Singapore Sustainable Development – Innovation in Social Impact

By Jovin Hurry

As general awareness on sustainable development increases in Singapore, one wonders how the social component is being tackled in an exemplary country that seems to have it all. A number of social enterprises have mushroomed over the years to fill up some gaps in social needs. How have they fared? How relevant are they now? How is that scene shaping up and growing?

Elim Chew (77th Street), Josephine Ng (A-Chagrin) and Ben Pwee (Ben Pwee Foundation) gathered around Donald Low (National University of Singapore) to answer these questions in a panel discussion at the 5th Impact Forum in Biopolis, Singapore on June 14. Organised by Impact Investment Exchange Asia and Shujog, this global meeting of investors, innovators, social entrepreneurs and leaders from civil societies, public and private sector aims to establish impact investing as a central force to creating sustainable social and environmental impact globally. This year’s theme was ‘Investing in Inclusion’.

Elim Chew recounted how the social enterprise movement started 7 to 8 years ago. Her own enterprise has grown by word of mouth. “We talked to a lot of people.” As Singapore moves to a new level, impact investing and venture funds are coming to the fore, although they are relatively new here. In her intervention, Elim Chew expressed her concern on how “the social enterprise focuses more on the social side than on the business side here. They have to be strong on the business side too.”

Josephine Ng highlighted how more people are getting to know about the social impact of enterprises with publicity from schools, the Social Enterprise Award and the Social Enterprise Association. She stressed how social entrepreneurship is not about simple work nor selling cheap products. Products can be up-market. Singaporeans are willing to pay for high quality products. Good social enterprises empower their employees who then see themselves as contributors to the economy.

Ben Pwee shared how Singapore is in a social recession despite its economic growth over the past decades. “The problem with social enterprises here is that their business and financial model are not there. They move from grants to grants. They need a self-sustaining financial model to move away from the grants-based model, from Day One. The initial capital can be an angel investment.” Josephine Ng added that a very good business model is a must to achieve the twin-objective of meeting profit and purpose. Being very focused, having a high quality of service and being process-driven are essential ingredients. Their business concept needs to be unique, and be both commercially and socially relevant.

Ben Pwee elaborated on the three levels at which the social enterprises are most active in Singapore. First, they are the social service providers in the front line which are heavily supported by grants. Second, they are the start-ups at the ideation level, doing brainstorming and hackathons. These are caught in a funding trap at the idea to prototype stage. Thirdly, they are the few enterprises that are based in Singapore and operate overseas. Moving forward, he suggested that it would be good to tap onto Singapore for its funding for the scaling up stage, and that there is a need for social enterprises to search for unmet needs that the government and NGOs are not handling, areas that fall off the safety net and that lack government support, e.g. the middle-age group. Elim Chew suggested tapping onto the current platforms such as Hub Singapore or the Singapore International Foundation to get different connections.

The session was wrapped up on a note of optimism of where Singapore has arrived so far, although revealing how much more needs to be done in terms of collaboration among the various partners in this landscape, to spur the growth the actors wish for. All the speakers ended the session with a personal pledge on how they will make a social impact in their personal or professional capacity. The Impact Forum concluded with the launch of the Impact Exchange, the first social stock exchange in the world exclusive for mission-aligned investors and social enterprises, in collaboration with the Stock Exchange of Mauritius.

Image credit: money links 2 by lusi

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