Singapore needs to break away from risk averse culture to succeed in the 21st century

SMU don assistant professor Chung Wai Keung is spot-on in his interview (“Our risk-averse culture hinders social mobility”, Straits TImes 6 Apr 2011). In the interview, Prof Chung pointed out that Singapore’s risk averse culture weighs down its social mobility because it discourages entrepreneurship, a crucial means by which the low-income can scale the social hierarchy. He stated that while the government encourages Singaporeans to take risks, the whole system discourages students from doing so. It becomes more rational for students to just find a job after leaving school.

I know, because I am a product of our system. I studied entirely in Singapore, from kindergarten to university, and continued onto postgraduate studies at NUS immediately after graduation. I was told to study hard from young and to do well academically. I did so obligingly. The only reason I did post-graduate studies was because I was conditioned to keep going as high as I can academically as it is a safe route to take. Midway through my PhD studies, I decided it was not what life should be, as least for me. I moved progressively to take more risks, going first into a statutory board, then as a professional manager for an entrepreneurial SME before initiating a technology start-up company.

 In running a start-up in the highly competitive dotcom environment, I quickly realised that none of the academic qualifications I had mattered. To the customer, it was about whether we could deliver our products and services to them in a cost-effective manner and about customer service. It was a humbling experience to be questioned by customers if ours was yet another one of the many “me-too” dotcoms and by staff if the company had any potential at all. The experience taught me many things the books and even my MBA studies could not. We survived only because we responded constantly to customers’ needs and kept innovating.

 The move eventually paid off when we grew the business to become a leader in its field and sold it off to a public-listed firm after 7 years of hard work. I did not regret my move in any way along the journey, even when there were times I nearly became poor or even bankrupt at some points in our fledging business. In various periods during the initial years, we had just enough to pay expenses for the current month. I am however, an exception amongst my peers who have moved on to good-paying safe careers.

 We often hear Singapore is a small market. We make it even smaller because there are few opportunities to develop good start-ups. Government officials play-it-safe by going for large companies for contracts, even when smaller companies can fulfil the requirements at a lower cost. We run GLCs so well that its leaves SMEs little space to develop. We suck the top talents up by tying them down with scholarships at a young age. We make things too safe in Singapore because we are afraid to fail. We label people who fail – in school, in work and in business. We teach students there is a right and a wrong way to do things. Hence they become progressively afraid to try unconventional ideas. In this 21st century, we need to figure out how to train students for job types that they will do 10-15 years later that do not now exist. We cannot use the same approach as we did when Singapore needed to only train up good manpower for MNCs. We need to train up creative people to take on the world. We need resilience in our people to dare to try, dare to fail and dare to rise up again if they fail.

Unfortunately, I feel we have missed the mark in our approach. We missed it in our education philosophy, we missed it in the way we develop our SMEs. We pay lip service to promoting entrepreneurship. In my letter to the Straits Times forum on 14 August 2010 (, I’d suggested a few things for the Minister in charge of Entrepreneurship to consider. I like to suggest again the following:

  1. Cut down the number of bonded scholarships by government and statutory boards. Don’t tie down talents while they are young and do not continue to propagate this mindset that you need to get a scholarship to get into the elite in order to succeed in life.
  2. Actively foster links between our tertiary institutions and overseas tertiary institutions known for churning up entrepreneurs. Immerse willing students into offshore programmes to develop them and to cultivate ties for the future.
  3. Have an active cultivation of innovation, entrepreneurship and risk-taking in primary and secondary students through schools’ curriculum and activities. Review the over-emphasis on academic achievements and re-evaluate how else we can educate students to have a balance of academic knowledge and life skills.
  4. Change the mindset of government officials to not play-things-safe and award contracts only to large companies if small companies can meet all the requirements at a lower cost. It can even be implemented such that GLCs and MNCs do not compete for contracts that are smaller than a certain size to allow SMEs the space to bloom.
  5. Review accessibility of funding to SMEs, both in terms of loans and access to venture funds.

 Singapore needs to be bold, think radically and revamp herself to continue to stay competitive through innovation and enterprise in this 21st century.

This author believes that one must live life without regrets and we should all learn to take the plunge to do things passionately rather than regret later for not trying at all.


10 comments on “Singapore needs to break away from risk averse culture to succeed in the 21st century

  1. I admire your entrepreneurial achievements. But I don’t think it’s right for you to say that it’s “society”, the “culture”, the “environment” or even the govt that discourages entrepreneurship.

    And even if it is, so what? Who’s supposed to change “society”? Our values, beliefs are shaped over many generations. If Singapore is generally a risk-averse society, then that’s it. It may change over time, but it won’t change in a day.

    As for the govt, I would prefer they get out of the way. Frankly Singapore has too much govt involvement in every aspect of life. Real entrepreneurial societies have much less govt. Hence rather than govt taking the lead to promote entrepreneurship, I’d rather they withdraw completely from the private sector, and stop meddling with our lives.

    As to your suggestions:

    1. Bonded scholarships.– I don’t think we have that many scholarships, and entrepreneurs aren’t known for being muggers anyway. Think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, even Sim Wong Hoo. Did any of these guys get scholarships? So why attribute scholarships to lack of entrepreneurship? Frankly, the real entrepreneurs would drop out of school long before they are even eligible for scholarships.

    2. Foster links between our tertiary institutions and overseas tertiary institutions known for churning up entrepreneurs.

    Notwithstanding that I’m totally against govt interference in the affairs of universities, have you looked at NUS’ overseas programmes lately?

    3. Review the over-emphasis on academic achievements and re-evaluate how else we can educate students to have a balance of academic knowledge and life skills.

    To follow your suggestion would lead to subjects like “How to be creative” and “Entrepreneurship 101”. I don’t think schools can teach such skills in a structured way. Certainly schools in hong kong or us, two very enterprising places, do not do so.

    I agree we have too much emphasis on academic achievement. But it’s also the ks parents who are forcing kids to get A’s.
    Schools are good for teaching some things, like academic skills. They’re not so good for teaching other things.

    4. Change the mindset of government officials to not play-things-safe and award contracts only to large companies if small companies can meet all the requirements at a lower cost.

    Contracts are awarded on a commercial basis. Why should govt go out of its way to award to small companies? The us govt does not give preference to small companies. That’s not the way to support entrepreneurs. Why punish big and successful companies? That goes against logic.

    5. Review accessibility of funding to SMEs, both in tems of loans and access to venture funds.

    Actually, all reports I’ve heard are that there’s too much $$ chasing too few ideas. But venture funds are normally private vehicles, govt should not interfere in how VC’s make their decisions. So there’s nothing to review.

  2. @politicalwritings- History has shown how political systems and government control can drastically shape the characteristics of a society. Look at North and South Korea.

    The Government needs to right some of the very policies and social engineering work they had done in the past. I was brought up in the same education system of the 70’s and 80’s as Mr Yee, where we were subtly and sometimes outrightly taught that going into Engineering is the best thing for life because we were all expected to graduate to work in the scores of MNC-owned manufacturing plants, many of which have since shipped out to places with cheaper labour. We were also taught that we’ll have a difficult life ahead if we dropped out of school or if we were branded as ‘slow-learners’. Remember the days of M-level 8-year primary school if you were considered ‘slow’?

    The Government can keep its non-entrepreneurship-friendly, risk-averse policies and hope that Singapore society will somehow develop the entrepreneurship over the next few generations as you have suggested. Or it can start dismantling those unhelpful policies and help foster a more entrepreneurship environment.

    The article suggested reducing the number of bonded scholarships. I would suggested giving scholarships WITHOUT bond to help needy students to get some decent education. Just have a requirement that the recipient works a number of years in Singapore.

  3. Haven’t you realized its all political? You have to answer the million dollar question.

    “What if these entrepreneurs, when they become influential and hire many Singaporeans, support the opposition?”

    The answer will tell you exactly why the PAP govt has no interest in supporting Singaporean entrepreneurs and would rather rely on MNCs.

    • If influential entrepreneurs are supporting the opposition, then the PAP has got some soul-searching to do, and has to adapt and evolve accordingly.

      Change is the only constant, and nobody is exempt, not even our beloved Government.

      If we don’t support Singaporean entrepreneurs, they will move elsewhere, and in the long run I don’t think that is a loss we can afford to take. I hope the folk in the PAP recognize this!

  4. This quote by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee says it all about the state of entrepreneurship in Singapore …

    “The process of modifying competition to serve particular ends is therefore fraught with danger. At best, it can produce entrepreneurs of a lesser calibre who can survive only within the protected walls of state regulations. At worst, it would lead to the creation not of an entrepreneur class but of a rentier class whose contributions to the management of business are nominal and whose role in affairs depends on the possession of special privileges. In such situations, much activity will consist not of entrepreneurship but of spivvery.”

  5. Society isn’t just like this or like that.
    We are what we are shaped by an overbearing
    influence in this case, the PAP govt.

    Certainly at some point, most certainly at some
    turning point where govt economic policies
    has led to great successes that the ambition of the
    govt turned inward looking and complacent.

  6. Pingback: Creativity in Singapore | Fisher Global Experiences

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