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.
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.