Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Very Curious Obsession with Size

A few days ago, the Straits Times, our national newspaper ran an article on small law firms. In a nutshell, the article implied that being small limited law firms of less than 5-lawyers to doing low paid work and their lack of financial resources made them more prone to being crooks. As a small business owner, I'm sad to  say that this prevailing attitude towards small businesses is not limited to law firms and I'm not the only one to notice this. A friend of mine in the IT industry noted, "The attitude of the Singapore establishment is - KILL THE SME." 

Despite the government's efforts to be nice to SME's (Recent budget introduced a host of measures for SMEs) and the media's efforts to promote certain small busiensses, the culture in Singapore is decidedly business unfriendly. As the recession bites, you're going to hear more and more Singaporeans tell their kids to work for the government or at least a forign multinational because - "There's an IRON RICE Bowl." Ask the average Singaporean what they think of small businesses and you'll get a host of negative responses - "Yech, Chinese Ah Peks in Shorts," is sadly not an uncommon thought from -sadly, Chinese yuppies who's preppy university education was usually paid for by an "Ah Pek" businessman in shorts. 

There's actually nothing wrong with being risk averse. In fact, it's often healthy to avoid certain risk. However, Singapore is a curious place. Instead of admiring people who take a risk and strike out on their own - we positively loath people who strike out on their own and succeed in making a living (Note, I didn't say get rich.) You only have to look at the number of ordinary people writing in to complain about illegal curry puff sellers from Batam to see how much we despise the small firms that are the backbone of any economy. Even my parents, who are very liberal by all counts, are only just accepting the fact that I'm part of the small business community. - My father telling me, "Better get yourself into a big agency - nobody respects free-lancers," (ironic because he's been a very successful small business), and I remember my mother telling me,"Ai Yah, local agencies cannot succeed." 

OK, I'm not going to denny that there are horrible duds and crooks in the small business community. I remember one small business school that I helped to market and Gina happned to lecture in. The hole in the carpark (which has since been torn down) of a school was a cesspit and thanks to "responsible" journalism this school and others like it have had its justified cum-uppance. 

But it's sad that we, a small nation that has succeeded despite its size, should develop such an allergy to very people who embody the very values that made it what it is today. I take my former father-in-law, Yong Koon, the egg seller as an example. Despite not completing secondary school, the man was hard working, curious enough to want to learn new skills when he didn't have to, and filled with good old fashioned comon sense. Sadly, neither my ex-wife and brother-in-law didn't inherit an ounce of the old man's senses. My ex-wife was obsessed with the providing father she's now bugging the heavenly father to make sure Spinelli's provides her with the right cookies. My former brother-in-law is contributing to the Singapore economy by producing weapons that will most likely never see a day of real combat. 

Unfortunately, it's his kids that seem to be acceptable ideal in Singapore. I suspect, we hate small businessmen like my former father-in-law because the old man understands that it was his hard work that created the good life he has and not some bureaucrat in some ministry hole thinking he or she actually knows how the world works (having said that I wouldn't mind if the world was filled with people who could go on S$46,000 cooking courses) 

Everytime I think back to my former in-laws, I'm tempted to blame the Singapore government for screwing up the generations. What the parents lacked in education they more than made up for in comon sense, hard work and people skills. The kids lost all of that despite having gone through the education system, which is something we're proud of. The old foggies actually knew how life functions - the old man had 'upgraded' himself and added skills to his resume (cab and fork lift driver) long before the government got onto the retraining bandwagon. The kids by contrast are stuck in the fact that they have "Iron Rice Bowls." 

But you can't blame the government for everything. Life in the government and multi-nationals is comfortable, even if the work-reward ratio does not always make sense. Stability for some, outweighs the dreams one may have. I suppose, I might be on the same boat had Gina not aborted and thrust fatherhood upon me. 

I shouldn't knock stability here. I'm told women like it and I'm told that if you have stability, you can actually think properly because you are not worried by the need to pay bills. However, I'm thankfully not a woman or a plant. Yes, stability is important but it cannot be the end game for one. Big may be comfortable and safe, but is it secure? Can a big company or government department insultate you from the realities on the ground. 

Ironically, a man regarded by his peers as one of the world's best business leaders of one of the biggest companies in history has been singing a different tune. In his book, "Winning," Jack Welsh, former CEO of General Electric (GE) says that he wanted GE to have the culture of a "Convenience Store." Mr Welsh estbalished his reputation by making life for GE's managers as uncertain as it is for small business owners - every year, the bottom ten percent of GE's managers get the boot. This element of uncertainty has created a situation where GE's managers are very aware of the need to create actual value rather than create projects that use time and financial resources. 

So, what does it tell you about us being a nation obsessed with size and being part of a monoblock, when one of the world's largest companies has made it a point to try and think like a small company? What does it say about the reality on the ground when a presidential candidate with millions of small backers raised more funds than his opponents who had the support of big financial donnors. 

Yes, size counts in fight. I think it was Napoleon who once remarked that "God is on the side of the Big Battalions." However, small does not mean weak or useless. In fact small is exceedingly useful and big can be monolithic when it means more control at the centre. 

Small can become exceedingly large when it needs to be and small when size is no longer a criterion. The American army has spent seven frustrating years in Iraq dealing with rag-tag mallitias who are separate but unite into a larger force when necessary - likewise with the Israeli army in Lebaonon in 2006 and the British army in Northern Ireland. 

So, while we in Singapore fret over not dealing with small sized businesses, shouldn't we as a small business community learn to collaborate and compete at the same time for our benefit?  

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