Watching start-ups grow up

I attended my final evaluation meeting yesterday as an panel member of ACE Startup Committee. Yesterday’s session was a marathon one as some groups were re-invited back to present as the panel had queries on various aspects of their proposals in earlier sessions, and the rest were those rushing to meet the deadline for the final session before the startup funding programme is superseded by the recently announced Startup SG initiative.

It has been a fulfilling journey. I was invited to be on the then-newly convened panel in late 2011. I recall in my first speech in parliament in October 2011, I had offered to help with the government’s effort to develop entrepreneurial attitudes amongst students and youths. So I accepted the invitation readily.

The committee initially met monthly to evaluate application for startup grants from SPRING Singapore of up to $50,000 per successful application by new entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs-to-be. This was later changed to bi-monthly meetings. From time to time, as an ACE representative, I also sat in presentations at polytechnics, at ITEs and at non-government groups which were also centres where their alumni / mentees could apply for the same SPRING Singapore grants.

I must have listened to some 300 presentations through these session in these 5 and a half years as a panel member.

A lot has changed since I took the plunge to be an entrepreneur in end 1999. Back then, government support structures were lacking. It was not so cool to give up secure careers to try to realise the dream to create a new business in uncharted waters. The first wave of dotcom was just hitting Singapore. Some enthusiasm had built up due to the success of silicon valley in the 1990s and that caught on in Singapore around early 1999 with some dotcom listings on our stock exchange. It died very rapidly too with the NASDAQ crash of April 2000. The crash nearly killed our business too as we had started the business but had barely raised funds when all equity funding sources dried up. It forced us to be disciplined to chase for revenues and to evolve our business models to what services the market would want to pay us something for. Eventually, we had a lucky break when e-learning became an essential service in our target market and we successfully sold off our already profitable business in 2007 with decent returns to our investors. That’s another story you can read about in my earlier blog posts.

Now as panel member, I face eager new and would-be entrepreneurs of all types, determined to convince the panel that they have a differentiated, interesting and viable business. We see business proposals of all types – the typical tech and mobile / internet ones, to interesting ways to disrupt age-old businesses such as fashion and food. Many proposals were accepted but many more were not supported for various reasons, and hopefully they will have the resilient to move on and explore alternatives.

The ecosystem has changed much since my journey more than a decade ago. It is certainly more ‘cool’ now for young graduates or even undergraduates to try for that start-up dream. I have seen many top graduates and even highly qualified and successful professionals give up lucrative careers for the hard work of running a start-up. Passion is key to making startups work. We cannot artificially mandate entrepreneurship. It has to come from the founders as they will need that inner belief and drive to make it successful through the endless challenges that will come. It helps that the universities and to a lesser extent, polytechnics have taken on this message seriously and have created their own ecosystem to make it easier for ideas to be incubated. Whilst funding is nowhere as vibrant as that in established and more exciting markets like the USA and China, there is definitely a lot more channels for good ideas to chase for funding.

Our market size remains a huge constraint for startups to really grow big and take on the world stage. In some cases, regulators are opening up to create friendly environment for startups, though a lot more can be done. I would like to see more vibrant sandboxes in as many industries as possible. In some industries where the government itself is a big user and purchaser of services, such as education and defence, it can be more open to working with start-ups, and to create environments where startups can evolve innovative solutions. Whilst there has been a lot of preaching by our leaders about our country needing innovation and entrepreneurship to drive it forward, I still get a sense that many in the government services lower down have not bought into the vision. They are still creating rules that control and restrict, and relying on old ways that will not encourage vibrant industry ideas to flourish in their sector. Hopefully leaders themselves buy into what they preach and look into how there are rules and habits in their own backyard that can be changed to encourage national innovation.

I am happy to have played a role as best as I can as an individual in this scene. I had the opportunity to mentor some of the startups actively, particularly those in the education sector. It is still a great challenge that they face and will face, as this path is hardly an easy one. I have seen some grow after much sweat and even change of business directions, sometimes more than once. I have seen some give up too. Many will fail for every major success we hear of. Yet, try we must and I am glad that many of our best and brightest are indeed trying.

 

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Think big, start small, act fast – here’s something for the Minister to consider

The speech by the Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung on the annual promotion exercise for the administrative service caught my attention.

Mr Ong was encouraging the public servants to offer bold policy suggestions, rather than “second-guess the policy preferences” of ministers. Amongst other things, he also had said that sound policies must take into account ground realities and constraints, and also that “there is no perfect comprehensive grant plan. If we over-plan, we run the risk of paralysis by analysis.”

I totally agree and so I wish to offer again a suggestion that I had mooted for many years already, both in and out of parliament. In his speech, Mr Ong had covered various initiatives in the domain of other ministries. I wish to suggest one that is for the ministry that Mr Ong is in charge of.

I had called for pilot through-train schools from primary 1 to secondary 4, extending to college even if necessary. We have often talked about our stressful education system; how our children are subjected to pressurising various high stake examinations early in life. Many have talked about our our students being exam-smart but lacking in creativity and imagination. Much hope was offered during the national Singapore Conversation exercise and when the Prime Minister said in his National Day speech that the PSLE will be changed. The changes though, after much anticipation, will not make any significant impact towards reduce the stress.

The suggestions for the through-train school that I had made can be found in the selected links below, so I will not elaborate in this blog.

a.  Committee of Supply debate on MOE, Mar 2012

b. Scrapping the PSLE, blog post, Sep 2012

c. Committee of Supply debate on MOE, Mar 2014

d. WP proposes small start for through-train plan, CNA 5 Sep 2015

e. Singaporeans need a bolder look at how to change education system, Feb 2017

Being involved actively in the K-12 education sector for over two decades, I do understand the challenges faced if we are to change the current education system too quickly. Having gotten so used to a competitive system with high stake examinations, constant streaming and highly differentiated schools, it will be hard to immediately switch to an alternative. I too understand that as then-Minister for Education, Mr Heng Swee Kiat said in 2012 in response to my proposal for such a through-train scheme, that pressure may be shifted to primary one. Hence, my suggestion was to avoid involving top schools for such pilot schools, and to also start small with a limited number of such through-train schools.

Attitudes need time to change. Right now, there is no alternative for parents who do not wish that their children be caught in this rat-race of constant high-stake streaming. There have been many good policy initiatives in the past, such as Thinking Schools Learning Nation, Teach Less Learn More, Every School a Good School, etc. Set against the overarching policy of having to differentiate schools by resources and students achievements, as well as high stake examinations to sort students into schools and academic stream, these good policies end up being sidelined. Tuition continues to flourish.

Having just a few pilot through-train schools, preferably neighbourhood schools or schools with existing strong primary-secondary affiliations (again, I emphasise excluding top schools and schools already on 6-year IP), will allow parents who believe in 10 years of holistic education to commit their children to the same school. Over time, perhaps we will have a chance to shift Singaporean mindsets to accept that we can develop successful students without competitively sorting students through high-stake examinations, and even allow students of mixed abilities to learn effectively together in the same class.

It is a big dream, but we can start small, and perhaps act faster too. Meanwhile, other messages that MOE sends must be consistent with what the minister is saying too. For example, two years ago, MOE totally took away the autonomy of principals to allow appeal by students into secondary schools and junior colleges, even if they had missed the cut-off by just one point for whatever reasons. It basically promotes a top-down approach to getting things done, which quite contradicts what we now often hear that there should be more autonomy and initiatives from bottom up.

PE2017 – A missed opportunity for EP to gain acceptance?

On Friday, former Presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock called a press conference to question why the late President Wee and not the late President Ong was considered as the first Elected President (EP). It was also an argument that Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, Ms Sylvia Lim had put forth in parliament as well during the debate on the changes to the elected presidency. Blogger Andrew Loh captured their arguments, as well as listed many evidences of how history and Singaporeans, myself included definitely, had always regarded President Ong as our first EP.

At issue would be whether the upcoming Presidential Election (PE) should be a reserved election for Malays because it pertains to whether 5 continuous election terms had passed without producing a Malay President. The government’s unconvincing response so far has been that it was the advice of AGC to consider President Wee as the first EP, thereby triggering the reserved election. However, the government would not publish the advice of the AGC despite attempts in parliament and by the online community to ask for it.

The AGC may well have their reasons for advising the government in this manner, but it is also the government’s prerogative to decide if it wishes to accept. There are after all, good counter arguments against it. President Wee may have been given the powers and duties of an elected president but he was nominated for the position before the EP position was created. The powers of an EP were accorded to him near the end of his term as president until the first PE could be called. Hence, many Singaporeans are puzzled and remain unconvinced as to why the time should be counted from President Wee’s term because there was never an election to get him into office.

The issue of EP has long been a contentious one. It was conceptualised as a safeguard of Singapore’s reserves during the 1980s against a possible future ‘rogue government’ when the opposition started to make inroads with the electorate. For the first PE in 1993, ex-banker Chua Kim Yeow openly said that he was persuaded by former DPM Goh Keng Swee and then-Finance Minister Richard Hu to stand for election against the establishment’s preferred candidate, former DPM Ong Teng Cheong, in order to give a choice to the people. He however, seemed reluctant to campaign Singaporeans to choose him. That irked me enough to write and have my first letter published in the forum pages of Straits Times. I felt it seemed to be a contest for the sake of having a contest to give legitimacy to the first PE. Apparently, I was not the only one to have felt so because other forum writers and even journalist Bertha Henson also wrote to urge the late Mr Chua to show that he really wanted the President’s job.

We next had two uneventful PEs which were walkovers because only one suitable candidate was available for both elections. It wasn’t that there were no interests to contest. The barriers to qualify had been set very high and those who qualified were generally uninterested to offer themselves. Singaporeans generally lost interest in PEs until 2011 when four eligible candidates campaigned vigorously for the post.

After the nail-biting results of PE2011 in which President Tony Tan won Dr Tan Cheng Bock by just 0.45% with 35.20% of valid votes cast, the people’s expectations had been set high for PE2017. Dr Tan declared last year that he would contest again in 2017.

Subsequently, just months before the upcoming PE, the government pushed through various amendments to the EP that include setting aside reserve election for minority candidates if no President of that minority race was produced after 5 consecutive terms, as well as increasing the qualifying criteria for the top executive of private companies. The top executive now needs to run a business with at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity compared to $100 million in paid up capital previously. The previously very high barrier, has now been set to extraordinarily very high.

The government has now declared PE2017 to be a reserved election for Malays (counting 5 terms from President Wee). The candidate will be from a very, very short list, and most likely from the public sector (i.e. political appointees).

I find it a big letdown that Dr Tan, who was found eligible to contest in 2011, contested vigorously, and who continued to show interest since then to contest again, is now disqualified on various counts.

The government had pushed for the clause to have reserve elections for minority on the reason that voting is very much race-based. Well, we had minority candidates winning in elections against the majority chinese race in single seat contests many times since independence. Recent ones include Mr Murali Pillai in the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election and Mr Michael Palmer in Punggol East in GE2011. Both won very comfortably. Even opposition politician, the late Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam won in a 3-corner fight in the 1981 Anson by-election.

The government had never put forth a Malay candidate since the first PE in 1993, even when we had two consecutive walk-overs with only one candidate each time. Now it has decided that it is important to ensure minority representation and passed the reserve election amendment.

There’s nothing to prevent the government from recognising President Ong as the first EP and having the upcoming PE2017 as an open election. It can still put forth a Malay candidate. If it is as widely speculated to be Madam Halimah Yacob, the current Speaker of Parliament, the government should have confidence that she can stand her ground in an open election. She has won comfortably in four general elections and has high standing in the eyes of Singaporeans of all races. Many Singaporeans, myself included, do want to have minorities as Presidents. It will be truly a missed opportunity if we do not allow a highly suitable Malay candidate to become president on his/her own merits in an open election. It will quell the constant speculation that Singaporeans are immature and will vote along racial lines. Imagine if President Obama had somehow (although so unimaginable in the context of USA) been engineered into the White House because of rules safeguarding minority participation in politics, would he have been the popular president of all Americans that he was throughout his two terms of office?

AGC may have their reasons for the recommendation but the government should find the courage to allow an open election, which it can if it considers President Ong to be the first EP. Then the EP office will be more respected. If it wishes to play safe and only have preferred persons to be in office, let’s just dispense with the EP and revert back to having nominated Presidents, which had served us well for so long and had given us good and popular Presidents.

PE2017, with at least two interested and popular candidates contesting, would have rekindled Singaporeans’ interest in the office of EP. Instead, the response by the government to Dr Tan’s request for clarity and call for open election, is that Dr Tan’s comments did not require a response.