The classic formula has worked well for two generations of Singaporeans-study hard and do well at school, enter the most prestigious university course you qualify for, and then be a good, subservient employee until you rise high enough through the ranks to be able to boss people around yourself.
But now, it appears that's not enough to keep the economy chugging along. Desperate to spur innovation, the government is beseeching Singaporeans to be more entrepreneurial-but it looks like things aren't changing fast enough.
Is the system so entrenched that it can never be changed? Here are four things that might actually go some way towards convincing the brightest Singaporeans to pick entrepreneurship over the life of a doctor/lawyer/civil servant/banker.
1. Safety net or unemployment benefits for entrepreneurs
At the mere mention of "handouts", hordes of Singaporeans cry foul. People will game the system, they say. They don't want their taxpayers' money going to lazy people who don't want to get a real job.
Relax, guys. We're pretty sure the government is not going to be offering universal unemployment benefits anytime soon. But, as some experts have suggested, offering entrepreneurs with some form of safety net or unemployment benefits can take the sting out of the risk-taking they must inevitably engage in to start their own enterprises.
Young Singaporeans live in a high cost society that's getting more and more expensive as time goes by. Many are faced with the burden of caring for aged parents, in addition to their own dependents should they choose to start families.
Even if a business has the potential to be successful, it can take years for it to become profitable. It's no wonder everybody takes the safest route-there is no room for failure here.
Well, guess what, except for the very lucky, entrepreneurship is all about failing, and then learning from your mistakes. If people have no room for failure, the only businesses that get set up are copycat enterprises repeating tired formulas.
Instead of implementing blanket unemployment benefits, the government could put in place criteria targeting those who can furnish proof of having run businesses for a reasonable of time, to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
2. Change of conservative, risk-averse mentality
It's a great thing that the educational landscape in Singapore is a lot more diverse these days-there are more options for students at tertiary level, and gone are the days when students would all be competing for limited spaces in the same few courses.
That being said, as a population we're still generally conservative and risk-averse. This may not be immediately obvious from the looks of the changing education landscape. But anyone with a network of Singaporean family members or friends will tell you that the pressure to become a PMET is still quite strong.
I get the feeling that this mentality is particularly prevalent amongst more academically successful students. Students who ace their A levels still face fairly overwhelming pressure to try for the more lucrative professional courses like medicine, law or business, and are haunted by the anxiety that they're "wasting" their grades if they choose to go off the beaten track.
This mindset needs to change, or else all the brightest students are going to be taking up the most conservative jobs.
3. Less intense work culture
Another mistake Singaporeans make is thinking of entrepreneurship as an "all or nothing" endeavour. The formula for setting up your own business is to save up a few hundred thousand bucks, then leave your job to manage your new business.
This ignores the fact that many businesses start out as a side gig, something the entrepreneur tries to build alongside their day job until the day they can finally go full-time.
For instance, amongst the rising number of young Singaporeans freelancing, many have hopes to become full-fledged entrepreneurs in future.
And while running a side gig depends a lot on the individual's ability to organise their time, the long hours Singaporeans work are enough to clip many wannabe entrepreneurs' wings.
Singaporeans work much longer than the worldwide average, by some accounts the longest hours in the world. That also means a lower number of employees have the time and energy to even contemplate starting an enterprise outside of their work hours.
4. Greater diversity at schools
Singapore students are streamed very narrowly at school. By the time they reach the age of 13, they're placed with students whose academic abilities are very similar to their own. It also often results in students from similar economic backgrounds being lumped together.
This creates the illusion that our choices after graduation are narrower than we think. To a certain degree, from a young age, Singaporeans are then trained to settle for what they perceive to be their "lot in life". It works both ways, for both the student who is struggling in a lower stream or the one who is gunning for an elite school. It breeds either compromise or entitlement (of course there are exceptions), but the point here is that people rarely feel like breaking out of that mould unless they are desperate or already economically comfortable.
Having greater diversity at schools-not just in terms of interests but also in terms of academic abilities-can certainly open students' eyes to a wider range of possibilities for the future, and ultimately, a broader thinking society is what Singapore needs to keep its economy afloat.
This article first appeared on MoneySmart
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