Singaporeans lack ‘entrepreneurial inclination,’ but …

  • Less than 10% of population possess 'entrepreneurial inclination'
  • How many then possess the inclination to work in a startup?

Singaporeans lack ‘entrepreneurial inclination,’ but …I FOUND myself having a fascinating discussion with Alex Lin, the head of Infocomm Investments Pte Ltd (IIPL), last month.
IIPL is a venture firm managing more than S$200 million (US$155 million), with a mandate to accelerate the development of startups in their formative phase, and invest further as they move towards growth and expansion.
It is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore, and also plays a central role in the building of the startup ecosystem in the country.
During that discussion, Lin told me that that the fact was, there is a lack of entrepreneurs in Singapore.
“Oh! That’s a change, back in Malaysia it seems like everyone wants to be an entrepreneur,” was my response.
“Ah,” he replied, “Here’s where it gets fun.”
Turns out, almost everyone in Singapore wants to be an entrepreneur too, at least according to the 'Global University Entrepreneurial Spirit Students’ Survey (Guesss) report released by NUS Enterprise, which did the survey in 2008 and again in 2011.
According to the report, about 84.1% of students surveyed in 2008 expressed entrepreneurial intent or aspiration, with an interest in starting their own companies.
However, tracking these students after graduation found that only 1.1% of them are currently active in their own companies, lower than the global average of 2.5%, which was reported in the 2011 survey.
“That triggered us to think about why that is the case, because the data was so different," said Lin.
“You can talk about job market conditions at the time, but if someone wants to start a company they will, regardless of the job market,” he added.
So instead of looking at the economic drivers of entrepreneurship, perhaps more insights could be gained from looking at the sociological elements that drive entrepreneurial inclination.
Some answers were found in another study conducted by Nanyang Technological University, the Career Aspiration Survey (CAS).
It found that only 7% of its student population could be considered entrepreneurial, while Lin shared that an informal study on the wider population found the entrepreneurial segment to be at about 10%.
The fact was, a large majority identified as professionals (72%), which meant that this segment was interested in acquiring knowledge and doing a job. The remaining 21% were classified as leader/ manager types who were neutral about entrepreneurship.
“The interesting problem for us was around exposure to entrepreneurship events and options. While the more exposed the entrepreneurial ones were to such events, the more excited they were, the opposite was true for professionals.
“The more they found out about entrepreneurship, the less they wanted anything to do with it!” Lin shared.
As a daughter of an entrepreneur, and a tech journalist who also convers the startup space, I can confirm that – at least in my case – this phenomenon holds absolutely true.
Lin said that with the findings of these studies, those tasked with nurturing the startup ecosystem in the island-nation knew that they really, at most, only had 30% of the population to work with.
That’s not really a bad thing as resources will always be finite, and if it could be allocated to the segment for whom it would yield the most benefit – why not?
Singaporeans lack ‘entrepreneurial inclination,’ but …As Lin (pic) also noted, you don’t want everyone to become an entrepreneur either.
“You also need people to work in those companies!” he quipped.
I genuinely don’t know if any similar studies were conducted in Malaysia (if there are, please update me), but I’m assuming that the split between those who would take that entrepreneurial gamble versus those who wouldn’t will not be too different – it is indeed a small group.
Much has been written about what makes an entrepreneur or what it takes to be an entrepreneur, but the question that stuck in my mind was: What would it take to work for one, long term?
Because though you can argue "an employee is an employee is an employee,” it still takes, my opinion, a certain kind of individual to say, “Yes, I will join your team with a product that’s yet to launch, based on this wild idea you had one night, for peanut pay and some equity.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that today more than ever, the idea of working at a startup in Asia doesn’t come with as heavy a stigma as it did in the past when “approved gigs” were posts at multinational or publicly-listed corporations.
These days, there are job portals that specialise in jobs at startups like StartupJobs Asia, while MaGIC Academy last month featured a Startup Career Fair on its last day.
I wonder, how does one go about nurturing or developing the inclination to work for a startup, rather than create one?
The stigma is not completely gone, of course. One young founder who made a small but respectable exit from his startup a while back shared that his family had the following reaction to the news: “Oh good, now that you’re done playing around, why don’t you go and get a real job?”

This column originally appeared in the Metro Biz section of The Star and is reprinted here with its kind permission.

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