Watching start-ups grow up

I attended my final evaluation meeting yesterday as an panel member of ACE Startup Committee. Yesterday’s session was a marathon one as some groups were re-invited back to present as the panel had queries on various aspects of their proposals in earlier sessions, and the rest were those rushing to meet the deadline for the final session before the startup funding programme is superseded by the recently announced Startup SG initiative.

It has been a fulfilling journey. I was invited to be on the then-newly convened panel in late 2011. I recall in my first speech in parliament in October 2011, I had offered to help with the government’s effort to develop entrepreneurial attitudes amongst students and youths. So I accepted the invitation readily.

The committee initially met monthly to evaluate application for startup grants from SPRING Singapore of up to $50,000 per successful application by new entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs-to-be. This was later changed to bi-monthly meetings. From time to time, as an ACE representative, I also sat in presentations at polytechnics, at ITEs and at non-government groups which were also centres where their alumni / mentees could apply for the same SPRING Singapore grants.

I must have listened to some 300 presentations through these session in these 5 and a half years as a panel member.

A lot has changed since I took the plunge to be an entrepreneur in end 1999. Back then, government support structures were lacking. It was not so cool to give up secure careers to try to realise the dream to create a new business in uncharted waters. The first wave of dotcom was just hitting Singapore. Some enthusiasm had built up due to the success of silicon valley in the 1990s and that caught on in Singapore around early 1999 with some dotcom listings on our stock exchange. It died very rapidly too with the NASDAQ crash of April 2000. The crash nearly killed our business too as we had started the business but had barely raised funds when all equity funding sources dried up. It forced us to be disciplined to chase for revenues and to evolve our business models to what services the market would want to pay us something for. Eventually, we had a lucky break when e-learning became an essential service in our target market and we successfully sold off our already profitable business in 2007 with decent returns to our investors. That’s another story you can read about in my earlier blog posts.

Now as panel member, I face eager new and would-be entrepreneurs of all types, determined to convince the panel that they have a differentiated, interesting and viable business. We see business proposals of all types – the typical tech and mobile / internet ones, to interesting ways to disrupt age-old businesses such as fashion and food. Many proposals were accepted but many more were not supported for various reasons, and hopefully they will have the resilient to move on and explore alternatives.

The ecosystem has changed much since my journey more than a decade ago. It is certainly more ‘cool’ now for young graduates or even undergraduates to try for that start-up dream. I have seen many top graduates and even highly qualified and successful professionals give up lucrative careers for the hard work of running a start-up. Passion is key to making startups work. We cannot artificially mandate entrepreneurship. It has to come from the founders as they will need that inner belief and drive to make it successful through the endless challenges that will come. It helps that the universities and to a lesser extent, polytechnics have taken on this message seriously and have created their own ecosystem to make it easier for ideas to be incubated. Whilst funding is nowhere as vibrant as that in established and more exciting markets like the USA and China, there is definitely a lot more channels for good ideas to chase for funding.

Our market size remains a huge constraint for startups to really grow big and take on the world stage. In some cases, regulators are opening up to create friendly environment for startups, though a lot more can be done. I would like to see more vibrant sandboxes in as many industries as possible. In some industries where the government itself is a big user and purchaser of services, such as education and defence, it can be more open to working with start-ups, and to create environments where startups can evolve innovative solutions. Whilst there has been a lot of preaching by our leaders about our country needing innovation and entrepreneurship to drive it forward, I still get a sense that many in the government services lower down have not bought into the vision. They are still creating rules that control and restrict, and relying on old ways that will not encourage vibrant industry ideas to flourish in their sector. Hopefully leaders themselves buy into what they preach and look into how there are rules and habits in their own backyard that can be changed to encourage national innovation.

I am happy to have played a role as best as I can as an individual in this scene. I had the opportunity to mentor some of the startups actively, particularly those in the education sector. It is still a great challenge that they face and will face, as this path is hardly an easy one. I have seen some grow after much sweat and even change of business directions, sometimes more than once. I have seen some give up too. Many will fail for every major success we hear of. Yet, try we must and I am glad that many of our best and brightest are indeed trying.

 

Think big, start small, act fast – here’s something for the Minister to consider

The speech by the Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung on the annual promotion exercise for the administrative service caught my attention.

Mr Ong was encouraging the public servants to offer bold policy suggestions, rather than “second-guess the policy preferences” of ministers. Amongst other things, he also had said that sound policies must take into account ground realities and constraints, and also that “there is no perfect comprehensive grant plan. If we over-plan, we run the risk of paralysis by analysis.”

I totally agree and so I wish to offer again a suggestion that I had mooted for many years already, both in and out of parliament. In his speech, Mr Ong had covered various initiatives in the domain of other ministries. I wish to suggest one that is for the ministry that Mr Ong is in charge of.

I had called for pilot through-train schools from primary 1 to secondary 4, extending to college even if necessary. We have often talked about our stressful education system; how our children are subjected to pressurising various high stake examinations early in life. Many have talked about our our students being exam-smart but lacking in creativity and imagination. Much hope was offered during the national Singapore Conversation exercise and when the Prime Minister said in his National Day speech that the PSLE will be changed. The changes though, after much anticipation, will not make any significant impact towards reduce the stress.

The suggestions for the through-train school that I had made can be found in the selected links below, so I will not elaborate in this blog.

a.  Committee of Supply debate on MOE, Mar 2012

b. Scrapping the PSLE, blog post, Sep 2012

c. Committee of Supply debate on MOE, Mar 2014

d. WP proposes small start for through-train plan, CNA 5 Sep 2015

e. Singaporeans need a bolder look at how to change education system, Feb 2017

Being involved actively in the K-12 education sector for over two decades, I do understand the challenges faced if we are to change the current education system too quickly. Having gotten so used to a competitive system with high stake examinations, constant streaming and highly differentiated schools, it will be hard to immediately switch to an alternative. I too understand that as then-Minister for Education, Mr Heng Swee Kiat said in 2012 in response to my proposal for such a through-train scheme, that pressure may be shifted to primary one. Hence, my suggestion was to avoid involving top schools for such pilot schools, and to also start small with a limited number of such through-train schools.

Attitudes need time to change. Right now, there is no alternative for parents who do not wish that their children be caught in this rat-race of constant high-stake streaming. There have been many good policy initiatives in the past, such as Thinking Schools Learning Nation, Teach Less Learn More, Every School a Good School, etc. Set against the overarching policy of having to differentiate schools by resources and students achievements, as well as high stake examinations to sort students into schools and academic stream, these good policies end up being sidelined. Tuition continues to flourish.

Having just a few pilot through-train schools, preferably neighbourhood schools or schools with existing strong primary-secondary affiliations (again, I emphasise excluding top schools and schools already on 6-year IP), will allow parents who believe in 10 years of holistic education to commit their children to the same school. Over time, perhaps we will have a chance to shift Singaporean mindsets to accept that we can develop successful students without competitively sorting students through high-stake examinations, and even allow students of mixed abilities to learn effectively together in the same class.

It is a big dream, but we can start small, and perhaps act faster too. Meanwhile, other messages that MOE sends must be consistent with what the minister is saying too. For example, two years ago, MOE totally took away the autonomy of principals to allow appeal by students into secondary schools and junior colleges, even if they had missed the cut-off by just one point for whatever reasons. It basically promotes a top-down approach to getting things done, which quite contradicts what we now often hear that there should be more autonomy and initiatives from bottom up.

PE2017 – A missed opportunity for EP to gain acceptance?

On Friday, former Presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock called a press conference to question why the late President Wee and not the late President Ong was considered as the first Elected President (EP). It was also an argument that Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, Ms Sylvia Lim had put forth in parliament as well during the debate on the changes to the elected presidency. Blogger Andrew Loh captured their arguments, as well as listed many evidences of how history and Singaporeans, myself included definitely, had always regarded President Ong as our first EP.

At issue would be whether the upcoming Presidential Election (PE) should be a reserved election for Malays because it pertains to whether 5 continuous election terms had passed without producing a Malay President. The government’s unconvincing response so far has been that it was the advice of AGC to consider President Wee as the first EP, thereby triggering the reserved election. However, the government would not publish the advice of the AGC despite attempts in parliament and by the online community to ask for it.

The AGC may well have their reasons for advising the government in this manner, but it is also the government’s prerogative to decide if it wishes to accept. There are after all, good counter arguments against it. President Wee may have been given the powers and duties of an elected president but he was nominated for the position before the EP position was created. The powers of an EP were accorded to him near the end of his term as president until the first PE could be called. Hence, many Singaporeans are puzzled and remain unconvinced as to why the time should be counted from President Wee’s term because there was never an election to get him into office.

The issue of EP has long been a contentious one. It was conceptualised as a safeguard of Singapore’s reserves during the 1980s against a possible future ‘rogue government’ when the opposition started to make inroads with the electorate. For the first PE in 1993, ex-banker Chua Kim Yeow openly said that he was persuaded by former DPM Goh Keng Swee and then-Finance Minister Richard Hu to stand for election against the establishment’s preferred candidate, former DPM Ong Teng Cheong, in order to give a choice to the people. He however, seemed reluctant to campaign Singaporeans to choose him. That irked me enough to write and have my first letter published in the forum pages of Straits Times. I felt it seemed to be a contest for the sake of having a contest to give legitimacy to the first PE. Apparently, I was not the only one to have felt so because other forum writers and even journalist Bertha Henson also wrote to urge the late Mr Chua to show that he really wanted the President’s job.

We next had two uneventful PEs which were walkovers because only one suitable candidate was available for both elections. It wasn’t that there were no interests to contest. The barriers to qualify had been set very high and those who qualified were generally uninterested to offer themselves. Singaporeans generally lost interest in PEs until 2011 when four eligible candidates campaigned vigorously for the post.

After the nail-biting results of PE2011 in which President Tony Tan won Dr Tan Cheng Bock by just 0.45% with 35.20% of valid votes cast, the people’s expectations had been set high for PE2017. Dr Tan declared last year that he would contest again in 2017.

Subsequently, just months before the upcoming PE, the government pushed through various amendments to the EP that include setting aside reserve election for minority candidates if no President of that minority race was produced after 5 consecutive terms, as well as increasing the qualifying criteria for the top executive of private companies. The top executive now needs to run a business with at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity compared to $100 million in paid up capital previously. The previously very high barrier, has now been set to extraordinarily very high.

The government has now declared PE2017 to be a reserved election for Malays (counting 5 terms from President Wee). The candidate will be from a very, very short list, and most likely from the public sector (i.e. political appointees).

I find it a big letdown that Dr Tan, who was found eligible to contest in 2011, contested vigorously, and who continued to show interest since then to contest again, is now disqualified on various counts.

The government had pushed for the clause to have reserve elections for minority on the reason that voting is very much race-based. Well, we had minority candidates winning in elections against the majority chinese race in single seat contests many times since independence. Recent ones include Mr Murali Pillai in the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election and Mr Michael Palmer in Punggol East in GE2011. Both won very comfortably. Even opposition politician, the late Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam won in a 3-corner fight in the 1981 Anson by-election.

The government had never put forth a Malay candidate since the first PE in 1993, even when we had two consecutive walk-overs with only one candidate each time. Now it has decided that it is important to ensure minority representation and passed the reserve election amendment.

There’s nothing to prevent the government from recognising President Ong as the first EP and having the upcoming PE2017 as an open election. It can still put forth a Malay candidate. If it is as widely speculated to be Madam Halimah Yacob, the current Speaker of Parliament, the government should have confidence that she can stand her ground in an open election. She has won comfortably in four general elections and has high standing in the eyes of Singaporeans of all races. Many Singaporeans, myself included, do want to have minorities as Presidents. It will be truly a missed opportunity if we do not allow a highly suitable Malay candidate to become president on his/her own merits in an open election. It will quell the constant speculation that Singaporeans are immature and will vote along racial lines. Imagine if President Obama had somehow (although so unimaginable in the context of USA) been engineered into the White House because of rules safeguarding minority participation in politics, would he have been the popular president of all Americans that he was throughout his two terms of office?

AGC may have their reasons for the recommendation but the government should find the courage to allow an open election, which it can if it considers President Ong to be the first EP. Then the EP office will be more respected. If it wishes to play safe and only have preferred persons to be in office, let’s just dispense with the EP and revert back to having nominated Presidents, which had served us well for so long and had given us good and popular Presidents.

PE2017, with at least two interested and popular candidates contesting, would have rekindled Singaporeans’ interest in the office of EP. Instead, the response by the government to Dr Tan’s request for clarity and call for open election, is that Dr Tan’s comments did not require a response.

Sending the right signals

We have often heard, “Do what I say, but don’t do as I do.”

Sometimes the messaging can be quite subtle. Those in leadership positions may not realise it if we are not sensitive enough. The recent viral publicity over flyers by a Residents’ Committee touting the benefits of serving as grassroots volunteers such as car parking privileges and priority registration in primary schools for their children, comes to my mind. (http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/flyer-listing-benefits-for-grassroots-volunteers-draws-response-from-wp)

The issue of priority registration for primary 1 for community leaders is something that I had been concerned about, and had raised in parliament several times. In 2012, then-Education Minister Heng Swee Keat had a written reply for my question on this privilege for grassroots leaders. He said that an average of 330 children were admitted yearly under the active community leaders scheme, just less than 1% of the primary 1 cohort (we have around 30,000 babies born each year). They only need to have served for one year as a community leader.

In 2013, I joined in the debate on this issue with a supplementary question for then-Senior Minister of State for Education (SMS), Ms Indranee Rajah. I had asked if the Ministry has done any survey to see how many community leaders have actively contributed to the schools that their children are enrolled in, and ‘if it can be a criterion for community leaders to have first made specific contributions to the schools before they are being considered for priority’. The reply was that the SMS was not aware of any such survey and that the criterion is based on contribution to the community, as opposed to contributions specifically to the school. In other words, the community leaders need not contribute any time or service to the school the child is enrolled into under priority registration. This is strictly a reward for ‘contribution to the community’.

During Committee of Supply debate in 2013, I had also spoken on the topic as I asked for a general review of the Primary 1 admission system. Specifically on the issue of community leaders, I had said I feel community leaders need not be given priority. Being a community leader for the purpose of getting into top primary schools does not gel with the spirit of community service.”

I felt so because they do not necessarily add value to the primary school, unless they are also actively helping in the school in their position as a community leader. It becomes very transactional; the priority is a reward for the community leader, and a backdoor to get an edge to enter desired primary schools.

MOE has been touting that “Every School is a Good School” for several years already. So every school should be good enough for the community leaders’ children. Yet allowing for such privileges sends exactly the wrong signal, even if in a subtle way. That’s the same way ordinary folks will feel when a leader says that every school is a good school but they see that the leader’s own children are in preferred schools.

I agree with Former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng, who as reported in the Straits Time article of this Flyers episode, had left a pointed comment on his Facebook saying: “‘Selfless dedication’ does not need to be rewarded by preferential access to primary schools. Just saying.”

I think it is time to do what we say.

 

 

 

Go!

American best-selling author, H. Jackson Brown Jr. had this advice: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

That quote was made several decades ago, when travel was slower, more expensive and difficult. Today, with our highly interconnected world, it is so much easier to set off to explore the world. Perhaps more than just travelling, we can set our minds to sail away from the safe harbours of the mundane things we have become familiar with.The world is now constantly on the move. So we can set ourselves the target to learn something new each year. Challenge yourself to master a new skill or to do things differently.

As the year 2016 comes to a close, perhaps the best word to summarise my 2016 is the word “Go!”. Amongst other places, I finally visited the remaining two countries in ASEAN that I had then yet to visit. We even started business projects there, albeit cautiously on a small scale first.

2016 was a year that I set myself the target to venture out – in business, in travel and even in the things that I do. Driving a manual left-hand drive car in the crowded streets of central Vietnam was a first, and quite an adventure too, especially when the online navigator took us onto small paths we later found out were for motorbikes only. I had hesitated to turn into the small alleys but my Vietnamese friend with me (who was himself unfamiliar with the roads there), said, “Just go lah!”. Thankfully, we made it through after an arduous 30 minutes, with the car unscratched, squeezing with motor bikes and with padi fields inches to our left and to our right.

Learning to ski at 51 seemed ambitious and I had some nasty bruises to show for the many falls. Fortunately, I survived to continue with the rest of an all-AirBnB self-planned budget trip across South Korea with my family. Learning the hover board was thankfully much easier. Doing a live storytelling session was interesting, especially with a top radio DJ and a prize winning storyteller from USA in the same session as me. Doing live doodling performances on stage without my artists in three cities in China in front of officials and business leaders was initially intimidating. Learning to cook certainly benefited my family. I now have some decent dishes to show for a year of regular cooking :).

Not sure what 2017 will bring. Hopefully more interesting things to do, more projects to get ourselves busy with, and more places to see. Life is too short to hold back. Happy New Year and just go lah!

 

Pathways to success

Last month, my daughter came home from her holiday work with a story. The cleaning/cooking aunty at the preschool centre told the teachers that she was angry at her son who was studying in a polytechnic. She said that instead of studying hard, he was working every day till late at night at some events company. She showed my daughter the recent Whatsapp messages she had with her son.

From those messages, my daughter gathered that Aunty’s son was working because he wanted to be financially independent, so he had taken up a part time job managing sound systems at events. Events are typically held at night and hence he had to work late. He had also explained that he was still able to cope with the demands of his polytechnic studies.

My daughter and another teacher told Aunty that it was good that her son was being independent and working hard, and was not loafing or partying around or addicted to computer games, as some young adults his age may be. My daughter had friends who were good with sound systems and explained to Aunty that people often had to pay to learn how to manage those expensive sound equipment. She told Aunty that her son was now even being paid to learn how to be a sound engineer – a good skill to have. My daughter too started doing part-time work actively since she was 14 years old, so I guess she could speak with some assurances for Aunty.

I think my daughter and the other teacher managed to convince Aunty. She said she would go home later that day and talk to her son.

The Aunty’s concern is typical of the average Singaporean parents. We have been conditioned that the pathway to success in life is to score in exams. When you are studying, do not waste time on other things, even if these are useful skills to have or can help one to develop their character. If you are a student, just study. In many parents’ minds, grades are what matters.

Recently, I had a long conversation with a former high-flying government servant turned entrepreneur in a developing country. We all shared our concerns of Singaporeans being exams-smart but lacking the ability to cope in the new economy requiring innovation, creativity, resilience and many skills that one cannot train through the books. When I mentioned about us consistently scoring tops in PISA assessments, he remarked that our education advantage like those measured through PISA often disappear in tertiary studies when one has to go beyond knowledge. My former civil servant friend also shared his concern about high-flyers taking very safe paths. We will end up doing very safe things to meet short term KPIs, and not do things that are necessary for essential disruptive changes.

Several years ago, policy makers have said Singapore will embark on many pathways to success, beyond measuring by exam grades. That is highly necessary but the implementation will continue to be challenging. Mindsets of parents like Aunty need to change. Mindsets of employers, especially those in the civil service will need to change. Policy makers must dare to make bold changes where needed.

This is the year-end results period. We had the PSLE results released several weeks ago. O and A levels results will be out soon. As it is every year, parents will scramble to enrol their children in what they consider as good schools. Some will be disappointed that their children did not get the grades necessary for the targeted top schools.

We will need more young people to be like Aunty’s son. Some part-time work or active involvement in community work outside of school is good. It trains up resilience and time management. We will need our people to be more than exams smart if our economy is to do well in this new global economic climate.

When life throws curve balls at you

We just returned from our first trip to Myanmar. It was a packed trip, driving from Yangon to Mandalay immediately upon arrival and then back two days later via driving again, as we had several meetings in Mandalay, Naypidaw and Yangon.

It was a good first trip to this beautiful and resource-rich country. I had many good first impressions. One that impressed me deeply was our meeting with Ms A (not her real name).

Ms A returned to Myanmar 3 years ago after studying and working abroad for over 10 years. She explained that she had 2 young children with severe special needs and it was best to return home so that her retired parents could help look after the children. Having been trained as and worked as a preschool teacher abroad, she decided to start her own preschool centre back home.

She described the many challenges faced, as people initially did not believe in her centre’s style of learning through play in a country where people are used to having children learn from completing worksheets and mastering spelling lists. Nevertheless, she started with just three children in her centre. She had to cope with hiring teachers who were not used to the style of learning she wanted, and more so with her own young children with special needs. Both her children, sadly, passed away this year within months of each other.

She described their passing away so calmly that we thought we heard her wrongly the first time round. Their deaths were quite recent too. It must have really hurt. Yet we saw a vibrant centre filled with over 200 children enrolled there, a huge jump from just three customers when she started off three years ago. How could someone manage to put so much energy to running a start-up whilst struggling with the tragic circumstances at home?

As we toured the centre, she pointed to a class which she said were children with special needs. Given her own circumstances, she wanted to also provide for others with special needs. Those who could not pay were charged subsidised fees. I saw a teacher massaging the legs of a child. She explained that the child could not walk properly and they were trying to strengthen the muscles to help him to walk.

Towards the end of the visit, I could not help but asked how she could cope with the huge demands of the new business given her own personal circumstances. She said that she could choose to be depressed but there was nothing she could do to reverse the situation. She would rather overcome her sorrows by putting her energy into doing something that will make a positive difference in the lives of others.

It was a very powerful message that I will remember for a long time. Yes, life is sometimes unfair. Some people get the short end of the stick. Life throws difficult curve balls at you. One can choose to live in depression and sorrow, or one can choose to put in extra energy to overcome the sadness by doing something positive. Ms A chose the latter and we could see the huge impact it has already made in her society.

Taking your start-up forward

I sat through several presentations by start-ups for ACE start-up grant yesterday as a panel member. As with all the past presentations, some were awarded, some rejected and some were invited to make further clarifications or adjustments to some aspects of their business plan before re-submission at another session.
Was glad to meet again one company that I had evaluated and provided feedback several months ago, and see that they have made significant inroads in their implementation in such a short time. I sense they will do well going forward with the energy that they have.
Meanwhile this week, the recently reconvened parliament debated on many issues, including encouraging start-ups. The start-up environment has changed quite a lot since I started my first venture 16 years ago. There were no start-up grants then that I could apply for. We pitch for funding from friends, family and those brave enough to trust their money on a yet-to-be-proven bunch.
There was no Blk 71 Ayer Rajah start-up friendly environment that we could hitch upon for a quick launch. We used part of a learning centre as a make-shift office and even converted a door from the office that had collapsed and turned it into a table, supported by two short cupboards.

 

Dr Koh Poh Koon cited an example of a local start-up, shopback being rejected for government support. I didn’t get to evaluate Shopback’s application so I do not know the circumstances on why they did not get the support. As a panellist for the past 4 years evaluating probably over 200 cases and mentoring some, there are many reasons for rejection. Some come with half-baked ideas that they struggle to articulate. Some could not communicate their ideas on paper or do not provide sufficient information that they do not even make it past the secretariat who sieves out the many proposals to allow only a few through for the panellists to evaluate at each session. Some do not meet the funding criteria for various reasons while some lack originality. The reasons are many.

 

Anyway, rejection is the name of the game for new entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs. We have had our fair share of them – rejections from would-be investors, from government agencies, from customers and even from people we wanted to hire. One top graduate of a polytechnic applied for a job. When we offered, he turned us down saying that there’s no future working in a small start-up! Another took up the job and then resigned a few days later when a better offer came, paying an administrative bond that we had imposed on him. He said that he didn’t want to tarnish his resume if our start-up failed. How’s that for rejections. I have lost count of the number of rejections.

 

Last evening, a successful lawyer-turned-entrepreneur invited me to an event he was hosting. We had started our e-learning companies at around the same time in 2000. His company targeted corporations while we decided to focus on schools. We shared old stories over the dining table with the others. One thing we both agreed upon – entrepreneurship is a humbling experience. It does not matter if you graduated from a top school with sterling results or was a scholar or a great lawyer. You have to pitch to the customers and they will mostly decide based on your value-proposition, not how smart and successful you were in your previous profession or studies. And you will face lots of rejections. So what? Take it in your stride, learn why you got the rejection and figure out how to improve your product or sales pitch to have better luck the next time. You will get a lot of emotional ups and downs. Every success is a lot sweeter, every rejection hits you hard but you need to learn from these rejections.

 

I am happy to see that the environment for start-ups has become a lot better than it was 16 years ago. There are more government schemes that one can apply to, more mentorship programmes and start-up events, more start-up spaces and more venture funding activities. More people are turning to running start-ups to chase a dream rather than pursue a professional career. I hope government agencies, companies and customers can give innovative and energetic start-ups the business opportunities to grow. Looking back at my own start-up experience, we grew because there were business opportunities created then when IDA was pushing for broadband content usage in schools and created schemes to get local companies to put forward creative solutions. That short span of several years allowed competitive local solutions to emerge. For others, it could be different type of opportunities. But learning to see and seize the opportunity is very important for any start-up to succeed.

 

So if you want to run a start-up, grow a thick skin for rejections, learn to seize pockets of opportunities and get ready for the ups and downs.

 

Thank you for 2015!

 

Collage2

Yes, 2015 has been an eventful year. Not the outcome we may wish for, but thanks for the journey.

Thanks for being with me on the journey.

Thanks to my wonderful team mates for being together in the contest.

Thanks to the many who had given so much of your time and resources. Thanks for your sweat, thanks for your tears. Thanks for your cheers, thanks for your hugs. Thanks for the many kilometres travelled together. Thanks for the new friends made, thanks for old friendships rekindled.

Thanks to the many who gave us drinks on our hot and tiring visits, and for the occasional snacks to give us the energy to go a bit longer. Thanks for your many words of encouragement.

Thanks for a year that I shall always remember.

To the many who had come my way this year, as William Shakespeare put it in the Twelfth Night, “I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks…”

See you all in 2016. Wishing everyone a fulfilling year ahead.

 

To seriously innovate or not, that is the difficult question

Two news related to education in the last 2 days caught my attention.

Recently appointed Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng had in his first major speech outlining his vision for schools yesterday, said that schools must go beyond teaching students to be good at solving problems, but help them develop the instincts and ability to be value-creators. He called for schools to encourage students to “have the courage to try, fail, try again, fail again, and eventually succeed.” He had urged for students to be innovators for Singapore to succeed.

I agree that’s needed. There is nothing new in the statement though. Every Education Minister since RADM Teo Chee Hean had been calling for greater innovation in students. Google search with the name of every Education Minister since 1997 together with keywords “innovation”, and “students” and you will get many hits. Then-Education Minister Teo had said in 1998, “Innovation will be absolutely critical to the creation of wealth in the 21st century … To develop an innovative work force, we will need to start in school by training our students to be enterprising and creative thinkers. The education system in Singapore has thus far emphasized the acquisition of factual knowledge. We will need to shift our focus to creative thinking skills. Instead of just being followers, our young must be prepared to experiment, to make mistakes, to learn and to innovate, in order to be leaders in their own fields.”

Schools have indeed tried different ways to get students to be creative and innovative since this push in the late 1990s. I have seen quite a number of these myself first hand. The difficulty is in how to make it systematic and lasting, in the face of other more important KPIs that schools must achieve and which parents expect schools to achieve. Innovation is usually not one of the key things in the mind of parents for their children to get out of schools. They worry about how to make it through our tough national streaming examinations, getting into what they consider as “good” schools (which tend to differ from MOE’s wish for ‘every school to be a good school’), getting the grades to be good enough for scholarships, and so on.

Innovation (or variations of it) is already one of the several values in most Singapore schools today. Efforts are already there, for nearly two decades now, on and off. The trouble with innovation or creativity, is that it is difficult to quantify. It is messy to encourage. It is not objective. It is hard to put a score to it like how you can put a T-Score to students for their PSLE results. T-Scores are objective. Deciding what is innovation is often very subjective. Teachers, most of them who have come through our education system and our society’s way of thinking, will often find it hard to deal with this as a subject or something to do in the classroom.

There are also the society’s expectations. We want students to try, fail, try agin, many times over. How many parents can accept that? How many students can accept that? Should we expect them to accept that, when our system try to measure things objectively and put scores to different things to make sure we are objective? These measurements usually have important implications, like the secondary schools and academic streams students will go to. It might even affect qualification for scholarships and jobs later in life.

The second piece of news, seemingly unrelated to the first, but which I consider is relevant, is that of schools being told not to take in transfer pupils whose PSLE scores did not meet the schools’ cut-off point during this school transfer period.

Each year, right after the PSLE results are known, students choose their secondary schools. MOE will run the applications through a computerised system to assign schools to students, based on the PSLE T-Scores. After that, there is a couple of weeks where students can appeal to schools they did not get into, subject to vacancies and to the discretion of principals. If successful in the appeal, students get to start within the first few days of the new year in the school of their appeal choice. Usually, only a handful of appeals are successful per school anyway, because not that many would get to move out of a school to create the vacancies for others to come in. This year, the directive appeared to have put an end to this appeal process.

In a reply to the press, MOE said students are posted to schools based on “objective and transparent measures of academic merit” and appeals afterwards “should be aligned to these same principles, to be fair to the other students”.

It is often hard to argue against the principle of being objective and transparent. We do not like mess. Appeals are messy. Some parents will cry foul when they see someone of a lower T-Score getting into a school when their children could not.

Well, innovation is messy too. We want kids to try, fail and keep trying. Innovation sometimes involve trying unconventional ideas, often doing things differently. As a school system, however, we try to make things standard, measurable and objective.  Otherwise there will be many complaints to deal with. Such desire for objectivity does not stop just at the schools. Hence as a society, we end up being obsessed with academic results and awards, because these are measurable and objective. We end up with “extreme meritocracy“, where academic grades achieved early in life can determine a lot of the person’s success later in life.

Should we give back that autonomy to principals to decide on just a few places in this short transfer period, together with all the messiness it will bring? I think the implications may be beyond just the few places per school today.

Two years ago at NDR 2013, PM Lee Hsien Loong announced that the PSLE T-score, long a stress point for parents, will eventually be removed and replaced with bands similar to those used for O’ and A’ levels. We have yet to hear definitively how and when this implementation will take place. Without T-Score, it will become even more subjective on how to post students. If we attempt to once again be objective, T-Scores may still be kept for students but will not be known to them. When they apply for schools, the computer system can check the ‘hidden’ T-Scores and determine how to place students “objectively”.

Or we can leave it more open to principals to decide by looking at the grades achieved together with other holistic considerations. We will end up with students with say three A* (or even two A*) making it into a top school while other with four A* may not. I can already hear some readers crying foul over this.

If we are to expect principals to make such decisions in a few years, assuming we get to eventually carry out PSLE without T-Scores, will they be ready to make such decisions if they cannot have the autonomy to decide on a few post-PSLE results transfer places from now onwards?

There is a dilemma, whether we like to acknowledge it or now. Can we accept a messier and hopefully more creative and innovative society, or are we such strong believers in measurements and objectivity? Acting Minister Ng cited the example of Steve Jobs enrolling in a calligraphy course when he was young and that helped him later in life with Apple’s distinctive typography. Well, Steve Jobs had quit college because he questioned if the degree would not be helpful to his life. He however, continued to stay on in the same college to take random courses, including the course on calligraphy . How many parents will accept that for their children in Singapore?

Acting Minister Ng also threw down the gauntlet for nay-sayers to be proven wrong that our education system and teachers are conservative and risk-averse. As a policy, are we prepared to be more risk taking? The latest announcement to disallow principals the autonomy for appeals does not seem to suggest so.

I think we can even go beyond allowing these sort of autonomy in school places and changing from T-Scores to subject banding, depending on how big our appetite for moving away from conservatism is. I had for many years, called to start pilot schools that allow through-train from primary to secondary, with ‘O’ levels as the first major examinations for these students. I had already put out various ways this can be done in a gradual manner more acceptable to society, so I shall not elaborate in this post. Here’s just a funnier recent report of that proposal from Mothership. I think gradually moving away from early high-stakes examinations can contribute to an environment where innovation can be allowed to flourish.

To seriously innovate or not, that is the difficult question.