The Singapore Story has been characterized by transformation through Entrepreneurship. Our founding fathers, led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew perhaps characterize the true spirit of entrepreneurship creating the SINGAPORE of today, one that many expected to fail after independence. Singapore faced many challenges during her “start-up” years and some of these were;

  • Volatility of the Region in the 1960s
  • Limited Natural and Financial Resources
  • Complexity of Running a Newly Independent Country
  • Fast Changing Environment in South East Asia
  • Surviving Turbulent Times

The 1960s were very volatile years and since independence, Singapore face many challenges, not unlike what a start-up company face from start to the growth years. Let me share 5 key principle of entrepreneurship that Singapore leaders used to bring Singapore from a start-up (independence) to a successful country that became a 3rd world to a 1st world in just 1 generation and how we tackled the 5 challenges Singapore faced as a “Start-Up”.

Volatility Solution : Vision – Identifying opportunities when others saw failure

In the 1960s, Singapore was thrown out of Malaysia and everyone wondered about being self-sufficient and soon enough faced problems including mass unemployment, housing shortages, and lack of land & natural resources. A larger portion of the population lacked formal education and Entrepot trade, the main use of Singapore’s port and the original reason for Singapore’s success in the 19th century was, no longer, sufficient to support the large population. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister sensed the need for immediate recognition of its sovereignty and saw an opportunity in it’s, otherwise, limited resources. He invested heavily to promote economic growth and encouraged the formation of strategies to improve the manufacturing sector. Another opportunity for Singapore, was its prime location amongst other neighbouring countries thus, proving to be a favourable spot for exporters.

When the neighbourhood was plagued by corrupted governments, the leaders saw the opportunity to provide a trusted place where you can do business with transparency and easy without complex rules and regulations and where the rule of the law was the key basis for doing things. While difficult initially, elimination corruption was one of the key opportunities the leaders saw and then branding Singapore as a clean and non-corrupt country attracted many to invest in Singapore.

Above all Lee Kuan Yew had a clear vision for Singapore. I hope everyone remembers that speech he gave in 1965 and I quote excerpts of it ;

Quote “This country belongs to all of us. We made this country from nothing, from mud-flats. It is man, human skill, human effort which made this possible. You came, you worked — for yourselves, yes. But in the process, your forefathers and my forefathers who came here: we built this civilization”

He then said, I quote “Over 100 years ago, this was a mud-flat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.”

Now that was a clear vision from a great leader.

Limited Resources Solution : Innovative Solutions and Build a Smart Nation

Singapore’s leaders made some risky decisions but did so while thinking out of the box. One example of its innovative thinking, is the use of Singapore’s limited resources to its own advantage. To create a skilled labour force, its leaders decided early on that the population would need to be fluent in the English Language hence, English was adopted as the medium of education for all school. . By making English the working language for people, we could quickly train everyone to become a workforce sought by global companies. It may seem intuitive but not everyone did it – look at Malaysia they allow the different language schools to continue even till today and we can see the results. I can say forcing everyone to English medium schools was a big political risk at that time and almost resulted in the communists toppling the government.

Skills training, such as ‘Design & Tech’ and other tertiary courses were also introduced for students, overtime.

With a skilled and productive workforce, the government managed to attract foreign investments because of our stability not because we had natural resources to support industries. But we created excellent and reliable infrastructure which was needed to run expensive machines continuously.

In the area of trade, Singapore had no natural resources to export and yet our leaders dreamt of us becoming the world biggest port. We saw the potential of transhipments from the east to the west and vice-versa and a trusted place for efficient and cost effective shipping. We developed PSA and became the world’s No 1 Port. We believed we could become an air hub and we developed Changi Airport and became one of the world’s best airports.

Singapore wired every home with broadband capability much earlier than most nations around the world. We were short of drinking water and depended on Malaysia for most of our water supply. When the Malaysian government started pressuring Singapore threatening to cut water supply, the government realized we cannot be subject to such threats and started developing – NEWATER – recycling of water, making Singapore fully self-sufficient. Today Singapore is a leading nation in water technology and sustainable development.

For more than 20 years the government has spent billions of dollars each year to catalysing and supporting R&D at the various stages, from basic to applied research. We will see the fruits of these investments in the years to come.

Complexity Solution : Assembling a Great and Talented Team

As discussed before, Singapore persevered because of its leaders’ visions. It was essential, from the get go, to focus on getting the best to be part of the governing team at all levels, this ensured the seamless execution of plans.

Singapore prides itself as having very talented people at all levels of government and also in creating great teamwork across all areas of government. For example our tripartite arrangements of workers, government and employers has resulted in seamless cooperation among the Unions, government and the companies resulting in evener more efficiency and productivity in our economy.

In Entrepreneurship we all know you may a great plan but if you have a poor team the chances of success is slim but you may have a poor plan but a great team, you chances of success are much higher. Our leaders understood this clearly and did not compromise on the team they assemble to lead Singapore.

This was possible because of the strong single party government, recruiting the most talented people and ensuring great teamwork among all.

Fast Changing Environment Solution : Agility and Adapting to change quickly

Change is inevitable so the sooner we accept it, the better off we are. One of Singapore’s biggest strengths would be its ability to adapt to change quickly and if need be, as the environment around us changes. What worked in the past will not work in the future, so the earlier we realise this the faster we can change and adapt to a new environment. This Agility and Adapting to changes quickly has been one of Singapore’s strengths.

Starting with cottage industries that could not create enough jobs, the government had quickly adjust when the British military withdrew from Singapore by going for rapid industrialization through foreign direct investment. Then as other countries caught up with us, we could not rely on cheap labour to attract companies, we shifted focus to automation and then to a knowledge based economy. When that too could not drive the economy further, we shifted focus on the services and banking industries. And about 10 years ago we realized we cannot keep depending on MNCs, we started changing ourselves for entrepreneurship. All these also needed us to ensure we had the right skill sets for the right type of industries and jobs –we had always been quick to adapt our learning institutions to ensure we are graduating the right type of people to benefit from the right type of economy at the right time. Not an easy task but we keep adapting.

Government rules and regulations where stifling businesses and we had to review them. We created a Pro-Enterprise Panel headed by the chief of civil service and comprising of people from the private sector and government, tasked to review rules and regulations that hinder business activities. Thousands of rules were changed over the last 12 years. Within government a “Cut Red Tape” campaign was initiated 10 years ago for civil servants to check on themselves and remove obstacles by cutting government red tape that slowed things down for companies and businesses.

The release of “Population White Paper” proposing a future national population of 6.9 million as another bold exercise by the government to chart the future for Singapore. The white paper on population did not go down well but it was an attempt by the government to paint the future of Singapore that needed such a population size to survive.

Survivability Solution : Persistence – Never say die attitude

Like any business, Singapore too, faced its fair share of obstacles. From a fishing port to the Communist struggle, to the British Army withdrawing their defence involvement to having limited resources, anyone would be quick to conclude that Singapore could not survive and was soon, bound to fail. Despite all of that, Lee Kuan Yew and his leaders had a vision and a plan. It is, with this vision of its leaders that Singapore persevered and managed to evolve from a developing nation to a first world status. There were many setbacks but the team never gave up and focused on the goals and ensured the country progressed in the right direction)

Singaporeans especially the pioneer generation also adapted to changing times fast and with the will to survive, persevered and worked hard to achieve success for themselves and for the country. At times it seems impossible, and it looked easier to give up and go crawling back to Malaysia to take us back. We could have done that but the never say die attitude made us face the challenges head on and create success for us and our future.

Needless to say, Singapore has indeed outdone itself in the last few decades. From a country that was facing failure and uncertainty to becoming one that has seamless infrastructure, organizations and teams with an innovative and adaptive approach to everything. In a very tough environment with many challenges, Singapore has proven that with a clear Vision, through Innovative Solutions, Assembling a Great and Talented team, having Agility an Adapting to Change fast, and persistence with a Never Say Die Attitude can help overcome any challenges we face. Singapore progressed from once a small fishing village to an efficient and clean metropolitan city. These are the same entrepreneurship principles that help entrepreneurs build great companies.

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