AUGUST 23 — I love Hai Di Lao. What’s not to love about high quality hot pot with awesome sides and noodle-based theatrics for a reasonable price?
So I was happy to discover that Forbes magazine named Hai Di Lao founder Zhang Yong the richest Singaporean.
Yong’s is a great story. He was born in China’s Sichuan province, his family was poor and he never finished high school.
He initially worked as a welder and didn’t eat at a restaurant until he was 19 years old.
A few years after his first restaurant experience, Yong decided to open his own restaurant in a small city in Sichuan.
Starting with just four tables and struggling with a lack of ingredients, equipment and capital he persevered and people were won over by the quality and consistency that would become Hai Di Lao’s hallmark.
Yong, of course, would go on to own one of the largest restaurant chains in China and Asia and become the richest Singaporean.
It’s worth Googling and reading more about Yong’s story but from what I’ve seen I’m proud that he is our nation’s richest person.
In second place is China-born Li Xiting who made (and is still making) his fortune making medical equipment and the fourth richest Singaporean is Facebook co-founder Brazilian-born Eduardo Saverin.
If you dig into the list, you’ll also find China-born Forest Li whose New York-listed company is growing so fast he may well be the richest man in Singapore in months.
Then there’s India-born Binny Binsal who sold his Indian startup for a fortune, among various other naturalised citizens.
Now — again — all these gentlemen (sadly very few women are on the list ) are Singaporeans and I am happy to celebrate and appreciate their success as there are some great stories there.
But I think it is worth wondering why of Singapore’s five richest citizens (not just people who live in Singapore), only two were born or even raised here.
On one hand, Singapore has long been welcoming of overseas talent and wealth.
We are all immigrants here and many of our most established families only set foot on the island three or four generations ago.
The Ng family behind local real estate behemoth Far East migrated from China in the 30s and the family behind much-loved local classic Tiger Balm migrated from Myanmar (bringing their precious formula).
There are plenty of other examples of wealth and talent moving from the wider world; that is the story of Singapore.
On the other hand, I can see how it might be somewhat demotivating for local-born Singaporeans who went through the local education system to see relatively few people with familiar backgrounds high up on the list.
Even where we see local tycoons, many of these families made their fortunes prior to our independence; they didn’t rise up from HDBs (public housing), local schools and universities.
But doesn’t having wealth flowing into Singapore in the form of billionaire migrants generate jobs and provide capital that will allow local-born entrepreneurs to thrive?
A few years ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he was keen to have more billionaires move to Singapore as this would help create more opportunities for locals and there’s definitely logic there.
It’s also not like only the foreign born are succeeding; there are plenty of local success stories. Look at the people behind Razor, Spa Esprit, Bread Talk, Charles and Keith — to name just a few.
All these people built great brands and businesses but they aren’t yet quite at the top of the rich list.
Still, I can’t help but feel people from the middle and lower tiers of our society’s wealth distribution are still under-represented.
Perhaps we should think about taking local businesses further and really helping local champions shoot to the top of the rich list.
I don’t think it is about who is more Singaporean; we are all Singaporeans but success should be equally open to everyone.
Someone from the humblest background should have a shot at becoming an Eduardo Saverin or as wealthy as the heirs to the Ng fortune.
So far not enough middle of the road Singaporeans have seen that level of success. Some of that is just scale.
Singapore is a small nation and many of the new huge fortunes on our rich list were made by people who made money in large economies like the USA, China and India and then moved to Singapore.
I’m not saying that it is easy to make money in these countries (it isn’t) but it is easier to scale your business in these places.
So how do we get Singaporeans without the same global exposure that sort of chance to make it big?
Maybe it’s just a matter of time.
The government has been creating the infrastructure around start-ups and growing SMEs with grant schemes and specialised programs.
We’ve also seen more and more local venture funds — meaning that Singaporeans can get their ideas and dreams funded more easily.
Maybe it is just a question of when I’m going to celebrate a local HDB hero shooting to the top of the rich list by treating myself to some more Hai Di Lao.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.