On October 11, 2007, Mr Neo Nam Heng clinched the Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Innovation. And this comes as no surprise. Mr Neo's journey, from nondescript porridge hawker at age 18 to distinguished businessman today, is dappled with insights and breakthroughs seasoned with a solid dose of out-of-the-box thinking.
In the early 90s, Mr Neo made a bold foray into the parallel import motor trade. It was a time when parallel imports were casually dismissed as a transient fad, and regulations weren't exactly friendly. Mr Neo stuck to his guns however. Now, more than a decade later, his tenacity has paid off. The industry is today a force with considerable leverage on market dynamics, and has often been credited with keeping car prices competitive. As for the man himself, he has won the accolade of being a founding pioneer.
In 2002, he proposed the setting up of export processing zones. As with his decision to go into the parallel import business, this again was a move that challenged the norm. Previously, cars bound for export had to leave the country first before residual taxes were refunded. Mr Neo's idea came at a time when an increasing volume of deregistration and a rather cumbersome exportation process created a bottleneck in cash flow.
The export processing zones - a series of storage areas mostly located in Tuas - enable sellers to get rebates from the Government once their cars have been deposited into these zones. This practice has, on the one hand, freed up cash for vehicle sellers, and on the other, attracted people from various parts of the world to make a trip here to shop for quality used cars.
Mr Neo has since moved on to a new business. In September this year, he obtained an operator licence from the Land Transport Authority to run a taxi service. The entire fleet will be fuelled by compressed natural gas (CNG). Ever the visionary, he aspires to have the biggest fleet of eco-friendly cabs in Singapore. And given the global push towards environmental conservation, who's to say that what Mr Neo is doing now will not become the norm in time to come?
For his effort in challenging and superseding the status quo, Mr Neo was bestowed the Innovation Award.
Today, Mr Neo - who is President of the Singapore Vehicle Traders Association and the Automobile Importer & Exporter Association - also heads a multi-million dollar business. His group comprising Cheng Yong Credit and Prime Leasing collectively generates an annual turnover that exceeds $100 million.
When queried about his recipe for success, Mr Neo says: "I keep a keen eye on evolving trends in the industry and its community. Smell them, feel them and talk about them. Fill our senses and understand these market patterns. So when the opportunity comes, we'll know when to strike."
For good measure, he added: "And of course, it is essential to stay focused and work very hard."
Comparing this successful entrepreneur to the hawker of yesteryear, one is tempted to say that Mr Neo has indeed realised the American Dream in his own unique Singaporean way.