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I don’t expect you to help, just don’t F* it up for me

A Tasty Piece of Chicken for Seven over Bucks

Last week I ended up having a bit of cash than I expected to have and so, I decided to indulge in a quick bite at KFC. Although I don’t patronize fast food joints much these days, I’ve always had a soft spot for the food at KFC. There’s always been something special about the way they’ve turned the chicken skin into something quite delicious. My single “Zinger” cost me a grand total of seven dollars plus.

That was, as they say a great indulgence because I had a bit extra in my pocket. After that, I’ve been going back to my neighbourhood economic rice stall. My last meal there cost me a grand total of three dollars and ninety cents. I managed to get my fill of carbohydrates, vegetables and meat as well as a drink.

This experience was a reminder of a point that I was trying to make in my blog posting “Small is Smashing,” which was published on 6 June 2021. The point is this simple, the local coffee shop economic rice uncle had managed to feed us something healthier, tastier and dare I say healthier for less than the international fast-food joints. I’ve argued that this fact isn’t limited to the food industry. I’ve argued that Singapore is filled with businesses that do offer their customers better value for money than their larger international counterparts.

Whilst giant multinationals grab headlines for their large investments, the real strength of any economy is based on the quality of its Small and Medium Enterprises (SME). Singapore is no exception. According to UOB, the SME Sector employs some 65 percent of our workforce and contributes about 48 percent of our GDP. [LINK]

Yet, despite the significance of the SME sector to our economy, words like “entrepreneur” or “small business” have barely touched the lips of government officials.

The difference in the attention provided to multinationals and the SME sector can be seen in the government departments in charge of those sectors. The Economic Development Board (EDB) works like a dream. All you have to do is to ask and they’ll provide it for you. Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore) on the other hand has problems getting the microphone to work in its seminars aimed at getting SMEs to expand outside of Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew himself, had something of a disdain for small time businesses. I remember watching him on a YouTube talking about how Singapore l
ike other small nations didn’t have the scale to build anything really viable. I’ve also read his book where he states that our people were “traders” not “entrepreneurs.” While the English Educated Mr. Lee did get many things right, he had that most damaging of Confucian prejudices – namely the bureaucrat’s disdain for traders.

In fairness to Mr. Lee and the system he created, it was a good thing to get multinationals to come into invest. They brought the skills and capital that we needed. Singaporeans who have worked in multinationals have learnt “world-class” standards rather than locally made ones.

However, while multinational investment is important in growing an economy, one cannot develop a sustainable economy based purely on investment from elsewhere. You actually need a “Singapore core” of businesses. As one Indian born data analytics entrepreneur, who is starting his second business in Singapore says, “You would get more value spending the money on attracting multinationals on developing your SME sector.”

As stated in the UOB report, home grown SME’s employ more than half of us. In the multinational and government linked corporation space, Singaporeans are facing competition from elsewhere with regards to the “good” jobs. So where can Singaporeans get “good jobs.” Inevitably the answer is from a strong SME sector. Think of Germany as the example. When most people think of Germany, they think of the big car makers like Daimler Benz (Mercedes), Volkswagen and BMW or big pharma companies like Bayer or tech companies like SAP. The truth, Germany does not have as many home-grown multinationals as one might expect of a market of its size. The real strength of Europe’s largest economy lies in its SME sector or the ‘Mittelstand,’ which comprises of many companies making world class products for niche markets. The one that comes to mind is “Rationale” which makes ovens that every chef that I have worked with drools over.

We need our version of the Mittelstand, especially if we are to create decent enough jobs for our local people. We have the legal infrastructure, the physical infrastructure and to repeat a government mantra, although we have no natural resources, we have highly developed human resources. So, why can’t we strengthen our SME sector?

Well, there is an argument that the government is trying to nurture entrepreneurship and is now more SME/Start-up friendly. There are grants and wonderful mentorship programs for aspiring entrepreneurs. If you want to “make it” in the next big sexy sector, the government will be there.

While all this is very helpful, the record of governments nurturing entrepreneurs is rather bleak for a good reason. In Singapore, being SME/Start-up friendly makes a good headline. However, the government cannot resist minimizing competition for the “big boys”

Let’s go back to the hawker, the most typical example of a home-grown enterprise that keeps families employed and feeds the local community. The government is now making a lot of noise about our “Hawker Heritage” and how we must preserve “hawker culture,” as being an integral part of Singapore’s cultural landscape. There are even courses on “hawker-preneurship.”

However, while all these things are nice, what really discourages people from having a start-up hawker stall is costs – specifically rent. Any bright spark is bound to ask if its worth standing over a hot stove for hours on end when rent alone is going to eat up at least half of the hawker’s costs.

Ironically as a good portion of hawker stalls are on government-controlled land, this is one costs that the government has control over. So, how does the government help. Well, the National Environment Agency (NEA) has proceeded to help hawkers who are struggling from various covid-related limits on their business by jacking up rents by 40 percent. Let’s put this in perspective. If the hawker paid $1,000 a month before, they’ll now pay $1,400 a month. Or to put it into perspective, the chicken rice seller now needs to sell 80 extra plates just to cover the increase in rent (assuming one plate sells for $5).

The government’s defense for this tone-deaf move runs along the lines of we gave hawkers lots of help last year but now we want our money back. To give this a “humorous” touch, the NEA Chairman has decided to star in the following video, which is funny to everyone except the hawkers struggling for business and the customers who will face a price increase. [LINK]

So, what can the government do? Well, the extra capital and cheap loans are not bad as help goes. Nobody will say no to easier access to capital. Likewise, nobody has ever said networking sessions were a bad thing.

However, what small businesses really want from the government, was best spelled out by an Afghan entrepreneur describing his government. He said, “I don’t expect them to help me – I just don’t want them to f*** it up for me.”

Running a business is tough enough. However, it does not help when the government decides that business is its football. The fellows at the NEA should have understood that when they decided to make life that much harder for the entrepreneurs doing their best to make a living by feeding the rest of us at affordable prices.

 

Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.

 

 

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READER COMMENTS BELOW

9 Responses to “I don’t expect you to help, just don’t F* it up for me”

  • xoxo:

    Yes,dont offer help,still want to fafk us up.

    This is the type of gahmen daft sinkies insist on voting for,time n time again.
    Whose are to blame for sgs getting farked so hard,
    Its ultimately those sgs who due due must vote PAP regardless of the Quality of the candidates?
    Even if sgs know Dr Tan Cheng Bock is better than PAP CANDIDATES LIKE VB OR OYK OR KEE CHUI N DR Chee is better than his PAP OPPONENT,sgs still vote for those lousy candidates.Strange right?

    If you have GOLD offered to you but you pick scrap iron ,you got to blame your own stupidity if you got less from the SCRAP IRON later on.

    Its that straightforward.

    Choose GOLD INSTEAD OF SCRAP IRON.

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  • xoxo:

    Now is NOT THE TIME TO RE-OPEN.
    To do so or even THINK ABOUT DOING IT shows HOW STUPID SOME MINISTERS TRULY ARE BEYOND THE FACADES OF THEIR ACTING SMART???!

    Its MUCH BETTER TO INJECT FUNDS INTO OUR DOMESTIC ECONOMY BUT ONLY IN TBE RIGHT WAY.
    GRANTS TO WRONG PERSONS/ ENTITIES ONLY SERVE TO PUSH UP STOCK MARKET ,YA?
    TO LOOK INTO WIDER N LARGER DOMESTIC CONSUMPTION BOOST IN TERMS OF GOODS N SERVICES WILL BE BETTER TO BOOST *FINANCIAL MARKETS* ,PER SE?

    GIVE MORE DECENT GRANTS TO SGS WHO NEED THE MONEY TO BUY GOODS N SERVICES LIKE FOOD ETC.
    WHY GIVE OUR MONEY TO EVEN RICH NON-SG RESIDENTS N WELL-HEELED LOCALS TO BUY STOCKS?

    MANY OF THE MINISTERS ARE MBA N MPA HOLDERS BUT THEY DONT SEEM TO HAVE LEARN ANY USEFUL THING FROM HARVARD,STANFIRD,CAMBRIDGE,OXFORD N ELSEWHWRE?
    BETTER FOR THEM TO HAVE REMAINED IN LOCAL UNIVs understudying THE LIKES OF LIM CHONG YAH?

    OYK FROM LSE?
    WHST HAD HE LEARN ?

    AND HSK?
    ONLY KNOWS HOW TO LOOT OUR RESERVES N SQUANDER AWAY ON OUTSIDERS N SAYS MUST INCREASE GST TO TAX SGS?

    AND,THEIR BIG BO$$?

    ONLY GOOD AT MATH$$$?
    STILL GRINNING ?

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  • Agreed:

    Should support our local business…not make it hard for them.
    Give all the help they need…more affordable rental,cheap loans etc

    When they are viable, they should pay their local staff more.Now too low…

    For heaven sake,invest in more local companies not pour billions on oversea companies.Need to change the KPI of our Investment officers.Pro local investment.
    How are we going to build strong local companies that can compete oversea?
    Need to change existing policies…better still find new leaders who can think for Singapore long term future.
    Start with EDB.

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  • opposition dude:

    PAP has always been all about the $$$$ so to them, $$$ talks and bullshit walks. They don’t give a damn about who might suffer as long as an excuse is given can liao.

    And this is how they “look after” Singaporeans. From a 30% increase in the price of water (remember that one?) to endless transport fare hikes and anything else you can think of it’s clear to see just how much we are being “looked after” indeed.

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  • Smart Nation:

    The “Hawker Heritage” is not so much about preserving local food culture or making “eating out” cheap and affordable, but how to collect more money. Hawker centers are everywhere in SG and who is the single largest owner of these hawker centres? Hawkers are forced to increase their prices and customers will have to fork out more to eat at hawker centres. Increasing the rent of hawker stalls is counter-intuitive to preserving our “Hawker Heritage” which is good local food at cheap prices.

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  • PAP mandate strong:

    Tang Li,

    You support sg hawkers. Very good !
    But to compare KFC to coffeeshop or hawker center food kinda of apple versus orange.

    KFC aircon environment. That will be at least 1 dollar more. If you want a cup of plain water at fast food joint, its foc.
    Similarly air con food court chicken rice more expensive than hawker center right else they give you less. You compare a cup of coffee at least 1.50 to 1.60. And the cup is smaller.

    Next fast food joint comes with free wifi. Whereas only some coffeeshops have. E.g. The big Kopitam nearby Seng Kang MRT dont have wifi plus food there not really cheap. Does all all Hawker centers that i m not so sure.

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  • Harder Truths:

    You have missed that the goal of the MIW is to replace locals wit hFT – the sooner the better. You can have all the SME’s that you want or even MNC’s – does not matter.

    The end result will still see $G locals unemployed or working for delivery services like Grab, while any worthwhile job will be give to FT.

    Consider that there are more than enough good jobs in the economy for ALL $G to be gainfully employed, as well as sufficient taxation to keep the old from collecting cardboard for survival. Yet we are as we are. This is because of MIW policy and not because of the nature of the economy.

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  • Wisdom:

    Well said Tang Li. The gov support for SME is pitiful compared with the gamble they place on luring MNCs with a success of less than 10% – experience from past personal involvements. Ministries are concerned with individual’s KPIs rather than a coordinated effort. Then again, it is always the PAP’s method to breakup and conquer, distract to wear out the population, mislead to control.
    Sad than most locals are weak and stupid.
    Never proud of our leeders dampening Singaporean pride and sacrifices.

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  • Mr. Lee created no such thing.:

    The Singapore economy was wholly due to the ingenuity and wisdom of Dr. Goh Keng Swee and Dr. Toh Chin Chye and the natural aristocrats: EDB, MAS, JTC, TEMASEK, GIC, NCS, NUH, NUS, HDB, MINDEF … list goes on.
    For sure, early on the PAP CEC had voted strongman Lee by a narrow 7-votes-to-6 decision to represent them as PM during the Cold War period of international turmoil – Maoism and the Malayan Communist Party, the Stalinist network, and the Sukarno dictatorship were real threats for the emerging Republic of Singapore….
    And Goh Keng Swee insisted that LKY must never create that nebulous entity known as the CEO-politician and the commercial government bureaucrat. We all know what happened next: CPF books were shut tight, Pappy salaries soared to the skies even as HDB prices skyrocketed. Parliament sessions often turned into zombie rest time. The republic devolved into a military oligarchy ruled by the husband wife sovereign wealth fund partnership. And your cpf got tweaked and calibrated to the graves.
    We don’t expect you to help, just don’t F* it up for us…..

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