“Critics note that some businesses with a superficial social role claim the label cynically” (Boon of Social Ventures, The Sunday Times Editorial).
What is more critical than the definition of a social enterprise in the country – because “some businesses with a superficial social role” have claimed the label of a social enterprise “cynically” (ST, Sept. 21), such as taxi booking application GrabTaxi which has described itself as such – is to shed the presumption that Singaporeans would necessarily pay a premium for goods and services from these companies. In the beginning consumers might be drawn to these business models based on charitable causes or supported by employees from disadvantaged backgrounds, yet such compassion is hardly sustainable.
The Social Enterprise Association of Singapore defines the social enterprise as “a business that focuses on creating social impact”. What is often overlooked by eager social entrepreneurs is that they are first running a profitable enterprise, then a social enterprise.
Even before the government mulls regulations of social enterprises, the dearth of information and academic research on the subject should be tackled. Little has been done since the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy at the National University of Singapore initiated a brief Singapore conversation of sorts. Beyond broad estimates and anecdotes in the media, what is the failure rate of social enterprises in Singapore? How does this compare to small and medium enterprises in general? How much more is the Singaporean consumer willing to pay for offerings from a social enterprise? Which enterprises have been reliant on governmental support or financial aid, and can they keep afloat without these crutches?
It is similarly important to note that the social enterprise is not a substitute for a charity. It might be true that social enterprises “help charities by reducing the possibility of compassion fatigue” (or donor fatigue), or that the operational model of the social enterprise is in line with “the Singapore ethos [of discouraging] welfare dependency”, but not all areas of interest or individuals who have fallen through the cracks can be supported without “turning to the public or the state for donations”. With the complexity of social problems social services should be seen as relief, improvement, reform, and civic engagement all at the same time.
We ought to adopt more pragmatic approaches towards social enterprises, and this cannot be done without a pool of data and information for policymaking. Understanding constraints will also help these social entrepreneurs be more realistic about their prospects.
I am now working on a research study to determine the perceptions towards social enterprises in Singapore, and would appreciate if you could take five to 10 minutes to complete a survey.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.