perhaps, more can be done to encourage our young graduates – who have yet to marry or purchase a tied-down house, to be entrepreneurial.
Spring Singapore has a scheme that provides a startup fund of $50, 000 to budding entrepreneurs age below 26 years old. Interested eligible Singaporeans can check out the website for more details.
4. Peer pressure
There is also simply too much peer pressure on our young graduates to look for a job after graduation.
The relatively high income – especially those hailing from the banking sector, deters many from venturing out into the unknown world of entreprenuers whereby only the best top 10% succeeds.
Many new startups are also initially tight in cash flow and entrepreneurs take home only a small allowance every month as it will requires at least a year or two for the businesses to be profitable.
In instant-result Singapore, waiting for a few years for ventures to pay off is simply not in our psychological psyche anymore – at least not for the young impatient graduates.
We want fast cash and instant rewards -a trend that is increasingly seen in a fast-packed society that does not thrive on delayed gratification.
When we invest in a business venture, its more like the stock market mentality – one that allows the investor to lock in profits at the end of the day than holding it for the long term.
With such an intense instant-result business environment, many budding entrepreneurs rather take on a $5000-a-month salaried job in the banks than sweat it out as a risky entrepreneur with no guarantee of any successful return.
Moreover, it is tough to see all your friends driving and earning a fat income and you as an entrepreneur drawing a pittance because you want to explore a dream.
5. Government-linked companies and government involvement
Local small and medium enterprises have all along lamented that our country has interfered too much in the business environment here by setting up like-minded companies to compete with small local companies.
For example, NTUC Learning Hub was set up a few years ago when WDA was dispensing millions of dollars in training aids to prepare the retrenched PMETs for skills upgrading during the recent global financial crisis.
Together with two other private training agencies, they dominated the training arena snatching a large slice of the upgrading pie worth hundreds of millions – leaving the scrimps for the two smaller training centres.
NTUC Childcare centre has also entered the childcare business and has since emerged as the major player for childcaring business.
NTUC Fairprice has also dominated the supermarket food retail business here for the past two decades - leaving out other private supermarkets in the cold.
With the government actively getting involved in the money-making business environment, small and medium enterprises have no choice but to compete on providing better services or at cheaper prices to the consumers.
It is no wonder that many Singaporeans think twice when they enter the small business environment here as they have to compete with the big boys plus the government for a slice of the pie.
It is hope that the government will rethink it’s policy of snatching away whatever profitable business available by being a competitor.
If we want Singaporeans to be entrepreneurial, we must ensure that there is sufficient business for profit-making or else people will simply go back to being a worker. The sacrifices and return must be worth it.
6. Lack of successful entrepreneur model
When people think of successful entrepreneurs here, they can only think of one person – Mr Sim of Creative Technology.
Of late, the company is also very quiet and has yet to come up with any world-grabbing technological gadget.
There isn’t any solid local business that has managed to impress and motivate others to follow their footpath.
Some have mentioned the Adamn Khoo’s enrichment group or the BreadTalk bakery food chain but these local businesses have yet to really take the world by storm even though locally they are very successful business models.
In Japan, car manufacturers such as Honda, Toyota and Suzuki have chalked up impressive credentials abroad and can be counted as international brand names.
In Korea, Kia and Samsung are two of the largest household names that have managed to penetrate to almost all of the countries worldwide.
In Taiwan, Acer computer has managed to make its presence known by conquering the PC retail market worldwide.
Of course, the Americans – well known for being leaders in the area of entrepreneurship, have global brand names such as Facebook, Apple and Microsoft as their international flagships.
The Americans have a solid culture of adventurous risk-taking and it starts from the day they entered school to when they have graduated. Children are taught to ask questions and debate on theories in schools when they grow older.
Though they may lag behind in exam scores for Maths and Science during international competitions, they surge well ahead in thinking skills and verbal communication.
Most of them have to stay away from their families due to the long distance from their campuses and this personal element cultivates strong individualism and most importantly self confidence in surviving alone.
The entrepreneur very often has to tackle multi-faceted work issues alone and if he is not steady and self confident enough, he may throw in the towel readily.
Most Americans of above average intelligence also tend to head large corporations because they could lead and communicate their ideas effectively compared to Asians with better exam results. Their self confidence and ability to think on their feet tend to qualify them for key positions in companies.
Asians are not as good when it comes to articulating their thoughts – perhaps due to our classroom conditioning of accepting whatever our teachers tell us in schools. It is also seen as impolite to always question your teachers openly.
I did that quite often when I was studying and was told by my teachers to only ask questions when classes ended. The same thing happened when I questioned my bosses frequently at work and was branded as a trouble maker and very negative.
I became very Singaporeans later on as I realised that speaking out – especially in meetings, tend to embarass your bosses and they disliked it immensely.
7. Lack of adaptability
When I was working in China for a private school few years ago, I was shocked to hear that the school has tried out many different lecturers every year as most local lecturers could not withstand the harsh winter cold and warm summer conditions there.
A lecturer who travelled with me to Hubei left the position after two months as he too could not adapt to the harsh winter environment over there. We had three weeks of non-stop snowing and I didn’t blame him for quitting after the long lunar new year break.
Strong adaptability and the ability to withstand hardships are two of the most crucial elements for an entrepreneur to be successful.
The teaching experience has allowed me to build on my regional exposure and opened up a few other opportunities later on in China. More importantly, it showed me that if I could survive sub zero wintry conditions and lived all alone by myself in a dark freezy apartment - I could have survive anywhere in the world.
My self confidence level shot up a few notches after that teaching assignment and my adaptability curve also improved alot as I could boast that I survived in a foreign environment of a harsh culture.
A year after that trip, I set up transitioning.org as a registered society specialising in providing emotional coaching support to those who needed it. I also volunteered full time for the society without any viable income and this is my fourth year doing it.
I really doubted I would set up the voluntary organisation if I have not first took that plunge into the unknown by leaving my comfort zone here for work abroad.
For budding entrepreneurs, it may be wise to first work for a stint abroad to cement the emotional resilience before plunging head-on into a business venture. if you can’t survive properly working abroad, it is really tough having to rough it out as an entrepreneur.
As Singaporeans battle for jobs with our foreign talents here, it may be really wise for them to start thinking of doing something that they like on their own.
Too many mid-aged PMETs have became cabbies and property agents during the past few years and it is prudent for our Generation X to start experimenting on a few ideas during their free time in case they become victims of the forthcoming global financial crisis.
Written by: Gilbert Goh