Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards Gala

Published Date: 13 October 2017 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Excellencies,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. I am very happy to join you here today at the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards Gala.

Breaking out of the Valley

2. Last month, I launched the Singapore Valley Awards. It is a small award, started by a few technology entrepreneurs from China and Singapore, who collectively raised and donated $3 million. They are offering students from our Autonomous Universities a rare opportunity to intern in China, in established technology enterprises such as Alibaba and web directory 2345.com.

3. Some people asked me how the name Singapore Valley Award came about – was it because Singapore aspires to be like Silicon Valley? Actually, not quite. The name was inspired by the geography of Zhejiang province in China, where a few of the donors from China came from, including Jack Ma.

4. One of them is the Founder of 2345.com, Mr Pang Sheng Dong, who was born and raised in Zhejiang province. He told me that the province is full of mountains and valleys. Historically, various tribes lived in the valleys, each with its own dialect, and cut off from the rest of the world. Life was therefore difficult, harsh, and isolated. But because of the hardship, the villagers had a great urge to break out of the valleys and do business with the outside world.

5. So out of hardship, an entrepreneurial zeal arose. According to Sheng Dong, today, if you live in Zhejiang and you are not an entrepreneur, people will ask what’s wrong with you. It is quite different from Singapore where parents tend to hope their children become professionals, or work in the public service or in MNCs.

6. Today, Zhejiang is one of the epicenters of China’s tech start-up industry, and the headquarters of Alibaba. In recent years, the number of new start-ups, and the amount of capital that these start-ups have raised, have outstripped that of first-tier Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

7. Inspired by this story, we named the award Singapore Valley Award, not because we want to be like Silicon Valley, but in the hopes that our young will also break out of the imaginary valley of Singapore, to do business with the wider region and the world, and become great entrepreneurs who can disrupt industry and change the world.

Ingredients for a Culture of Enterprise

8. We have been talking about the need to nurture entrepreneurialism in Singapore for a while now. The Committee for Future Economy also highlighted innovation as a key thrust for the future development of the Singapore economy. Some cities, such as New York, San Francisco, Austin, London, Bordeaux, Shenzhen, and Shanghai, have the entrepreneurial zeal. Others don’t, and no matter how hard they try, they cannot seem to get it.

9. It suggests that nurturing entrepreneurialism is not just a matter of following some policy rule book. It is a far more organic, artistic, even random process, where the right factors come together, spark a chemical reaction, and create that entrepreneurial culture in the air.

10. Singapore is not doing too badly. We rank well in international comparisons on entrepreneurship. Many technology companies and MNCs are placing their innovation labs and model factories here. And I think we are starting to see Singaporeans respond to this call for them to step up, dream big, and take risks. But we can do better. What exactly are the ingredients that go into sparking this entrepreneurial chemical reaction, and building this culture of enterprise?

11. Space probably plays a part. Not just physical space, but where people of different expertise and talent gather, network, let their creative sparks fly, and over time, evolve an ecosystem. We are not doing too badly in this regard. We have a safe, efficient, and increasingly even regarded as fun environment, for budding entrepreneurs to establish their start-ups. Block 71 is buzzing with youthful dynamism, and JTC continues to provide space through LaunchPads to support start-ups and incubators.

12. Another ingredient is capital. The fact that Singapore is a financial centre helps a great deal. There are many sources of funding today – the Government, angel investors, venture capitalists, private equity, public markets, etc. In fact, in many cases today, there is more money than ideas.

13. A third factor is access to markets. Singapore is at a disadvantage here. In the US or China, the country’s market size and consumption power are mind-boggling to a budding entrepreneur carving out a market for him or herself. But with technology and globalisation, we can break out of our constraints. Today, many start-up entrepreneurs in Singapore aim to earn their first dollar overseas, even if they are operating out of Singapore. Technology has made that possible.

14. Notwithstanding the above areas which I think we are doing rather well in, I think we need two more secret ingredients – that is at least what I can think of. Unlike space or capital, these are the intangibles, which make them much harder to develop. The first is passion amongst the young, and the second is recognition of entrepreneurs by society.

Discovering Passion through Education

15. First, passion. There are a few common traits in highly successful people; hard work and grit are two important ones. But I think passion trumps everything else. Every discipline and line of work has its challenges, and its sweet and bitter moments. It is passion that sees us through all the difficult moments, persevere, overcome setbacks and failures, and master the skills of the trade. When we master our area of expertise or craft, we can get really creative. Knowing something inside out, not just what works but also what does not work, allows you to rethink, reimagine, and reconfigure your skills and knowledge, come up with new products and services, and achieve breakthroughs. So the best entrepreneurs did not just study business management. Their success in business is often built upon a domain expertise – be it engineering, IT, hospitality, or the arts, and they know it really well.

16. Hence, passion is something the Ministry of Education hopes to better inculcate in our students, and from a young age. A rigorous academic curriculum will always be important and necessary, but it will not be sufficient. There must be space for students to uncover their strengths, and perhaps even discover a passion that they are prepared to devote their heart and soul into pursuing.

17. Therefore, we are stepping up efforts to provide Education and Career Guidance to secondary and tertiary students, to help them understand their strengths and career inclinations. The introduction of Applied Learning Programmes in secondary schools serves the same purpose. We need to convince students and parents that while hard work and academic rigour remain important, grades are not everything and do not reflect a student’s full potential.

18. It is not an easy shift, as the emphasis on academic grades is deeply entrenched in our society, in the minds of students and parents. But MOE is making significant steps, to replace PSLE T-score with wider scoring bands, and expanding aptitude-based admission in our Institutes of Higher Learning, so that we do not admit purely based on grades. We also hope that employers will make meaningful changes to their hiring policies – to not over-emphasise academic qualifications and grades when setting shortlisting and entry criteria.

19. One of the founders of the Singapore Valley Awards, Wang Yue, is the founder of Kingnet Technology, an online and mobile game developer that is worth $26 billion RMB. He said that he benefitted a lot from his university education. But it wasn’t the lectures or even campus life. It was because during his university days, he found his passion, which led to the founding of his business.

Honouring Entrepreneurs

20. The second secret ingredient is society’s respect for entrepreneurs. Being an entrepreneur is not quite our traditional definition of success. Perhaps because we started off poor, and education was the way to break out of poverty, we rightly placed a great deal of emphasis on getting good grades and progressing in the education ladder. The children that did well in schools went on to become successful professionals – doctors, lawyers, bankers, executives, senior public officers. In my father’s generation, those who did not do as well in school, or who were Chinese-educated and thus shut out from professional trades, became entrepreneurs.

21. But I believe the situation is evolving. Our young grow up knowing the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) and BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) companies as household names, and are familiar with the stories of their phenomenal rise. The founders may even be their role models or heroes. At home they would have seen their friends or relatives having a go at starting their own businesses, to varying degrees of success, but nevertheless an exciting, attractive, high-risk-high-reward career option.

22. This difference in experience growing up between parents and children, and their exposures to different success stories and role models during their formative years, possibly explains why parents and children often see success differently. The convergence in expectations will probably take place in a generation, as more success stories of entrepreneurs populate our minds and are recognised as achievement markers for our children.

23. But we must start to make an effort to recognise the accomplishment of entrepreneurs. Income and jobs are ultimately created by enterprises. It also takes great courage, passion, and grit to start a business and persevere through the ups and downs. I have seen how starting a business can totally consume the entrepreneur, and demand his total devotion. And when your own money is at stake, it is a different kind of anxiety and adrenalin rush that salaried senior corporate executives face. Whether entrepreneurs succeed or fail, they deserve our respect. For those who succeed, we can do more to uphold them as role models for our children.

Conclusion

24. So to the five winners tonight – thank you for having taken the plunge, for sharing your stories, and for showing young Singaporeans that this exciting path is not for the faint-hearted. One of you will go on to represent Singapore in the EY World Entrepreneur Award. I wish him the very best.

25. Singapore society is at an inflexion point, where technology is finding more applications in businesses and daily lives; the economy, workforce and skills demands are changing; and attitude towards entrepreneurship is warming up especially amongst the young. In times of inflexion and change we need people to take leaps of faith. It starts with the adventurous and stout-hearted, followed by the masses. So continue to tell your stories, share your experiences – both the bitter and the sweet ones – to inspire and ignite passion in more young people. And in time, all the constraints before us, be it our small market, our definition of success, the imaginary Singapore Valley, will no longer hold back the tremendous talents of the Singaporean people.

26. Congratulations to the winners once again. Thank you.

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