Class Disparity, Discrimination & SMEs

Discrimination based off the concept of class has been making it rounds on the internet and local mainstream media. From the varying public responses to the Life Beyond Grades campaign a few weeks back to the most recent (and heartbreaking) coverage by CNA Insider that features young Singaporeans discussing the impact class disparity has on their lives; a lot of conversation, discussion and debate have been generated among Singaporeans from all walks of life. As a nation, it is clear that while our leadership and policies have led us to where we are today, these same policies designed by our leaders have created negative side-effects that all of us are paying for today.

At VanillaLaw LLC, we work with SMEs every day and as an SME ourselves, the recent conversation on class has reminded us of something that we face all the time – the discrimination that SMEs face here in Singapore. Don’t get us wrong, the discrimination is not obtuse, loud or offensive; it exists in the form of microaggressions that only those who are observant can pick up.  When the firm first started, our founder Mark received certain choice comments from friends, family, peers and potential clients:

Some were innocent enough:

“You’re still so young and inexperienced.”

Some were a reflection of a certain generation of thinking:

“Why you start your own business? Was it hard to get a job somewhere?”

“How are you going to get business? Got enough clients or not?”

Some did not bother to mince any words:

“To tell you the truth, I am helping you. I could have gone to XXXXX law firm, but I want to give you an opportunity, you know? This case will help you become famous. So…do you think it is possible to do the case pro-bono or give me a discount?”

Truth be told, these little comments/remarks are the result of snap judgments that have been fueled by pre-conceived notions that have been cemented in a specific era from the past. This was 25 years ago when we first started.

On the employment front, even till this day (albeit less often), this mindset persists. It surfaces during conversations with potential candidates, from administrative staff to legal associates. Very often, the priorities of these candidates are remuneration, ‘level of prestige’ and the possibility that our company would be a good ‘training ground’ or ‘stepping stone’ to bigger firms or multi-national companies. It is very rare to discover an individual who steps through our doors with the same like-mindedness of wanting to work in the SME sector.

Today, the situation has gotten better, though there are still some family members who still have the impression that after running this business for 20 over years we have problems with getting clients. That’s when the familiar “How’s business? Got client or not?” comes back to haunt us.

If we were to be truly honest about reality, it boils down to what society values and places on a pedestal. In Singapore, there are still certain ideals that exist till this day – having good grades, getting into a ‘good’ school, getting into the ‘right’ profession. As such, SMEs do still face some level of discrimination when faced with people from an older, more traditional, school of thought.

The Life Beyond Grades campaign does do a pretty good job of featuring individuals who have gone down the route of entrepreneurship, and carved out a decent career and life for themselves. Some of these individuals like Syarif Sleeq, Pat Law, and Bella Koh, are truly inspirational. It is with individuals like them that the conversation is beginning to shift, and more and more young people are becoming inspired to try their hand at starting their own business.

For us, we are looking forward to the day when the mention of ‘SME’ is not immediately followed by a quizzical look, furrowed brow, or judgmental scowl. Instead, we hope for a future where local business owners can confidently start a business and have the support to build their dreams, be it here in Singapore or overseas.