On how the city-state is positioning itself as a door to South-east Asia and a hub for cross-border collaboration
What advantages does Singapore offer tech companies seeking a springboard into ASEAN?
PETER ONG: Innovation in South-east Asia is at an inflection point. The average age of the region’s 640m-strong population is 30, and a growing level of consumption power characterises its rising middle class. Approximately 350m of the regional population are internet users, a rate which has grown by 30% each year since 2015. These figures demonstrate the dynamism that is waiting to be unleashed. We want to encourage companies from outside the region to seriously consider South-east Asia as an important market, and one that is ripe for innovation.
Singapore is a suitable springboard into this region. We are a good test bed for pan-ASEAN business models. A key question about ASEAN is whether it is one huge market or 10 different markets – or is it a mixture? The answer depends somewhat on the industry and technology involved. Nevertheless, our innovation ecosystem provides an enabling environment for developing appropriate models that can be scaled and rolled out across the region, as well as the talent that can offer high-end technological support for businesses based there.
The financial ecosystem is another advantage. The bulk of funding deals in South-east Asia come through Singapore. For this reason, several regional unicorns have significant operations in Singapore, which also encourages companies looking to achieve unicorn status to begin operations here.
With Singapore lacking scale in the domestic market, what other strengths can it capitalise on to stimulate investment in fast-emerging tech segments?
ONG: We have a number of strategies to overcome the potential limitations of having a population of about 5m. First, as a small nation it is imperative that we work with partners who can facilitate international links; we cannot do it alone. For example, there are over 7000 multinational corporations in Singapore. When we work with them to hold “open innovation challenges” here in Singapore, this process links us to their global network – including customers and facilities. Our other group of in-country international partners are accelerators and incubators, which connect us to the tech ecosystems in their countries.
The second way in which we transcend our small population is through having a trusted reputation. When it comes to technology such as blockchain, big data, cloud technology and the internet of things, having qualities such as transparency, neutrality and trust is necessary. The essence of blockchain is to allow for verification and traceability. Singapore is a jurisdiction that is founded on trust, which puts it in prime position to implement these technologies in areas such as electronic certificates of origin, which are particularly important in the context of growing trade links.
Our third focus is on talent. The major challenge faced by technology firms today is not whether there is a market; rather, the question is more often whether companies have the right talent to innovate and scale up a product for the global market. We do not have a wide pool of talent, so we hope that we can at least develop depth of talent. For example, the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore has doubled their intake, and Singapore has also made it mandatory for all upper-primary students to learn coding as of 2020. We wish to develop a national DNA that embraces technology.
At a time when the US-China trade dispute is leading to fears of a global “innovation winter”, how is Singapore positioned to ensure continued international collaboration?
ONG: Whatever labels commentators may give to current problems, we take the long view on innovation. We believe it is best to position ourselves for the future economy; we need to go beyond the thinking and planning stage and come up with innovative products and solutions. I think we should take a long-term view when it comes to how our human capital is developed. In addition, we must ensure that our businesses are internationalised and open to innovation.
We are continually expanding international collaboration. For example, our Global Innovation Alliance ensures Singapore’s innovation network is linked to international innovation nodes around the world. And this is a two-way process. We currently have links to 11 cities: Bangkok, San Francisco, Berlin, Munich, London, Paris, Tokyo, Ho Chi Minh, Suzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. This number will continue to grow and help create a global village in innovation.
We also support other cross-border, joint innovation projects by linking companies and research institutions from overseas with those in Singapore, as well as providing funding. And we cannot innovate alone; face-to-face human interaction is important. If you think you have the solution, someone has the problem. Our job is to match it – create the platform that brings together people with technological ideas and people with funding. You just need to find them and collaborate, which is why we also organise international meetings and events, such as the forthcoming SFF x SWITCH innovation festival from November 11 to 15, 2019.