Vital to give S'pore minorities equal access in entrepreneurship: US official

Mr Shaarik, the US Department of State's Special Representative to Muslim Communities, was speaking at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (above) at Stanford University. He noted that entrepreneurship can act as a powerful counter to violent extremis
Mr Shaarik, the US Department of State's Special Representative to Muslim Communities, was speaking at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (above) at Stanford University. He noted that entrepreneurship can act as a powerful counter to violent extremism.ST PHOTO: CHIA YAN MIN

For Singapore's entrepreneurship landscape to reflect the diversity of its society, business owners and young people from minority groups must have equal access to funding and opportunities, a United States official has said.

This is important as entrepreneurship can act as a powerful counter to violent extremism while also exposing the young to new ideas, noted Mr Shaarik Zafar, the US Department of State's Special Representative to Muslim Communities.

Mr Shaarik was speaking to journalists on the sidelines of the three-day Global Entrepre- neurship Summit which ended yesterday, at the Stanford University campus in California.

Almost 700 entrepreneurs and about 300 investors from around the world took part in the summit, including at least seven representatives from Singapore.

Mr Shaarik has made three visits to Singapore, most recently in May this year when he met Singapore's Minister for Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli.

"Singapore's diversity, just like diversity in other countries, is its strength," he said in response to questions from The Straits Times at the Summit.

"Singapore has strong rule of law and access to capital. But the challenge is, as in many parts of the world, sometimes minority youth don't have access to this," he noted.

"I think the key is mentorship, and often that means people mentoring young people outside their community."

Mr Shaarik added that Singapore can be an "important role model" when it comes to helping mi- norities access entrepreneurship opportunities.

"The next step is engaging Muslim youth and other minority youth, and making sure they have access to the same training, the same mentorship and the same capital… It is important that all aspects of Singaporean society are able to access (these)."

Mr Fazal Bahardeen, the chief executive of halal travel firms CrescentRating and HalalTrip, said there is a growing number of Malay-Muslim entrepreneurs in Singapore who are mostly focused on the Muslim consumer market.

Although this is a fast-growing segment, it can still be challenging for Muslim entrepreneurs in the region to access funding, he noted.

"It could be due to a lack of understanding of its real market potential or that investors are reluctant to get involved in targeting the Muslim segment... Whatever the reason, the result is that raising capital for such start-ups is even more difficult in an already difficult fund-raising environment," said Mr Fazal.

Still, Singapore's diverse society puts it in good stead to become a strong player in the Muslim market.

"The community has matured in its understanding of practising the faith in a multicultural environment, together with Singapore's environment of high corporate governance, transparency and meritocracy," said Mr Fazal.

"This combination is favourable to build Singapore's business position as a strong player in the Muslim consumer market globally."

At the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, Mr Shaarik also told journalists that promoting entrepreneurship is a "fundamental part" of US President Barack Obama's foreign policy "because we recognise entrepreneurship is directly linked to stability, economic growth and connectivity with the world".

His comments echoed remarks made by US Secretary of State John Kerry earlier in the day, during the official opening of the Summit.

Entrepreneurship can create jobs and opportunities for young people all over the world who might otherwise be vulnerable to violent extremist ideas, Mr Kerry told the audience.

"Think of the peril if we leave those minds, which have the same desires that many of you do here, if we leave them to the pickings of extremists and exploiters and demagogues," he added.

"(Entrepreneurs) provide a highly visible and very effective rebuttal to the propaganda of violent extremist groups. Because your optimism provides an alternative to their nihilism. Because you are trying to build the brighter future that in fact these folks are determined to prevent."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'Vital to give S'pore minorities equal access in entrepreneurship: US official'. Print Edition | Subscribe