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To succeed, Singapore needs entrepreneurs with great vision

Key to improving nation's performance is coming up with 'formidable entrepreneurs'

What factors must we look at in order to evaluate a country's performance and future potential?

As an investor and innovation driver, I put my eye on how many "formidable entrepreneurs" a country can claim to its name.

But what does formidable mean in this context?

Some of the criteria I use include having a global presence or recognition, which highlights their ability to communicate effectively; the number of people directly or indirectly using their products and services on a daily basis; the scope of their vision - eyeing a global market beyond their local region and generation - and their level of influence in inspiring people to move forward.

This is juxtaposed with super rich - though undeniably successful - businessmen who do not traditionally behold the future with the same visionary outlook and concern for mankind.

Under this definition, formidable entrepreneurs are measured against a standard of greatness - being good isn't good enough.

I like to cite US-specific examples of Mr Elon Musk (Tesla/SpaceX founder), Mr Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder), Mr Bill Gates (Microsoft founder), Mr Larry Page and Mr Sergey Brin (Google founders), Mr Steve Jobs (Apple founder) and Mr Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder).

In the UK, I look to people such as Mr Richard Branson (Virgin Group founder), while in China my vote goes to Mr Jack Ma (Alibaba founder). In Japan, Mr Masayoshi Son (Softbank founder) takes the top spot.

All of them are linked by incredible vision and tales of entrepreneurial struggle overcoming the odds.

Who, then, is Singapore's formidable entrepreneur?

Though there are many great businessmen in Singapore, I don't think there is any entrepreneur in the league of Mr Musk or Mr Ma.

To be recognised as a true start-up nation, Singapore will eventually have to produce at least one such a titan.

I have faith that it will - and in the not-too-distant future.

In South Korea, after the first generation of founders behind the likes of Samsung, LG and Hyundai, there are no outstanding entrepreneurs that come to mind. Of course, there are some founders from technology startup success stories such as Line and Kakao Talk, the country's hugely popular chat apps.

But these are still far from formidable, largely existing in the bubble of their home market. In terms of global recognition, K-pop star Psy, who is behind hit song Gangnam Style, could be argued as being more formidable than the founders of the two apps.

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For China, besides Mr Ma, smartphone maker Xiaomi's founder Lei Jun could also be a potential candidate. What about WeChat or Huawei?

Unfortunately, the founders of those companies have never been recognised beyond China the way Mr Ma has.

I am convinced the scene will be totally different in three to five years. Since many high-potential candidates are rising in almost every country and region, including Singapore, the race to be a truly formidable entrepreneur makes for lively debate.

The benefits of a formidable entrepreneur are not just limited to the economy. Their influence encompass culture, society, education and more.

Other obvious benefits include soft factors such as enhancing the national brand, encouraging young entrepreneurship and innovation, delivering breakthrough technologies for permanent change, and boosting Singapore's expansion into global markets.

Mr Ma recently became digital economy adviser to the Malaysian government, a clear sign of his value on the international stage beyond that of the founder of a private enterprise.

In the case of the US, its entrepreneurs' positive influence is far beyond figures in other sectors.

It is my belief that Singapore's promising future resides in successfully nurturing one such formidable entrepreneur - who is surely already among us.

In the years to come, we will observe the top-ranking economies in the world share one key capability: cultivating such formidable entrepreneurs.

To date, the backbone of Singapore's strategy as an economy has been to establish itself as a global business hub - with financial appeal and metrics as key performance indicators.

Singapore was recently ranked 12th as a global start-up ecosystem, according to Startup Genome's 2017 edition. Silicon Valley, New York and London took the top three spots.

Now, with this infrastructure in place, it is time to change our strategy into one focused on producing truly formidable entrepreneurs to go forth into the world.

tnp@sph.com.sg

The writer is co-founder and chief executive officer of Marvelstone Ventures. This article was published in The Business Times yesterday.

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