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A Singapore Sling - I

Somewhere on the fringe of Singapore's Chinatown, Ronald and his family run a highly specialised `hobby supplies' shop. I've been in touch with Ronald over the last few months, on phone and on mail so it was a pleasure to catch up with him last week, on, I might add, a particularly balmy Singapore afternoon.

Like most Singaporeans, Ronald did a compulsory stint with the army. He also happens to be a mechanical engineer by training, allowing him to ply his trade with considerable precision and understanding. Particularly when it comes to explaining stuff to a novice like me. And Ronald, who is evidently much younger than me, can be very patient.

As we got talking, I asked Ronald what his present customer profile was like. "Oh," he said, "from all over." I said you mean Singapore and Malaysia. "No, all over," he said. I knew he had many Indian clients like me. So, India as well I gathered. "Phillipines, Indonesia, Thailand as well," he said. And this was a barely 750 square feet shop, obviously with a larger warehouse somewhere at the back end.

A Regional Presence

Ronald's firm has grown in the last few years but not physically. He has a web presence. Its not exactly the Amazon of this business but its adding scale and sophistication as Ronald and his colleagues and family members figure their way around. But its reputation, even in the pre ecommerce days has spanned the region, across south and south east Asia.

Ronald's success and prominence is testimony to the hardwork and ingenuity of the Singaporeans in general and the Chinese in specific. But the larger credit must go to Lee Kuan Yew who built the blueprint for Singapore. I recall a memorable interview on Channel News Asia where he told the interviewer how one of Singapore's biggest advantages was the fact that it flanked a closed and yet potentiallly powerful economy like India. Like how Hong Kong benefited from China's seclusion. The challenge now of course, he said, was to re-invent.

Which Singapore is doing admirably. From shopping destination to leisure destination (in this heat !) to world class airline hub to biotechnology destination and so on. Standing in Ronald's little shop, I was struck by the opportunity lost not just all these years but even today. Lets face it, there might be ten guys who are smarter than Ronald between Delhi and Mumbai but not one who can be as nimble and responsive.

36-Hour Delivery

Let me give you an example. I call Ronald on a Monday noon and say, hey, can you send me so and so. "Sure," he says. And the component is on my table at 9.30 am on Wednesday morning. His mail confirming the order often arrives after the parcel. And I can track the parcel's progress from the moment it leaves Ronald's shop on Monday evening thanks to DHL !

For an Indian entrepreneur to do this will be extremely tough if not impossible.
One problem is obviously the infrastructure. The bigger problem is tarrifs, customs, duties and all the miserable paperwork that goes with it. I don't imagine a small mom and pop shop achieving such turnarounds in consigment handling, maybe big firms with well-oiled (on the customs' end) can.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of Ronalds in Singapore, Hong Kong and many other countries who have benefited from India's pre liberalisation myopia. Thanks to leaders like Lee Kuan Yew who ran SWOT analysis for their nations at the right time. There are thousands of Ronalds in India as well. I am sure you know many of them, like I do. Now only if they had someone to lookout for them, in this globalised world.


Anonymous said…
as in indian living in south east asia, in my opinion the problem with us in india is not that we don't do the swot analysis. the problem is that we are poor executors with little pride in doing a job well.
PS said…
In India, we are lost in theory. There is so much theory, theories about everything but very little to show for in practical terms.

People get easily swayed by symbolism. Mera bharat mahan is one such symbol. A sentimental symbol. It does nothing but shelter incompetency. There is no need for hard work or ingenuity because it's already declared that we are great! Bharat is not mahan. Not even remotely. Bharat has a helluva long way to go before it can self-appoint itself as mahan.
ps said…
For grand theories about India, go here:

So much theory, so little to show.
You came to Singapore and did not contact me? WOuld have been good if we had met. Anyway, whats funny is that, coincidentally, this blog appeared at the same time that mine did and mine is about one of the hobbies (aeromodelling) in Singapore. I have walked into many of the Chinatown hobby shops, I wonder if one of them may have been Ronald's!
As for Singapore's success, I may also add that if you listen to PM Lee Hsien Loong, he comes across as a man who has a vision just as his father has (Lee Kwan Yew), a doer and not merely a talker. Like you can't find another Ronald type of business person in India, you can't find leaders like PM Lee in India either. In India, the politicians are whacking the people. You see, they have done a swat analysis-how to whack the people and line their own pockets.
Gaurav said…
How dare you NRIs criticise India, the land that has sheltered you, and given you and education? Ungrateful louts.You care only for yourselves.
indian said…
gaurav, it's a free country man. why are you trying to become the moral police?! get something done instead
bhattathiri said…
Thus, management is a process of aligning people and getting them committed to work for a common goal to the maximum social benefit - in search of excellence. Major functions of a manager are planning, organizing, leading and coordinating activities -- they put different emphasis and suggest different natures of activities in the following four major functions..
The critical question in all managers' minds is how to be effective in their job. The answer to this fundamental question is found in the Bhagavad-Gita, which repeatedly proclaims that "you must try to manage yourself." The reason is that unless a manager reaches a level of excellence and effectiveness, he or she will be merely a face in the crowd.
ramaprasad said…
Perhaps I read this blog too late.
I am of Indian extraction who is living in Europe. In large democracies things work slowly, it is so in London, Berlin and in Newyork and perhaps in Bangalore. I have visited Singapore amany many times. It is a small patch of land the size of Bangalore with a complex mix of Indians,chinese and muslims and is notorious for government highhandedness. My company pulled out when there was a dispute about human rights involving a local Chinese worker and an philipino. The former got away with the govenment support and the latter was punished for no reason although the fault was with the local Chinese. No one would even silebtly support the the poor Philipino. The Philipino had no redress because in a tribunal he will surely lose and will get deported.

Many diplomats say that their phones are tapped and one diplomat said to me even the non-Chinese cabinet ministers suspect that their phones are tapped. So much for an orderly society.

I would like to breath in a country which does not have so many shackles as Singapore. The government there is autocratic, dynastic and the cabinet filled with cronies of that old man who would not let his grip loosen in any way. Even the Deputy PM who is of Indian extraction has no power save title.

I have a test for you. Try buying a Merc a new car in Singapore and tell me what you think.
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