College Day (178th Founder’s Day)
Saturday, 28 July 2001
Speech by Wong Toon King
Co-founder and Chairman, SilkRoute Holdings
Entrepreneurship - Shaping the Destiny of our Nation
Principal Winston Hodge, teachers, fellow Rafflesians,
Good morning. It’s been 17 years since I graduated from RJC, and I never imagined one day I would be back here on Founders Day as your Guest of Honour. But here I am, 35 this year, young by all accounts, but feeling slightly older as I see all your wonderful fresh faces.
Raffles, as we all know, is a special place. We have many accomplished alumni, who have gone on to serve the highest levels in government, business, and society. Whichever discipline, whichever field, there isn’t a lack of role models to choose from, and many could have been your GOH this year. As such, I am honoured to be their representative for this 178th Founders Day.
I am an entrepreneur. Not a doctor, not a lawyer, not a civil servant. But an entrepreneur. What does it mean to be an entrepreneur? Well, I’d like to share with you my story, and hopefully you will draw your own conclusions.
I believe, now more than ever, the spirit of entrepreneurship is critical to Singapore’s future. And I hope more of the best and brightest will take this new career path to success.
I begin my story in RI. Coming from a humble family, it was a great day when I was accepted into Raffles Institution. I remember in awe the great achievements that our alumni had achieved. If there is one thing this school instills in you is that you can go for the best and be the best. Anything was possible.
I had joined both the scouts 2101 group as well as the rugby team. But quickly dropped out of rugby as I hated smelling all the sweaty bodies when we went into scrums. Scouting was more fun. My studies weren’t that great in Sec 1 and Sec 2 – I almost failed math. One scouting Saturday, someone dropped the makeshift flag pole onto my head, and everything changed in Sec 3 and Sec 4. Not only did I become smarter and aced my math, but the guy who dropped the pole on me went on to become my best friend till this day. I suppose I have my friend to thank for!
In RJC, I was the 2nd batch of computer science students. In those days, the Apple II was just introduced, and there wasn’t much knowledge about computers. I remember taking up the course because it appealed to me as I thought the computer would be so intelligent to take all my tests! How little we knew about the computer back then.
RJC was also the first time we as boys interacted with girls on a daily basis – and I really didn’t do well with my first two relationships – if you even wanted to call it that. I must say RI didn’t prepare us very well for boy girl relationships. Till today, I wonder if RI would have done better with girls.
But where I didn’t do so well in the area of relationships, fencing was something I did. In fact, it was something I helped co-found at RJC. Till today, I am involved in fencing, having represented Singapore at 2 SEA Games, started a commercial fencing school called Z Fencing, and serving on the national committee. Fencing taught me a lot – more than my academics actually. It taught me to maximize my strengths and minimize my weaknesses. It taught me to never second guess oneself, as a moment of hesitation in fencing would get you hit.
And it taught me importantly, that timing is everything.
There was one thing I was very certain about doing. That was to study abroad. Coming from a humble family, the only way for that to happen was to apply for a scholarship. But I was so determined to go that I applied to the school I wanted to go first even before being accepted for the scholarship. When the selection committee found out, they told me that wasn’t the way it was suppose to happen. But I knew that for me to win the scholarship, I had to secure the most prestigious computer science university.
In 1985, I left for MIT in the USA on a PSC scholarship. I learned a lot overseas, and I encourage you to try to get that exposure.
The most important thing I learned is this – “Let not school get in the way of your real education.”
When I returned in 1991, I joined the National Computer Board, now renamed as IDA, and worked on the IT2000 master plan to build an intelligent networked nation – a vision of Singapore the Intelligent Island by year 2000. In 1994, the opportunity of the Internet came about and I left to found Singapore’s first Internet company SilkRoute Ventures.
I had to break my bond as I had 5 years out of 8 left to serve, worth over $220K. Together with my partners, we invested about $100K of our life savings. Paying myself $500 per month. Slept on the floor, showered in the office, drove the car in neutral down hill, all to save money. It was a difficult and challenging time, but with lots of sweet memories. In 1999, we sold a part of our company at a valuation of $125M – not too bad a return on investment. As in fencing, and it is in business, timing is indeed everything. The rest as they say, is history.
I saw an opportunity then, took the risk and gained from it. While there was lots of uncertainty, I chose to walk a different path to success. While I was comfortable being a scholar and working as a government officer, I knew I wanted to try something different.
So why is entrepreneurship important for our future? And why do I encourage more people to become entrepreneurs, as well as more entrepreneurial in thinking?
The challenges Singapore will face in the millennium are different from the ones we had successfully surmounted in the past 30 years. While those days was about creating order to attract MNCs to tap our low labour rates, providing well-trained professionals and creating a stable environment for business, the future is about us reaching out to markets abroad. With China becoming a major economic juggernaut in the next 20-30 years, their huge domestic markets and large supply of cheap labour and talented people, significant investments will head there.
If Singapore is not careful, we will become irrelevant. We need to be not obedient workers – but creative dealmakers, innovators, daring policy makers and civil servants.
We must climb up the value chain, add more knowledge to our products and services, and do things which cheap labour cannot. We must be very innovative – each of us 3M must act like 100 to match China’s 1.3T populace.
How can we become entrepreneurs? We must be prepared to push outside our comfort zone. We must know where our strengths and weaknesses lie and we can only do so if we push the envelope. Also, we cannot afford steady incremental steps, instead we must make quantum leaps.
"Entrepreneurism is all about leverage - how to do more with less." - TK Wong
Our past route to success has been attracting the best to government. While that remains a constant need, where we need even more talent to flow is to build great imaginative enterprises. In US, 1 out of 10 are entrepreneurs. In Singapore, the number is 1 out of 50. We have one of the lowest counts in entrepreneurship. There is a significant correlation between economic prosperity for the nation and her level of entrepreneurism.
Over the past few years, the government has identified entrepreneurship as a fundamental driver of the next phase of Singapore’s economic growth. This became ever more apparent during the Asian financial crisis in 1997. With rapid globalization, MNCs can choose to move their plants to the cheapest and largest markets. In this, Singapore is becoming less attractive.
Without our own core of entrepreneurs who call Singapore home, our economy may hollow out.
On a final note, JC is a time when you are at the crossroads to your future. Some of you will be going overseas for studies, some entering tertiary education, and some entering NS. It’s a good time to take stock of what you want to achieve in life, at least for the next 10 years. My advise is to do what you love and love what you do. Define success on your own terms, and not what happens to be in vogue.
17 years from now, one or more of you will be up here speaking to the next generation of Rafflesians. I am sure the challenges will change, but the patterns of success will remain the same. We are founded to groom men and women who will someday rise to shape the destiny of our nation – and I am sure Rafflesians will stay true to that cause.
May God be with you – Auspicium Melioris Aevi.
About Mr. Wong Toon King (TK)
Having founded Singapore's first Internet company in 1994, TK Wong of SilkRoute Ventures made history by growing one of Singapore's largest and most well known internet companies in the 1990's. He was voted Asia's Internet Visionary of the Year in 2000, won the World Economic Forum's Global Leader of Tomorrow award, and conferred the National Youth Award for Entrepreneurship in 2001. The boom of the Internet brought TK to Silicon Valley to set up his global headquarters for ECnet in a bid to become a global technology player, where he raised over $80M from some of the most blue chip venture capital companies in the world, and where the global Internet bust brought him back home to Singapore.
During this time, he sold part of his company SilkRoute at a valuation of over $125M, was involved with several pioneering internet companies including the first online content company in Asia to be listed on NASDAQ (Asia Content), and Sembawang Media (Pacific Internet) where he was a key member of the executive team led by Chairman Philip Yeo.
TK attended Raffles Institution from 1979 to 1982, and Raffles Junior College from 1983 to 1984. He was co-founder and captain of the RJC Fencing Team.