I recently stumbled on an article which lamented that Singaporeans are not risk-taking enough and that this is bad for the country because the country needs more entrepreneurs and more workers to join risky entrepreneurial start-ups to create value. The writer, Mr Devadas Krishnadas, is an entrepreneur with a shining career history in the civil service. He earns my admiration to have the courage to quit a high-paying and stable job to become an entrepreneur. He walks the talk. However, there are some points which I do not agree with the article from the perspective of a salary worker and investor.
The young woman sitting across me was being interviewed to join my firm as a consultant. Well-travelled, highly qualified and poised, she spoke eloquently on why she wanted to join the firm - indigenous, small but growing.The attitude of the job applicant makes perfect sense and not at all troubling even if we expand it to the national scale. When a SME asks for a loan from a bank, the bank charges higher interest rate compared to a big company because of the higher risk. Similarly, for someone applying for a job at a SME, it is absolutely reasonable to ask for higher compensation because of the higher risk. It will be very troubling if a bank does not expand this risk-management practice on a national scale. The country's financial system may face systemic risks due to too much bad debt later. Likewise, given the very low odds of success for start-ups, several families will be in financial trouble if there are many Singaporeans who are not compensated enough when they lose their jobs working in start-ups.
Having gone through several stages of recruitment, we were finalising her appointment. She suddenly said she wanted a much higher compensation than the range discussed.
When prompted as to why, she replied that it was a great risk to work for a small local firm. I asked her to expand on her logic. She said her best option was to work for the civil service or a multinational company and that she was, in effect, doing the firm a favour by joining, and thus merited a market premium.
This attitude towards risk is disappointing individually, but troubling when we expand it to the national scale. It suggests that the young generation value the payoff for their education in terms of occupational safety. While at one level rational, such an attitude may help explain why small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have great difficulty engaging the best talent.
- See more at: http://news.asiaone.com/news/asian-opinions/why-safe-job-risky-business-spore#sthash.ZqdDOsYw.dpuf
Job seekers should not be expected to take risks. Otherwise, they would have become entrepreneurs. What is troubling on a national scale is that we do not have enough talented Singaporeans who have a higher chance of success as entrepreneurs but choose to remain as salary workers. Singapore needs more people like Mr Devadas Krishnadas who resigned from a good job to create risk-driven value as an entrepreneur. However, can we blame most Singaporeans, including myself, for not being like him?
Some reasons I can think of why there is a serious shortage of entrepreneurs in Singapore. I am not qualified to comment as an entrepreneur. I write from the angle of a salary worker.
- It does not make financial sense for Singapore's best minds to become entrepreneurs
A worrisome trend has been developing in the Singapore economy in recent years. Some big MNCs are moving out. This explains the government's generous moves to support local SMEs in the form of grants and innovation support. Singapore has got to build our own indigenous big companies to replace these MNCs. Fortunately or unfortunately, I believe there will be more entrepreneurs as a result of the MNCs moving away. Mid-career professionals who got retrenched by the MNCs may start thinking of becoming entrepreneurs because they have lesser to lose now. Besides, their chances of success is higher due to the long experience and network built working in industry. Unfortunately, I believe most of the concentrated local talent in the civil service will remain locked in the public sector because the risk-reward ratio is simply too compelling to stay.
If a person just wants to be rich, please don't become an entrepreneur. He will surely give up later. He has a better chance at becoming rich by slogging as a high-level big company executive or government scholar earning a high-paying, stable salary. If he holds a middle-class job that pays around the national median-income, he still has a fair chance of becoming comfortably well-off by keeping to a simple lifestyle, patiently saving and investing for at least a decade.
Just don't be an entrepreneur if your sole objective is to be rich.
- Cannot afford to take the financial risks of an entrepreneur
Most young, energetic Singaporeans have taken up huge loans to buy property. This cannot be helped. In the Singapore context, they probably have to in order to get married. The girlfriend and future parents-in-law may disapprove if the man cannot afford a HDB. Unfortunately, some middle-aged Singaporeans who have otherwise accumulated enough savings to take on the financial risks to become an entrepreneur have taken up even larger loans to invest in a second property. A person in huge debt cannot afford to take on the financial risks of an entrepreneur. His interest expense comes due every month. Without a salary job that generates a stable cash-flow, the risk of financial ruin is not low. This issue indirectly affects me not because I invested in a second property (I prefer stocks and avoid huge debt to keep my options open for entrepreneurship), but because I am not able to find peers as potential entrepreneurial partners. I have personal weaknesses and I hope to find partners who can complement and make up for my weaknesses before taking on this risky path. However, if I want to become an entrepreneur, I do not want a heavily indebted partner who is forced to be in a hurry to make money. From my investing experience, those who are in a hurry to make money end up making less or lose money. I believe it will be even worse for entrepreneurs who are in a hurry to make money. They may end up not only losing money but their reputation as well by short-changing customers and their investors. I can afford to lose money but not my reputation. Emotionally, I find the latter extremely depressing whereas I am numb to losing money. As an investor, you have got to get used to losing some $$$ now in order to make more $$$ later.
- Majority of people do not have the temperament to be entrepreneurs
Fellow financial blogger Christopher Ng has suggested that a fertile soil to cultivate potential entrepreneurs are kids from rich families. I will add one more group - middle-aged workers who have accumulated enough savings and investments to weather the storm. I agree with Christopher and will not repeat the details on the how. I will talk more about the why. Given that most start-ups fail, would-be entrepreneurs better be able to afford failure. Rich people can afford to fail. In fact, this may even help narrow the wealth-inequality social problem if losses from failed start-ups are concentrated to the rich. On the other hand, out of the few who will succeed spectacularly, no one will begrudge them for getting even richer if they create value to their customers, employees and suppliers as entrepreneurs. The poor will not begrudge the rich if the wealth-inequality is caused by value-driven entrepreneurial activity. If those who cannot afford to fail rashly choose to become entrepreneurs, there will be social problems when enough of them fail and most of them will.
Singaporeans have been complaining about job discrimination in our own country. The foreign PMET (Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians) workforce has gained critical mass in Singapore labor market, giving rise to the foreigner-hire-foreigner complaints. It is only human nature that people tend to feel comfortable working with people similar to themselves and hire according to these in-built prejudices. To be fair to the foreigners, they could complain the same about Singaporean employers preferring to hire Singaporeans. I am confident our government is able to solve the infrastructure-overload problem given the talents employed in the civil service and the money they can throw at the problem. However, I am doubtful the rising PMET unemployment problem attributed to unfair discrimination can be eased. It is a problem that money and intelligence cannot solve. It is a social problem that involves changing people's behavior and this will take lots of time. Furthermore, even if this problem does not exist in Singapore, foreigners can still take away our jobs without coming here. Foreign MNCs are already moving out of Singapore to cheaper locations. Instead of complaining and waiting for solutions from the government, unemployed PMETs who can afford to take risk should partner each other to start their own companies. Create jobs for yourselves. You have lesser to lose financially when you are jobless. Having said that, I admit I lack the moral authority to encourage entrepreneurship. I am hiding behind a full-time salary job on weekdays and a part-time investment job on weekends/public holidays. As an investor, I do not feel as socially useful compared to entrepreneurs. I mean no offense to fellow investors but entrepreneurs do create much higher social value. (*I take a deep bow to all the entrepreneurs in Singapore*)