ST Forum Jun 15, 2004: Entrepreneurs from public sector: Quality, not quantity

Entrepreneurs from public sector: Quality, not quantity

 SENIOR Minister Lee Kuan Yew recently brought up the issue of releasing civil service scholars into the workforce as entrepreneurs.

 I was awarded a bond-free bank scholarship and am now an entrepreneur. I also spent six years in government service, with two of these at a statutory board.

 As I was not a scholar in the civil service, it was easier for me to leave the board and set up a technology start-up.

 Scholars who do well will find it extremely hard after six years to move out of their comfort zone into the risky world of entrepreneurship.

 Their methods of management are also very much tied to the civil service way. It is efficient, structured but bureaucratic. The ways of the private world, especially in an entrepreneurial setting, are totally different and only the flexible can survive.

 I had set out with a goal of being an entrepreneur one day, so I was ready to make sacrifices. Even so, I was not prepared for my experiences as a new entrepreneur.

 Competitors with funding 10 to 50 times greater than mine offered free services. Players with established products controlled the market well. However, my firm has survived.

 My fear is that in its enthusiasm to meet SM Lee’s objective of sending up to half of its scholars into the private sector as entrepreneurs, the public sector will create mini government-linked companies.

 Reluctant scholars may be pushed into starting businesses tied to the apron strings of these organisations and be given easy contracts to get their businesses started.

 Singapore would have created many entrepreneurs but of the wrong type. They would not succeed outside Singapore, or even in Singapore without support.

 Because I had no such privileges and came close to running out of funds several times, the business had to succeed or I would have been bankrupt. There is no greater motivation to succeed.

 The move to encourage scholars to become entrepreneurs is a positive one. Singapore needs entrepreneurs, the type that helped Hong Kong and Taiwan succeed, and the type that China and India are churning out daily.

 However, I recommend that it be done this way:

 Encourage the younger scholars to become entrepreneurs, particularly those with around two years’ experience. They would have enough exposure to government operations but not have the fear of losing their high salaries

 Award some bond-free government scholarships. Give the graduating scholars the choice of joining statutory boards that deal with private sector, such as the Economic Development Board. But limit their contract to two years.

 Do not count how many scholars become entrepreneurs. This may start a trend of creating reluctant entrepreneurs.

 Do not create artificial incentives for them to leave. If they want to become entrepreneurs, wish them luck and leave them alone.

 If they fail, there should not be a government job waiting. Never mind that this may prompt only 10 per cent of the scholars to become entrepreneurs. It is quality we want, not quantity.


Mr Yee Jenn Jong

————————— Reply ——————————- 

The Straits Times 19 Jun, 04

Would-be entrepreneurs have ways to pay for studies

We refer to the letter, ‘Entrepreneurs from public sector: quality, not quantity’ (ST, June 15), by Mr Yee Jenn Jong. We would like to thank him for his thoughtful letter and for sharing his experience with us.

The Government awards scholarships to about one-third of the top talent of each Alevel cohort (defined as those in the top 10 per cent in terms of results).

About half of each cohort of scholars eventually leave the civil service, although we do not know how many of them become entrepreneurs.

 The Government will not stand in the way of scholars who wish to leave after a few years if they do not see themselves making the civil service their lifelong career.

 We agree with Mr Yee it should not provide incentives, support or fall-back job guarantees to encourage more scholars to go into business. Doing so is against the enterprising spirit.

 However, we do not believe the Government should award bond-free scholarships, and encourage the scholars to become entrepreneurs after spending two years in the Government.

 A young Singaporean wanting to become an entrepreneur has many avenues to fund his university education. No Singaporean has to forgo a university education for lack of funds.

 The Government cannot justify funding scholarships without requiring a bond, or only to release the scholars two years later.


If we did so, how would we explain to taxpayers if the scholars later decide not to become entrepreneurs? 

Mr Yee deserves respect for having taken the plunge to become an entrepreneur, overcoming the many difficulties and making a success of his business.


However, scholars who remain in the civil service also deserve respect. They contribute in a different but equally vital way to the Government and the prosperity of the country. 

We need an efficient civil service, staffed by properly paid, capable civil servants, for entrepreneurs such as Mr Yee to prosper in Singapore.

 Joyce Chia

Assistant Director (Public Affairs)

for Permanent Secretary

Prime Minister’s Office


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