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Singapore firms need to 'toughen up' amid manpower crunch: Hyflux Group founder

Founder and CEO of the Hyflux Group, Olivia Lum, tells 938LIVE's On The Record that independence, innovation and a little hardship would help increase productivity in a manpower-lean environment. However, she also thinks a little compassion needs to be given to some companies.

SINGAPORE: Award-winning entrepreneur and founder and CEO of the Hyflux Group, Olivia Lum, became familiar with the problems in water treatment and recycling when she was working as a high-flying chemist.

It was a problem that needed a business solution and, in 1989, she left her well-paying job to start her own business.

Much has been said about her challenging early life. She was abandoned at birth and adopted by a widow whom she called "grandmother". The family was forced to move into an attap hut because of her grandmother's compulsive gambling. She had to work from a very young age to support the family, but she was also determined to do well in school and worked throughout her school life.

She went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about what is needed to help businesses in today’s economy, and her own past business challenges. But they started a little closer to home. 

Olivia Lum: My childhood was not a bitter childhood. In fact, I was a very happy child. My grandmother hardly controlled me when I was young. She allowed me to do anything I liked. For example, we had a big river in front of my house - and this big river normally was dry - but when it rained, it filled up with water. It was like a pool. So I used to learn swimming at the river.

Now, a lot of parents would say: "This is dangerous. You cannot go near the big river, especially when it's raining. You'll be swept away." But my grandmother will say: "You've got to be careful. You learn one step at a time."

There was no swimming pool in Kampar. Big rivers were the natural swimming pool for us to learn. So we, as small kids, liked to play in the rain, play in the river. And of course, my house had no water, no electricity.

There was a lot of inconvenience. But when you're born into those conditions, you do not know how inconvenient it is until you move to the big city. Only when you look back, do you realise it was very inconvenient.

Bharati: But at that time, you thought it was fine.

Lum: It was fun, it was fine, especially when it rained. The house was actually illegally built. It was an attap house with a zinc roof, so when it rained, it just flooded the house. As a child, you like it very much. You just sit on the old tyre and you just paddle along. It was a very enjoyable time.

Bharati: The innocence of childhood. People do assume though, that because you had very little and had to work from a very young age to support your family, it was tough on you.

Lum: To be fair, I did actually start feeling poor, but it was only when I went to school.

Bharati: What made you realise that?

Lum: All my other classmates had brand new shoes, brand new uniforms. My primary school uniform was black and white. A black skirt and white blouse. My grandmother bought a new blouse for me. But my black skirt was not new. It was cut from her black pants, and she made a skirt for me out of that.

When I went to school, I realised that my shoes were so old, because they were passed down from my neighbours. So that was the time I realised that there were a lot of things that we were lacking.

It made me feel that I wanted to be rich. I still remember, in Primary 1, I asked my teacher: "How can I be like you?" Because I thought all teachers earned a lot of money.

And my teacher gave me very good advice, and this advice stays with me. He told me: "There's only one way. It's to study. Knowledge is power."

Because of that, it stuck in my mind that I must pass my exams well. I must do very well in order to get myself out of this poverty.

Bharati: Of course, education is important, but we do know of people who've maybe only completed Primary 6, and have excelled as entrepreneurs. In a way, you too started doing business before you completed school.

Lum: Well, I grew up in Malaysia, in a Malaysian school in a small village. So we were relatively free. In fact, every day, when I came back from school, I just threw my school bag, and would go on to do my business.

When I was young, what kind of business could I do? I sold papayas, I sold rambutans. Whatever fruits I could get a hold of, I sold along the street.

I also enrolled myself as child labour. The most memorable job was the one making rattan bags. For every bag I made, I got 15 Malaysian cents. And it was a very tough job, because in order to make a good bag, you had to pull very hard on the bag in order for it to be firm and nice.

At the age of eight or nine years old, it was very difficult to pull the rattan. You need a lot of strength and technique, and not only that, the rattan had chemicals. The chemicals were to soften it so that it could be woven into a bag. Every time I came back from the factory, I had to soak my hands in herbal Chinese wine that my grandmother made so that my hands would not get too swollen, because the next day I had to go back there again.

Of course it was tough, but I remember that when I got my salary, which was five ringgit, I actually used the iron, filled with charcoal, to iron my five-ringgit note.

I put it in between the pages of my textbook, and in class, I kept looking at the note because it was so nice. I had never seen a five-ringgit note that nice before. It was money that I could buy things with.

After that, I had to give it to my grandmother. But it was that little joy I had that made me realise that I had to really work hard, study hard.

Bharati: You said that you had to give the five ringgit to your grandmother.

Lum: Yes, it felt very good.

Bharati: Didn’t you want to keep it and spend it yourself?

Lum: Well, I think throughout my whole primary school life, my grandmother told all of us: "If you don't know how to study, you go out to work. But if you can study, maybe I allow you to continue to study, but you still have to bring back something." So giving her the money felt “automatic” to me.

Bharati: At any point, didn't you feel that the adult in the family should be taking a greater responsibility, rather than leaving it to the kids to make money to support the family? It's been said that your grandmother was a gambler as well, so the money you gave her would have probably been gambled away.

Lum: Yes. She adopted me when she was 63, and she was a very kind-hearted woman. The only bad habit that she had was that she liked to gamble, and she liked to play mahjong.

And it was very sad for me to see her losing money. But every time, when I gave her money whether it was one dollar or a few cents or whatever, you could see her face light up.

It was maybe because she felt she could gamble with it or maybe she thought: "I'm quite happy with all these children that I adopted, and they are reciprocating."

Bharati: You never felt upset that she wasn't helping with the finances?

Lum: We never thought so because all my neighbours, all the children, started working when they were 10 years old, nine years old or even five or six years old.

Bharati: That was a different time, of course

Lum: Yeah, of course. And in my village, the whole village was so poor that everybody saw it as quite normal for children to work. To be fair, my grandmother was a very nice lady. She gave a lot of positive reinforcement all the time.

Bharati: Give me an example.

Lum: For example, when I was very young, from Primary 1 to Primary 3, I was not allowed to take part in PE lessons because I was so skinny. Any major movement would probably make me feel giddy. It was probably because of malnutrition. I really admired the people who won prizes for sports, because the prizes included “Good Morning” towels and Bata shoes.  

I was eyeing the shoes, but I was not able to participate as an athlete because I was so weak.

Primary 4 came and I was very determined to win prizes. Every morning, I ran around my estate. I tied sandbags to my legs and so on. It was a very small school, so it was not difficult to win a prize.

After training for a couple of months, I walked up to my teacher and said that I wanted to participate in Sports Day, and when the day came, my grandmother came with me and brought along a big empty box, and the neighbours asked her why.

She told the neighbours: "Because my granddaughter is going to win a prize." It is that sense of confidence that she instilled in me.

Bharati: The box was for the prizes.

Lum: Yes. Deep down in me, I just didn't want to disappoint her.

Bharati: Did you win?

Lum: Of course I won. I ran so hard. I made sure that I won some prizes. I actually won many prizes. I won my Bata shoes, I won my towels, and also stationery.

So I was very, very delighted and happy, but actually, at the end of it, the main happiness came from not disappointing my grandmother.

"My childhood was not bitter.” Award-winning entrepreneur, Founder and CEO of Hyflux Ltd, Olivia Lum was adopted at birth by a woman she called her "grandmother”. Olivia would later become her family’s breadwinner at very young age, but she tells Bharati Jagdish “On the Record” that this was far from a bad thing. Listen to the full interview on Friday at 7:30am and 2:30pm. #OnTheRecord

Posted by 938LIVE on Wednesday, January 20, 2016


Bharati: I can see she meant a lot to you. What did it feel like to be adopted though?

Lum: I only found out that I was adopted when I went to school. I had another adopted sibling who was the same age as me. We were three months apart. So when we registered ourselves in primary school, the teacher asked us: "Are you really related? Are you sisters?"

I volunteered and said: "Yes, we are sisters. We are twins."

But the teacher couldn't believe us. She looked at our birth dates and it didn't add up. She said: "No, you cannot be a twin." And I insisted that we were. Of course, I saw that my teacher was laughing.

When I got home, I asked my grandmother: "Why did the teacher laugh at us?" My grandmother did not disclose it to us, so in the end, I asked my neighbour. My neighbour said: "I think you were all adopted." So that's when we knew.

Bharati: What did it feel, at that age, to find this out? How did you process what it meant?

Lum: I think the good thing is that all the siblings were adopted, so we all discussed among ourselves.

I said: "We're all adopted." Then the siblings says: "Then so what?"

Therefore, it's kind of a conciliation amongst ourselves, and we didn't pursue it anymore. We knew that we were adopted, but we stayed a family.

Bharati: Any idea why your grandmother was adopting so many children? You had four adopted siblings. She did this in spite of the fact that she didn't seem to have the financial means to bring you up?

Lum: I think it was very common for old ladies to adopt children in those old days, especially when they didn't have children of their own. And my grandmother had no children. I think it was kind of a safety net. If you adopt a lot of children, when you're in your old age, you’ll have children to look after you.

Bharati: Do you ever wonder about your biological parents? Did you feel abandoned?

Lum: Not really. Because it had been so long, and I knew it when I was very, very young.

Bharati: You came to Singapore on the suggestion of your school principal who said you should go to either Kuala Lumpur or Singapore to pursue your studies to your full potential. I understand that you had neighbours working here. But still, weren't you afraid coming to a whole new city with new challenges?

Lum: I don't think so.

Bharati: What inspires your fearlessness?

Lum: I suppose it has to do with how I was brought up, because my grandmother gave me a free hand, even when I was very, very young. And in everything that I did, she gave me a lot of confidence.

She said: "You'll be okay, because you are very intelligent. Everything should be okay."

Even though she was illiterate, she kept reinforcing the goodness in me.

Bharati: You were working while studying.

Lum: All the time.

Bharati: How did you do it? How did you manage to do well in school while doing all of these different things?

Lum: I was a very energetic child, I suppose. When I was in Primary 6 or Primary 5, I could do multiple tasks. I could be a tuition teacher, and I also ended up selling jeans to my schoolmates and so on. I also studied.

My teachers were very nice to me, and they knew that I was poor. So whenever I had questions, I went to the staff room and looked for my teachers for simple tuition and they gladly gave it to me.

If there was anything that shaped my thinking in life, it was my teachers. They played a very important role. I had many, many, very caring teachers in my school.

My grandmother, too, was very encouraging. And every time she lost money from playing mahjong, I encouraged her back. I would say: "It's okay. Even though today you had no luck today, maybe tomorrow you will have luck."

Bharati: It sounds like you enabled her.

Lum: There was one time when I thought: "I wish that I could be multi-millionaire, so that she can gamble every day happily without having to worry about money", so that it would not rob her of that joy.

Bharati: Of course, seriously speaking, gambling's an addiction and shouldn't be encouraged.

Lum: Yeah, it is quite bad. It should not be encouraged. But I just wanted to see her happy.

Bharati: You said you grew up wanting money, not having any. Now that you have so much money, what is your outlook on it? Do you still live frugally?

Lum: Money is, of course, important, but once you have it, you feel, well, what else can you do? Money is no longer the motivating factor in my life. There must be something more than that. You don't have to deliberately do it, but as long as you know that you don't just work for money anymore.

When I was running so hard to get those prizes, I never thought about who was contributing those prizes that actually made a little heart like me so happy for so long.

That's why, it made me think that I want to contribute to society because you never know how many of these children could benefit from it. I'm sure that they would all be very happy if they got those prizes or help from someone who was willing to contribute.


Bharati: You gave up a well-paying job to take on the struggle of starting your own business.

Lum:  I was working as a chemist at Glaxo. My boss told me: "You're one of the best-paid chemists in Glaxo. Why would you want to risk this? You're rising, you're young, and you have a good job. You're doing very well in my company. Why do you want to resign?”

I said it’s because my passion is in business. When I was young, I wanted to do business. I know that I may lose everything. I had a little house and a little car, and I had no resources to help me build my business, so I had to sell my little car and my little house, and gather about $20,000.

Bharati: Why did you want to do start a business so badly?

Lum: When I was a little girl, I was involved in all kinds of odd jobs. It came to me that, of all the odd jobs that I did, selling papayas was the easiest. And, in my little mind, when I was young, I told myself: "This is business."

Of course, business is more than selling papayas, but in your little mind, you just think: "One day, I'm going to be a businessperson."

Bharati: But like you said, business on a larger scale is not as easy as selling papayas the way you did as a child.

Lum: Yes, but it really stuck with me and sank in.

Bharati: Let’s take a step back. Why Chemistry?

Lum: I liked the arts when I was young, but somebody told me that being an artist, I may not be able to make money. Everybody told me about science. I was drawn to that fact. 

Bharati: But did you like it?

Lum: It was dry. But I found chemistry very interesting. It's so fluid. That's why I ended up majoring in Chemistry.

Bharati: Making that transition from being a chemist to a businessperson. What was that like?

Lum: I think the idea of creation of opportunities excited me. When I was young, I always thought many of us in my neighbourhood didn't have the opportunity. Surrounding the whole village, people were so poor. Generation after generation.

Why? Because they were not given the opportunity.

But I thought when I do business, if my business grows, I will create a lot of opportunities, not just for myself, but for so many other people.

I'm sure that as a doctor, you can also benefit a lot of people. But, I just ...

Bharati: Your thing was the business.

Lum: Yeah, it probably is also because when I was young, I was given a lot of these opportunities to sell things, transact things, and at the same time, I also developed the sense of looking for opportunities.

Bharati: And it takes skill to do that. But you faced challenges. We've heard stories of how you would get on a motorbike and travel to Malaysia to sell your products.

Lum: It was definitely very tough to start the business. I almost gave up after the first year. But at the end of it, I told myself that this is a dream that I wanted. I want to realise my dream. How can I give up on my dream so easily?

So I persevered. I pressed on. I don't think it was easy for me at that time. I had a degree, I could have easily given up everything and gone back to being a chemist. It was still a good job for me. But I just told myself that I had to persevere.

Bharati: What exactly was your goal when you first started out? What were you thinking of achieving at that point?

Lum: I've never set myself a target. I just like to do what I like to do, but I told myself, I wanted to go big. I didn't want to do a small, little business.


Bharati: Businesses have been urged to internationalise and are currently being helped to do so through Government schemes. For you at that time, internationalisation was a challenge as well.

Lum: Plenty, plenty of challenges.

Bharati: And were you almost bankrupted?

Lum: Yes, yes. I almost bankrupted the China operation, because China in '93, ‘94, was still very opaque. Very, very difficult to get information, resources, and so on. 

I was very young. I didn't understand the culture that well. I thought I am a Chinese, so I should know the Chinese, but it wasn't so. Also they only respected elders, but I was so young-looking.

Bharati: Did your being a woman work against you as well?

Lum: I'm not so sure whether that worked against me, but I looked like a school-leaver, very young.

And in China, people don't trust you if you look very young. People trust you only when you have grey hair. So it was a tough time, because we kept trying, and nobody wanted to buy my products. Somebody jokingly said that it looked as if I was leading a company of boy scouts and girl guides, because all my employees were fresh school-leavers.

Probably because older people did not dare resign from their iron rice bowl to join me, and also probably because they wouldn't want to work for a young lady, right?

Finally, I managed to find a retiree who was 60-plus and Chinese, to be my GM. And from then, we took off.

Bharati: So he became the face of your business.

Lum: Yes, he became the face of my business. Old enough, has got grey hair, and local. He understood the local culture and so on.

Bharati: I’m sure things have changed a lot in China since then.

Lum: Oh, plenty. Plenty of changes. Particularly the last 10 years.

Bharati: Yet, many businesspeople still face problems in terms of internationalising whether in China or elsewhere. What’s your advice to them?

Lum: I think they have to understand their product well, and understand the market well. Because if you don't even know if your product is needed in that country, it is very risky for you to go to that country. I learnt my lesson in China. I didn't know what they wanted.

But I just went there and tried to promote my products. And it look a long, long time for them to accept my product. So I think people who want to internationalise, have to do well locally first.

They don't need to be so well-known, but they need to have at least some track record. Then it'll be easier for you to internationalise.

"We need to toughen up.” Award-winning entrepreneur, Founder and CEO of Hyflux Ltd, Olivia Lum goes “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about what businesses need, to survive this period of restructuring. Listen to the full interview on Friday at 7:30am and 2:30pm. #OnTheRecord

Posted by 938LIVE on Thursday, January 21, 2016


Bharati: What would you say is the most common mistake that businesses make?

Lum: I have seen many smaller companies that were not able to go beyond a threshold of management. I feel that they don't use their talent enough.

I understand that you cannot grow your pool of talent overnight. But I think you have to make an effort, because I always believe that when you have good people working for you, you don't have to worry about your business. You just have to give guidance, and the good people would know how to help you manage the business.

Bharati: But it's hard to get good people, isn't it?

Lum: Yes, it's never been easy. So when I first started my business, I even had to rope in some of my classmates from Hwa Chong.

Bharati: In today’s manpower-lean environment, certain sectors - such as services - are facing major problems.

Lum: Yes, I think in the service sector, the manpower crunch is always a problem.

I cannot say that I have an immediate solution to solve that. Being a financial centre, a financial hub in Singapore, as well as a tourist hub in the region, I feel that we have to really think hard about the services industries, because once you lose these, it'll be very difficult to come back.

And the tourists, or the people who come to Singapore, will not be happy.

So I feel that in the services industries, we ought to allow an influx of foreign manpower. But the companies should also think out of the box to cut down on manpower, and make it more efficient.

Bharati: But there are good reasons for the curbs on foreign manpower. And if there continues to be an influx, wouldn't companies feel like they don’t really have to urgently increase productivity and innovation?

Lum: You cannot grow productivity overnight. Particularly in a society like Singapore, you're given everything, perhaps from when we're born, until you get your first job. Whether it’s your parents who give it to you, or whether it’s the Government, people don't need to think out of the box to survive.

I think, partly, that is the problem. Looking at where I came from, I had to struggle so hard to think out of the box, to earn that one, two dollars, to go through the day.

Bharati: So shouldn't Singaporean business people learn how to do that today, instead of continuing to ask for foreign manpower curbs to be relaxed?

Lum: I've always believed that the country, the Government should set a fair platform. The business people are the actors and actresses. Let them plan their own businesses.  

But if the Government did not build a fair platform, they cannot perform. The businesses cannot perform. For example, I feel that we should not be choking all the business at the same time and giving them very little foreign labour at one time.

They should allow the businesses to go through a transition period.

Bharati: But weren't businesses given a grace period, a transition period when it came to foreign labour curbs?

Lum: Well, depending on the businesses, some complain that they were not given enough time because innovation takes time. I feel that the Government should micromanage this, look at the different businesses, and finetune their strategy.

I mean, whatever the Government is doing, I think is good for the whole society. We want to help our own Singaporeans to be able to earn more and at the same time, to motivate them to be more self-creating in a society that belongs to us.

I think these are good intentions, but the businesses sometimes need time to make this transition. Some businesses may need one year, some may need three years, some may need five.

So I feel that maybe in certain industries, you should allow them to have a little bit of a breather.

Bharati: But you implied earlier that a lack of hardship has led to Singaporeans today not being able to think creatively and deal with adversity. So all the more shouldn't the molly-coddling stop in order to make people capable of handling adversity?

Lum:  Yes, we need toughening up. We should encourage independence, we should encourage innovation, but I had a whole life of adversities to learn that. Singaporeans are so lucky. They were born so fortunate. They don't have a whole life of adversities to train them on what to do.

Bharati: But we have to start somewhere, don’t we.

Lum: I'm not saying that what the Government has done is wrong. I think they've done right, except that perhaps they should be a little bit more compassionate towards certain businesses because they have been born this way. If you want to change them, change their attitude, it will take time.

Bharati: With all the challenges you continue to face in your own business, don’t you ever get tired?

Lum: There will always be challenges and uncertainty. There is the macro environment to consider too. But I'm basically a more optimistic person. I've never thought of retiring. I don't know. I just feel that there's still so much more for me to do and I'm actually very happy that I'm able to arrive at what I am today, so that will give me “bullets” to go forward.

I still have the hunger in me.

Every day, I still look forward to more and more exciting business opportunities and persevere to manage the challenges.