It is something that makes entrepreneurs in Singapore proud. One of our own being named as entrepreneur of the year, not in Singapore or Asia, but in the world.
Oliva’s story is one that should motivate many (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olivia_Lum and http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2011/6/9/business/8862387&sec=business). She does not know who her real parents are. She was raised by an adopted person called ‘grandmother’ who gambled away her savings when Oliva was just three. She grew up humbly in a shack without running water and electricity in Perak. Her teacher was wise enough to recognise her potential and recommended her to go to Singapore to study at age 15. She studied her way to NUS, graduating with major in Chemistry, worked for a while and then founded Hyflux with just $20,000 initial capital and lots of passion (http://www.straitstimes.com/SME%2BSpotlight/SME%2BBlogs/Working%2Btowards%2BSuccess/STIStory_486283.html).
You don’t need rich parents and lots of connections to do well. Of course there are entrepreneurs like Richard Li whose father is the very rich Li Ka-Shing. But there are many more like Oliva Lum, George Quek and Sim Wong Hoo who have humble background. They just have a lot of passion and drive to make things happen from a starting small.
Another thought I had of Oliva’s success is that it is also one of the positive examples of how our government can help a promising local start-up succeed. We needed clean water – Newater and desalination. We could have gone that usual safe route of awarding contracts only to big MNCs in this space. I am glad that Hyflux was one of the key providers of such services through public-private partnership when Hyflux was still a young and growing company. With success in Singapore, Hyflux is now providing such services to many countries overseas.
I feel it is important for our civil servants to think about developing local companies especially in key areas that we could start selling our services worldwide when we have succeeded in Singapore. I wish there are more examples like Hyflux’s. It is difficult to think of several more. More often than not, our civil servants awarding large and key c0ntracts are paralysed by fear that if anything goes wrong with the project after they have awarded to a local start-up, their careers would be jeopardised. A top civil servant told me once in private his reason for awarding a large contract to a foreign IT firm is that he is awarding to the known best in the field and if anything goes wrong in future, that will not be the fault of the awarding committee. How sad if that was the main reason driving that award, which I knew went to the foreign firm that charged much more than comparable local solutions. Unfortunately, that is not the only case I know of which the awarding committee’s primary concern was about how to answer in case of future failures.
Many times, our government agencies promote start-up through grants. There’s nothing wrong with grants and they are useful to drive initiatives in certain areas. But grants do not make companies succeed. Companies need a thriving marketplace with real demand driving the growth of companies. We need to enlarge the marketplace by being more open to using the services of promising local start-ups by government departments and by not crowding our start-ups with Government-Linked Companies (GLCs) and the likes of NTUC going into every space they can lay their hands on.
I congratulate Oliva once again and wish that we can have more of such global successes with our local companies, hopefully with some useful push by our government through a friendlier business environment.