Growing up in Singapore, CEO and cofounder of Manila-based BagoSphere Zhihan Lee loved solving problems through research. When he was an engineering science major at the National University of Singapore (NUS), however, the experiments conducted inside the walls of a lab didn’t grip him with the same excitement. He wanted to find solutions to the problem of unemployment, and specifically how to create the most direct and efficient pathway to employment for high school graduates.

Business for Good in East Asia

This collection of articles, sponsored by the Leping Social Entrepreneur Foundation, delves into the cross-sector collaborations driving the latest social and environmental innovations throughout East Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore.

BagoSphere prepares underprivileged youth in rural areas of the Philippines with the skills needed for jobs in high demand. The social enterprise offers a four-week vocational training program in English, as well as education to learn the relevant technical and soft skills required to transform these youths into employable workers in the service sector, especially at call centers. Lee’s entrepreneurial path illustrates how immersive experiences during his university years became instrumental in his founding of BagoSphere.

Illustration by Kimberly Salt 

Universities in Singapore understand that cultivating a socially conscious business culture on a national level requires hands-on immersive experiences for young people. Exposure to the global startup culture helps motivate young Singaporeans to envision their contributions beyond the country. In Lee’s case, the National University of Singapore Overseas Colleges (NOC) program gave Lee the opportunity for extensive travel and learning experiences. During this time, he realized how doing business with a social consciousness could benefit communities in Singapore and beyond. Before launching BagoSphere, Lee led a youth expedition in Laos, took classes at Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship from NOC Stockholm, and participated in NOC India, working with a social enterprise in rural IT sourcing. All these overseas experiences provided by the universities helped to cultivate this young Singaporean’s socially conscious mind-set when starting his own business.

A National Objective

There are 470,000 businesses operating in Singapore, making it a leading entrepreneurial hub in Asia. In recent years, Singapore has ranked consistently in the top five countries worldwide in which to start a social enterprise, and the World Bank’s 2018 report titled “Doing Business” ranked Singapore second among 190 economies in business regulation and the ease of establishing operations.

The country’s increasing growth in the social enterprise sector is the result of strategic collaborations in the public-private-people (3P) sectors. Former president Tony Tan Keng Yam launched the President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award in 2012 to “inspire more individuals, particularly our youths, to develop business ventures that also serve social causes.” As a result of the series of initiatives promoting social enterprises, more than 65 percent of respondents in the 2016 Public Perception of Social Enterprises Survey reported awareness of the social enterprise sector. Since 2010, results from the survey, conducted by Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy (ACSEP), increased fivefold. The rising awareness has translated into more discerning buyers who value social mission and quality equally. And during the country’s National Day in 2018, the holiday parade’s theme song, “We Are Singapore,” featured social entrepreneur Yinzhou Cai of Geylang Adventures. Yinzhou has spearheaded many social initiatives, from offering free haircuts for migrant workers to establishing a sustainable tourism model in the red-light district. Pictures of Yinzhou, dubbed a “Young Change Maker” with the message “I am a Social Entrepreneur. We are Singapore,” were placed throughout university campuses and bus stops to promote awareness of the social enterprise sector.

In addition to the country’s efforts to increase public awareness in social entrepreneurship, the Singapore government recognizes that cross-sector partnerships are needed for an ecosystem that supports innovation and social impact, because “not all problems can be solved by merely business or [the] social sector,” says Hsieh Fu Hua, the former president of the National Council of Social Service (NCSS).

There are three emergent trends promoting the social enterprise sector in Singapore and transforming the country’s social architecture. First, intermediary organizations like the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE) are established to improve cross-sector coordination and raise public awareness about the evolving sector. Established in 2015, the government-related agency currently counts more than 400 social enterprises as member organizations, a 32 percent jump since 2016. raiSE aims to support social enterprises addressing a social or developmental need by providing resources like a BusinessForGood directory, a VentureForGood fund, and the event FestivalForGood, which is the largest gathering for social enterprises in Singapore. Between 2016 and 2017, FestivalForGood attendees increased fivefold, and the festival in 2018 hosted more than 8,000 attendees. Aside from awareness, the FestivalForGood offers corporations ways to make social enterprises part of their sustainability journey.

While public awareness has increased, the financial sustainability of social enterprises is still a challenge. ACSEP works with raiSE to assess how the depth of public awareness about social enterprises is linked to actual consumption.

Second, building and strengthening an ecosystem that supports a do-good business culture requires major participation from the public and private sectors, and several firms have stepped up to the task: Temasek Trust (a philanthropic arm of the Singapore sovereign wealth fund, Temasek Holdings), the Singapore Totalisator Board (Tote Board), DBS Foundation, SG Enable, SPRING Singapore (the Standards, Productivity, and Innovation Board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry of Singapore), the Singapore International Foundation, and the Singapore National Co-operative Federation (SNCF) provide funding to build capacity and collaboration in the sector.

Besides quasi-governmental intermediaries, Singapore-based private investment networks, such as Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN), Impact Investment Exchange Asia (IIX), and Transformational Business Network Asia, stimulate growth in the sector by connecting social good businesses with global partners and investors. Accelerators and incubators like Base of the Pyramid (BoP) Hub, Singtel Future Makers, and Impact Hub Singapore offer learning platforms for cross-sector collaboration among business ventures, technologists, and manufacturers. In 2011, Ashoka Malaysia & Singapore opened its doors as a resource hub for young social innovators. The organization recently elected its first cohort of fellows looking to make systematic change throughout Asia. Besides mentorship, the organization will provide up-and-coming young social innovators with the cross-sectoral resources they need to survive beyond the first two to three years of their operations.

Third, Singapore is setting the bar high for other countries to follow when it comes to the role that government plays in promoting a “do good” business mentality and culture. For instance, the Singapore Exchange (SGX) made it mandatory for all listed companies to report their environmental, social, and governance practices starting in 2017. This mandatory sustainability reporting on a “comply or explain” basis could assert influence on companies to examine their code of corporate governance from the perspectives of sustainability and strategic development.

In addition to these initiatives, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) is funding research to examine if and how state-led programs can create lasting impact in the sector. NVPC partnered with the NUS Business School to establish the Company of Good Fellowship Program, which has more than 1,000 participating for-profit enterprises learning how to do good in more strategic, sustainable, and impactful ways.

University as Incubator

The career paths that young people embark on are often dependent on the opportunities afforded to them in their communities. As a result, higher learning institutions act as important centers of societal influences and bear a lot of responsibility for how future generations tackle major social and economic challenges. Universities in Singapore have proved that they are aware of their moral responsibilities and global development.

At NUS, Poh Kam Wong, professor and senior director of NUS Entrepreneurship Centre (NEC), introduced a purpose-driven approach to business-model design that puts social impact and social cause as the primary goal. The module is offered to those inside and outside the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) program community. Singapore Management University (SMU) also redesigned their core undergraduate curriculum to enhance multidisciplinary learning through integrating internship and community service. First available during the 2018-2019 academic year, the new exploratory course will encourage students to experiment with classes outside their major or usual sphere of interest. To qualify for an internship with the NUS NOC program, students must complete certain course modules, from business fundamentals to research design processes. The program pairs students with a startup or a business for a yearlong internship.

“We want to build an ecosystem [to support social entrepreneurship], not just in NUS, but in Singapore, or in Asia itself,” says Jie Yi Lee, the executive of NEC who is responsible for building a roster of social enterprises for NEC’s community.

Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), an autonomous university, incorporates applied learning at all levels and a curriculum highlighting social impact in the community. The polytechnic education, as an industry-oriented alternative to junior colleges, began offering cross-disciplinary programs to provide students with essential skills in business management, social sciences, and social innovation. Both the Republic Polytechnic and Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore offer degrees in business and social enterprise.

ACSEP encourages future do-gooders by awarding scholarships and prizes to students who have a proven dedicated effort toward social impact. Leveraging the NUS Business School’s offering of a Field Service Project, ACSEP allows students to get hands-on experience in a consultancy capacity. This kind of experience exposes business students to real-life challenges in new social ventures.

Higher learning institutions also serve as incubators to support every step of the entrepreneurship journey. For instance, NUS provides training and development, ideation challenges, and exposure to the startup community to unleash their students’ potentials. NUS Enterprise Social Venture Lab provides incubator support for students’ networks and partnerships. NUS Enterprise partnered with Singtel Innov8 and the Media Development Authority of Singapore to transform a light-manufacturing construction site into a startup hub called BLOCK71, which has locations in Singapore, San Francisco, Jakarta, and Suzhou. In order to expand the ecosystem globally and assist social ventures with scaling beyond Singapore, BLOCK71 maintains strategic partnerships with established corporations and government agencies.

After students graduate, universities remain committed to helping them to do good in the business world. Social ventures looking for funding support have resources at NUS Innovation and Entrepreneurship Practicum Grant and Lotus-NUS Fund. The NUS Social Venture Lab, an initiative started by NEC, provides incubator support for students’ and faculty members’ innovation-based social ventures. The advantage of being a social startup incubating with NUS Enterprise is that the social entrepreneurs will continue receiving support services, including access to incubation and accelerator facilities, expert mentoring, and community networking, to help the social venture take off even after graduation.

While Singapore’s government and universities are committed to building a vibrant ecosystem for social entrepreneurship and social innovation in Singapore, more work can be done for the social good, and we suggest three issues for consideration. First, Singapore can retain more local talents if it increases its support for its entrepreneurs by providing them with a domestic market that allows them to scale at home and abroad so that the country can benefit from all the good our entrepreneurs are doing.

Second, educational institutions need a viable way to better balance the pressure of global rankings and their responsibilities of tackling major social challenges. Inundated with output pressures, universities can be slow in identifying the social needs of surrounding communities and delay taking an active role in the ecosystem for impact.

Third, Singapore can continue to be a leading force in social innovation only if it continuously analyzes and evaluates its strengths and weaknesses. In doing so, Singapore can accomplish great things with fellow ASEAN member states. For instance, cross-sector collaboration between Singapore and China could explore how the Belt and Road Initiative could encourage international trade, improve regional infrastructure, and be a boon to the employment sector. Being mindful of these priorities is essential for Singapore to further advance its role as a leading smart sustainable city in the world.