Saturday, June 06, 2015

10 reasons why throwing money does not solve anything.

Singapore wants to be a financial hub, a knowledge hub, high tech hub, bio-medical hub, and now an aeronautical design hub and a social business hub. Singapore plans to spend $$$ to make it happen, to attract a lot of foreign companies to come in.

I've seen a lot of money spent on projects, and not much success, yet more money is thrown in. The following are some of the reasons why I think there will not be much success even if the government throws in more money in this path.

1) Good talents are not appreciated.

Software developers, Engineers, Bio-medical researchers, Industrial designers, Social Entrepreneurs are not really respected much. In Asia and Singapore, most of the time, you are respected by the car you drive, the house you own, and the salary you draw. Even if you may create a lot of social impact, the Singaporean society does not care much for it.

Talented Software developers, industrial designers, engineers do not get their fair salary, as a result, these trained people would rather go towards a managerial role, to be an IT manager, or project manager, which pays more and gets more respect, but nothing much to do with technical skills.

2) High Supply of IT graduates from Asian Countries.

India and China are producing an enormous amount of IT graduates every year. A good engineer or software developer is nothing more than just a number. So these jobs becomes some what a commodity.

3) Low demand for real talent in these developing industries.

With the IT, engineers in large supply, and the start of these new industries in Singapore, there is still not really a lot of pick up for these workers, hence the low salary. There may be an initial surge when the company is desperate to look for these staff, but once they have enough, the salary become stagnant.

4) Local companies in Singapore do not really invest in technology.

Even with the great push from the government, SMEs do not really use technology much, most SMEs are not even online, let alone use technology to solve their problems. Hence there is also relatively low demand for good talents.

Many company complain about software developers being hard to find, but that is because the skills that they need are obsolete, too old to maintain a legacy IT system, or the skill set is too specific, because everyone is following a trend, and hiring the same people. However most of the time, these companies do not want to pay for talent. $2000 per month in Singapore will not get you much of a programmer, though you may get one who claims to have a lot of experience, but may rarely deliver. Even when the business is paying a lot for rent, they rarely pay enough for labor in Singapore.

5) "Kiasu Culture"

Although Singapore government wants Singapore business to be market leaders, like the next Silicon Valley, designing new cars and forms of transportation for the world and discovering new cures to save humanity, the fact is, the price of failure is still too "high"

The risk adverse nature of Singapore does not approve of "radical projects" and most things need to be "proven" before funding can proceed. If things are proven, then how are they new and cutting edge?

6) Lots of laws, rules and regulations

When Singapore invites a foreign company to come, it is rarely straightforward. Such invitations often come with lengthy paperwork, some promise of funding which may or may not materialize and an application process which takes months or years, and may somehow fall apart when the next "scholar" boss does not agree with his predecessor.

There may be much willingness to innovate, but the laws and regulations are very tight. In the finance industry, there is so much room to offer more value with IT innovation, but the whole product when it finally completes have too much "safety" built in, that it can actually make online banking, a VERY negative experience which you have to call the customer support constantly to get new passwords and reset the account after 1 month of inactivity.

7) Low technical skills in higher management.

Most companies are run by people with MBAs rather than MEng or MSc. There may be good management skills however, a lack of technical abilities may make it hard to understand the challenges and may not allocate enough resources.

It takes good technical expertise to recognize and promote technical talents, and since managers are the ones who recruit and promote, this may lead to a vicious cycle.

8) Startups run really lean

In Singapore, there is a large push for various startups, but they rarely have enough funding to pay sufficiently. Without enough capital, without enough seed funding, it is hard to get the right talents to succeed.

If you are a really good software developer or a designer, with today's global economy, it may not be that hard getting paid a good amount overseas, rather than starting your own company in a country that does not fund you enough, and have a lot of red tape in your way of success.

Even if you have a successful innovative product, the market in Singapore may also be too small to sustain your high tech innovative company. Otherwise, the SMEs are not ready to use your technology as well. Market is not here.

9) Higher burn rate

Cost of living is really high here. Salaries not so. The jobs that get high salaries in Singapore is often in Banking or Real estate development. Technical skills not so in high demand. If you have a talented team with a low budget, if you can relocate to the neighboring countries, like Malaysia, you can stretch out your budget for much longer.

There is not much advantage to develop the latest technologies in Singapore, especially when there is not a big enough market here for it. Cost of food, rents, transportation is simply too high, even higher than New York City or Silicon Valley.

10) The people funding don't know what's going on

In the government, the people in charge rarely know what they are funding, and as they are scholars or directors in charge, they must "Pretend" to know. Not saying that all Army Generals with a Masters of Arts in Literature does not understand Bio-tech, the people in charge of funding are neither researchers, entrepreneurs or software developers.

They care about their KPIs which may be linked to "innovation and high tech" which they know nothing about, as a result, they fund projects who are mentored by their friends or people they know, rather than on real merits on things they don't understand.


I am just generalizing based on my experience, and I am sure there are cases of success out there. I do feel that the government budget for education is too low, and there should be more focus on having low cost offices and incubators that can have rent controls, rather than funding unworthy projects.

There should also be more people in different industries coming together and discussing collaborations and cross overs as I think that is where innovation occur now -- cross discipline, rather than just deep specialization in one area.

Singapore has it strengths, and what makes us different, makes us better, when you copy others, you rarely can be a leader. When you spot a trend, it is already too late. Create the trend.

-- Robin Low

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