The Real Reasons Singaporeans Don’t Innovate or Start New Businesses

Ryan Ong



Spring Singapore, PIC grant, iSprint…sometimes, I think the government is like the kid who buried a durian seed in a planter box, and then wondered why it’s not growing. The financial incentives help, but what we’re lacking goes beyond money:

1. Most of Us Don’t Seek Intrinsic Rewards

Singaporean employees are some of the most over-educated and uninspired workers I’ve met. Not all of you, but many. I’d say that out of every 10 Singaporeans I meet, about two will be genuinely interested in their jobs.

Not interested as in “I like it because it makes me money,” but interested as in “I am obsessed with what I’m doing, feel it changes the world, and don’t tell my boss but I might actually do it for free.”

Now I’m not saying Singaporeans are lazy or, God forbid, stupid. It is entirely possible to be a hard working, intelligent person, with no real interest in your job besides money.

But if you have this sort of mentality – where the extrinsic reward comes first – innovation and entrepreneurship won’t make sense to you. If you can just get a good degree, and then get a high-paying job without risk, why bother sticking your neck out doing something new?

Who wants to work seven days a week, tolerate years of fluctuating income, and still face the prospect of failure?

The only thing that usually drives anyone to do that is intrinsic reward. A sense that, in the running of their business, they’re fitting into a “them-shaped” sliver of space in the Universe. And without that, innovation and entrepreneurship generally  don’t happen.

(Neither does a better society, by the way. We’d do so much better if every customer service rep. truly wanted to make people happy, if every financial advisor cared about her customer’s future, if every transport operator wanted  to make people’s lives easier; paycheck be damned.)


2. We Stigmatize People Who Fail

Entrepreneurship and innovation mean a long series of failures. But that feels like an understatement. I want you to try and see it this way:

I like to think (optimistically) that every success has a number of failures attached to it. Innovation creates those failures, and with every created failure, we inch closer to the success hiding behind it. If we just keep failing enough, we will eventually succeed.

But here’s the bit that’ll kick your ass:

You may not have the time or resources to finish failing. Sometimes, you have to stop after many years of failure, without having reached that inner core of success. Sucks, I know.

What sucks more is if it happens in a conservative Asian country like this one.

Because we don’t respect people who try but fail. And that’s not just a societal quirk, it’s a deeply immoral gesture that harms us as a whole.

Why immoral? Because entrepreneurs and innovators, even if they fail, did so in the course of trying to improve the world. They took a risk that most of us will never have the guts to. And even in their failures, they laid the groundwork for future successes. Now people who come after them know what not to do.

Our world is partly built by geniuses and visionaries, but mostly on the bones of courageous failures.

We don’t seem to recognize this in many parts of Asia, and certainly not in Singapore. So we stigmatize failed entrepreneurs or innovators. We sneer and say they were loons, or daydreamers, or – our favourite word – impractical.

In other parts of the world, the failures at least get a pat on the back. No one dishes out contempt to them, and there’s consequently less fear of trying. Now consider which part of the world most innovations come from.


3. We Give no Recognition to Effort, only Success

Most organizations have a “failure buffer”. A range of costs set aside, which the organization is willing to lose in order to find a big success.  But that isn’t enough. It has to be backed up with the appropriate recognition.

That is, recognition even for failure, if that failure happened in the course of bold or innovative pursuits.

We give out awards to firefighters and policemen who go above the call of duty, whether or not they succeed – sometimes those awards are posthumous – there’s no reason we shouldn’t also honour the brave soul who tries to improve our lives, but doesn’t quite make it.

As for organisations like Spring Singapore: The next time we have an exhibition, I’d like to see commendations to – and speeches by – failed entrepreneurs as well. I’m sure we’ll learn a lot more from them than from the moderately successful.

What stops your from innovating or starting a business? Comment and let is know!

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Ryan Ong

I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.