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My mother, the social entrepreneur

The year is 1957. I am born in a Singapore that is very poor. Except for the British and those who work for them, almost all the rest of us live hand to mouth. My father works in a provision shop, and his $90 salary as a shop assistant can hardly feed his family of three kids, one wife and our grandmother.

He is a diligent worker and a very responsible father, but he is not enterprising. The only thing he can "do" is thrift. He eats at the provision shop with his boss and sleeps at the five-foot-way in order to save money on food and bus fares home. When he delivers groceries under the hot sun, he does not even spend five cents on the soya bean milk he loves so much. Every cent is conserved for the family.

He comes home only once a week, instead of every evening, to see his family.

Forced by circumstances, my mother, Madam Tan Siam Kheng, has to think up ways to supplement the household income as her three kids are growing up fast and need to go to school.

Initially, she tries cooking pancakes, hoping to piggyback on our neighbour who peddles freshly cut fruit on his pushcart.


Madam Tan Siam Kheng, 85, the writer's mother, created "social enterprises" even before the term was invented. She taught her children many lessons on how to be an entrepreneur. PHOTO: COURTESY OF WILLIAM SIM

But that idea fails, as our neighbour does not promote the pancakes and instead returns to her in the evening all the unsold products. My mother gives up her first start-up enterprise after three nights of distributing free pancakes.

Losing the few dollars that it cost to make the pancakes is devastating.

My mother invests her last dollar at the community centre in Jalan Tenteram, learning how to sew smocking cushions.

The following evening, she teaches six neighbours the same lesson for $1 each, thus earning a net profit of $5. She uses the $5 to buy yards of cloth, cuts it into small pieces and sells these as kits, packaged together with needles, thread, buttons and cotton wool. She has become a profitable haberdasher.

She invests another $1 for lesson two at the community centre and teaches it, in turn, to six students again. But after the fifth lesson, she realises that she can design her own patterns and does not need any more lessons.

Instead, she buys blank exercise books (10 cents each) and makes them into pattern books.

My brother, sister and I copy by hand from her original, and publish many more copies for her to sell at $2 per book.

By selling the pattern books, our haberdashery business grows as more people make the cushions and rely on my mother to sell them to car owners, who use them to decorate the back of their cars.

  • My mother was illiterate, but you do not need an MBA to start a business. She created sustainable "social enterprises" even before the term was invented. She also proved to me that common sense, being opportunistic and keeping a good reputation go a long way to bring about continual success.

The simplicity of her business model is amazing: Multi-stream incomes from training fees,material sales, bulk breaking, publications and end-product distribution. It not only generates good income for our family, but also creates income for her students, who are our neighbours.

Unfortunately, two years into the business, smocking goes out of fashion and there are no customers for the cushions. Mother has to think of a new business.

She goes to the C.K. Tang department store in Orchard Road and sees an opportunity. She lets the cosmetic girls demonstrate make-up on her face. During the process, she remembers the whole sequence from cleansing lotion to foundation, lipstick, mascara, eyeshadow, et cetera. She buys a set of cosmetics, goes home to test it out on my sister and is satisfied with the results.

The next morning, she declares herself a wedding beautician.

In the 1960s, the only time a woman wears make-up is on her wedding day. Soon, mother is taking orders months ahead and for auspicious dates, she is inundated with bookings. She starts a beauty school and trains students, and goes on to take a commission on every booking they receive.

Later, she extends her business to become a one-stop wedding planner with comprehensive services, including arranging for a master of ceremonies, the wedding dinner, photography, bridal gown rental, floral bouquet and Mercedes bridal car, complete with ribbon decorations.

During the lull periods of the Hungry Ghost Festival and Chinese New Year, no Chinese person would get married, but mother still keeps busy. She uses this period to do matchmaking. This upstreaming of business proves a great idea and for those who do get married, she, in turn, gets their business downstream, of course.

These supplementary profits are quite a substantial part of her revenues.

I would always go with her to collect her commissions from the bridal gown rental shops in Bras Basah Road. The popular shops then were Dock Han Ming, Kian Chiang and Honeymoon.

Mother is the first person in our HDB neighbourhood to print business cards. They advertise her full range of professional services and work wonders, even bringing in business from as far as Pontian in Johor.

My brother and I help with procurement, and we take the bus to Chulia Street downtown to buy cosmetics from the wholesalers there - obtaining a 30 per cent discount.

We also start a supplementary business for her. We buy Nivea cream at $3 per big tub, repack it into six smaller capsules and sell it under the brand "Pearl Cream" at $3 each, thus growing the revenue six times. As my mother cannot read or write, my brother becomes the accountant.

She trains in total about 50 students and creates jobs for them, but while many work for her as regular freelancers, several others become competitors. Mother explains that it is better not to bad-mouth the competitors so as to conserve energy to focus on the business. I learn very early from her that having competitors is normal in business and there is nothing to be upset about.

In cases where customers cannot afford products or services, she often provides them free. She also donates generously to many relatives who are in financial hardship. The sense of community was strong in those days as the illness of a breadwinner could easily mean financial hardship for the whole family.

Over the next 25 years, my mother becomes the most popular low-cost wedding beautician, and goes on to marry over 3,000 couples.

Looking back now, I am glad that I went to "Mother's Business School" at the age of six. Later in adulthood, my brother and I started a series of 16 profitable businesses together, despite the fact that both of us could not advance our regular education further after failing our secondary school examinations.

My mother was illiterate, but you do not need an MBA to start a business. She created sustainable "social enterprises" even before the term was invented. She also proved to me that common sense, being opportunistic and keeping a good reputation go a long way to bring about continual success.

This was how our family grew from poverty into middle class. I think I learnt more from my mother's common sense than from attending school.

Today, Mother is 85 and very frail. If you look at her now, you would not imagine that this is a courageous, enterprising woman of gumption, who built a pathway out of poverty in times of adversity.

This is but only one of the many stories of how Singaporeans built a nation of entrepreneurs. 

At 40, after attaining financial independence, I retired from active business to devote the rest of my years to social work, founding the Restroom Association of Singapore, World Toilet Organisation (www.worldtoilet.org) and BoP HUB (www.bophub.org).

BoP is based on the idea that there are four billion people at the base of the pyramid (BoP) of the world's marketplace who are overlooked as resources.

I am confident that entrepreneurship is the only way for the four billion poor around the world to get out of poverty.

Mother taught me that there is always a way to make things better - for ourselves as well as for others.

The writer is the founder of the World Toilet Organisation. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2015, with the headline 'My mother, the social entrepreneur'. Print Edition | Subscribe