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An entrepreneur is born… not in Singapore




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By Janice Seah Teo

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Not in a million years when I lived in Singapore did I ever think my husband and I would ‘go into business’.

Risk adverse and short on liquid cash, we just lived as the majority of Singaporeans with good, secure jobs did – safely and comfortably. The last thing we wanted were sleepless nights worrying about paying off a business loan and the fear of bad times or a falling bottom line. Who needed the stress? Honestly.

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As far as we were concerned, going into business was the territory of the well-connected, the well-heeled or the scions of industry.

No, we were happy in our jobs and the pat Singapore formula of getting a good education, a good job, a house and then falling back on our CPF in our old age. The formula suited us just fine.

And then we moved to Perth in 1993. Our CPF joined us a few years later and suddenly everything changed. We bought a house and then realized that we had better do something with what remained of our modest nest egg to make sure our retirement nest was well-feathered.

Because if there was one thing the Singapore government had drilled into us, it was that nobody is going to take care of you so you’d better make sure you can take care of yourself.

So, because the need to grow our resources out-ranked every other consideration and fear, we ventured into the all-new world of being our own bosses. Which is just another way of saying let’s see how much pain and torture we can inflict on ourselves before we take a dive, head-first, out of said nest. (No, it wasn’t as bad as that. Not always anyway).

What I found out, as I was writing this article, was that it wasn’t just level-headed, steely-eyed pragmatism that steered our ship; it turns out that buried deep in my husband’s mind was something he remembered Lee Kuan Yew saying sometime, somewhere:

Apparently, Mr Lee said something to the effect that “A man should have his own business, or at least consider going into business, by the time he’s 40.”

Those words struck a chord with my husband and, incubated by time and circumstance, came back to him in full-grown inspiration years later.

We began with a little pet care and grooming franchise and worked that for two years – he with a van and an incredible capacity for hard work, me with the housework, a two-month old baby and a six-year-old son.

I handled the accounts and the bookings, he got on with the job. It was tough work but manageable and we learned quite a few valuable lessons about Australia’s tax system and many invaluable lessons about Australians.

Tired of that after two years, we began hunting around for something bigger to do and considered buying property, but then an opportunity to invest with some partners – some Australian, some Singaporean and Malaysian – in a bottled water company and build it from the ground up came along and we took it.

Thus began 10 years of extremely challenging but rewarding work and experiences we would never otherwise have had – cold-calling and door-knocking for new customers; managing staff (a headache-and-a-half in Australia where wages are high and workers not always reliable) and equipment.

What was it like being a Singaporean doing business in Australia? It was quite an attitude shift in some areas – Australians are an egalitarian lot and prefer the matey approach to bosses than the traditional Singapore position of subordinate. Aloof bosses are not popular; bosses who roll up their sleeves and get into the trenches are.

Contrary to perhaps what many Singaporeans may think, we never had an issue with racism.

Neither did we find the average Australian petty – those who came into the shop to buy bottles of water would just take the bottle closest to them.

Many Asians, on the other hand, scrutinized – with narrowed eyes for that extra bit of precision – the level of water in each bottle and insist on buying the one with just that little bit more.

My husband worked there for the next 10 years and had the satisfaction of seeing the company go national and then public.

As husband and wife, we grew much in our relationship. We celebrated every victory together, supported each other through the tough times – and developed a depth of admiration and trust for each other that nourishes us to this day.

Would we have ever gone into business in Singapore? I don’t think so. Some are born to become entrepreneurs and businessmen. Others are born to stick with eBay. Then again, that’s what I thought too.

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