action research rojak

A summary of a book I have just finished reading on Action Research. The summary is a rojak of different passages in the book that are interesting to me and the research I intend to do.

Action research – a methodology for change and development
By: Bridget Somekh [Open University Press – McGraw-Hill Education, 2006]

I picked up this book in the NIE library when I was looking for some books on Action Research and Design Research. I’m still not quite sure what exactly the difference is between the two, or perhaps there is an overlap of some sort, whereby Design Research focuses on the instructional design more than its implementation, whereby Action Research more focuses on the implementation? Still a question to be further explored.

Back to the book, it’s very insightful, as Somekh uses her personal experiences in doing action research, which she started doing in the 1980s and explores different fields and uses of action research. It’s interesting to read how a practitioner does research as most of the articles or book chapters I have read so far explaining about action research approach it more theoretically.

Some common threads keep reappearing, throughout the book. I will just randomly summarise some of the points she made that I found interesting and think I can use in my own research.

1. action research in ‘developing countries’ (pp. 32-40)

When doing action research in Brazil and South-Africa, during times of political she found that the fear and the hope of the political change reflected in her research findings. As she didn’t fully understand this impact, being a European researcher, she needed help from her local colleagues there to get a better view on the situation.

This made her feel inadequate at times and a feeling of guilt being “white” in a place where “white” people were seen as the oppressor. She quotes Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972)” on this, who believes that:

“Genuine education can only be experienced through ‘praxis’, that is combined reflection and action through which the consequences of action ‘become the object of critical reflection’”.

The following statement she quoted of Freire made me think:

“Oppression is a ‘cultural invasion’ which is a complex process whereby even those whose intention it is to liberate will perpetuate oppression unless they engage consciously in praxis, in partnership with the oppressed, rather than as their intended benefactors.”

So, am I actually an oppressor? Am I engaging my students in praxis? I am trying to do so, but sometimes the means and time are not there to do it the way we would like to do it.

2. action research from the inside: a teacher’s perspective (pp. 62-73)

In this section of the book she gives a vivid account of her action research project she did in the late 1980s when she just started as a school teacher. At the time she had to prepare her students for the national ‘O’ levels exams in poetry and at the same time she wanted to encourage the students to enjoy poetry.

She started of teaching poetry using one particular poet and asking opinions from the entire class on the poems that she recited. She discovered that the students could not relate to the poet that she had chosen and also that it was already difficult for most students to try and understand the poem, let alone speak in front of the entire class to voice out how they interpreted it.

True recording and active dialogue with the students she revised her lesson plan and gave the students one book with famous poems and the freedom to select poems from other books of their choice. The students were then to discuss poems of their own choice within smaller groups. Lastly they had to write their interpretation of the poems and optionally to write their own poem, of any form they chose. All of this very much in line with situated cognition and socio-constructivism, though she doesn’t mention that.

What is interesting is not so much on how she changed her lesson structure during her research, but how the students responded to it. She mentions for instance that initially in the group work the students did not really take the assignment seriously, until they discovered that they were being recorded and that what they said was listened to. Somekh sees this as the students feeling involved in the research, being listened to, but I wonder whether it is not just a case of fearing that they will get a bad mark, or a bad representation in the research report.

Another interesting finding is that she let each of the students whom she had quoted and transcribed in her research report read their own story and comment and approve that it can be used. One of the students read the story about himself and then asked why she had changed his name. After that she decided to use the pupils real names instead and they had a proud feeling of it.

At the same time I’m wondering how I would collect data and interact with my students on my research if I were to do an action research. Probably I will need to use some form of ICT to do so.

3. Action research and innovative pedagogies with ICT (pp. 178-195)

She uses the notion of “exploratory praxis”, whereby she is using Susan Noffke’s definition of praxis as:

the continuous interplay between doing something and revising our thought about what ought to be done

This is something I can very much relate to. I think when teaching a topic, we have an idea of what we need to do, afterwards we reflect on it, or sometimes even while teaching and then get new ideas of what needs to be done. Even though we plan, we also need to be flexible and respond and interact with the learners.

In the research project PELRS she describes that the teachers in the study are co-researchers, doing the action research. In the past research had been focused on how ICT could be used more effictively to support traditional pedagogy rather than looking at how it could be used to support the introduction of new pedagogic practies. Somekh’s research was focused on the latter.

Secondly she introduces the Structuration theory of Giddens as an influence on the design of the research. This theory is interesting as it addresses the resistance against change (by ICT) in an agency (e.g. a school) based on the power and hierarchical structure. Something for me to perhaps research further on. Having seen introduction of ICT in corporate environments and the behaviour of people in those organisations towards the changes that it brought with it, I would like to explore more on this.

Somekh uses the theory to define four outcomes for the learning process (p.182):

  • learn creatively (e.g. contributing, experimenting, solving problems) 
  • learn as active citizens (e.g. acting autonomously, taking responsibility)
  • engage intellectualy with powerful ideas (e.g. using thinking skills, grappling with ideas/concepts)
  • reflect on their own learning (e.g. evaluating it through meta-cognition)

The third aspect influencing the design of her research is a pedagogical underpinning. She states (p.183) that in the learning process of the curriculum with help of ICT, a three-way interaction is created: teacher – learner – ICT. Earlier there were interactions between teacher – learner, learner – learner, but not the learner – ICT interaction is added. ICT intervenes in the teacher – learner interaction by drawing away attention from the teacher to the screen and at the same time also offers a different form of interaction and opportunities from which the teacher will be partly or wholly excluded.

The fourth area of influence is the concept of Vygotsky that all human activity is mediated by the use of tools. A selection of technically expert students were also made co-researchers with the goal to learn from them how they enculturated the use of computers, at school and at home. An interesting finding from this was that although the students found certain software for learning maths boring, but did not voice this out to the teacher during the lesson, as they were afraid by doing so they would not get to use the computers at all anymore.

The last area of theory used in the design of the research is the Activity Theory. This also encorporates Vygotsky’s notion of tools mediating human action within larger organizational strutures. Human activity is never individual and isolated, but is always integrally part of an activity system. She also mentions situated cognition and cites Brown (1989):

“the notion of situated cognition, with its insight that learning is shaped by the context and is most often a joint and distributed process between different minds is a key to understanding activity theory”

The activity framework was used by including not only the school and teachers, but also the home environment, other adults, peers, the community at large as influencing the learning of the students. ICT became a set of mediating tools over which the students could exercise choice and through which they could learn through play and experience flow. Roles of teachers and students were negotiated and learning focus was framed by both teachers and students. The transformative learning outcomes are the four points as mentioned earlier.

Somekh’s generic pedagogic framework (GPF) is highly influenced by:

  • Claxton’s learning styles (2000)
  • Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of intensive engagement in activity or flow (1996)
  • Lave and Wenger’s vision of learning in a community of practice (1991)

I have not heard of Claxton’s learning styles, but very much like the concept of flow and Wenger’s CoP.

Some lessons learnt as Somekh shares on her research:

  • teachers initially enthousiastically adopted the new methods, but the sense of ownership was lacking. They were co-researchers (and assumed to have ownership by having this title) but adopted the methods because the main researchers had established them, not because they directly saw the need to change themselves. Some teachers went back into their old styles of teaching unintentionally and e.g. wrapped up lessons at the end of class timing, instead of at the end of the learning event (project).
  • the GPF diagram contains two levels of outcomes, one on the transformative level and one on the level of the national education program.
  • the student-researchers did not immediately dare to take on their roles, as they were still fixed in the old concept that children are not taken seriously or that their could be consequences for what they would say. Once the relationship with the researcher had been established only, they started to critisize what was going on in the classroom.
  • the introduction of PELRS did not fully succeed as a transformative learning platform, but it did help to introduce ICT and new pedagogies into the education system. There were several constraints, like limited time frame to teach.
  • the introduction of using the internet to get information, provided a liberation on one hand, introducing the students to new info that even the teachers may have limited knowledge about, but on the other hand gave them the need to learn about ‘information literacy’ skills. How to distinguish and filter the trustworthy information from the not trustworthy. Normally teachers / schools would filter out this information, but now the students had to make this distinction themselves.

An interesting read with some interesting pointers for me to further explore on. Changing teaching habits is not easy and introducing new tools will definitely automatically introduce a change, but how to change the pedagogy along with it? Another question is whether the learners (in my case adults) are able to work more or less indepently and collaborate. This is only possible if the goals are negotiated and very clear from the beginning and some form of scaffolding is in place to help them get started.

An insightful and interesting book.

a split blogging personality

Tonight I read this post from Jeremiah Owyang on the other 5 stages of blogging. His take on how blogs evolve and can become successful, go from step 1: Excitement, step 2: Expectation to step 3: Focus, continuing with step 4: Passion and step 5: Achievement. It was his step 3 that set me thinking: Focus. Does my blog have a clear focus?

Funny enough for this blog, my step 1 was the focus, I started this blog with a clear goal as a place to keep track of my research on educational technology. As I was busy with work and some happenings in my private life at the time, the blog became dormant for a while. Only recently I revived it again and at the same time broadened my focus. Including some business related posts, some more on technology not directly related to education and some more on education not directly related to technology.

Some people combine all their writings into a single blog, comprising of personal and professional posts. In my case I have decided to split my writings into several blogs: – my personal blog


The focus of this blog is purely to write about events that are happening in my life and that I want to reflect on. I also do photo blogs, whereby my events are illustrated in the form of photographs. I write in this blog under a pseudonym, to hide my real identity, and protect family and friends that I might write about. Not that I’m writing anything bad, but it’s my personal view on things.

I feel moblog is very good for personal blogging, as it allows the sending of MMS and SMS blogs, so when I’m out and about and see something funny, interesting or worth noting, I snap a picture with my mobile and send it directly to my blog. No need to wait till I’m home, upload to PC first, etc. There are also group blogs, with the option to close the group, so that only invited members can enter and share information, photos, etc on certain topics. The interface can be customised relatively easy to your personal taste.

It would also be a great tool for educational blogging, whereby of course the focus for blogging would be a certain school project. Content Craft, the organisation behind moblog in Singapore, is also setting up blog engines for schools and universities. – my photo blog


My multiply blog is my latest online personality. After having had webshots albums online and then my personal website, all were running out of space and I wanted to have one single point where I’m keeping my photos online for sharing with family and friends. I evaluated flickr, photobucket, but found them very similar to webshots and the free amount of photos to share was limited. Multiply it was! I immediately fell in love with the ease and speed of uploading photos, and there is no limit. The only restriction is that the high resolution version of the photo will be automatically deleted from the server when you didn’t order any prints from them within six months. There is even an option to share certain albums or other content only with certain contacts. And creating your own look is fairly easy to do if you know how to use css, and if you don’t you can look at other people’s creations and copy one of them.

Multiply also allows you to create a blog, share music and video content and keep a calendar of events. I’m using the blog option to keep my scuba dive logs, using the reviews section to post my recipe book online, and the calendar to let my friends and family know what I’m doing, if there are any important dates they should know about.

Back to this blog, I am still wondering whether the 5 stages could apply here. I believe that achievement is more pertaining to corporate blogs or people blogging for money or a greater good. In my case, this is just a place where I’m gathering my thoughts and observations. If there are others interested in this, that’s great of course, but not the goal of my blogging. Yet a blog should have a focus, and I think that I have achieved that by splitting up my blogs based on different scopes and target audiences. Should I blog about this in my moblog blog, I’m very sure most of my audience will not be interested in this. Vice versa, if I would add all my personal rantings here in wordpress, I would also draw a different kind of audience. It’s a trade-off, but for the time being, I’ll continue the way I started… a split personality…

my history of the internet and computers

Last week I answered a question on Yahoo! Answers of someone who asked about the history of the internet and when pictures first appeared online. I thought it was quite an interesting question, and triggered me to reminisce about my first experiences with the online world and computing.

I must have been about 13 or 14 years old, in the early 1980’s when we got the first computer at home. That in itself was quite unique to have in those days and my dad had bought it second hand somewhere, because he was interested in this new technology. It came with a B/W monitor of around 10 inches. Its operating system was on a disk (I don’t think it even was  a 5.5 inch floppy, but something before that) and after loading the OS to memory, you could put in another disk to run software. It came with BASIC to create your own software applications. I remember that I tried making some simple BASIC modules, with the classic “GO TO xx”. A few years later the technology already became obsolete and the first PC’s made it to the consumer market. They came with a DOS operating system and large floppy disks. Besides DOS, some applications also became popular in those days, like Word Perfect and Lotus 123. We also got the first computer games: Leisure Suit Larry, which had really amazing graphics, considering that the monitors were ASCII based and had only 16 colours! It was fun going through the adventure and picking up objects that he needed in a later scene. There was also a “Boss key”, by pressing a Function key, it would pop up a complex graph on your screen to pretend to your boss that you are doing something serious and not playing a game.

When I was around 17, I had a summer job at my dad’s office, and got to use a Unix workstation as they used it for some data communication. I learned the Unix commands and how to use the vi-editor. I can’t remember whether I also used email in that time.

Around the same time we also started having computer lessons in school, when I was in sec5 (= comparable with JC1), as an extra lesson carried out by our Maths teacher who was quite interested in this. We did some simple programming as well, calculating with dates and incorporating leap years and summertime / wintertime.

When I was 18, in 1990, I started my university studies and enrolled in a Computer Science degree programme. The first year of my studies we were using Sun workstations with monochrome ascii based screens and my earlier knowledge of Unix came in handy. This was also my first encounter with the internet. We all had an email address and could send each other and our lecturers emails. Practical assignments had to be handed in by email to our practicum teacher-assistant. There were also online newsgroups, which could be accessed by typing the “rn” (read news) command. This was not so much used in our first year in college, but in later years when the practical assignments got more complex, we found ourselves posting questions on the world-wide bulletin boards and searching through earlier posted posts to learn more about certain programming languages. In 1991, my second year in Uni, we got access to Sun X-windows workstations, which used multiple windows and graphic representations with a mouse. Though inside the windows it was still text based commands. It was a huge revolution though, to be able to have 1 window open with your source code and 1 window with your compilation errors. And we had Corel Draw to make graphics to dress up the documents and make diagrams. Initially troff was used as a typesetter to create documents and only at the end of my studies, around 1995 LaTeX (pronounce: lah-tech) was launched, which made typesetting so much easier, using curly brackets with e.g. {heading1}heading text {\heading1}. In troff this would have been several lines of code, I can only remember “.B” for bold face, .I for italic, etc. but there were commands to be added for newline, font type, font size, etc.

But I’m going off topic now, let’s get back to the internet, in the early nineties the first browser came out, which was called Gopher and used hyper text. In those days only a few of the sites were available in Gopher, but we were happy because the Uni library had a search engine for us to search for book and conference proceedings.

Soon after Gopher came Mosaic, which became a more popular browser and allowed showing pictures in between the text. Newsgroup and email were still our main ways of using the internet in those days however and they were still text based. Besides tech-newsgroups, there were also hobby groups starting out and I joined one newsgroup on food recipes in Dutch – nl-culinair. Funny enough I recently found that the guy who had started the group, that was highly popular in those days where only few could use the internet either at work or in university, had put the old threads online and organised them into a modern way. Newsgroups were the predecessor of later day online forums.

In 1996 I graduated from my MSc course and started working. Initially in a government organisation, the Bureau of Statistics in Holland. I was given a PC to work on in the office and was told proudly by my supervisor that it was installed with Windows 95. And since I had studied Computer Science, I should know how to work with it and maybe even help my colleagues to use it. Cold sweat breaking out, I had no idea how to get started, having used Unix for the 6 years before that and done some summer jobs using DOS-based machines with Lotus123 and the latest WP version. Learned fast that Windows was about using the mouse, and not about typing commands. Absolutely hated it in the beginning and Word as well, I had to use the mouse to select and select stuff like font type and size from drop down menus. I did learn fast and was soon able to help out my colleagues with their Windows problems. Was even asked to conduct a training together with a colleague to the entire staff on how to use the Windows version of SPSS, as most were having problems in using it after being familiar with the DOS-based version of this statistics programs for many years.

So, how about the internet in the late nineties? In my office at the time, internet was only available on a standalone PC, that was shared with the entire department of about 80 persons. I had to do some research, so I frequently went over there and used it, printing out the information I found useful. Other than that my PC only had access to the Intra-net. Email could be sent to the outside world, but without attachments. This was a major challenge, as I was still working at the time to publish a paper together with one of my ex-classmates and my two supervisors in Uni. Also I had to get data to work on for a statistical research from the Ministry of Economics. A lot of paper work involved, to get permissions to receive a floppy disk, bring it in, let it be processed by a special security department who put it on the server for me to retrieve.

In 1998 I changed jobs and was stationed in KL, Malaysia. The company provided me with a laptop and a Compuserve email address that served as login to the internet as well, wherever in the world. Internet service providers started booming in those days and one of my first projects was end of 1998 in Shanghai to implement a helpdesk software and business processes according ITIL for Shanghai Online, one of the first ISP’s in China (government organisation). I also had a yahoo account and the first instant messengers came about. It was a way for me to keep in touch easily with my friends back home.

Since then internet has evolved rapidly, and more communication tools became available and in this short time span we are now ready for more interaction, higher end graphics, etc.

The Fantastic 4 on Social Media

Went to iX New Media Forum 2007 on Wed 20 June, organised by TDM and SMU. Finally time to write my blog of this event, after my 2 quick MMS blogs on it at my moblog. They had four speakers in the forum, who are all gurus in new media, or social communication media. Check out detailed account at SGentrepreneurs website, they did a good live summary of the event with videos of Kevin Lim. Isn’t it great that with the web 2.0 nowadays we can actually read other people’s views and takeaways on a seminar directly online and it’s interesting how everyone has their own things they liked or disliked about the same event.

What I found interesting during the event was the live chat that was going on on the big screen behind the speakers. Sometimes interesting things were uttered and it was an interaction amongst the crowd that had gathered in the conference hall. Personally I found it a little distracting at times to focus on what the speaker was telling, and at the same time with one eye trying to follow the chat log to see if anything interesting was uttered there. Juggling with these two tasks, I didn’t bother to participate in the chat, it would have caused my brain to overload. Myself being about a decade older than most of the others in the audience (okay, some exceptions were there, I saw some respected aged men as well), I was wondering whether it’s me getting old… The technology with the chat could also have been a means of direct, non-intrusive interaction with the speakers, but I felt that didn’t really work out in that way. I guess the speakers were focusing on addressing the points they wanted to get across and it’s distracting if they would have to keep turning their back to the public to read the chat at the same time. I couldn’t help but keep wondering whether there would be a tool and moderator who could pick out interesting chat blurps and dump them in a sort of post-it at the side, so that they could be brought up as points during the forum discussion. Hmm, maybe a point for a next forum? The person(s) manning the technology did a really great job in bringing up websites that were talked about by the speakers quickly as an illustration, and everything worked smoothly.

The first speaker of the afternoon, Jeremiah Owyang, a social media evangelist as he calls himself, got the room rocking and his talk was very insightful. This is illustrated by the many blogs that mainly addressed his talk at the forum, like Walter Lim and Estee. Jeremiah believes that there should be an active dialogue between companies and their customers and that the communication between employees and customers should be more direct and not too restricted by the marketing & communications department only. Corporate websites should be collaborative and interactive. Negative feedback is no problem, it will hit you anyway and in this manner you are able to react to it directly and learn from it to improve your product / service. It’s not an easy thing though to convince large corporates to become transparent! Really admire his convincing power, and one example of that is DELL’s Something on my list of things to check out! Add on to the list:, (check out Robert Scoble who was target of a rumour),, public square (forgot what this was, will look for it), “Active worlds” which is similar to 2nd life (virtual world).

The next speaker up was Louis Broom, who works for Microsoft and has a job title that is amazingly long, I was impressed that he managed to pronounce it in one sentence without stammering, but I guess he must be used to it by now. Interesting part about him was that he started his career as actor and director and is now making corporate videos for Microsoft and customers. His talk didn’t leave a very lasting impression on me, but he had one interesting point, okay, two interesting points:

1. the content production is done decentralised, that means they start producing a video in the US, and when it’s night time in US, the teams in China and India take over to do the post production. Also the production is done with low cost, and fast. I guess in this fast-paced world, that’s the way to go and using the internet with collaborative tools, there should be a way to apply this concept in different industries too.

2. EPIC 2015, by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson. Will google and watch this show one day when I feel bored and don’t feel like doing one of the other million things on my list….

After his talk there was a short tea break and I had a quick refreshment, after which I checked my email and (wow, what a perfect timing) I answered a call from one of my colleagues in one of my projects to help him out with something. No time for networking this time, also wasn’t really in the mood for it that day, too busy, too many things going on, but still wanted to attend the talks.

The next talk after the break, was by Mike Downey of Adobe, promoting the great new development of Adobe, which was initially nicked as Apollo and now launched as Adobe AIR (Adobe’s Integrated Runtime). This brought a fresh breeze 😉 into the room!

As most of his demo of the new platform (much alike Java in its philosophy, i.e. cross platform, virtual machine, runtime execute) was pretty similar to one posted on YouTube, have a look yourself here:

The cool thing about AIR is that it is a platform that uses web-technology, but it can run offline, and will synchronise data soon as you get back online.

I can see this being used in educational systems as well, wouldn’t it be great, one central distribution, students can logon from multiple operating systems (Windows, Mac or Linux), download the application to run on their desktop, and interact with the server once they are online. And of course the graphics rendering engine of Flash, really think this product is going to have a great future. Moreover, it’s open source!

Some other interesting sites, mentioned by Mike: (online photo editing), (presentations online to share and to edit collaboratively) and (a cool, “useless” application built by one of the AIR developers).

Last but not least, the only female speaker of the afternoon: Lynda Brown, who is from Canada and also a front-runner in her own right for new media and communication. She heads New Media BC and produces VIDFEST, an annual creative digital media gathering. She is very inspiring, and didn’t so much focus on the technology, but more on the social aspects. She is a consultant and mentor of many startups and it’s quite amazing how she keeps track of all that, while also being part of a team at to set up a MA course in Digital Media in Vancouver. She was surprised to hear that hardly anyone here was using Facebook (Jeremiah also mentioned Facebook as one of the new technologies that he liked to stay in touch with friends). Funny part is that I have always perceived Facebook as a very US-based tool, whereas for instance MySpace and Friendster have more world-wide users. But maybe my perception is wrong. Not that long ago I joined Multiply, which initially I also perceived as a US-based tool, and it turned out to be a very useful tool, that has spin-offs in multiple languages and a large Asian community too (majority in Philippines), which I thought to be quite interesting. Anyway, I guess everyone has their own preferences and is also influenced by friends in which of the tools they use to share photos and stories. I love Multiply for its easy photo sharing options, IMHO better than Flickr (the number of free photos is too limited for my taste).

One interesting takeaway from Lynda’s talk:, a story to read online and make a choice whether you are a starfish or a spider (if I remember correctly), will definitely check this out, sounds interesting!

At the end of the individual talks, there was a forum discussion, hosted by Ming Yeow, which I think he did very professionally!

All in all an interesting forum and an afternoon well-spent! Thanks TDM for the organisation 🙂

Bingo icebreaker game a big hit!

Sunday afternoon we started a new IT Essentials computer course at the temple where I’m volunteering. Usually we have around 35 people signing up for the course, of which generally about 25 of them will actually complete the course. This year we had a shocking 50 people registered and most of them also showed up on the first class!

Still not sure how we are going to handle such a big group, considering that in physical space we can accommodate comfortably a maximum of 35 people, once we are starting to do practical work on the computers, of which we have 22 now. But that’s a problem to worry about next week. Last Sunday we had to entertain and get going a group of 50 adults who are going to be following this course weekly for the next 6 months or so.

The previous year we had a problem that we had quite a disintegrated group of students who took a long time to get to know each other and work together. At the time we had omitted a proper intro to let the students familiarize with each other before starting to do some actual work. Not to fall into the same trap again, I decided that this year we would start with an icebreaker game. I have been doing many different icebreakers as a student myself, and thought that the one I participated in last year during one of my courses at NIE, was quite good, a human bingo.

How does it work? You have a normal BINGO-score card, with 5 x 5 squares. But instead of putting numbers in the squares, you put characteristics of people, like: “loves chocolate”, “is married”, “wears glasses”.

Then they have to go and ask their peers to see who could match one of the squares and each person only appearing once on the square. When someone has 1 row filled up, it’s BINGO, and they get some sweets. To manage this with 50 people, I split them in 2 groups and gave a group price as well, for the first group who had 1 full square. It was really a big hit, they mingled around well and had fun finding out details about their classmates.  Officially you’ll have to verify the filled up cards and make sure people are not cheating, but hey, I was already happy that people seriously tried to get to know each other and played the game without getting into a mess… mind you, this is all in a room that could just fit 50 people in there seated, no more space to walk around!

Here is the bingo score card I used:

Loves cooking   

 Has children Has same favourite colour as you  Is vegetarian  Has a mobile phone
 Wears glasses   Has visited more than 3 countries  Is married Is from same home country as you    Plays musical instrument
 Likes to sing    Likes cats      FREE  Likes to dance  Is wearing earrings
 Loves to read books  Wears lipstick  Likes dogs     Is same age as you  Is crazy about chocolate
 Born in country side    Wears red colour clothes  Likes to eat durian  Likes shopping  Wears jeans

Going Dutch in Singapore

On Monday 11 June 2007 evening I was invited to be member in a panel to have a forum discussion on “What does it take to set up a business in Singapore and/or the region” by the Association of Dutch Businessmen (ADB).

This was the description that was sent around by email to all ADB members:

Have you always wondered what it takes -besides guts- to set up your own company, to realize your dreams or to be sent off by your employer to venture into new geographical realms?

On Monday 11 June we have invited a selection of Dutch entrepreneurs in Singapore, presented in a panel, who will both be sharing their own experiences as well as taking questions and discussions from the floor. What did they have to do to come so far and what not? How did the Singapore government support their ideas and in what way? Has ‘being Dutch’ been an advantage? What are easy mistakes to avoid? What business entity of form should you choose and how does registration works? What does it take to penetrate clients such as MNC’s ? 

The panel had an interesting composition:

          Alex Bok, who has setup a company called the Bike Boutique, which has franchises in other countries in Asia and he also initiated a non-profit organisation

          Peter Smit, who after a being retired for 2 years from Procter & Gamble for which he worked across the globe selling soap, took up an offer to start up an Asian branch office for Chiquita bananas.

          Lennart van der Beek, who is running a small company innotion pte. ltd.

          Bianca Polak (myself), who started Thalassa Consultancy to work as a freelance consultant in the IT industry.

The topic drew quite a crowd, I guess there were about 70 people in the audience (but that’s based on a raw estimate only). Annabelle Deken who organised and chaired the event (and that did that really professionally I must add), opened the evening. To my slight shock, we had to do the forum in Dutch, usually ADB events are done in English (hmm, at least the ones I have attended). My Dutch, though my native language, is not that great anymore after living in Asia for 9 years and speaking English most of the time, but I guess I did alright, stumbling a bit here and there, searching for the correct wordings and throwing in a bit of English when I couldn’t get the Dutch equivalent fast enough.

After we all did a short self-intro, Annabelle kicked off with the first question, to summarize in three words what one would need to set up a company in Singapore/region. I was the first to answer and my three words were:

  1. patience – you need a lot of patience in all aspects, waiting for orders to be confirmed, waiting for payment to come in, etc.
  2. connections / network – not just potential clients, but also in my case, connections as in partners, who can help out when you get a bigger project and you don’t have the time / skill-set to complete the job on your own. And I realised that now I’m trying to venture out into the edutech field, that I have start building up a new network.
  3. guts – you need to believe in yourself, especially running a 1-woman business like in my case.

Interestingly all three of us had patience in our list. Lennart (maybe because of his financial background) had a nice phrase for the money aspect of patience, which he called financial patience.

Alex mentioned it also in a regional aspect that he encountered, when he tried to copy his concept to apply it in the same way in Bangkok and found out that it didn’t work that way, he had to move a lot more mountains, though he had all the logistics organised pretty fast.

Someone in the audience asked whether this is typical for Singapore or this region to need patience, when starting up a company, but we all didn’t really have this kind of experience in Holland or other places in the world and probably it applies across the globe. It’s interesting though, because usually entrepreneurs are fast-thinking, fast-moving people, and patience won’t be the first thing on your mind when asked about a useful habit to have when you want to become an entrepreneur.

Another question that was asked by the audience was “what was a big mistake that you have made and learned from”. Well in my case it took me a while before I had a good answer to that, and let the others answer first. But I did have something that I regretted not having done earlier, which is registering with Gebiz, as I thought I couldn’t do that as a sole-proprietor or had to pay money for registration. When I finally did do it, I found out that it was really easy and that I should have done it from the start! It allows me to bid for the smaller requests for quotation or tenders directly without needing to go through one of my partners.

There were some questions on how to find employees and the hiring and firing in which I could not really participate. seems to be the preferred way to hunt for new people, you get resumes back immediately, but it’s quite a bit of sifting work to be done to pick out the ones that you want to see. In Alex’ case his business started out of his hobby, being a tri-athlete and avid biker, his friends in this area and through word-of-mouth, he got his first customers but also people interested to work for him, invest in his company, etc.

Peter shared with us his strategy to see if a person would fit into his profile, which is regional sales. He would ask the person what was the first thing they ever sold and at which age. So, if someone already showed sales experience at age of 5 or whatever, they would be suitable for the job and if only sold something first at age of 20plus, they wouldn’t be suitable. Of course not as the only criteria, but just to gauge a person’s nature.

An interesting question came from a veteran who has worked for Philips most or all of his life and is now retired, which is whether it is in your genes to be an entrepreneur. Well, for the four of us sitting at the panel table this didn’t seem to be the case and it was not running in the family. In my case, I blame it on my innate stubbornness. In my first job working as a civil servant I came with lots of ideas that were only acknowledged a year later as being a great initiative, at the time that I had just put in a resignation letter. After that I worked for small companies, in which I was working pretty independently and had a lot of freedom to work in my own way, as long as the goals were met.

Peter, who had worked in P&G for most of his life, argued however that working for a MNC does require a certain amount of entrepreneurial spirit. I tend to disagree with that statement, I believe indeed that probably at a regional sales manager position in a foreign country you do need entrepreneurial characteristics to do well. However, as a general office worker, you need to be able to conform to all the rules and regulations put down by the management and if you exhibit too many creative ideas or opinions that don’t match with the rules, it doesn’t work in my honest opinion.

The last question from the audience was directed towards me, to ask how I cope with doing projects for government organisations here in Singapore as a sole proprietor, since there is always a danger of LD claims. Well, in my case I don’t deliver directly to the government, for big projects that have potential LD claims I offer my services to a main contractor, and there is no direct responsibility for LD’s from my side. Of course, I have to be sure to cover myself, that I deliver in time and am not the responsible party for any delays. But yes, it will be a reason over time to change my business to a limited liability company.

Other things discussed were how to go about work visas, which in most our cases was not an issue. But some had experience applying for Employment Pass based on their company business plan.

Alex had an interesting tip to share about his business plan, which is that after a few years he finally decided to write his business plan on just 1 A4-sized paper, including his dreams, his goals to realise his dreams and concrete action points. (I hope I remembered it correctly).

At the informal session afterwards, on my way out, I got to speak briefly with Diederik Heinink, who has just setup his business in communications & PR and has an online portal in Holland for networking of Dutch professionals. A bit like iConnectE (which I got to know about recently at the BlogOut) and when I mentioned that, he happened to have just registered and been to the first networking event. Unfortunately I had missed that event, but will probably see him on one of the other events around. Singapore is small 😉

How to register a business in Singapore?

I have registered my own sole-proprietorship in 2004 and have since been working as a freelancer. Many people have asked me how to do the registration, so I decided it’s time to put it online, so that I can just refer the next person to the URL, without having to find the description again….  

The procedure is quite simple once you have figured it out (the figuring out part is the one that takes time), so I’m glad to help you with this!  Before you go over to registration, it’s good to have the following information at hand and sorted out first:

  1. business name
  2. business address
  3. nature of the business
  4. a SingPass (in case you didn’t have one yet – in my case I did have it – this is also useful for CPF online) 

For the business address, this can either be: an office address, a private housing address or if you live in HDB, you can apply at the HDB website for permission to use your home address as a business address. For nature of business, there is a whole list and in some cases you need special certification from AVA or MOE, or other government organisations. In my case, I have registered my business under “software consultancy”, as I thought that would be most applicable and no special permissions or certifications needed. 

This website is extremely useful:  it has a very good FAQ on how to register business or company, check if a certain business name can be used and a link as well to the website of the business registration  The bizfile website is where you need to login with the SingPass and then you can fill up the entire registration form online.

After login, you go to: Business Transactions > Business Name Application and Registration.

Then you select:Application to Register a New Business … And then fill up the form. You can actually just go through these steps and then see what are the things that you need to fill up. And come back there again on a day that you are doing the registration.When i finally did my registration I needed only about half an hour and my company was registered.  All the above is for registration of a sole proprietorship. The fee is SGD 65 for 1 year. Subsequent years you pay SGD 50 renewal fee. Change of address is also possible – costs SGD 15.  

Other things that might be useful, once you have registered the business, is to open a corporate bank account.  This is useful to have as some companies will only issue a cheque to your company’s name and not to your personal name. A cheque issued on a company’s name cannot be posted into your private account.  To open a corporate account, I have done this with DBS bank (because my personal account is with POSB – so I thought easier have both at the same bank). It was pretty simple, needed my company registration confirmation letter (you receive by email few minutes after registration – just print it out) and a minimum of 3,000 SGD. They have a penalty though of 15 SGD per month if the balance goes below 10,000 SGD. 

So I have opened my account with starting capital of 10,000 SGD. I’m not sure how it is for other banks, but I guess should be similar, though other banks have a higher starting capital for opening new accounts.  For taxes, you still file under personal income tax, there is a special category there for income out of sole proprietorship. Based on the income tax statement, you will then receive a letter from CPF to “advise” you how much CPF you need to contribute to your Medisave account. This is a mandatory minimum amount you will need to top up and depends on how much you have earned. Other CPF contributions are purely voluntary (in my case I don’t contribute voluntarily). This CPF is important once you are going to do your yearly renewal of your business, they will check if you have followed CPF’s advice and have sufficient funds in your Medisave. For all this you will receive letters, so you don’t have to worry too much about it, but it’s good to know in advance so that you can keep some financial reserves for this.