The entrepreneurship hype. Who benefits?

August 29, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Young Democrats, SDP

“It’s the Remaking Singapore season,” declares political columinist Chua Lee Hoong in her latest commentary. Indeed, no Remaking Singapore talk will be complete without hawking the current buzzword – entrepreneurship. The future of Singapore’s economy, says the PAP leaders, will be sustained through the creation of an entrepreneurial culture.

Not surprising, therefore, that another senior Straits Times’ writer has also come to champion the entrepreneur. In his article, “SIA should leave budget airline to the entrepreneurs,” Andy Ho argues that SIA’s “full service culture which charges premium prices” is not suited to run a low-cost, no-frills discount airline. “Successful discount airlines,” he added, “have all been set up by private entrepreneurs who infuse them with distinctive cultures.”

A day after Mr Ho’s column, the same newspaper reported that a group of entrepreneurs have registered a private limited company and are planning to set up a budget airline. Wow! Entrepreneurship must be really taking off in Singapore, you would think.

Well, not really. Sources indicate that the group is led by former Singapore Airlines deputy chairman Lim Chin Beng, who is now the non-executive chairman of, you guessed it, Singapore Press Holdings. Mr Lim joined SIA’s forerunner Malayan Airlines in 1960 and had served on Singapore Airline’s board after its inception until 1996. In other words, the 70-year-old is a GLC veteran.

Here’s where the definition of “entrepreneur” in the Singaporean context gets a little interesting. In an economy dominated by GLCs, where are the big-time entrepreneurs likely to come from? You don’t need to be an expert to figure out that most of Singapore’s potential entrepreneurs will emerged from the ranks of GLCs. They certainly have industry knowledge, finances and the know-how to negotiate government contracts.

The push for entrepreneurship is not new. In January of 1993, SM Lee Kuan Yew warned that Singapore will be a “failed NIE” if people do not dare to venture abroad to build an external economy that will add to the GNP. He argued that “to succeed, Singapore must sprout a second wing – go abroad, encourage entrepreneurship, risk taking.”

When Lee Kuan Yew calls for action, one can be sure that there will be action. What followed from his speech was that instead of the private sector taking the lead, the GIC started to pump billions of dollars in overseas investments. The Suzhou Industrial Park fiasco soon became a sobering reminder of the risks that SM Lee himself talked about. At the same time, GLCs became even more entrenched than ever.

Now, 10 years later, his son DPM Lee Hsien Loong repeats the same call we have launched a major exercise to remake the Singapore economy. We must become more willing to take risks and more entrepreneurial.” (Straits Times, June 7, 2003)

With no sign of the PAP government relinquishing its role as major stakeholder in GLCs, the impending outcome of this new call for entrepreneurship will be a repeat of SM Lee’s call in 1993 expect to see more Lim Chin Bengs in the future.

One Internet forumner predicts, “All this entrepreneur talk will lead to more and more MIW (Men In White) venturing into the private sector – buying over existing companies and starting new ones. I venture that in ten years time, the line between GLCs and private sector will be blurred. Private sector will be run by board of directors comprising of MIW types . When that happens, PAP’s control of the Singapore economy will be complete.”

The current quest for entrepreneurship is also being echoed in the remaking of the education system, or at least, this is what SM Lee would like us to believe: “We have to remake ourselves, have a more entrepreneurial bent in our society, and shift our education system to produce a different kind of worker.” (Straits Times, May 12, 2003)

Reality, however, is something else: “Taking over the education portfolio from a former navy man, new acting Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam knows he inherits a tight ship and does not plan any major course changes. There will be no fundamental re-orientation or revamp.” (Straits Times, Apr 29,2003)

How now, Mr Lee? You want entrepreneurial culture but your Education Minister is not willing to reform the education system? So with no corresponding revamp in education, what does all this entrepreneurship babble mean for the rest of us?

Our poor PM Goh Chok Tong, seemingly oblivious to the big picture, is now tasked with picking role models for this new entrepreneurial drive. He made this astonishing remark in Streats (Mar 7, 2003): “I saw in the papers that there was this graduate frying some “gao luk” (roasted chestnuts). This is what I mean by showing enterprise; doing things on your own.” When the Prime Minister of a First World nation begins to champion unemployed graduates who has to take to selling chestnuts on the streets, we must be in deep trouble.

If PM Goh had a clearer memory, he would have recalled that in our early years of nation-building, we had entrepreneurship in abundance. People sold “gao luk” on the streets regardless if their prime minister thinks it’s the right thing to do or not.

Another Internet forumner, Bart, summed it up “During the 60s, 70s and 80s, entrepreneurship was thriving in Singapore. There were countless bus companies, many banks, many shipyards, many textile firms, etc, etc, and many people went into businesses, trying to create wealth. However, somewhere along the way, SM Lee Kuan Yew didn’t like the free-wheeling and chaotic culture that sprang up.

As a result, many unfair rules were created to compete against the small entrepreneurs – business area re-created or re-zoned, more tax & fine are imposed, hawkers cleared off the roads, etc. Until one day, all the padded-up regulations become so layered that peeling those layers are like undoing a onion – it bring tears to the peeler and those standing nearby.

Finally, Singaporeans realised the government is against free-wheeling business culture and decided not to enter business and just let the government do everything. Then the kiasu, kiasi and kia-everything crept up on all Singaporeans. Now PAP thinks that there are too few entrepreneurs in Singapore when they should be asking themselves Why is that so?

In an Amazon review of Lee Kuan Yew’s From Third World To First, a reader from Beijing noted, “One achievement he forgets to mention is that Singapore has achieved the seemingly impossible: it’s made Chinese people lose their entrepreneurial spirit.”

After spending considerable energy in virtually strangling the entrepreneurial spirit out of Singaporeans, does Lee Kuan Yew really want to recapture the glory days of free-wheeling enterprise? Remember that in 1993, he made the call for more entrepreneurs and risk-taking. Ten years later, he repeats the rhetoric. Two obvious conclusions can be drawn – either the 1993 call has failed or that it has worked tremendously well to keep the PAP in power and he wants more of the same.

Parting shot from Bart: “You need a very creative environment to nurture entrepreneurs. In a strict country like Singapore, it’s very difficult. You can even say it’s a bit too late. Until there’s political reform in Singapore politics, I doubt they will turn out anymore real entrepreneurs.”

Adds another forumner, KS: “The PAP Government is holding Singaporeans ransom because they control the economy. You vote the PAP out, many of you will lose your rice-bowl.”

Ominous? You better believe it.