Exclusive Interview with Soon Loo

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Can Brunei compete? Despite of all our limitations and the small size of our population, Soon Loo, Bruneian entrepreneur and winner of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World in 2013 thinks that “we can”. He believes that being small has its advantages, “because it’s easier to bring a small population into focus”. But pulling ourselves out of this economic crisis is not going to be easy. It requires taking risks, making mistakes and adopting a “blue ocean mindset” to become more innovative. But more importantly, it requires everyone coming on board together and heading in the same direction.

Read more from our conversation with Soon Loo about his outlook on the current Brunei economic situation.

We are once again reminded of how vulnerable Brunei’s economy is with the falling oil prices. Why is innovation more important now than ever before?
The current oil price reminds us again about the importance of developing multiple business sectors in Brunei. If you observe what is going on around the world, you would see that many of the thriving new industries, companies, and jobs available today did not even exist 20 years ago. We need to be mindful that perhaps a key part of the answer to our economic problems may not come from the traditional model. As such, it is important to note that we do need to look at our business landscape with a different set of lenses, to prepare ourselves with a new innovative mindset, and perhaps to break new ground.

Your company, SVC’s mission is to identify and help Bruneian companies with good potential to grow regionally. What do you think are our strengths?
There are some strengths that we need to remind ourselves to keep drawing from (in no particular order):

1/ The peacefulness of our country
2/ The harmonious nature of our people
3/ The high literacy rate that we enjoy
4/ Our good standard of English (there are less than a handful of countries in ASEAN that are fluent in English)
5/ Our location away from natural disasters
6/ Being situated in one of the fastest growth potential regions in the world: ASEAN
7/ Our rich biodiversity equatorial rainforest
8/ Our clean water, and the list can go on.

Yes, it’s true that our small population can be a barrier to business growth. However, that is also one of our biggest strengths, because it’s easier to bring a small population into focus. Last but not least, we cannot ignore our existing strength – the fact that we do have a highly developed oil and gas infrastructure and an experienced workforce in this area. There is still room to grow in our oil and gas sector. Imagine Brunei being an oil and gas giant in ASEAN – with our companies operating in oil fields across ASEAN.

You have spent a number of years working in Singapore. What can we learn from the Singapore success story?
Today, Singapore may seem like an obvious leader in the field of biotechnology in Asia. But when Singapore first started embarking on its biotechnology journey, it was anything but obvious. For Singapore to be the Singapore that it is today, it took years of collaboration between the government putting in the biotechnology funds, the agencies bringing in the global biotech firms, the universities bringing in the academics, and the local businesses lining up the right business support. Singapore’s success reminds us that no one body can do it alone. It is truly a collaborative effort.

What can Brunei do to prepare for regional growth?
First and foremost, we have to have the mindset to believe that Brunei can indeed grow in the region. We need to recognise that Bruneians are more talented than we know. There are a good number of capable Bruneians who are leading major corporations and are doing great work beyond Brunei, many of whom have been featured in your magazine. We need to draw strength from their achievements and remind ourselves that Bruneians can be just as competitive.

When I teach entrepreneurship and innovation at universities in the region, one of the key concepts is about developing Blue Ocean Strategies. And at the core of this innovation principle is figuring out how to attack a market that is totally new. And going after that market requires both increasing current capacity and inventing new capacity. On the other hand, it also requires reducing or drastically eliminating certain activities altogether.

We may make a few wrong turns and some mistakes; however, we need to recognise that it is just a part of the process. Singapore, Japan, and most recently Korea, have shown us that it is indeed possible for a nation to totally reinvent itself and embark on a new era of prosperity.

Finding the solution and executing it requires all of us to stand together: the businesses, the government, the academics, and the people. As challenging as it seems, I think we will emerge stronger at the end of the day, by standing together.

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“We may make a few wrong turns and some mistakes; however, we need to recognise that it is just a part of the (innovation) process.”

– Soon Loo

Soon Loo is the newly appointed CEO of DARe, a new initiative set up by the Ministry of Energy and Industry to support Brunei’s SMEs. He is also the Managing Director of Seri VC, an investment firm that invests in Brunei companies that have ambitions of regional expansion. Soon was awarded the prestigious “Ten Outstanding Young Persons of The World” (TOYP) award organised by Junior Chamber International (JCI) and received the honour at Rio de Janeiro in 2013. Soon holds a Master of Business Administration degree from the Harvard Business School. He is originally from Seria.

This article was published in the Apr-Jun 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!