“I don’t think you’ll ever have an Elon Musk. He’s not your style, right?”
The above were words spoken by Tyler Cowen – the Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics at The Center for Study of Public Choice in George Mason University – at the session on “Jobs and Skills” in this year’s Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) forum held on 12 January.
Cowen was responding to a question posed by the session’s moderator, Danny Quah – the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) and the Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics. Quah had asked the panellists, “what can Singapore do to bring about, to encourage the Elon Musks and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world?”
While Cowen acknowledged the vibrant entrepreneurial landscape in Singapore, he was sceptical that Singapore would produce an entrepreneur like the South African business magnate who currently holds the title of the wealthiest man on Earth.
Putting a reason to his perspective, Cowen highlighted that Musk’s freewheeling social media persona wouldn’t be taken well in Singapore, stating that our society was “in some ways too conformist”.
This leads us to the question: Is Cowen’s assessment an accurate representation of Singapore’s entrepreneurial landscape? And if so, is it necessarily a bad thing?
A Cultural Psychological Perspective of Entrepreneurship
Cowen’s words aren’t baseless. The implication that Singapore’s society is very much different from that of the United States (where Musk and Zuckerberg found their success) has a basis in cultural psychology.
To understand this, we first have to make clear the distinctions between the cultures of Singapore and the United States. Specifically, Singapore is known to have a collectivist culture, where the group is often prioritised over an individual. This is opposite to the individualistic culture found within the US, where the individual takes precedence over the group.
With this in mind, studies in cultural psychology have indeed found differences between the working styles of the two different cultures. For instance, Erez and Nouri (2010) found that in cultures dominated by collectivism, individuals are more inclined to generate useful, rather than novel, ideas as they tend to be more concerned about the opinions of others.
To illustrate this, a group of researchers documented that when Singaporeans were working with others, there was a tendency for our country folk to come up with less original ideas, and elaborate more on the appropriateness of these ideas, as opposed to when they were working alone (Nouri, Erez, Rockstuhl, & Ang, 2008).
More clearly, researchers have also analysed the kinds of innovations each culture produced and found significant differences; in general, more-collectivistic East Asian cultures with an emphasis on useful ideas are more likely to foster incremental innovations, whereas more-individualistic Western cultures, with their emphasis on novel ideas, encourage more breakthrough ones (Herbig & Palumbo, 1996).
To put it plainly, there is a scientific basis that supports Cowen’s assertions: Singapore’s collectivist culture might very well lend itself to a type of entrepreneurship that is broadly different from that of the West, thus making the likelihood of producing an entrepreneur like Elon Musk less likely here.
Science aside, what are Singaporeans’ view on entrepreneurship here?
Well, a scan through this reddit thread on the issue suggests that most Singaporeans concur with Cowen’s views.
Redditor Angelcstay shared her experiences working in the States, and suggested that the Singapore system is far too “rigid” to develop the likes of Elon Musk. She posits that in Singapore, an individual like Musk would likely be deemed “a failure since he doesn’t have the credentials of [straight-A] students”.
TheHomeGround also contacted local entrepreneur Koh Jin Jie, 23, co-founder of TheNightMrkt, for his thoughts on the matter.
Koh agrees that Singaporeans are generally “risk averse”. He says of Cowen’s statements, “Singaporeans do struggle to think dynamically/out-of-the-box compared to our counterparts in North America… I can concur with the statement. Working for a Toronto-based start-up now, I genuinely feel as though Singaporeans are more limited in their imagination, ambition, and drive.”
Even so, does this mean that Singapore’s entrepreneurial landscape is “worse” than that of the United States?
Singapore still has a thriving entrepreneurial landscape
In spite of his comments, Cowen himself expressed that Singapore was “one of the most entrepreneurial places in the world”.
Cowen admits that while entrepreneurship here takes on a different form, features such as predictability, rule of law, and Singapore’s quality of governance are all plusses for our entrepreneurial landscape.
Jonas Thürig, the head of startup incubator F10 Singapore, held similar sentiments. He shared that “what makes being an entrepreneur in Singapore different is the fact that you are situated in a state of ample support across all aspects of life… there is also the rule of law, work-life balance, high education standards, [and] access to international talent”.
If you think about it, the same features that might impede an entrepreneur like Elon Musk such as Singapore’s predictability and rule of law are also the very ones that help entrepreneurs here thrive.
Entrepreneurship in Singapore still has room for improvement
Entrepreneurship in Singapore might be different, but that’s not to say that it is “better” than that of the United States or anywhere else. Instead, there is still much that we can learn from other cultures to better our entrepreneurship spirit and encourage more entrepreneurs to take the leap of faith here in Singapore.
One such area of improvement that Koh identified is Singaporeans’ risk aversion, which he believes is a “major impeding force to entrepreneurship in Singapore”. As a budding student-entrepreneur himself, he hopes that more can be done “to teach students to embrace failure.”
Thürig is of the same mindset, although he does believe that there’s a gradual shift towards more risk tolerance here in Singapore. When asked how entrepreneurship can be encouraged in Singapore, Thürig underscores the importance of leading by example, highlighting that “failure is part of the journey of an entrepreneur and it’s important that this continues to be embraced and lived by today’s leaders. It should always be seen as okay to fail and learn from your mistakes”.
Embracing our own style of entrepreneurship
Ultimately, success comes in different forms and it need not necessarily look like Elon Musk.
Success can also look like homegrown brands such as Shopee and Razer hitting the international stage, or even young entrepreneurs such as Koh striving to make a difference during pandemic times.
Not having an entrepreneur of Elon Musk’s calibre today doesn’t necessarily mean we will never have one either. Cowen’s fellow panellist Selena Ling, the Chief Economist in the Global Treasury Division of OCBC Bank, expressed optimism in “potential unicorns to come” given the investments being poured into Singapore’s research and development (R&D) in recent years.
Well, only time will tell if Singapore will produce its own breed of unicorns; in the interim, perhaps it’s best we focus on the good that we do have and continue to invest in the next generation of entrepreneurs that will be the change makers of the future.
Erez, M., & Nouri, R. (2010). Creativity: The influence of cultural, social, and work contexts. Management and Organization Review, 6, 351–370.
Herbig, P. A., & Palumbo, F. A. (1996). Innovation— Japanese style. Industrial Management & Data Systems, 96, 11–20.
Nouri, R., Erez, M., Rockstuhl, T., & Ang, S. (2008). Creativity in multicultural teams: The effects of cultural diversity and situational strength on creative performance. The Academy of Management Annual Meeting, August 8–13, Anaheim, CA.