The State of Entrepreneurship in the Community

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Stereotyping is one of the biggest problems related to the issue of Malay-Muslim businesses and entrepreneurship in Singapore. We have all heard the common stereotyping of the Malay-Muslim businessman or businesswoman repeated ad naseaum – that they are lepak (laidback), fatalistic, satisfied with what is sufficient with no desire to explore the full extent of business opportunities; that they lack an entrepreneurial spirit, and are always embroiled in petty jealousies, rivalries and hasad (destructive envy). Instead of building their businesses and increasing the pie for everybody — they would rather “kill” their fellow Malay-Muslim competitors or entrepreneurs than see them become successful.

However, the problem with any stereotype is that it is self-perpetuating; it provides detractors with ammunition to degrade the stereotyped group and creates a vicious cycle of self-doubt and loathing. Stereotypes are often malicious. They are designed to break you down before you begin and are, above all, patently skewed. It is crucial that these stereotypes are broken down and eliminated. We know for a fact that these stereotypes are untrue because Malays have had a strong legacy of entrepreneurship that continues to this very day.

The entrepreneurial spirit of our forefathers and pioneers were ahead of its time. These group of near legendary entrepreneurs, who included personalities like Hajjah Fatimah binte Encik Sulaiman, Haji Ambo Soolo Bin Haji Omar, Haji Hashim bin Haji Abdullah, Haji Bustami bin Karim Amarullah, Raja Siti Kraeng Chanda Pulih, and Wak Tanjong, had vision and a business foresight which went beyond conventional thinking. They did not simply focus on the traditional businesses but found their niches and diversified their businesses into the service industry, manufacturing, complementary goods and services, real estate, property development, shipping, brokerage, media and publishing among others.

We have a strong legacy that we must continuously develop, so now, more than ever, is the time for us to reclaim and enhance this spirit of entrepreneurship. Our new generation of entrepreneurs is debunking myths of the stereotyped Malay-Muslim businessmen and entrepreneurs, leading at the forefront, unafraid to share and market their experiences and forward-thinking ideas regarding business, diversification, global penetration and branding, digital marketing, use of social media and development of cyber-marketing platforms.

These IT and internet savvy individuals are pushing the boundaries and redefining the meaning of business. Their company philosophies synthesise the philosophies of some of the most cutting edge companies today like Apple, Amazon and Dyson, with a focus on customer service and satisfaction. They are passionately customer-centric and strongly believe in the game-changing potential of the finer points of customer servicing. They understand that in today’s highly automated and competitive marketing environments, service is what sets a business apart. They are proud that as Malay-Muslims, service to others is an inborn instinct and a core part of their being. They realise that capitalising on this will propel us ahead of others.

One distinguishing feature of these current breed of Malay-Muslim entrepreneurs is that in addition to running their core and other related businesses, they find the time to help and add value to the efforts of other budding entrepreneurs. They also position themselves as leaders and as social entrepreneurs helping the community and benefiting society through social awareness projects, nurturing a business ecosystem that improves Malay-Muslim businesses as a whole.

Among these entrepreneurs are Mr Muhammad Abdul Jaleel, founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the MES Group. Mr Jaleel started MES in 1977 and had, with farsightedness and tenacity, grown the business over the years. He transformed his fledgling company from one providing environmental cleaning services and manpower, into a leading one in guest-worker accommodations construction and facilities operator that has spawned various other global business interests including logistics, trading and property development.

Another inspirational Malay-Muslim entrepreneur is Mr Mohammad Yunos, who is the Managing Director and CEO of the Airmark Group, a Singapore-based conglomerate and worldwide leader in transportation, shipping and logistics services. Currently, Airmark Group has a combined annual turnover of US$110 million and a combined staff strength of 240 personnel. The key to their success lies in the company’s objective of providing holistic logistics services in a secure and efficient manner by a professional and personalised service team, strongly anchored by values of overall integrity.

Mohamed Salleh Marican, founder and CEO of Second Chance, on the other hand, hardly needs any introduction. However, not many people know that his struggle to build his business conglomerate to what it is today was riven with trials and tribulations. In fact, his early attempts at entrepreneurship threatened to bankrupt him more than once. Instead of giving up, he restrategised time and again, moving from ready-made clothing, to jewellery, and then to the property business. Today, the company’s property arm contributes more than 60% of the group’s profits and the group employs more than 200 staff at 27 outlets and branches spanning Singapore and Malaysia. Through his entrepreneurial journey, Mohamed Salleh has proven that with determination and the ability to seize opportunities, one can achieve success.

Besides the above established entrepreneurs, there is an increasing number of young and dynamic Malay-Muslim entrepreneurs such as Ridjal Noor of, who finds time through his sister company, WGL International, to conduct highly sought after courses to help budding entrepreneurs create their own paths towards success. He drives home the message that Malay-Muslim entrepreneurs, businessmen and businesswomen possess the ability to not only conduct business but rise above others. Another inspiring and socially-aware entrepreneur is Umar Munshi, who is causing ripples in the business community with his innovative approach in Islamic crowdfunding, and the development of social aid in the region. His housing projects in Indonesia, for example, are benefitting the poor masses in towns and cities where basic housing and facilities are often beyond their reach.

Branding and brand positioning is a feature of business where Malays have a natural edge. Malays are often gifted in design and creativity, and can capitalise fully on these capabilities to propel their businesses forward. This branding and brand positioning aspect of business is captured best by the budding entrepreneur, Faisal Basheer, the owner of Tuscani Tapware, whose success underscores the importance of product branding and quality assurance of your products and services. These done well would help you gain an edge over your competitors.

Going forward, let us look at the studies and statistics surrounding the current state and potential of Malay-Muslim businesses and entrepreneurship in Singapore. In a recent survey conducted by DP Information Group for SMCCI, it is encouraging to note that more Malay-Muslim businesses are being set up now than ever before. Besides the traditional food and beverage sectors, an increasing number of Malay-Muslim businesses are being set up in the manufacturing, services, construction, retail, transport and storage industries, with many experiencing positive growths of more than 50%. A healthy 1 out of 5 businesses is generating profits of more than a million dollars per year.

One of the most striking features of the Malay-Muslim business community is its young demographic and a strong optimism and willingness to take a step towards entrepreneurship. This sets the community apart and speaks volumes about the potential for growth and future diversification.

The survey gave some key pointers for the Malay-Muslim business community to realise these inherent potentials. There is a need to continuously expand beyond domestic markets, regionally and globally, given the limited size, stiff competition and relatively slow growth in sales here. In addition, Malay-Muslim businesses must capitalise more on the funding and subsidies offered by the government through organisations like SPRING Singapore. This potential funding that could help them grow beyond their current capacities and scopes remain largely untapped and unutilised by Malay-Muslim businesses.

Malay/Muslim organisations, including the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI) and the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), must guide, nurture and support these businesses through government assistance schemes and customised consultancy programmes, as well as marketing platforms and workshops to upgrade competencies and equip the enterprises with the essential skills to operate and manage the business. SMCCI’s cluster approach, for example, is making significant impact in the creation of a larger and more effective business network within the community.

We must continue to encourage and help our business community explore opportunities and markets beyond our own Malay-Muslim community. Currently, three-fifths of our Malay-Muslim businesses see more than 50% of clients from other ethnic communities. This is a good start and more Malay-Muslim businesses can benefit from reaching out to a wider customer base beyond their community, to realise bigger and better growth.

We must celebrate the successes and potential of our business community through awards and schemes such as the “SME Spirit of Enterprise” and “Protégé Kita” which serve to inspire our community to go even further in achieving business and commercial excellence.

The future of Malay-Muslim businesses and entrepreneurship is bright. We must unite and close our ranks so as to unleash our potential as a community. Given the resurgent energy and enthusiasm of our business community we have more than a fighting chance to be the best in everything that we do and provide healthy competition in the business world out there. 

Written by: Mdm Fadilah Majid

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