I’ve been grappling for a long time what it means to be a unicorn.
Or to have unicorns among us.

That seems to be an obsession among entrepreneurs, especially within the startup community. Unfortunately the obsession has also spread to our policymakers – many of whom have never run any business their entire life. We have even set out a NATIONAL target to have unicorns in the 12MP.

I can understand having the tallest towers in the world as a rallying call for all Malaysians. But do entrepreneurs need a similar target to be ‘excellent’?

I see the few ‘unicorns’ that we have, and wonder if it’s all worth it. The most successful is (or was) a ride hailing app, that has achieved the coveted ‘unicorn’ status despite never making any profit (and reports ‘improvements in loss’). And because we are not the only country blinded by the same obsession, we lost the company to our neighbor down south; after allowing it to get away as a de-facto monopoly and destroying thousands of SMEs (and free choice at the same time).

There are more. And without exception, they are all unprofitable. While founded by Malaysians (and hence our misplaced pride), almost all are majority owned by foreign funds. So if and when they do turn profitable, we would have paid through our coffers for others to profit. That’s how I think the nannies must feel in raising the child that are not theirs to begin with.

But if for a minute we buy the argument that having more unicorns mean a more ‘robust’ entrepreneurial ecosystem; then where do one think the thousands of Malaysian entrepreneurs of the past generations came from?

Are we saying that in the absence of such imaginary concepts, Malaysians are incapable of running perfectly profitable businesses?

Labels are important when we were children. To be able to distinguish the ‘heroes’ from the ‘villains’; the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’. But as grown-ups, we really cannot afford to play with childish labels. Real harm is being done.

Tens of thousands of perfectly good businesses are being destroyed to make way for monopolies created by a financial ecosystem that borders on being a ponzi scheme, and supported by an unwitting bureaucracy that’s never run a business.

Good money that could have been used to teach our children robotics and AI (or at least English), are wasted on funds and grants for iffy businesses – and in the process creating not a generation of entrepreneurs, but a class of rent-seekers handicapped from the very beginning. All for what? National ‘folly’ masked as ‘pride’.

Not too late for this to change.

When the world is going the same direction, we must stop and think if the opportunities now abandoned by the rest of world are ripe for the taking.

Do we need two unicorns to prove that we are a nation of entrepreneurs or do we need a million entrepreneurs? Are we indeed missing the entire forest for that two tall trees?

I’m still grappling with the idea. And will continue to do so for a very long time.

This article is written by Datuk William Ng, managing director of Business Media International, the publisher of SME Magazine


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