Singaporeans need more entrepreneurial spirit

The following interview was conducted by Li Zi Yun, a business undergraduate with the National University of Singapore.


We’re a highly connected country, we boast one of the highest GDP rates in the world, we have one of the most fertile business environments globally…but yet, we don’t have the stories to match. We don’t have the Facebooks, the Googles, the Air BnBs and the Ubers of the world. Why is this so?


(Picture from Facebook)

I spoke with Martin Tan, the Executive Director of the Institute for Societal Leadership at SMU, and co-founder of Halogen Foundation to understand a little more about the mettle of Singaporeans.

“People around the world see Singapore staff to be highly competent, trustworthy and they get the job done. However, although we can imagine Singaporeans rising to become Chief Operating Officials, very few MNCs have a Singaporean as CEO – probably because of our lack of entrepreneurial spirit,” said Martin, with a speaking style that reminds me a little of the martial arts master Bruce Lee.

What are our weaknesses?

If there’s a common sense that people around the world have about Singapore and Singapore staff, it is that they are highly competent, trustworthy and they get the job done. Whenever it’s a Singapore employee, they tend to do well.

We are highly skilled, we have good brains, our mathematical training has given us the ability to analyze and dissect and be able to be critical in the way and therefore come up with new solutions and so on.

However – we are not the most entrepreneurial of people. I don’t think many companies will look to Singaporeans as a source of innovation. I imagine… and this is just purely imagination: I can imagine Singaporeans rising to be Chief Operating Officials, I think very few MNCs will look to a Singaporean to be a CEO. For most banks here in Singapore, the second-in-command oftentimes is Singaporean. The top man? Hardly.

Is it because we are not good enough? No, I think Singaporeans are as competent as anyone else in the world, I think we can compete. But the thing is that the CEO requires a kind of entrepreneurial mindset. A level of risk taking. A level of saying “You know what, go for it”.

We don’t have that?

Lesser. We live in a somewhat very safe environment. Entrepreneurial spirit is not what you would associate with Singapore. A country like Taiwan has Acer and a number of creative tech companies. We have Creative and OSIM, which is the one thing that we keep going back to when we talk about how entrepreneurial we are. In fashion, we have Elim Chew who has done tremendously well. Our business people are enterprising, but not necessarily innovative. I think this would change with more investment into research.

You talked about the importance of being entrepreneurial, but do Singaporeans still prefer ‘safer’ jobs, such as banking?

There is a level of hard work that is associated with every life choice, what we must not make the mistake of is thinking that working in a bank is a shortcut to success (as compared to entrepreunalism). The ability for us to ingrain that every thing requires hard work to make it is important. We do need to build some steel in our people.

How do you foresee the future job market be like in 20 years? How can the rights of workers be protected?

Jobs in the next 2 decades will involve the ‘Uber-risation’ of everything. We have the internet of things. More and more things will be on demand basis.

I see the future of jobs this way: today I want a car, I get an Uber. The same applies for services. Almost anything can be bought online, there isn’t a need to go to anywhere anymore. Physical spaces are more to display goods rather then sell goods. We will see more and more young people going that route of freelancers.

This is the way the world is moving towards, and they are not covered under employment act, they have no right, they don’t pay CPF, and they don’t buy insurance.

When I was running Halogen, I believe in buying personal insurance for all fresh graduates (Editor: as opposed to group insurance, personal insurance is portable) to help them start off their insurance coverage. As a boss, my job is to take care of them. Should more companies do this? Absolutely. But it may not make business sense. It’s really a philosophy of how you see staff and where you see the future is. I’m paternalistic sometimes when it comes to staff, to watch out for things they have not considered.

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Can the state do something like that?

Maybe its time to think about. If we believe that uber-risation is the way to go, and on demand is going to be one track of employment, then we are going to have more freelancers who don’t pay CPF, who don’t buy insurance, those will be real things that will be hitting us 10 to 20 years from now. It is only going to move more in that direction

What do you think if our companies let their staff to go out and do their own business, are we liberal like that? (Editor: For context, NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Ang Hin Kee had raised in Parliament this week of freelancing work becoming more prevalent) 

I think it is hard, on the basis that we are a small country, in the U.S. for example, you wouldn’t run into your employer that readily.

Take for instance Halogen. It is a charity that does training. If my staff take their own skill sets and do something outside inevitably, they might be pitching against Halogen directly. It’s a pretty small industry. However, if it is in a non-competitive industry, why not? If we can allow someone to take up stage acting, I don’t see why we cannot let someone do design. Are we clear enough that they will have no conflict of interest? Hopefully lah (laughs).

Employers won’t like it though. Their line of reasoning is that, “my staff will tire themselves out and won’t focus on my work.”

I see it from a relevancy perspective. SMU employs me and they know that I’m involved in certain organisations, because that’s my way of becoming relevant and service to the community. To a certain extent, it creates an added advantage that benefits my employer.

In irrelevant fields however (meaning that if I am a programmer who does photography in the weekend) I don’t see why employers should say no if it doesn’t impact their work, or take up work time.

My response to the employer is that you don’t pay them for their rest time. You are more than welcome to dictate what they do outside of office hours, if you pay them for their rest time.

If they tire themselves out and they don’t come and concentrate at work, then it is a performance issue. You deal with it on a performance level, not as an extra curricular activity. It’s up to that person to deal with the performance. If an individual doesn’t perform, I’ll have to have a honest chat with that person. I shouldn’t stop him from doing what he wants to do in his free time.

In the past, we used to have a master and servant concept. This is changing, everyone is both. The person of the future needs to be dynamic and adaptable and this starts with education today. Should our education system hone skills, or should it be used to sharpen mental agility?

I think it’s both, not one or another. We should give our kids the mental ability to adapt and be agile. Agility involves agility of odds and agility of environment. Agility of environment means that the person can work in different environments, different organizations, that requires a level of resiliency, that require a level of willingness to overcome comfort zone.

Older employees who have stayed in a company for (say) 30 years and is comfortable with the company, would find it very difficult and uncomfortable to work in another organization. Today, if you stay in any job longer than 3 to 5 years, you’re a dinosaur. Some articles advocate employees leaving within 3 years of working in a company. That’s where we are heading.

I think our education system is training our people well enough for what is to come. I think we are training them to be more critical. Singapore used to have the old rote-learning effect, where everyone looks for the model answer.

Today, schools are developing the ability in kids to think differently. We’re no longer preparing them for knowledge. Our education system must prepare them for life skills, for the ability to think critically. What I’m speaking of here used to be the by-product of education. It should now be the central core of education.

I see the future of education as open book exams, not closed book exams.

Closed book exams require you to know. Open book exams require you to search. We live in a world where search is far more important than knowing. Education plays an important role and I think we are on the right track. The ability for anyone to navigate jobs in the future must be complemented by the ability to wrap their minds around new things, to be constantly learning, to be adaptable, to get new skills.

“You cannot teach old dogs new tricks” cannot be the common refrain anymore. You have to teach old dogs new tricks, that is the way to go.

What about the employers? Is it more difficult for them to change?

I think there is a discrepancy, but I wouldn’t say that the discrepancy is bad. There are fundamentals of a work force that should not and must not change. For example, you do not write a business email to a client, to a partner, to a business associate, using ‘LOL’.

You will be surprised that young people today do that! This is because schools don’t teach differential treatment and society as an order of things. At the same time, I don’t think that we should place the burden on young people to change, I just think that we should recognize there are things they need to learn as well.

Speaking of jobs, with the impending shrinking labor force, how do you see the youth’s future position in the workforce?

Now, young people must understand that their availability of choice depends on how well the economy does. I guarantee you that the confidence to find a job will not the same for Spanish people where youth unemployment is about 49%.

A lot of things we talk about; we talk about it in the luxurious context of low unemployment. We are not entering that phase anymore, we are entering a phase where we are seeing more unemployment, we are seeing more redundancy, we are seeing less choice.

For SMU students who come for our programs I worry for those who are going to graduate. I understand from the recent Singapore Perspectives conference that job growth was 130 000 the previous year. Last year it was 30 000. But young people don’t read news like that. They think that jobs will always be there. I tell my students who are graduating in 2016/17 to take their internships very, very seriously. They need to secure a job before they graduate, if they don’t – life’s going to be a lot harder.

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Speaking of building steel in our people, would you say that Singaporeans are self-entitled?

To a certain extent, but society has a large part to play. Many of our Singaporean families have small family nucleus. As families become more affluent, they get more things that they want. Is it their fault that society raise them to be self-entitled, no. But it is their fault if they continue to be self–entitled in their growing years?

Desmond Choo, Director of the Youth Development Unit at the NTUC had said that the market frequently criticises young workers for “only caring about work-life balance”, what is your take on this?

Work life balance is a choice, not a myth. Work life balance is about being happy. If you spend 18 hours a day at work, and you don’t spend time at home and you’re happy, that work life balance. (I hope that’s not most people because family is so important in our lives) If you miss your family with even just 4 hours of work, it is not worklife balance.

It’s a good term to throw around, but I hope we don’t chase after the ideals of everything that suits us. Meaning that: we want work life balance and we have an internal concept of work life balance that we are looking for, and we use it against people.

The term differs from person to person, let us not chase after ideals that we don’t know.

To wrap things up, what would you think is one problem that you see in our society?

We are no longer patient as a society. It is a problem in the developed world and not just Singapore.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I’m trying to say: I love theater, and when I had the opportunity to watch a show at Broadway, I notice how beautiful the buildings are and their intricacies. We don’t build buildings like that anymore, we build buildings in the shortest time possible. We use production methods to achieve art instead of artistry, we hardly have wall murals and stained glass.

There is a constant search for urgency, people has less patience for things that takes time to build. The problem with that is that most successful things in life takes time to build. My friend found a game from a decade ago in his wardrobe and it still works. (Editor: He’s referring to the 80s electronic pocket games like Western Bar).

We used to build things that last.

Today flat screen TV are build to last 5 years, and gone after that. That’s who we are, we have lesser patience. People want to get ahead of the competition, and cheat on the details. Consumerism and competition wraps around, and has forced society to create a mechanism of not having the patience to build institutions that last.

We have Google, Facebook, which are all technology. But where is the new Disney? The new Coca Cola? On the social front, where are the new Salvation Armies. Institutions that lasts. Today, many entrepreneurs start something with an exit strategy in mind, that is how our market is conditioned. When I was hired by SMU, I told my boss, the president of SMU, that I am not as interested in building programmes that has a start date and end date, I would like to play a part in building institutions that will be the next 50 years. That’s my dream for the Institute for Societal Leadership. I won’t be around to see that happen but I can certainly lay the foundations for others to build on the next phase. It was the same dream with Halogen.  It takes time to build the infrastructure and recruit the right people to build something that last. However, we don’t have the patience for it anymore.

We are very demanding of time, and we want to be the swiftest, fastest. The only exception is social good. Ebola is a great example. Hundreds of Africans suffer from the disease but it only takes one American doctor to be infected for the cure to come out a few months later.

What advice you would give to young Singaporeans?

Don’t see yourself as invincible. Many people don’t put health as the top priority, as they think they are invincible. Or employment and business for that matter. One day invincibility will catch up with you. Never ever take anything for granted.



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