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Singapore Government

Speech by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin at Singapore Social Enterprise Conference 2015

Speech by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin at Singapore Social Enterprise Conference 2015

Mr Gautam Banerjee, Chairman of raiSE

Board members of raiSE

Friends and partners of the social enterprise community

A very good morning to you. Thank you, Gautam, for sharing about the vision of the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise with raiSE. I am very delighted to hear about the upcoming plans for raiSE to promote social entrepreneurship in Singapore.

Developing Social Enterprises

The Ministry of Social and Family Development first started looking at social enterprises when we set up the Comcare Enterprise Fund 10 years ago, to support social enterprises in creating employment opportunities for the less advantaged. Since then, the Ministry has in various ways sought to catalyse the growth of the sector through the then- Social Enterprise Association – some of you here might have been involved with it as well. We have also launched initiatives such as the President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award, which is in its 3rd run now. In May this year, raiSE was launched as the single touchpoint to drive the development of social entrepreneurship in Singapore. Both the Comcare Enterprise Fund and the Award have now been taken over by raiSE, pooling their resources together with the guidance of a private sector-led board under Gautam. I am confident that raiSE can give the sector a strong boost and help bring it a step forward.

At the core of every social enterprise is the passionate social entrepreneur who puts a social mission at the heart of his business. Social entrepreneurs are individuals who actively seek innovative business solutions to solve pressing social problems. They are active citizens who do not stop at asking why, but instead decide to get their hands dirty to find a need and meet it – in the hope of creating wide-scale and sustainable change.

We have about 300 social enterprises in Singapore today. Social enterprises have emerged as a middle sector between the traditional walls of government, non-profits and business. Increasingly, we are seeing more entrepreneurs thinking about how their businesses can make an impact on the community, and how they fit into the social enterprise ecosystem. We are in an era where people are becoming more informed, and more willing to step forward to act on matters that they care about. And I think this is important in terms of shaping the kind of society that we want to build.

Transforming Society

So the question is, can social enterprises play a bigger role in Singapore? The government and Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs) have so far been the main service providers in serving the community. But we all know that we are moving in a very different direction in terms of demographic patterns. Aging is an issue. From my perspective it is not just a challenge, but an opportunity for us to live long and to age well. But at the same time we are also fully cognisant of the manpower constraints that we have. In every sector, we will face those challenges – whether in government or non-government organisations or VWOs, which are involved in providing services for the less privileged. I think we do need to consider other ways of providing those services for those who are disadvantaged, and social enterprises can play an important part in that space.

I’m sure many of you are here for a reason – you are concerned about social issues. But it is also worthwhile to think about why they are important, apart from the fact that there are the less privileged and disadvantaged in our society, even in Singapore. I offer you a thought: by being involved in this sector, apart from actually making a difference, you are making things better for fellow Singaporeans. When we are actually involved in caring for others, and actively looking out for others; when we are emotionally engaged and our lives are intertwined in the wellbeing of others – that is change. Things change at one level for those you are helping, but I believe that we also change in the process.

And in this way, I believe that it is important to build a better society that is anchored on compassion – where Singaporeans are more selfless and look out for others; not just themselves. That perhaps offers us a glimpse into the day when we can begin to transform society. It is not just about helping the disadvantaged and the less privileged – although that is tremendously important. The process of being involved with them, I think, is transformative. I would suggest that all of us actively play a part in building a better and more caring Singapore. Being selfless, looking out and caring for others – this is one way of reconnecting with our sense of humanity and compassion. And perhaps those are the kind of values that will anchor us as we celebrate SG50, and for the years to come – when we have a people who are actively looking out for others and not just themselves.

Creating Sustainable Solutions

This is where social enterprises, and I would also suggest, corporations – since many of you are involved on that front – can be involved. For corporations who do Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) work, do pause and think: apart from corporate branding, how do these activities actually have a significant transformative effect? Even as individuals and the wider community get involved, all of us are in this space and can make a difference. As we know, as Singapore’s social demographic is changing, new challenges are emerging. As I mentioned earlier, all of us need to pull together and collectively see how we can add to the solutions that we need. As we tackle the challenges brought about by an aging population, the consequences of low marriage and fertility, and a more complex social fabric, these are also opportunities for us to play a part – particularly social entrepreneurs who are looking at creating sustainable solutions.

Sustainability is important, and I am sure many of you are aware of that. We all know that boutique solutions can be effective, but that is because you focus your attention and efforts on one area. But we also need to look at sustainable solutions that can last over time and scale across the community. Social enterprise can find a sweet spot between the profit-maximising business on the one hand, and the socially-driven charity that largely depends on donations on the other. Both VWOs and social enterprises do share common goals of meeting the needs of the people, and seeking opportunities to create better value for the community. Social enterprises are part of a broader system to address social needs, and you will continue to play a very unique role that can complement the work of the government and VWOs. It is also important for us to explore how we collaborate better – pooling our information and coordinating without creating overbearing structures. If we are able to harness our information and be more targeted in the way we approach the work that we do, I think we can have a very strong symbiotic relationship across the different stakeholders.

So this is why MSF and the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) strongly support raiSE and its work with social enterprises and social entrepreneurs. We recognise that social enterprises can potentially make an impact in addressing social needs, and improve capabilities of the VWOs. Through raiSE, I hope that we can see more sustainable social enterprises in Singapore. Social entrepreneurs have a strong motivation and desire to address social problems. But where are the problems, and what is the scale of the problem? How can we help social enterprises serve the community better? To not just work based on our perception of what the problems are, but collaborate to find where exactly the needs are in the community, and then direct different groups to apply the appropriate solutions as the case may be. Even as NCSS is working on identifying and meeting the emerging and unmet needs in the local community, there is room for NCSS and raiSE to work towards strengthening the linkages I talked about earlier. We can therefore build a dynamic ecosystem, with social entrepreneurs leveraging on the inherent strength and ideas across the people, public and private sectors, to derive innovative solutions to better tackle social problems. Through developing social entrepreneurship, we are also encouraging innovative approaches to benefit the social sector.

Like any business, social enterprises can, do and will fail. Some will struggle to be profitable, while others may take time to grow. Should we measure the success of the social enterprise by the traditional business model of dollars and cents? Ultimately, what matters most is whether the social entrepreneur has achieved the social goals that he set out to achieve at the beginning. I would like share with you an example, which is A-Changin, a social enterprise that trains and employs single mothers and disadvantaged women to provide alteration services to customers. Before embarking on her journey as a social entrepreneur, Josephine, the founder of A-Changin, and her husband, ran a successful integrated marketing firm and sold it in 2001. They brought their business acumen into a social enterprise and have not looked back since. When Josephine started, many malls and customers did not understand and found it difficult to accept the idea of a social enterprise, as they were worried that it would provide substandard service. But to Josephine, the upsides more than made up for it, especially when customers came back to A-Changin for its quality service. She is committed to what she does because she sees the real difference it made in the lives of others. For Josephine, it’s not just about how popular her business is and how much profit it is making, but about providing financial independence for the women she employs, and growing their confidence and overall wellbeing. A-Changin has raised the skill levels and uplifted the confidence and lives of the over 20 employees whom she has hired to date.

For many of us who are involved in this space, where we work with the less privileged and the disadvantaged, we would know how important this work is. We always talk about changing the world and changing the society, and it is easy to talk about big-picture ideas. But actually, big-picture ideas consist of small actions, and for the 20 lives whom Josephine has touched and transformed, it means all of the world to them. There are many different pathways that life can take. But intervention, whether big or small, makes a tremendous amount of difference to them. Some of us may have a bigger impact, and some of us may have a more limited impact. But we should never underestimate how these changes cumulatively add up. So even while we look at the bigger, broader strategic ideas, it is important for all of us to walk away and ask ourselves: what is my impact? What is my capacity to make a difference in the space that I have, within my sphere of influence? If each and every one of us begins to assert our authority in that space, that is where the collective change happens. And when the tipping point is reached, I think you will begin to see a momentum developing in society. So it does start from small actions, and we should never underestimate how important these are.

Harnessing Capabilities to Do Good

Enterprise projects can provide a platform to harness the creativity and compassion of individuals and organisations. Such engagements can develop new capabilities and strengthen the work of local non-profits. For instance, Reta Social Enterprise, a member of raiSE, provides professional media community and event management services for local non-profit organisations at subsidised rates. Some of their clients include the Malay Heritage Foundation, the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Lions Home for the Elders, and so on. As with all social enterprises, there is always a compelling story that drives their motivation. In Reta Social Enterprise’s case, it was to continue the community work of the CEO’s late grandmother, Che Zahara Noor Mohamad, who was an inductee in the 2014 Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame and a pioneering champion for rights of women and children.

Despite these success stories, we also recognise that social enterprises continue to face challenges, like any other businesses. As they scale up, they may need to look beyond their small market size in Singapore, to regional or even international shores. They, like all of us, face a shortage of talent and manpower. But at the same time, there are more young Singaporeans who are also looking to do good, beyond making money. For these young Singaporeans, instead of starting new social enterprises, why not join the growing social entrepreneurs that are already on the scene, to continue to bring the social mission further, and learn from aspiring and inspiring mentors?

This is where raiSE can help meet the gap, by facilitating introductions within the raiSE network. raiSE is also working on forming a regional network to help local social enterprise members scale up beyond Singapore, as well as to promote the sharing and cross-pollination of ideas among local and regional players. In order to help existing social enterprises scale up and contend with the challenges of expansion, raiSE will also roll out the Social Enterprise Accelerated Programme later in September – the first run is expected to target 6 to 8 raiSE members.
Developing social entrepreneurship is a bold initiative to progressively shift from just relying on charitable relief, to actually creating systemic solutions – moving away from grants and donations towards sustainable investments. I hope that we can continue to generate a strong momentum and solid platform, for the expanding role of social enterprise in addressing the societal challenges in Singapore. And we, the government, will continue to support raiSE through NCSS.

We should not forget the social entrepreneurs – the people behind the social enterprises – and what they have to overcome to get to where they are today. I understand that many members of raiSE are in our midst today, and I do applaud your courage and motivation in embarking on the social enterprise journey. I invite everyone in the audience to give them a resounding round of applause.

I also encourage corporations to continue to step forward to support social enterprises with which they see an alignment of values, whether through procurement or corporate volunteerism. And social enterprises do want support. A convergence between CSR and social enterprise will certainly help encourage new waves of businesses. And on this note I thank the DBS Foundation and Singapore Pools, for being firm supporters of social enterprises through your sponsorship for the conference.

As I close, I would like to urge all of us here – whether you are with VWOs, NGOs, in government agencies, or in a social enterprise – to consider that the work we do in this space is the one platform and space we have to change our society. Indeed, it is about helping make that difference for the less privileged and disadvantaged, but I believe the biggest change we can create is building a better Singapore – because it is values, I think, that will keep this nation sustainable. Of course, there are many important values, but I can think of no other kind of work and sector that allows us to connect with our own sense of humanity and compassion. And that is very important for me, especially when we can get swept along by the many pressures that we face, and the expectations that we receive from those around us. Ultimately, we know the things that matter most are actually our values, and this is where all of us can play a very significant role, big or small. So I do urge all of you to chip in, in whatever capacity you can, to support the effort of social enterprises and the various stakeholders in this space. I wish all of us a tremendously exciting journey ahead.

Thank you very much.

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