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Wednesday January 16th 2019

Seven reasons why Singaporeans are not entrepreneurial enough

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 Рrendering 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 Рdespite 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 Рtraits  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 Рtraits 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 Рwho is very risk-adverse Р will be the first one to mock at the failure of their loved one Рeffectively 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 Рat 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 Рone 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 РMr 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 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


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25 Responses to “Seven reasons why Singaporeans are not entrepreneurial enough”

  1. Prem Kumar says:

    Government should stay out of the business world and concentrate on their job of listening to the ground. They have lost focus and now the public have to pay the price of their flaws.

    The problem with our education system is create mind numbing rote system and boast about the world class education system. Such is system is favour foreign students which is why you see most top students are foreigners not Singaporeans.

    Entrepreneurship spirit don’t come from textbooks. I don’t understand why algebra is so much emphasized in primary schools where kids are cracking their head to solve some lame xyz equation. This xyz equation will only create fear in them that if they don’t solve it, they will deem to be a failure. Such fear are already instilled at a very young age, what more when they grow up. 95% of the population are learning factory education whereas the top 5% are so called bright student who are good in memory skills however when it comes to problem-solving, they failed miserably. These 5% are the ones who ended up in top positions in civil service.

  2. admin says:

    Hi Prem

    Maybe our country produces too many jobs all along until people just take a job when they graduate but these days we have to compete hard for work with foreign talents.
    Hopefully, such competition will make us more hungry and entrepreneurial.

    If not, I see many of us driving cabs or become property agents.


  3. Prem Kumar says:

    Too many jobs are created by GLCs with a pay package too good to resist. The mindset for a graduate is to get whatever job, with no sense of direction. In today’s world, most businesses made a paradigm shift due to current technology via social media. Employers are looking for a knowledge-base employee rather than good employee who comes to office early and leave late after the boss has left. That is not productive at all. Offering ideas, ways to tap businesses to cater to various categories of consumers, etc are qualities employers are looking out for.

  4. Tim says:

    1. Education system is geared towards producing good workers for the MNCs. Universities, polytechnics, ites produce managers, supervisors and technicians respectively. Adding one or two “entrepreneurship” modules doesnt change this fact. Other countries prefer to educate their young to the best they can be and let them find their own way. Thats how entrepreneurs are nutured.

    2. National service. By the time our young graduate they are already in their late twenties, and have only a few years left to specialise and gain work experience before they are deemed too old to be a fresh grad. Foreigners can muck around for a few years trying out things.

    3. Parents lack retirement funds. According to cpf board, majority of sgporeans cant even meet min sum of $130k plus for retirement and this sum of money isnt even a lot Hence our young have to support the previous generation financially.

    • Gilbert Goh says:

      Hi Tim,

      Agreed with you on some the points raised.

      By the time our graduates finished their education after completing NS, they are already 26-27.

      That is probably why many of them decide not to continue with their masters or PhD study even if it is fully sponsored as many feel old and poor.

      Perhaps our government can consider redcucing the NS term to 12 months instead of the current 24.

      You can see that those who want to be entrepreneurial are normally in their mid 20s when they are more adventurous and can afford to take some risk.

      Once the person starts to date and have a family, it is very tough psychologically for them to venture out anymore.

      All they want is just a regular income to pay off bills.

      NS simply take that best part of your life away.

      Gilbert Goh

  5. abc says:

    Agree with article and above comments. We are who we are due to nurture and the environment. Over 50 years, PAP has created people who are diligent job seekers and hard workers. From 1968 to today, the govt’s emphasis is always on large MNCs and GLCs, giving them the best deals and legislative perks. Even till today, govt tenders and quotations specify suppliers must be of certain size (paid-up capital, market cap, etc) besides giving the lowest bid. So you need to be big and cheap. Only large companies have this economies of scale. How to blame young people, graduates for pursuing the easiest and fastest route to a good life and bringing up a family with less worries and all of life’s comforts??

    Only “losers” and desperadoes end up going into small business and so-called “entrepreneurship”. They got nothing to lose and they need to do something for survival.

    Just look at our ministers — do you think they are entrepreneur material?? It’s really rich for Heng Swee Keat to make that comment. A really black pot calling the kettle black. All these govt scholar types don’t have to “think” once they scored the A’s at A-levels and secure themselves president’s scholarship or PSC scholarship or SAF scholarship. From 18 yrs old, they get over-sized allowances and salaries. They just need to keep their backside clean and follow big ministerial rules and make their boss look good. Hit superscale by age 32 and start getting $350K annual salaries. The only “entrepreneur” effort left will be to please the party to be selected for minister position.

  6. anon says:

    young singaporeans actually have a lot of drive and motivation… but unfortunately they are not paid high enough to step forward and show it.. if there is any further downward pressures on pay, i am afraid young Singaporeans will be even less driven and motivated..

    • Gilbert Goh says:

      Hi Anon,

      I tend to agree with you on that statement about pay packages here.

      There is the saying that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.

      No one in their right mind will offer to solve company problems if they are inadequately paid.

      They will probably perform well but not excellently.

      I find that our expats here – though well compensated for doing the same kind of work as our local workers – do not really work as hard as they ought to be.

      Given the same kind of salary as our expats, I am sure that local workers will be driven enough to perform well.

      Let us work at getting the pay structure right first before talking about work performance.

      The fact that our average salary structure creeps up a mere 0.3% for the past decade spoke volumes of our poor remuneration system here.

      Gilbert Goh

  7. Pamela says:

    The only problem is that the best job in Singapore is to be a minister. If not, at least a PAP MP (not opposition MP).

    It is cheap for Mr Heng to say those comments. He is no entrepreneur but a scholar make minister. He should urine on the ground and look at himself reflected from the pool of his urine. Is he in a position to make those comments? What did or will he do as the minister on education?

  8. Gilbert Goh says:

    Hi Pamela,

    I guess you got a point there as none of the current cabinet minister is an entrepreneur before so they are all talking from nothing.

    It will be great if a successful entrepreneur can get into Parliament and even become a minister so that the current cabinet can glean from his experience.

    If not, we are all talk and no action only.

    That’s probably the frightening state of our current governance right now.

    There’s also the group-think mentality prevailing among the same kind of people formed from scholars and top thinkers.

    A lack of proper balanced debate also means that Singapore will suffer from a one-dimensional kind of governance.

    We also know how far from the ground our ministers have being all along – this is a result of the kind of elistic lifestyle they have being adopting all along.


  9. jj says:

    2 years NS & 10 years ICT are really a waste of time & resources. Even ROC Taiwan which face a direct military threat from PRC mainland China also has reduce their NS to 4 mths.Their ICT is only period a 2 or 3 years. Maybe PAP still think that M’sia & Indonesia will attack S’pore oneday.

  10. Iceman says:

    Interesting discussion.

    Like to add that starting a business needs cashflow. In Singapore, even before you have a chance to fight, you get knock down by high rental and high utilities costs (guess who is controlling these). After paying these costs, you are left with little to attract talents. Couple that with a crowded small market, not many types of business model can make it here.

    Having said that, entrepreneurs work around the constraints. I encourage budding entrepreneurs to look outside Singapore for market and setting up bases. You can stretch your capital, sell to a bigger market. I say, if you can survive outside Singapore, Singapore market is a easy.

  11. jj says:

    Even if your biz can survive outside Singapore, that doesn’t mean your biz can survive in Singapore market.

    Just take a look at PageOne, the big book at harbourfront centre. It did quite well outside Singapore but wind up its one & only boookshop in Singapore.

  12. jj says:

    It should be vivo city, not harbourfront centre. Typo error.

  13. phillip says:

    The Government does not help if an entrepeneur fails ! Banks insist on personal guarantees on top of assets pledged for bank facilities extended like overdraft, letters of credit etc. In other words they come after you personally when your business fails.
    Banks in other words wants their cake and eat it too ! Banks extend facilities based on value of assets pledged but still insist on a personal guarantee which is unfair to the entrepeneur as the bank is minimising their risk at all counts.
    All husinesses carry risks but banks seemed to have a upper hand.
    When a business fails, the banks take away the assets and sue the entrepeneur and make him a bankrupt if it does not cover the loans extended.
    The bankrupt becomes a pariah and no one cares about him after that.There is no organisation to help these failed businessmen, they are put under the Official Assignee jurisdiction and really nothing happens after that.
    The OA wants the bankrupt to ” behave ” ie paying a monthly sum, travel seeking prior approval even to Johor on a day trip but other than that it will take years and years [ unless he strikes the lottery and make resitution ] before he can be considered for discharge !
    There are organisations to help the down-trodden in our society even Aids sufferers but for businessmen who become bankrupts because of personal guarantees there is none !

  14. jj says:

    Banks are licensed loan sharks.

    S’pore gov always like to encourage people to be entreprenurial & venture out of their comfort zone. During the late 90s & early y2k, many S’pore firms ventured out in China. I think quite a numbers of them suffered heavy losses. Did PAP gave a helping hand to them? Encouragement could be a killer.

    If the entry level of a certain biz is low, many will jump on the bandwagon when the pioneer batch succeed. E.g. Sprouting of breadshops after seeing breadtalk did well; sprouting of bubbletea shops during 2002/2003; sprouting of dotcom companies after seeing did well.

    There was also a time where many applied for F&B in a van biz scheme with NEA or LTA etc. Many spend 30k, 100k to own a van plus modification to sell some food & drinks or ice cream. There were so many restiction set by the authorities. After a year or two, many gave up due to poor sales.

    Out of 100 new start-ups, how many will being sucessful? Maybe 10 or 20 or maybe 5 or 7. Any statistics record?

  15. feel so sad for ourselves and our children who are not brainy but just ordinary people who get kick around by the so called “brainy” singaporean and “imported talents”. I myself was one victim bullied by a Hongkie boss and I was too dumb(being nice) to know how to fight back their aggresive and abusive behaviours. I ended up jobless until now, badly wounded and hurt in spirit. now that the hongkie has been granted citizenship to b a singaporean, so, who shall we complain about now? a hongkie (FT) or singaporean??

  16. Clark Dickson says:








    NAME IN FULL:………

    Thanks From Best Regards,
    Clark Dickson

  17. Events Organiser says:

    The core value of Singapore culture: obedience and subservience to authority. Being entrepreneurial means to think out of the box. Sometimes you have to disagree nicely with higher ups. This is most frowned upon. An affront. How fare this pipsqueak disagree. No respect for elders!

  18. sal says:

    I still think its the educstion systems in Spore, its can only produce good workers and followers. How many entrepeuner or inventor has the systems produce?…1 only Mr Sim the PC sound system

  19. [...]… This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged Entrepreneurship, singapore. Bookmark the permalink. ← Internpreneurship Soft Launch [...]

  20. dylan says:

    Singaporeans entrepreneurship has been trapped by the box created by our background and the economy environment.
    After Mr Lee Kuan Yew has passed away, I started reading about he and his team leadership and Achivements for singapore. What they have done in that situation was amazing. Why cant singapore do the same for entreprenuership for singaporeans?
    I believe we do not lack of entreprenuer minds in singaporeans. Of course, seeking foreigners to create entrepreneurship seems easier route, doing a easy labeling of singaporeans are lazy, not willing to risk, etc. But this will not create a entreprenuership environment in Singapore.
    Anyway, saying so much, does this government hear this?
    Other than to cast our votes to the opposition, what other means can we let the government knows?

  21. vtfygbnhuj says:

    Singapore is a you die your business society/culture, unless the gov willing to sponsor entrepreneurs even if they were to fail without having to pay any penalty. I believe then people will dare to venture.

    If not even if the gov were to take over all the business in SG completely, then can simply just put those people with business brain with management positions.

  22. YCS says:

    If you put people with business brains in management positions, who are going to start businessed?

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