Getting entrepreneurship right

RECENTLY, I had a lively conversation with a Grab driver. This young Malay man was a graduate in computer science. He first worked as a marketing officer with an agricultural trading company, then rose to become a manager. As part of his company's training scheme, he was sent to Vietnam to study the coffee industry.

He had learnt enough of the coffee business while in Vietnam to impress me with his knowledge of the varieties of coffee beans. Some are apparently more acidic than others. Some are more flavourful, others not. You can choose flavour over aroma. Then, it is easier to extract the essence from some beans, making these varieties more sought after by those making instant coffee.

And so he went on. What was he doing driving a taxi when he had all this information at hand? With a sheepish smile he confessed that he was in the business of producing instant coffee satchets for hotels that want their own distinctive in-house variety.

His job as a markeing manager? Well he resigned once he found a business partner. He knew enough about coffee, the technology and business to start out on his own.

When there was free time between tasks he would use it to provide his taxi service.

The moral of the story is a long one. One could extract different lessons.

But the one that I like the most is creation of the entrepreneurial spirit, the drive to get into the world of business.

I do not think that entrepreneurship, or the willingness to do "tasks", is the monopoly of a particular ethnic group. Groups as diverse as Marwaris and Sindhis, who come from India, have a long tradition of being in business. The Chettiars have been known to have been bankers, offering their services right up to Italy, as early as the 14th century. Then you have the Hakkas who did well in Malaysia. And the ever-present Jews.

Governments cannot "create" entrepreneurs. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's ambitious experiment to create Malay tycoons simply failed. It is one of the most embarrassing flops in Malaysia's economic history.

This failure has nothing to do with any characteristic that is a part of the Malay psyche or Malay culture. It has nothing to do with laziness.

Look at the number of energetic Malay traders at the nearest Ramadan bazaar. That should be enough to convince the sceptics.

If the urge to do business is alive among Malays – as it is among the other races, too – then that desire should be supported by the right conditions to grow. To nurture a tendency is not to spoon-feed, or to create an artificial, rarefied atmosphere that protects aspiring businessmen from the waves of the real world. And that may have been what caused the breakdown in Mahathir's great experiment.

Principal in admitting the reality of the real world is accepting the need to face up to competition. Racially-biased policies do not help target groups in confronting the hugely competitive world.

Creating acceptable opportunities is not the same as creating acceptable outcomes. At best, it is within the realm of the government to manipulate opportunities; but manipulating outcomes has a crippling effect.

It is time to reconsider how the new Malaysian entrepreneurial class will be created. This is a necessary topic for discussion with the TN50 agenda being splashed everywhere.

Minister Khairy Jamaluddin claims that the youth, in expressing their aspirations for TN50, "want to see an identity that is more united, which is an identity known as 'Bangsa Malaysia'". He goes on to add that they want Bangsa Malaysia to be more prominent than that of race or ethnicity.

The question therefore is how the level of entrepreneurship will be inculcated and raised for all disadvantaged Malaysians, as we go forward.

My Grab driver got it right without government support. Now what can the government do without tripping over itself in its effort to develop entrepreneurship?

Dr Shankaran Nambiar is author of Malaysia in Troubled Times. The views in this article are his own. Comments: