Entrepreneurship begins in school

 Presidential candidate Dr Tony Tan spoke of bringing the ‘spirit of Silicon Valley’ to Singapore during his lunchtime rally (http://www.todayonline.com/Hotnews/EDC110824-0000892/President-is-not-a-Super-MP–Tony-Tan).

Dr Tan said “(If elected,) I will encourage Singaporeans to strike out in new areas, and give them opportunity to try new ventures and new ideas. I can help encourage their dreams and bring them to reality.” He told of how he had met with many entrepreneurs and people in voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) in recent months, and came away deeply impressed by their ideals, determination and passion to succeed.

“Even if they fail they will try again, and eventually succeed,” he said. This is the spirit of Silicon Valley I’m confident we can bring to Singapore.”

As an entrepreneur, I am glad to hear of this.

Several politicians and public personalities have talked about bringing this spirit of daring to fail and try again to Singaporeans. Minister of State for Trade and Industry Mr Teo Ser Luck spoke of this lack of risk taking at the recent Start-Up Enterprise Conference too (http://business.asiaone.com/Business/News/Story/A1Story20110823-295748.html).

I like to suggest that this spirit must start from young, right in school.

Our education system is rigid and stressful. We stream them from young and put them through several high stake examinations. We put schools through ranking exercise to see how well they produce results, brand the schools accordingly and stream students into schools according to their academic achievements.

Parents are put through this fear of their children failing. There’s a social stigma to have your child do badly in examinations and be streamed into less desirable education pathways and institutions. So they apply pressure on their children through tuitions and intense studying. Schools pack students with lots of drill-and-practice to get them exam-smart. It follows a rigid path to success. Studying is not about passion but about doing well in standardised examinations. We hear the recent cry of 16-year old Janelle Lee to our Education Minister through her Facebook post.

When our students finally graduate from the education system, we tell them to find their dream. We tell them it is okay to fail in their ventures.

Our education system is good for training students in skills and knowledge, essential for creating a skilled workforce. It does not promote much creativity nor equip students with sufficient skills to cope with handling the dynamism of the Silicon Valley-styled entrepreneurship. It does not cultivate an innovative mind-set nor provide room to seek one’s passion.

Another problem facing entrepreneurs is the competition faced from GLCs and union-run social enterprises that extend their arms into so many aspects of our lives from cradle to grave. We lament that we cannot have a free-spirited entrepreneurship culture like that in Taiwan and Hong Kong yet these government and union enterprises that jump in frequently to compete with entrepreneurs whenever they smell the opportunity to make money. 

It is good that Dr Tony Tan, Mr Teo Ser Luck and others are talking about our people taking more risks. I suggest they look at this from a holistic point and start their work with their counterparts in the education ministry. They can also review what businesses our government and union enterprises should run and trim these to what’s absolutely necessary. Leave ample room for entrepreneurship to bloom.


Additional notes after posting

Today, a university junior reminded me of something  which I had forgotten to put into my article. It is something I had previously written to newspapers’ forums and blogged about on as another factor contributing to the lack of entrepreneurship culture in Singapore.

Our government organisations tend to operate in a manner where risk-taking is avoided as a mistake can jeopordise one’s career. Once a person is identified as having high potential, the tendency is to cruise along and avoid taking risks so the person can rise at least to the level he/she is targeted for.

I had a conversation once with a then-high ranking government official. He said he had just awarded a multi-million contract to a top international IT company even though it was the most expensive and twice as high as that of various comparable local solutions. He said he was doing so because he was awarding to the biggest IT firm so if anything was to go wrong in future, he and his team had already awarded to the best; therefore the problem could not be avoided. For the records, I was not an interested party in the tender but am familiar with the scope of the project.

I was not impressed with the logic. I can understand if the other companies had failed to meet specifications or could not produce value for their proposals. Instead, the key motivation for the award seemed to be to find an acceptable answer should there be a failure in the future. 

The incident is not the only one of such nature that I know of or have heard from other technology entrepreneurs. Officially, the reason for not awarding the tender to a local start-up could be something else, but this fear of failure amongst officials is something real and which I had witnessed for myself in my stint in a government organisation.

The irony is that we are to develop global businesses but it is tough to begin at home. I had written about this earlier in the posts below:



I hope Dr Tony Tan and those who wish to promote technology entrepreneurship here will also look into this fear of failure mindset in the government organisations even as they encourage budding entrepreneurs to dare to fail.


2 comments on “Entrepreneurship begins in school

  1. If the economy is not growing that terrific in the future, definitely you see a lot of people been forced to be entrepreneurial. Our school system is meant to train ‘good workers’ not good thinkers or entrepreneurial type of people.

    You need a whole supporting structure mainly of software-type such as society must accept and tolerate failure (like those Silicon-type of no die spirit, with failure been a badge of honor rather than shame), a good financial system with a lot of private equity type of people willing to support good local business ideas, support by locals on our people’s products/services. People must be purge of this mentality of making money from the property market.

    JJ, to tell you this hard fact about Singapore, to make good money in Singapore, the way to go till now, is still property investment/speculation. You can see a lot of our top local rich people, most of their wealth came from property, unlike in the US – Warren Buffet, Bill Gates whose wealth do not come from property speculation.

    Actually, our government is cultivating this kind of culture – getting rich from property. It is doing this because it serves their vested interests – being the biggest landowner, so it is always in their vested interests to create property bubbles to sell lands at ridiculously high prices to property developers. So, when property market is at rock bottom, they will dream of some excuses to create a new property bubbles. You take a long run, if you can read or guess the government intention/signals well, most of the time, you can get rich in property development/speculation. A lot of people know this game.

    This is also a good way for the government to instill fear and control through encouraging everyone to own a house – you know some people have this thinking, if they vote for the opposition, prices of their houses will go down?!

    If you want to have ‘real entrepreneurship’ , you have to purge away this opium – which is addicted to property-based wealth creation. If people can go the easy and safe way to get rich, who will want to be the ‘Sim Wong Hoo’ languishing there? Sim Wong Hoo is our real entrepreneur who unfortunately born at the wrong place !

    Can you expect our type of government to foster entrepreneurial spirit, you must be dreaming !?

  2. How would you solve the problem of “if anything should go wrong”? If a civil servant takes a risk and it went badly, the government could forgive him if he had good reasons to make that decision, but would voters be as forgiving of the government for allowing him to do so?

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