Asia Economy

Singapore's entrepreneurs have often had to overcome family pressure — but that may be slowly changing

Key Points
  • Given the "bleak job market outlook," some parents in Singapore appear more willing to allow their children to start their own businesses, said venture capitalist Christopher Quek.
  • For its part, the Singapore government has been offering support for start-ups, including help in areas such as funding and sourcing of talent.
A businessman takes a call while standing against a business district skyline.
Rawpixel | Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Economic uncertainty triggered by the coronavirus may be helping some Singaporean entrepreneurs surmount a personal challenge: family objections to a less stable career path.

"Pragmatic" Singaporean parents often want their children to settle into stable jobs instead of those with higher risks, said Christopher Quek, managing partner of venture capital firm Trive. But given the "bleak job market outlook," some parents appear more willing to allow their children to start their own businesses, said Quek, who has mentored start-up founders.

Their investment into their children is part of ensuring retirement security for themselves and fulfilling their role in helping their children become even wealthier than they were.
Christopher Quek
Venture capitalist

Singapore is home to some 3,800 tech start-ups, and a few big names include ride-hailing firm Grab and e-commerce giant Lazada.

The Asian financial hub provides easy access to global capital and to Southeast Asia's growing consumer market. Singapore boasts solid infrastructure and a consistent rule of law — but some young entrepreneurs say they struggle with family pressures.

Family objections

E-commerce platform Carousell is one of the largest online marketplaces in Southeast Asia.

However, when its co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Siu Rui Quek first told his parents he wanted to work full-time on the start-up, he sensed their disappointment.

"My dad's face immediately looked grim. My mom looked away," he said. "I almost joke sometimes that that's probably the hardest thing in the whole start-up journey so far, just telling your parents."

CEO of Carousell, Siu Rui Quek
Courtesy of Carousell

Trive's Quek, who is not related to Carousell's CEO, said middle-class Asian families often spend a "high amount" of time and money to educate their children in hopes of helping them secure good, high-paying jobs.

"Their investment into their children is part of ensuring retirement security for themselves and fulfilling their role in helping their children become even wealthier than they were," said the entrepreneur.

"They are not keen on their children starting up," he said, adding that some may consider it "a waste of their efforts in educating the child."

Government support

For its part, the Singapore government collaborates with educational institutions and the private sector to "provide platforms for test-bedding and co-innovation," said Edwin Chow, assistant chief executive officer at Enterprise Singapore, a government agency that focuses on grooming early-stage start-ups.

Singapore also helps start-ups find funding and talent.

The years of working at the different start-ups have accelerated my learning and imparted skills that I would not have gained working at a multinational corporation.
Andrew Fam

Still, the risky nature of starting or joining a small company may in some cases be frowned upon by family members.

That was the case for Andrew Fam, chief technology officer at management consulting firm Straits Interactive. He founded a start-up in 2012, but it closed after 18 months due to insufficient business. His next stint at another start-up ended after nine months.

"An uncle told me to drop working in start-ups, to go and work for a multinational cooperation … as they provided a lot more stability," Fam said.

Coronavirus effect

Chow said that Enterprise Singapore's priority is to "ensure that our ecosystem remains conducive for start-ups to continue to grow" despite the uncertainties ahead.

Among other support measures for start-ups, Singapore's government announced in August that up to 150 million Singapore dollars ($110 million) had been set aside to boost support for first-time entrepreneurs.

Start-ups with at least three Singaporeans or permanent residents, at least two of whom are first-time founders, can now receive a larger grant of S$50,000 to match S$10,000 of their own funds. That provides a "longer runway to newly established start-ups," said Chow.

"In every crisis, there are always opportunities for us to grow a new generation of companies. And this crisis is no different," said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, in a speech announcing the increased grants. He said start-ups are creating jobs during a "very critical period."

Children with their parents wave to the armored vehicles in the Republic of Singapore Armed Forces mobile column as it parades through the financial business district to mark the 55th National Day celebrations in Singapore on August 9, 2020.
Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

But Trive's Quek expressed concern that generous government grants may be creating a false sense of security.

"It is a Singaporean form of entrepreneurship that is artificially created to reduce risk and seems more of job security rather than the real risk-taking nature," he said.

But Chow from Enterprise Singapore said local founders will still need "grit and resilience" to succeed. He said the government agency is trying to support more aspiring entrepreneurs to take the plunge and "start this journey sooner rather than later," by helping mitigate some risks.

Will there be long-term change? Quek is not optimistic.

"I honestly feel once the economy finds its footing and the industries start to stabilize in a normal growth pattern, pragmatic Singaporean parents will revert to the 'iron rice bowl' mentality and encourage their children to give up the start-ups and seek new stable paying jobs."

The term "iron rice bowl" is a Chinese saying which refers to a secure job that provides a steady income. It was used to describe government jobs by China's state-owned companies that once guaranteed employment for life.

"Culturally, (it) is something way too strong," he said. "I feel that it will take generations to clear."