This article runs in collaboration with Makan For Hope, a non-profit initiative by Asia Startup Network. The Makan For Hope Festival brings together notable mentors and aspiring entrepreneurs in 30 meaningful virtual conversations over food to raise S$125,000 for Fei-Yue to support the children and seniors from low-income families.
A few traits come to mind whenever you consider the success of the Silicon Valley ecosystem: be it the steady flow of entrepreneurs, a pipeline of brilliant tech minds or groundbreaking research that flows out from the neighbouring top universities, or easy access to a saturated pool of wealthy investors and funds.
During one of 30 Makan For Hope Festival sessions, hosted by Kuo-Yi Lim, Co-founder and Managing Partner at Monk’s Hill Ventures, a group of us gathered to discuss whether Singapore was set on its path to becoming the Silicon Valley (SV) of Asia. The question at hand has also been discussed by those beyond our shores, such as a 2020 article in Techcrunch that stated that Singapore is poised to become the next Silicon Valley.
Indeed, Singapore shares quite a few similarities with SV, while boasting our own unique advantages in the region, such as:
- Over 4,000 tech-enabled startups, a handful of unicorns and aspiring unicorns, and, over 100 accelerators and incubators, as shared in a PWC report
- High quality education institutes churning out top-notch talents
- A growing number of VC funds within the startup ecosystem – with 45 new funds authorized in 2019 alone!
- A myriad of big tech companies packed together, which provides the startup ecosystem with mentorship and early funding opportunities.
- A long-standing track record as a leader in venture capital investments, drawing in four billion dollars and accounting for well over half the total aggregate value of deals in the Asean region, in 2020
- And, strong governmental support with close to a third of a billion dollars set aside to grow the ecosystem
At present, Singapore is clearly the frontrunner within Southeast Asia. Still, what would it take for us to secure its position as Asia’s Silicon Valley?
On August 9, we turned yet another year older as a nation. I am reminded of Prime Minister Lee’s words years back, at the National Day Rally 2016:
“What I would like to have is that we are blessed with divine discontent. Always not being quite satisfied with what we have, always driven to do better. At the same time, we have the wisdom to count our blessings, so that we know how precious Singapore is, and we know how to enjoy it and to protect it.”
Let us take a moment to look back at how much our startup ecosystem has developed, and plot out what our path ahead could look like.
While the government has done a remarkable job, it may need to place more ambitious bets to bring us to the next level
Our host for this session, Kuo-Yi, shared that the government had indeed played an outsized role for Singaporean startup ecosystem to arrive at where it is today. He credited the government’s patience and willingness to focus on the long term goal— something that may be hard for many other countries which require short-term tangible results to justify their investment into the startup ecosystem.
The government has also continued to support startups, through providing grants to entrepreneurs, such as the S$50,000 SG Founder Grant. However, given the high hiring and living costs in Singapore, Nigel Lim, CEO of Payboy, quipped that perhaps the government could consider writing larger cheques to enable entrepreneurs to cope better with the startup costs. Elise Tan, founder of Asia Startup Network, added that along with the larger grant amount, there could also be more dedicated mentorship support, as well as measurable milestones to keep these expenses in check.
While we have an undeniably well-educated workforce, mindsets and cultures need to shift to encourage Singaporeans to take more risks
Yiping Goh, Partner at Quest Ventures, reminded us that Singapore already had a high level of academic excellence – for example, other countries are often intimidated by Singapore’s Mathematical rankings, O and A level scores, or, when Singaporean students take classes in Western universities! Yet, this constant strive for academic excellence might just be Singaporean’s own stumbling block – do we dare to take risks, make mistakes and startup, or will we be held back by our own fear of failure?
Kuo-Yi also mentioned that Singaporeans tended to be overly fixated on linear career pathways, beginning from the time we start schooling. In fact, as a product of the system, he had studied to become a doctor initially, just like most of his friends – a decision that was made when he was only 12 years old! Yet, he argued, that the world is never linear. We live in societies that are in constant flux and most people in other countries actually have non-linear career paths.
To that end, Sanjay Gujral, Chairman at the Singapore Venture Capital & Private Equity Association (SVCA), encouraged Singaporeans to try and study or work overseas for at least a couple of years, as the exposure will add a differentiated world view as compared with the relative certainty and efficiency that Singapore provides.
While our educational institutions are pedagogically robust, we need to empower people to broaden their horizons and establish crucial networks beyond the island
Yiping added that, after all, going to school was not just about getting educated. It was also a lot about being in a tightly knitted community and network. In institutions such as Stanford, Harvard, INSEAD, Tsinghua, one gets more than just classes, but also an affiliation to its strong alumni network that often accords trust to its members.
These institutions also churn out many incredibly successful alumni that tended to give back to their schools too. She shared about the US-effect or China-effect, where a few extremely high-achieving entrepreneurs would not just do well themselves, but be effective in inspiring those within their own alma mater and country. To that end, she suggested the need to push Singaporeans to go overseas to broaden their networks, and for local universities to build a culture of a tight knitted alumni community that seeks to help each other and to give back.
Moving ahead, programmes such as National University of Singapore Overseas College Program or Singapore Management University’s Global Innovation Immersion would be crucial in enabling Singaporean students to broaden their horizons and networks in meaningful ways. At the same time, we need to gear these students sent abroad with the necessary networking skills to make those few months count.
All in all, how close is our startup ecosystem to becoming Asia’s Silicon Valley?
At present, according to The Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2020 by Startup Genome, Singapore was ranked 17th place, trailing behind Beijing (4th), Shanghai (8th), and Tokyo (15th). Our ecosystem is valued at US$21 billion – in contrast, Beijing’s ecosystem is valued at ~16.4x greater, at US$345 billion.
Without a doubt, Singapore loses out by the sheer size of our population and corresponding talent pool. Ye, our strong and open business environment, coupled with our commitment to fair and safe innovation … might just be our winning edge.
After all, one would not need to look too far into the past to see the opposite scenario play out, such as when Jack Ma’s declaration that “we cannot regulate the future with yesterday’s means” crossed the Community part and led to governmental regulations being thrown his way.
In this case, could Singapore be seen as the more predictable, safer and thus more reliable alternative moving ahead? An irony that the very traits that stifle personal risk-taking that we need to address as a culture, is the very reason why we might just retain our cutting-edge position in the world.
While much remains to be done for Singapore, the future sure looks promising!
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Image Credit: trongnguyen
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