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Don’t be NUTS

Late Sim Wong Hoo

Thursday, 5 January 2023 marked the end of an era for Singapore. We, on this red dot, woke up to the news that Mr. Sim Wong Hoo, the founder and CEO of Creative Technologies (“Creative”) had died at the age of 67. The news report is as follows: [LINK]

Mr. Sim was remarkable man and he was that most precious of commodities and something that is much needed in the Singapore system – a visionary. The great and good of Singapore are paying tributes to Mr. Sim and he’s been described as a “legend.”

There’s no doubt that Mr. Sim deserves the praise. His story is more typical of Silicon Valley than Singapore, a society that prides itself in creating conformist and while Mr. Sim himself was never politically controversial, he’s the living example of why one should ignore traditional expectations (or in the case of Singapore government mandated expectations).

I think back to an interview that Lee Kuan Yew once gave. He argued that whilst Singapore and other small countries could do well in the world, they could never build anything significant because they lacked economies of scale. Well, Mr. Sim proved him wrong – the Sound Blaster card became a global standard for sound in computers.

Then, Mr. Sim defied stereotypes of Asian prosperity being about copying from the West and having no innovation. He tried to conquer the market for portable music through “Zen.” Unfortunately, he lost that battle. Only this time he lost the battle to Steve Jobs and Apple. He wasn’t afraid to compete with the best in the world outside his comfort zone.

While Creative is a smaller company than it was during its glory days, Mr. Sim was, until the end still brimming with ideas as the following interview with Channel NewAsia suggests: [LINK]

The icing on the cake of Mr. Sim’s story is that he disproves the idea that Singaporeans can only come up if they were from an elite school or worked in the civil service. Mr. Sim graduated from a polytechnic and spent his early years running a computer repair shop. Mr. Sim was the classic “tech-nerd” who happened to have a curious mind and was willing to explore.

What should be noted is that when he had a product, he went to the government and got turned down. Let’s not mince words here, its most likely that our civil servants could not accept the idea of a non-scholar from a polytechnic would have the audacity to come up with anything ground breaking. Thankfully for Mr. Sim, the Americans were willing to back him and he was only recognised in Singapore by the powers that be when Creative got listed on the NASDAQ.

Mr. Sim, himself, summed things up in his book “Creative Thoughts from the Old Millennium, where he described the subservient mindset of our local population through the term “NUTS,” or “No U-Turn Syndrome.” More on NUTS can be found here.

In a way, you could say that Mr. Sim got lucky. He’s a creature from the Old Millennium – he is a baby boomer rather than Gen X, Y or Z. Whatever Mr. Sim might have lacked in his early years in terms of finance, papers and connections, he’s from an era where he was allowed to be a curious fellow even if he wasn’t a government scholar.

Let’s think about it, Mr. Sim grew up in an era where geography mattered. When Singapore rejected him, he uprooted and went to the USA to seek funding before there was an internet or a developed VC industry.

It’s not to say that Singapore hasn’t produced innovators. We have Tan Min-Liang of Razer inc and Henn Tan, the CEO of Trek200 International, the company that invented the USB. A list of some prominent innovations to come out of Singapore can be found at: [LINK]

There is a notable trend in this list. Government plays a role in innovation in a very direct way. On the positive side, you can argue that government can play a role in fostering a decent eco-system for innovative entrepreneurship.

However, this tends to work only if the government is interested in a certain sector. In Singapore’s case, government led innovation works for companies like Shiok Meats or the entire vertical farming sector where the government has an interest in say developing “food security.”

What happens when innovation is not in the government’s interest? In his blog, Emanuel Daniel, publisher of the Asian Banker, has argued that the government has hobbled innovation in finance, forcing Fintech companies to be contractors to banks rather than competitors. Here’s the question, would the government allow innovation in the construction sector if it meant less need for foreign workers and therefore less levy?

Let’s not kid ourselves – government does play an important role in fostering innovation. On paper, Singapore’s government does well in terms of providing a legal and financial infrastructure.

However, can the government except the fact that innovation does from people who don’t fit a particular mold like Mr. Sim? Mr. Sim remains someone who was willing to go up against the biggest and best, which was the thing that made him pioneer on the world stage. Can the government accept both these parts of future Mr. Sim’s? For Singapore’s sake, let’s hope so.

 

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

8 Responses to “Don’t be NUTS”

  • #$%^&*:

    PAP have no nuts, they are just bullies.
    They are good followers and have been following in many wrong directions that is particularly obvious lately.
    They suppress all NUTS for all the wrong reasons – self gratification

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  • xoxo:

    Ya,dont be PEE-nut$.

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  • Developed country lie:

    Conformist attitude means the citizens will not innovate. If u cannot innovate u cannot survive or will in the least degenerate to a lower condition which is what is happening with the Gen X and mederka Generation.from having a decent cushy office job in the 80s ,90s and 2000s, now many of them driving taxi cabs and delivery or contract part time jobs

    It’s all pap fault . Their social engineering runs contrary to their own survival narrative.

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  • Singaporeans R Free Riders:

    Developed country lie:
    Conformist attitude means the citizens will not innovate. If u cannot innovate u cannot survive or will in the least degenerate to a lower condition which is what is happening with the Gen X and mederka Generation.from having a decent cushy office job in the 80s ,90s and 2000s, now many of them driving taxi cabs and delivery or contract part time jobs

    It’s all pap fault . Their social engineering runs contrary to their own survival narrative.

    Again, blame and complain only ? No solution ?

    What excuse do you have ?

    1. It is not my job ?
    2. I am not paid for coming up with solution ?
    3. My salary is not high enough to propose any solution.
    Nurse : Money too little, Not worth sacrificing for Hong Kong
    Watch video at 1:34
    https://bit.ly/3ckOnT0

    Sound minded and rational Singaporeans please print, distribute and share.

    We MUST RETURN PAP to be the government.

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  • Sad:

    Hard to have another “Sim” here.
    It is the policy that prevent another “Sim” to rise.

    Our Innovators depend too much on Government..and not much spare cash to take risks.

    Most prefer steady jobs here…not creators.

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  • Zhenzidan:

    Singaporeans R Free Riders: Again, blame and complain only ? No solution ?

    What no solution? Vote in more oppositions, and Singaporeans are gradually doing it.

    Singaporeans R Free Riders: We MUST RETURN PAP to be the government.

    Oi, why you always like to tickle my cock to make it laugh? Has PAP been voted out? PAP is still the govt lah! Alamak, now my a$$e also trying to laugh…..

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  • Elite sadist group:

    The end of an era where elitism reigned supreme. The new era is not looking good for the pappies

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  • Building capabilities:

    Temasek and other VC based here tends to invest big amount on oversea setups .Follow the so called leaders in this space.
    Normal.

    However better to invest in local setups to build capability for the long term future of Singapore.
    Rather invest in 500 promising startups with $2M each to grow Singapore capability.The future returns from such initiative’s is much better.
    We need builders and wealth creation through innovation.

    Also identify 50 local companies with Hugh international growth potential and invest in them to make it happen.
    Maybe good to support the cost of putting Seniors with the right skill sets to such company to assist in their growth.

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