Budget debate

'Kiasu' culture is stifling originality in business: NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin

Office workers in the central business district (CBD).
Office workers in the central business district (CBD).PHOTO: ST FILE

Fear of failure is breeding entrepreneurs who are just grant-chasers: Kuik Shiao-Yin

Singapore's "kiasu" culture got a drubbing from a Nominated MP yesterday who said it was a major block in the way of building a more innovative society.

Entrepreneur Kuik Shiao-Yin, 39, said Singaporeans' fear of failure has led to a lack of originality in the local entrepreneurship scene.

It is time for a deep cultural transformation in Singapore, she said in an impassioned speech that departs from those of many MPs, who tend to talk of specific government measures that provide grants to help them in their business.

Her intense focus on the need for cultural change got MPs thumping their armrests in approval.

Ms Kuik's sentiments were shared by other MPs yesterday, with several warning that Singaporeans' unwillingness to leave their comfort zone has hampered the development of new ideas here.

They, as well as Singapore companies, are not hungry enough, the MPs said, urging them to be more driven to stay ahead of the competition.

Ms Kuik's speech, however, was the most hard-hitting, as she blamed the "kiasu" culture for creating a subculture of "grantrepreneurs" - people who "call themselves entrepreneurs but are really just grant-chasers".

"The kiasu entrepreneur is driven by the anxiety to make short gains rather than a mindful desire to win at the long game, so he will only take the risks that everyone is already taking and innovate what everyone else is already innovating.

"That's why entrepreneurship here tends to lack originality and is just copy-and-paste work of little worth," she added.

The biggest barriers to Singapore becoming a more innovative, collaborative and inclusive society are "fundamentally human", said Ms Kuik, co-founder of a group of social enterprises called The Thought Collective.

She added: "Even as Singapore develops roadmaps for industry transformation, it should also draw up matching roadmaps for the long-term psychological and emotional transformation of its people."

She also chided event organisers for preferring foreigners to deliver keynote addresses, pointing out that many Singaporeans are doing cutting-edge work in their respective fields.

"It is galling to me that at our innovation conferences here we are still getting keynote speakers from everywhere but Singapore.

"This just reinforces the perception of our own people as well as outsiders that Singaporeans are just not as capable of innovative thinking as Westerners.

"We need to take bigger bets on our own people and shore up our confidence in Singapore's ability to do things differently."

MPs like NMP Azmoon Ahmad agreed that a culture of innovation must be "deep-rooted into the way we do things". This has to be inculcated from young, he added.

He suggested incorporating innovation-related subjects into school curricula from primary schools up to the tertiary level, and launching national-level innovation competitions.

MPs such as Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) and Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) called on businesses and individuals to embrace the pioneering spirit of Singapore's earlier years.

"Our forefathers worked really hard, showcasing sheer grit and discipline. But are we hungry enough?" said Dr Fatimah."Failure need not always be paralysing. Can we remove constraints on our thinking?"

Ms Lee urged businesses to "embrace the spirit of our pioneer entrepreneurs, and keep innovating even in economic downturns".

Singapore companies might rightly expect some short-term help from the Government to stay afloat, but this should not be taken too far. she said.

"There's an old saying: 'Give a man fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.'

"But ultimately, the whole country will run out of fish if they don't develop bigger, smarter and faster fishing ships to get better fishes from international waters," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2016, with the headline ''Kiasu' culture is stifling originality in business: NMP'. Print Edition | Subscribe