Condensing Startups in Singapore

From Paul Graham's "Why Startups Condense in America": 

Singapore would face a similar problem. Singapore seems very aware of the importance of encouraging startups. But while energetic government intervention may be able to make a port run efficiently, it can't coax startups into existence.  A state that bans chewing gum has a long way to go before it could create a San Francisco.

 Well, of course, the statement in bold did look unfair if the context is not understood. What its saying, IMHO, is that Singapore's system of social disincentives has a indirect, subconscious impact on its citizen's mindsets and act as a strong downward pressure on people's willingness to take risks, to embrace uncertainties.

Translate these two traits to the context of innovation first, and secondly to think about startups as social enterprises that have direct impact on society after founding, we thus arrive at a hypothesis that Singapore's legalized social disincentives creates unadventurous social thinking which impacts innovation and hence decreases innovation capabilities. Paul Graham also mentions:

Imagination means having odd ideas, and it's hard to have odd ideas about technology without also having odd ideas about politics. And in any case, many technical ideas do have political implications. So if you squash dissent, the back pressure will propagate into technical fields.

Dangerous territory here to link technology to politics, especially in Singapore which explicitly has an unlevel political playing field. But its true, the lack of contrarian opinions in SIngapore starts from the political and extends to the media. This has created a society that dares not question. And the government wonders why? We are making progress in the educational policies today, I hope the govt does not clamp down on the burgeonings of free speech in classrooms, because such free speech reflects free, liberal thinking and it is important for the young today to take such free thinking out of the classroom to greater society when they grow up, to realms of not just economic, but social and naturally political too. Oddballs in Singapore has to be tolerated, we do not have such a tolerant culture now and this lack of diversity in opinions is stifling for creative dissonance.

 Here's a tip for governments that want to encourage startups: read the stories of existing startups, and then try to simulate what would have happened in your country. When you hit something that would have killed Apple, prune it off.

 Great tip here, hopefully those influencing entrepreneurial policies in Singapore are using the Apple founding case study as a yardstick in their feasibility studies. 

Compared to other industrialized countires the US is disorganized about routing people into careers. For example, in America people often don't decide to go to medical school till they've finished college. In Europe they generally decide in high school.

I was speaking to an Israeli MBA student yesterday who has been in Singapore for the past 6 months and all he had experienced was great. Highly efficient government, very receptive and embracing attitude towards technology in all levels of govt and society. But when I enlightened him on the less unsavory parts of Singapore, one of it was educational. Our streaming-based educational system from primary through pre-tertiary levels may appear structurally sound but have functionally created a class-based system that perpetuated social discrimination based on academic abilities. My new Israeli friend was shocked to learn that streaming started at Primary 4 during my time and that he considered himself very stupid at the age of 10 although he's an MBA now. This makes me wonder how many of our Singaporean local talent had suffered tremendous blows to their egos when they were streamed in the old Primary 7 and 8 systems, gone to EM3 and suffered social disgrace in front of their relatives and fatal blows to their egos and self-esteem. Our educational policies seem to lack something and the through-train programmes of today again, perpetuate another new class of elites. Yes, we might have gotten rid of the ranking system but separating the ACS, Raffles, Hwa Chong families from the rest makes the rest of the society perceive themselves as second-grade.

Are we both structurally and functionally unsound this time?? Is the educational policy today still too unforgiving towards late bloomers?

Educational authorities can argue themselves silly on the media but they should understand the best feedback comes from the ground, the actual rank-and-file students in the neighborhood school. Poll them and find out their ambition levels. If all they are aspiring for over the next 10-20 years is to find  a job and settle down and harbor no ambitions of becoming the next self-made millionaire, my "wayward" comments above do hold some weight. 

 To end off, I found this segment apt. Note I am not advocating we turn Singapore schools to crappy American models but that we should modify our system to one that is more forgiving towards late bloomers. 

Those worried about America's "competitiveness" often suggest spending more on public schools. But perhaps America's lousy public schools have a hidden advantage. Because they're so bad, the kids adopt an attitude of waiting for college. I did; I knew I was learning so little that I wasn't even learning what the choices were, let alone which to choose. This is demoralizing, but it does at least make you keep an open mind.

Certainly if I had to choose between bad high schools and good universities, like the US, and good high schools and bad universities, like most other industrialized countries, I'd take the US system. Better to make everyone feel like a late bloomer than a failed child prodigy.


18 thoughts on “Condensing Startups in Singapore

  1. As an outsider living in Singapore, I’m really surprised as to how big a role the Singapore govt. plays in almost everything here. Especially me being from India where we never even think about the govt (sometimes it takes me almost a minute to recall who is the ruling coalition!), the Singapore govt’s administration is very new. The kind of efficiency with which they operate is amazing. Never seen something like this in India.

    I would say the Singaporean way very much resembles the game play in Sims 2 if you’ve played it – one player controls an entire community, gives it a sense of direction, decides what is essential for the growth of the community, etc. Although all this might be done with a good motive, when there’s so much standardisation and orderliness, chaos is obstructed!

    The Singaporean model is tailored to encourage ‘average’ness. Chaos need to prevail for something exceptional to occur! The model was very apt to help Singapore to reach its current economic status very quickly, but from now onwards change is essential. But ofcourse, this change won’t occur that easily either.

    Regarding the education system, I never realised how serious an issue this is in Singapore until I read your post. Fortunately, in India it is pretty much like in the USA.

  2. haha, I like the Sims example. Centralized micromanagement of a society, with city ordinances and mini-social-campaigns to encourage society to cut down smoking, litter less… Was an avid player of the other sim games.. city, tower…

    I read somewhere before about the “basket of crabs” story that this article told me every Indian knew about. Basically, you have a basket full of crabs which will be left uncovered because there’s no need to as no crab will be able to crawl out without the other ones below him pulling him back. Perhaps Anubhav, Arpit or Chandra can shed some light on the truth of tis?

  3. Why are there so many entrepreneurs in China then? Isn’t China’s society and education system more restrictive?

  4. Sheer size. And different parts of China have different business cultures. Perhaps what is not clear in my article is I am talking in the context of high tech startups ala Silicon Valley which is what Paul Graham was referring to.

    And in China, you will be hard pressed to find good high tech enterprises. R&D research at a macro level is woefully low as a percentage of overall company revenue. Many high tech enterprises are still playing catch up with Western practices. That is why the profile of Chinese entrepreneurs are predominantly in the low-tech, trade-based sectors which leverages on their current national economic strength in manufacturing.

  5. I’m sorry. I thought your posting was about the lack of startups in Singapore, not realising that it was about high-tech startups.

    I would think that America may be successful simply because of its sheer size as well. I understand that China is playing catch-up at the moment but it is highly possible that China may surpass America in terms of technological developement and advancement in future.

    Personally, I think Singapore has lesser startups is also because of our smaller population size and not because our “restrictive” environment.

    I’m also sorry that I’m not familiar with the startup story of Apple. What is it in Singapore’s context that would have killed off a startup like Apple?

  6. hey cobalt paladin, spore's population is not much smaller than israel (Spore' 4M vs Israel's 6.5M, source: CIA Factbook). dun u think its an irony that as we benchmark ourselves in other social, economic, defence realms against israel over the cse of our founding years, we are still persistently lagging in terms of entrepreneurial achievements? =) one stark example is no. of israeli based startups listed on NASDAQ vs Spore.

    From a March 2005 republished New York Times article,

    By virtue of Israel's entrepreneurial culture and close ties to America, Israeli start-ups have a strong presence in the United States. More Israeli companies are listed on Nasdaq than those of any other country outside North America – 70 out of 340 foreign listings. (Canada has 80.)

    Israeli startups have raised more than $5.2 billion in initial public offerings on NASDAQ in the last five years, and Israel is one of the world's largest recipients of venture-capital financing.

    I like this part.

    "Ours is a small army compared to those around Israel," Mr. Shay said. "So no matter what happens, you have to be successful and accomplish your goals. A lack of resources and people and lack of time are never excuses for not accomplishing goals. Take that to the business environment where a small start-up company begins attacking a big market and those challenges look similar."

    I am not all too familiar with spore's current entrepreneurial framework. It was a suggestion to any policy influencers, not a direct critique of existing policies.

    I like this discussion, keep the comments coming, man.

  7. Heh heh. I also like this discussion. I’ve always wondered why there “seem” to be lesser startups here. I used the word “seem” because I’m surrounded by startups and entrepreneurs but others seem to think that we have a severe lack of entrepreneurs. Given our political and social stability, good infrastructure, we are actually in an environment whereby it should be a hot-bed for startups. I’ve my own thoughts on this and I hope to post an entry about it soon.

    Regarding Israel having more Nasdaq listed companies, I can only think that it may be due to Israel having being independent about 17 years longer than us, its closer ties with America and thus American VCs and having a larger population. The Israeli government also took a different path as Singapore. Israel has a technologically advanced market economy with substantial government participation (source: wikipedia. Whereas Singapore due to its geographical location, was mainly focused in its port, manufacturing and tourism.

    Because of our manufacturing focused economy, the local engineering course seemed only focused in producing engineers competent enough to man the factory floors and not in R&D. Which may explain why we have lesser high-tech startups. But I’ve to reiterate that, IMHO, we’ve a conducive environment for startups, albeit not high-tech.

    However, that being said, the local students could have picked up open source technology like PHP, Linux, Apache etc and thus be part of Web 2.0 movement on their own like their American counterparts. But sadly, in my experience, I find difficulty in engaging PHP programmers localy.

  8. you are right, i do find many entrepreneurs around me as well, more in food and beverage plus consumer retail if u ask me. Not high tech, altho the web2.0’s low barriers to entry is changing that.

    Both the link i posted in my last comment and this link, IMHO, amply explains why Israel’s high tech industry took off due to close connections with its advanced military research sector. That is something Singapore doesn;t have.

    Reading Paul Graham’s article makes me realie Singapore has many ingredients of that secret sauce needed for a silicon valley such as liberal immigration policies but we lack a culture thats nurtures a high tech homegrown talent pool for indigenous startups and local talent to support enterprising foreigners. I have been looking for programmers too locally, esp those familiar with php, javascript, ajax but those are few and far between. Speaking to some of my friends in the computing faculty of NUS also reveals the “ignorance” of some NUS professors who are disconnected with the latest happenings in the IT world and the web innovation currently hapening in SV. Tell them AJAX and blank stares ensue.

  9. Pingback: Singapore Entrepreneurs » Thoughts on What Singapore Lacks

  10. Regarding NUS School of Computing’s professors, I would say that is not something restricted to NUS alone. It is true universally. Professors generally tend to accumulate lot of knowledge in a particular vertical, and are too engrossed in their area of research.

    Btw one prof in School of Computing does know of AJAX and he infact has a project where the student is meant to explore ways to AJAXify the library’s LINC. His homepage –

  11. Hi! Bjorn.

    I am not an expert into the field of entrepreneurship study. But here are some of my pesonal comments:

    Personally, I feel that the government is trying their best to promote entrepreneurship but the mindset of Singaporeans is probably the biggest barrier. I once hinted a few of my friends in engin but none of them ever had the idea of staring a business into their minds before. (including one in the deans list)

    One problem is that they do not know what are the available resources that the government or institution can do. Maybe, NEC should organise a seminars and let interested students know what the various organisations such as NUS Venture Support, INTRO, Incubation centre etc can do to help their business.

    Another sad thing to say is most undergraduates are probably too concerned with their academic grades/cap scores and pursue outside faculty modules that are easy to score rather than pursuing an all rounded development that is of their interests.


  12. Hi Everyone, fascinating discussion, I really like it. I live in Israel, and I recall an article published several months ago in the Ha’aretz newspaper in which it was pointed out that Singaporeans look towards Israel as an inspirational education model. What the article highlighted, however, were the poor educational achievements of Israeli high school students on international benchmark tests compared to their counterparts in Singapore. Basically, it was pretty obvious that the Israeli education system doesn’t really deserve the admiration it gets from Singapore. It’s true that there are many start-ups and entrepreneurs here, including in the PHP real. I don’t really know how to explain that giving the poor state of the education system here today.

  13. Hi jon, thanks for visiting my blog. really great to have an israeli give us his personal account. that is an interesting article you mentioned, do u happen to have an online link to it?

  14. Hi Bjorn, I did a search in the Ha’aretz archive, but for some reason, the English archive didn’t come up with any articles. All articles that appear in the Hebrew edition are translated into English, though, and appear in the English edition ( The original Hebrew article appeared on May 16, 2006 in Ha’aretz and was written by Yulie Khromchenko. It may have appeared in the English edition a day later. As I said, I could not locate it in searches I ran on the online archive.

  15. i would rather put it this way, fact in life is when u got pros in one place already, then it is very hard to grow pros unless the spin off from this pool.

    take for example pro basketball, no other country can even get close to the level in the states. it is sparring partners that makes each other learn fast.

    singapore lacks the seed in that way, once it is well seeded, i am sure things will grow. but as a singapore guy, i am glad to see such a discussion on things

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  18. Pingback: Singapore Entrepreneurs ~ Venture Capital Funding in Singapore » Blog Archive » Entrepreneur Reads for the Day: 12 Nov 2007

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