Monday, 17 February 2014

Teo Ser Luck: The politician who nearly joined a gang

Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck, 46, comes to the interview dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and slippers. He admits he is still learning the ways of a minister, but he is not worried about being different. He talks to Robin Chan about the upcoming Budget, his tough childhood and his best workout partners.
The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2014

What will this year's Budget, to be announced next Friday, have for SMEs? They are feeling cost pressures three years into Singapore's economic restructuring, with some feeling they are being forced out of the country.

It is still about growth. It is still about staying on course. It is definitely about restructuring, but we understand the challenges they are facing. So the schemes that we have, we have to monitor the utilisation. And if possible, (improve on it) if there is a need, based on the feedback, like we have done with the Innovation and Capability Voucher. (The $5,000 voucher is for SMEs to pay for upgrading services across productivity and innovation. It will be enhanced in March to cover more areas.)

We don't need more schemes. There are already too many. So what we need to do is enhance some, make it easier to use and access. That is why we are setting up the SME centres, setting up the merchants' committee (an initiative launched last month in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC for shopkeepers to give feedback and learn about government schemes), and we work with the trade associations. It actually helps (raise) the awareness.

There is a criticism that civil servants don't really understand what the SMEs need.

Some people say that civil servants may not understand. But others say some are really very understanding. Whether they understand the problem or not, they are willing to help.

That is exactly why the ones who front our SME centres, and operate and manage them, are the trade associations. These trade associations are the ones closest to the ground, and they are formed by the private sector. We need them.

Some of the business advisers have private sector experience, others are being trained to engage effectively. They have reached out to many businesses.

A lot of time, we just need a good understanding between the two sides. We are getting closer together. That is why there is progress made, despite the fact that many say it is very challenging to get (to our productivity target of 2 to 3 per cent). It has been two to three years, it takes time to build up, and you will see results coming in.

When the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) was introduced, there were quite a few problems. Then it was tweaked. Why could it not be right on the first roll-out?

The process evolves. Right now, a lot of people have benefited from it. Maybe some will say it is still really cumbersome. But if they approach an SME centre or they go to a trade association, it gets done. It is not that difficult. Those who have applied and provided feedback, we made refinements on application forms and all that, even the schemes were streamlined.

You are stepping down as chairman of ACE, the Action Community for Entrepreneurship, set up to spearhead the entrepreneurship push.

I volunteered to step down. It is the right thing to do, to keep it sustainable. For entrepreneurship, you want it to be dynamic, very vibrant, have a lot of creativity and innovation. So let the private sector run the body so that they create an eco-system and landscape to make it more interesting, to make it more of a place for start-ups.

Government has played a role in starting up the process. They catalysed the interest in entrepreneurship 10 years ago.

I made an assessment and in the last two years I focused on things that needed to be done for entrepreneurship, which is building up the eco-system, building up a launching pad and also bringing in capital where possible, not government money, but bringing in investors, find the right community, leadership and people, put them together and spin it off and let them run it.

Government can play a supportive role from the back and let them grow.

I hope our eco-system will be a place that people want to set up business in among the list of say New York, Israel, and Silicon Valley. That is why I was excited about a write up in The Economist in the last issue (All Together Now, Jan 18). They wrote a series and one special one is about us.

But there are still so few success stories.

Depends on how you define success. Some define it as where is the next Facebook, or next Google. But we have to manage our expectations. If I define success for entrepreneurship in our own context, if I say that they are able to build up their business with good innovative ideas that also serve the needs of the consumer or community, and it is self-sustaining, then there is some success. If they are able to exit with a good payout, it is very successful. If they are able to list, even more successful. They are able to build up the company. So if you are not Facebook or Google it is all right.

Many work for others in Silicon Valley and after that they get so inspired that they want to do something on their own. That is that spirit, that is the culture and environment I hope to build. I may have to start small, but it is OK, because slowly this circle will grow, people will influence others and it will grow. If it becomes an important choice for a career, I think we would have succeeded somewhere.

You were country manager at DHL Express Singapore. Was it a difficult transition for you going into politics?

It was (difficult) learning the system, coming from a private sector background. I had totally no history working for the government. My father was an odd-job labourer, a factory worker, (my parents) are not very educated. They were hardworking people without any personal aspirations except for their children.

When I was younger (growing up in Hougang), I was smaller sized, so I was bullied. And because you try to find a sense of identity, and protect yourself, I nearly joined a gang. But a good kakitold me: "Don't join us. If you can study, you study." It woke me up, because it was from my friend. I could have crossed the line easily because I was in that kind of environment. But I have good friends and parents.

I am very blessed and very lucky, so why not help others? And that is why I am doing public service. It is very rare that I have this chance. We should never forget where we came from and we should never be ashamed of where we came from. I am always so proud of my friends who have helped me up.

Some say you are not like a typical minister because of your background.

What is a typical minister? Does it mean you cannot wear shorts to a coffeeshop? But I am wearing shorts and sitting right here at the prata shop.

Actually I do not know if there is a rule on how a minister should behave, we should just be ourselves for all the protocols. I am still not used to it. But I follow through, because you don't want to make it difficult for staff, and there is good reason for it.

But you must have a good mix of different backgrounds to form a team, then it is more reflective of how things are on the ground. I can only reflect one part of it. There will be others who can reflect other parts that I am not aware of, and a good mix of different ideas can lead to policies that help citizens.

So, do you feel you are making a contribution in Cabinet?

PM is a very open-minded person. In Cabinet meetings, everyone is entitled to his views.You can say anything you want, anything you feel strongly about.

How has it been juggling politics and raising two children?

My wife, the home affairs minister, does a good job. My children are rather independent. I can't teach them anything in their studies, because it is very cheem!

Children should have more play time.

I am enjoying their company. When we have time and between my events at night, I try to rush back when I can and do a workout with them. And they can keep up with my workout you know! I run and do stations with my daughter and son (12 and 14 years old). We'll do the circuit together, three to four times and run. It is a pleasure. They are my best training partners.

You were helping with the campaign strategy in Punggol East by-election, when the PAP suffered a 10 percentage point swing in votes. Would you have done it any other way?

The residents there made a choice. No matter what you do, an election is an outcome of something that was built up over time. Something may have happened along the way that influenced it. We just have to learn to understand and be more aware and do something about it.

The most important thing we can learn is that whatever we do, we have to work really hard for the residents, and build a lot of trust and confidence that you are the right one for them.

What's for supper

Thohirah Restaurant 258 Jalan Kayu
- Prata with egg: $4
- Kopi: $1
- Total: $5


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