Congratulations to Oliva Lum – World Entrepreneur of the year

 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 ( and 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 (

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.


3 comments on “Congratulations to Oliva Lum – World Entrepreneur of the year

  1. Sir,

    I’ve followed your posts for some time already. Great contents, but there is a notable tendency for you to just write on and on as they cropped up in your mind.

    SORRY for being rude, but I just want more surfers to read on your awesome sharing.

    You may want to consider more paragraphing, shorter sentences, etc. Wish to help.

  2. If those so-called foreign talents that we now have are like Oliva, I’m sure no one will be so unhappy. Oliva’s success reflects well on Singapore as a place that still allows someone who has the capability but without strong family background to succeed based on his/her own efforts.

    I feel more needs to be done to promote local entrepreneurship:

    (1) Low rents for start-ups
    (2) Easier access to credit from start-ups
    (3) Certain portion of government projects to allow for local start-ups to bid up among themselves to secure them, to allow them to get some experience and head-start before expanding further
    (4) Government to stop creating property bubbles in the future by doing something to ‘wag’ up property prices because this can give a signal to clever ones to go into property speculation instead of starting up some real business.
    (5) Regular reviews on regulations to make sure they don’t kill off entrepreneurship
    (6) A one-stop center to cater to small and medium enterprises

    What else? Anyone can add some more ideas?

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