Asia's Singapore — Ich bin ein Singaporean

28 February, 2012

John Kennedy’s passionate paraphrase of the ancient world’s ‘civis Romanus sum’ was meant to declare the West’s support of Berlin as a symbol of freedom and Democracy. 

I believe that Singapore has a lot of the ingredients that could similarly make it a symbol of a new, confident and resurgent Asia.

At The Crossroads Of Global Civilisation

Founded in the 14th century as Sinhapura by King Parameswara and turned into a major trading centre in the 1800’s by Sir Raffles – Singapore has been at the crossroads of global commerce and culture for centuries.

My earliest memories of the city are from the late 1980s. The nation was in its baby boomer days, young citizens were moving into HBDs high-rise towers, gleaming new infrastructure was being built, and there was a general sense of optimism in Singapore’s young population about what their country could become.

Almost a quarter of a century later, I am happy to see that Singapore has been one of the developmental success stories of our region. Singaporeans have shown the world what a small multi-ethnic island without any natural resources or military prowess can achieve through just human endeavour and visionary leadership.

I believe that the country now stands at an important juncture in its story. It could, like parts of the west, walk into the sunset with its aging population, or it could leverage the physical, social and economic infrastructure it has built, and become a symbol of economic hope for a new, confident and resurgent Asia.

The convergence of opportunities

The Economist recently wrote about how our world is increasingly divided into three socio-cultural spheres of influence , the Anglosphere, the Indosphere and the Sinosphere. The article quotes a study by Pankaj Ghemawat, ‘Why the world isn’t flat ,’ that two countries which share a common language trade 42% more with each other than two otherwise identical countries that lack that bond and countries with former imperial ties trade an astounding 188% more often. The article ends with a reminder on the enduring ties of tribes and how this will continue to shape the cultural and economic future of our globalized world in this new ‘Asian century.’

Along with its administrative advantages, Singapore’s unique cultural, linguistic and historic linkage to all three of these spheres is creating a situation where the country now offers some of the same ingredients that made cities like London, New York, Bombay and Shanghai great economic centers in the past.

I believe that the current environment in Singapore makes it inevitable that more than a few great Global businesses will emerge from here in the coming years. Whether “natives” or immigrants start all of these is a moot point.

On a recent visit, I had the opportunity to attend Startup Asia, a regional summit for startups in Singapore and the ASEAN region. The international nature of the entrepreneurial ecosystem was evident from the various companies I came across, with Indian, Malay, Japanese, Indonesian, American etc entrepreneurs or key team members.

Based on the 25+ companies I met while in Singapore, the strong Web2.0bias of purely Singaporean teams seemed evident. On the other hand, more international teams seemed to have a greater depth of focus on addressing regional and global consumer opportunities within healthcare, security, education and environmental technology. This is hardly surprising. In a country with the cleanest air in Asia, negligibly low crime rates and radio taxis that arrive within minutes, there don’t seem to be many visible problems to solve. When there is a cross pollination of ideas from around the region, a more robust and interesting business focus seems to emerge within the company.

The Island at the center of Asia

In addition to government investment programs like SPRING Seeds, IDA’s Infocomm fund and numerous incubators, there seems to be an active Angel, VC and PE investor ecosystem in the country. These investors are increasingly investing in local start-ups to target regional and international markets.

LPs seem to be supporting this trend eyeing cleaner corporate governance and greater exit potential of portfolio companies based out of Singapore.

On the talent front, competitive salaries ensure that graduates from respected local institutes like SMU, NUS, NTU are joined by top graduates from India and Australia. The protracted slow-down in western markets, Chinese political challenges and Indian uncertainty also seems to be accelerating the brain-gain into Singapore. On this one trip alone, I met at least four seasoned entrepreneurs who were relocating into Singapore from the west to take advantage of the Asian markets.

A few hurdles to overcome 

As is usually the case, all this has come at some cost. From an increasing disparity among its ethnicities, an often over-bearing Government and recent distaste for skilled immigration, the city-state has some tough issues to address. Add to this its ageing population and rising regional competition from cities like Shanghai and Dubai, success is not as imminent as it once seemed.

Recent push back on immigration and PR approvals for qualified foreign nationals from certain countries has created uncertainty and risks upsetting the momentum that has been built up over the last decade. The last thing Singapore needs at this point is to catch the west’s economic malaise by restricting investors and entrepreneurs who want to build global businesses in the country.

Singapore’s tryst with destiny

As greater affluence and economic integration makes political divisions less relevant, Singapore has the opportunity to become a major center of entrepreneurial activity in Asia. Its efficient administration, cutting-edge infrastructure and access to international multi-lingual talent make it a safe-haven for entrepreneurs, from which to build regional and global businesses.

The IFC’s annual ‘Ease of doing business survey’ consistently ranks Singapore at the top. According to Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Teo Chee Hean, 5000+ new tech enterprises have been registered in Singapore every year since 2006 . He also shared that 61% of all enterprises survive for more than three years. These are impressive credentials!

It is often said that chaos breeds creativity. Asia as a whole should be a hotbed of creativity – and it is. However, a factor that is often ignored is that unsupported creativity often leads to failure. Creativity needs nurturing and support to turn it into something tangible. 

At the confluence of three powerful socio-economic spheres, Singapore seems to offer the perfect environment for great ideas to convert into great businesses. It remains to be seen if this small island will seize a historic opportunity and position itself as a crucible of great ideas and businesses for our region.


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Asia's Singapore — Ich bin ein Singaporean

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