(Chinese) Good evening dear voters and dear residents of East Coast GRC.
I am very happy to be here in this familiar stadium. East Coast is located next to the Joo Chiat SMC. It is home to my in-laws, brother, sister and many friends. My alma matar, Temasek Junior College is also here.
(English) My topic today is on entrepreneurship and small and medium enterprises.
First, let me give a background of myself. I taught computer science at NUS and later worked at the trade development board and was General Manager for an education chain.
In June 1999, I had chicken pox. While on MC, I had time to reflect. Singapore was going through an Internet boom. I decided to seize that opportunity to start an e-learning company. My son was just 1 month old, my daughters were 6 and 7 years old then. My wife and I decided to venture out full-time into this and in January 2000, we started ASKnLearn. The dotcom crash came 3 months later. We had raised very little money and we faced many big competitors. Many wrote off our chances of survival. We outlasted some 30 competitors to become a leader in our industry in Singapore. ASKnLearn was sold to a public listed company and I have since started other education services companies.
As an entrepreneur, I was very happy when the government announced in the 2003 budget that it will appoint a Minister in charge of Entrpreneurship to promote a change in mindset and culture. Since then, we have had 3 Ministers in charge of Entrepreneurship – Mr Raymond Lim, Dr Vivian BALAKRISHNAN and now Mr Lee Yi Shyan. Two of the three are in the PAP’s East Coast GRC team.
However, as an entrepreneur, I felt too little had been done. These ministers are experienced bureaucrats, able to deliver numbers to meet Key Performance Indicators. We are one of the best places in the world to start a business, that is true; and they come up with grants and awards to honour entrepreneurs. So they seemed to have gotten the job done. But I feel they have missed the forest for the trees. Numbers don’t tell anything.
It is just like how PAP government uses GDP growth to tell us that they have run Singapore well and then they pay themselves 8 months’ bonuses. Each minister gets between 1 million to 3 million each in salary a year.
How much of the GDP growth went into benefitting ordinary Singaporeans? GDP is measured by goods and services generated in Singapore. Much of it goes to foreign talents and to the profits of MNCs. For example, each of our 2 casinos generate around $300 million profits every 3 months. These are foreign owned companies, the same with many other MNCs which contribute to but also take away a sizeable portion of our GDPs.
I am not against foreign companies setting up profitable businesses here. I am just saying that all these GDP numbers don’t translate to ordinary Singaporeans like you having a better life because most of these don’t go to you. It is just used to reward our bureaucrats with increments.
The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2010 reported that while Singaporeans are the fourth richest people in the world with an average personal wealth of US$336,000 per adult, the median wealth in Singapore is just US$30,092 per adult. In other words, half of the adults in Singapore are worth under US$30,092. This puts Singapore below 25 other developed countries in the report, below Greece and Portugal. Singapore is also the only country in the Credit Suisse report where median income is below GDP per capita.
So statistics can tell lies because the wealth distribution is not balanced. GDP can grow but you are not necessarily better off.
That’s the same with entrepreneurship. We can be shown numbers that try to convince us that small companies are well looked after, but it is not so.
What is the problem with entrepreneurship in Singapore?
- GLCs or Government Linked Companies are crowding out local companies
We have formed many GLCs and they now run so many businesses that they crowd out the small players. Not all GLCs are bad. You need some of them to focus on areas with global advantages (e.g. Keppel and Sembcorp in building oil rigs) but GLCs should not mindlessly compete with SMEs in all areas of businesses.
We also have the NTUC going into all sorts of areas of businesses which I cannot understand why it is necessary. In the education field which I am familiar with, NTUC runs many child care centres. They get privileged locations at highly subsidized rents. These kill off many smaller players because they have to pay high rents for locations and they often find it hard to get good locations because the choice void decks are given to PCF and NTUC. In budget 2011, Minister of State for Education, Masagos Zulkifi announced a doubling of budget to $290 million for preschool for next 5 years to lower cost of preschool education. What he did not say is how and where the money will be spent because it seems most, if not all will go to PCF and maybe to NTUC as well. My letter to the Straits Times forum on this was published but the ministries didn’t give any meaningful reply.
This mindset is also displayed in the PAP’s brand of politics – They allow you to play in a few SMCs but when you get serious in their GRC market, they get angry. They call you undemocratic. What so undemocratic about sending your best team in to contest in a GRC? Or is it undemocratic to them because they must win every time? In business and in politics?
2. Mindset of people – We have been conditioned to study hard to get scholarship, get good job. We are told we cannot fail. So we produce good workers and managers but not creative people who are resilient and unafraid to fail. We categorise children early in life with various high stake examinations and society conditions us that there is only one way to succeed.
There are more than 1 way to succeed in life. In politics, there are more than 1 way too. There’s not just the PAP way.
3. Play-if-safe kiasu, kiasi mentality in society
Many in the government service like to play it safe when it comes to awarding contracts. They prefer to give to a big company even when smaller ones meet the criteria at lower costs. This is because they don’t want to make mistakes. If they do, they will be sidelined.
PAP knows that Singaporeans are risk averse (kiasu, kiasi), so in politics too, they scare voters that if you vote opposition, Singapore will fail. They tell you that PAP is big, it cannot fail. The opposition is small, it will surely fail.
Let me give you an analog using race horses.
The PAP is like an old winning horse. It is strong but it is starting to weaken. The opposition is young and has not won much yet, but it is getting strong. Which horse do you bet on for long term? You don’t have to be afraid. Vote The Workers’ Party, towards a first world parliament.
The Minister in charge of Entrepreneurship should be a passionate crusader, championing whatever it takes to create enterprising spirit and environment, even if it means taking on the GLC mentality, pushing for change in education approach in schools, pushing for change in mindset in government agencies in awarding contracts and more. I have not seen being done.
The government should be helping small companies cope with rising rental costs, manpower costs, and inflation. Instead they are competing against them for businesses.
We should not be risk averse. We should have a brave and enterprising spirit. We should dare to vote the Workers’ Party, towards a first world parliament.