Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Social Entrepreneurship and SIngapore Students

This is an email interview I gave to four students from Anderson Junior College (AJC) in Singapore who are planning a project on social entrepreneurship. "All of us chose this project because we strongly believe that it is possible to infuse business with a social motive and an excellent example would be yourself," wrote one of them, Sophial Foo.

It's an interesting project, combining theory and practice. I was interested to learn that JC students (17-18 year old) are actively thinking about social enterprises. In Sophial words: "A brief outline of our project; social entrepreneurship is a relatively new industry in Singapore and our project aims to raise awareness and at the same time develop a spirit of social entrepreneurship on JC students. We have come up with a 3-phased programme. In Phase 1, the students will attend a talk on social entrepreneurship. In Phase 2, the students will visit poor elderly people once a week for a month. In Phase 3, students will set up their own "mini-businesses" and the profits will go to the organization supporting the poor elderly people that they visited."

Really fantastic.

Anyway, here's the Q and A:

1. After visiting Cambodia and witnessing a mother trying to sell of her child for money, what made you give up your job to start a social enterprise? Was there a reason? Why not the convention method in Singapore, donation drives etc?

I had already given up my job and was travelling around the region when I came to Cambodia (I didn't quit my job to come here to do this). The reason I decided on a social enterprise is because I thought long and hard about the problems I saw and what the best way to help would be. I decided it was by providing fair paying jobs to adults. You can help children but if their parents don't lead stable lives, their children will never be stable. The people in desperate situations are that way because of grinding poverty. You can donate money and throw them a fish now and again, but I decided it would be better to teach them to fish. With a good job, people feel more secure, have confidence in the future and can start to think about dreams and plan to achieve those dreams.

2. What do you think about the current status of social entrepreneurship in Singapore?

I haven't been living in Singapore for the past 2 years so I have no idea what the situation is like now. I am aware there are government initiatives like Social Innovation Park but I have no idea how successful it is in promoting social entrepreneurism. At the end of the day, I think social entrepreneurism is not something that can succeed through prodding and incentives. You have got to want to do it badly enough to be committed to principles of fair play while at the same time be fully aware you will be facing the same pressures that apply to "regular" businesses.

3. Do you think that there is a mindset issue in Singapore? (Singaporeans would rather donate to charities and don't really believe in the sustainability of social enterprises)

It is funny, I met a Cambodian man who told me about his friend who studied in Singapore and therefore knows many Singaporeans. He said these Singaporeans will not be "used to" Cambodia, because it is unclean and hot and without paved roads etc etc, so they would rather donate money than come here. The thing that struck me was how earnest he was, when telling me this, like there was no judgement at all, merely stating a fact. I don't know how to describe how I feel about this. It seems to me there is such a big divide--between the people who live in poor and those in rich countries. I was struck at how poor people feel ashamed of their lives, when it is not something they should be ashamed about. It is often not their fault that they ended up in such a situation.

4. What are your thoughts on the future development of social entrepreneurship in Singapore?

I have no idea. I do think, though, that wealth affords people the luxury of contemplation, and as Singaporeans become richer and can afford to think beyond bread and butter issues, there will be more people questioning what they want out of life. And for many people, this questioning will lead them to doing charity work. You see it already in people in their 50s and 60s and older, who are established and want to help others. At the end of the day, I think many, many people realise that this is what is really important in life: spending time with the ones you love and helping others achieve their dreams--not your 5 Cs (note to readers not familiar with Singaporeans' obsession with the 5 Cs: Cash, Credit Card, Condominium, Car and Country Club membership). "All my possessions for a moment of time." - Elizabeth I's last words.

Many people, Singaporeans and others, have told me they admire me, or envy me, and wish they could do the same. I get the feeling that there are so many people who would like to do what I am doing, but there are things stopping them. If Singaporeans would be more confident in themselves and pursue what they want instead of living out the scripts handed to them by society, their parents and friends, I think there will definitely be more social entrepreneurs in Singapore.

5. What do you think about our project? In your opinion, would it be good or effective to raise awareness in this way?

I think it's very exciting and would love to see you succeed in your project. That would be so brilliant, if you can support, or contribute to supporting the old folks home. It's not a nice thing to always have to beg for donations and money. I used to get calls from fundraisers, when I was working, and you could tell they did not enjoy pestering you, but they had to do it because they just need the money. So good luck with the project!

6. Do you think our project is feasible?
Yes, for sure. You just need passion and dedication to make it succeed.

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