Risky business

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am

Ever since the Economic Review Committee outlined creativity and entrepreneurship as the way forward, officials have been hard at work trying to convince Singaporeans that they need to take risks if they want rewards.

But this is like trying to move mountains. Social tolerance for failure has always been low. From early on, an individual is assessed on his ability to get good grades and outperform others, rather than for his or her creative way of thinking. Young children are tested on their knowledge of maths, English and Mandarin. But with multiple-choice questions, they also have to conform to find the one and only 'correct' answer. Parents often complain that even if their child's answer is not incorrect, they may be failed because they did not tick the 'approved' answer.

Obedience conditioning and conforming is drilled in from an early age. When my little boy came back from school one day professing that pink (which has always been his favoured colour) was for girls because 'teacher said so', I realised that he was starting to learn to paint the world according to 'accepted' norms, and that he is already losing his sense of creativity.

With success often being assessed through the paper and grade chase, the education system has been churning out well-meaning bureaucrats and engineers for years, rather than risk-taking entrepreneurs. Now, the thinking is that Singapore's public sector could 'release' some of its scholars to the private sector after six or seven years of service to become entrepreneurs.

But can these mandarins survive the obstacle-ridden world of entrepreneurship? The debate is still not settled, but well-paid civil servants are unlikely to leave cushy jobs for one full of uncertainties - with lower pay likely, too. Indeed, officials had to make it clear that there would be no safety net for those who decide to take the plunge.

Yet, social respect for those who start a business is going up, we are told. 'We know the tolerance for failure here has been low,' one senior minister said this summer. 'But from most accounts, it is now rising.' One indicator is the number of students who enrol at the National University of Singapore's entrepreneurship centre. Five years ago, the centre would be hard pressed to get 200 students; last year it got 1,100.

At least Singaporeans could soon have more opportunities to become entrepreneurs late in life. They were told recently by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew that he was working on a scheme to allow workers to remain in employment past the 'official' retirement age of 62. This could be the perfect opportunity for a new wave of entrepreneurs to come to the fore.