5 cities in 5 years, but Singapore will always be home

A whirlwind career has taken Lionel Sim further and further away from home, but he believes his openness and resilience as a Singaporean have positioned him well for the global stage.

By SGN | 10 Oct 2022

Not being able to attend a local university was disheartening for Lionel, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. 

At the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS), he earned an external degree in hospitality, emerging valedictorian of a global cohort of 5000 students. More importantly, his horizons were broadened as he interacted with classmates from Indonesia, China, Europe, and beyond. 

Those interactions seeded a latent desire in him to work and experience life overseas.

Starting his journey abroad

After e-commerce and digital marketing stints in hospitality and consumer electronics, Lionel’s career took an entrepreneurial turn in his late-20s when he co-founded a startup specialising in sleep-tracking technology. 

On a networking trip to Hong Kong, he ended up staying longer than intended, and later moved on to a second venture in consulting software. Roughly a year later, he moved to Guangzhou to join the tech sector. 

“That period really opened my eyes to the tech scene and digital ecosystem in China,” he says. “The domestic market is huge, and it’s made up of so many different cities and regions.” 

Lionel initially found it tough navigating the intricacies of local culture, and he had to take lessons to brush up on his Mandarin. Thankfully, with the guidance of many Singaporeans in Guangzhou, he came to understand the city and its cultural nuances, including the importance of guanxi.

Lionel speaking at the Global Luxury Digital Innovation Summit 2019 in Paris.

Each move doesn’t get easier

Within the last four years, Lionel has had to relocate thrice more – to Beijing, Sydney and New York City. One may assume that he has become quite a seasoned nomad, but he says each move doesn’t get any easier. 

“I’m someone who is very grounded,” he shares. “I like to make lots of friends and real connections. And whenever I move, I feel like there are things I need to give up.” 

What helps is his love of bustling metropolises and meeting a colourful diversity of people from all parts of the world. When relocating, Lionel counts on some of these connections to ease into life in the new city. 

In New York, where he has been based for just over a year now, he gets excited about the top-notch talent pool and being able to interact with brilliant minds in various fields, be it design, technology, finance, or digital marketing. “I want to learn from the best, so I can continue to challenge myself to be better,” he says.

Lionel with a delegation from Enterprise Singapore visiting New York.

Singapore will always be home

As he settles into a city, one of Lionel’s top priorities is to secure a connection to home. This includes linking up with Singaporean friends and joining overseas Singaporean communities. Hunting for Singaporean food is a must as well – even if the laksa, nasi lemak or chicken rice is a tad overpriced. 

“My home will always be Singapore,” he says. “Whenever I’m in a new city, I make sure that I get connected to Singapore in whatever way I can.” 

Back in China, for instance, he stayed in touch through WeChat with the Singaporean community, who helped to assign him a mentor and a buddy. Similarly in New York, Singaporeans actively meet up at events and communicate through channels like Telegram and Slack. Lionel says the strength of their connectedness even makes some of his friends of other nationalities a little envious. 

Without a doubt, the most important connection for Lionel is the one to his parents, who have been a pillar of unwavering support throughout the career of their only child. He cites his father as a strong role model of strength and resilience, traits he continues to embody in his ongoing battle with cancer. 

When Lionel was younger, his father ran a niche business in the construction industry, clearing graves and exhuming bodies for cremation. He too had dreams of venturing abroad, but never the opportunity. Now that Lionel is travelling and seeing the world, he is in a way realising his father’s dreams and doing his family proud.

Lionel’s travels around the United States have included visits to (left) Miami and (right) Harvard University in Massachusetts.

The unique strengths of Singaporeans

A particularly enriching aspect of relocation, Lionel says, is understanding a city’s culture, learning new customs, and respecting belief systems that differ from his. “After living in so many cities, I’ve become more adaptable and less judgmental.” 

He believes that Singaporeans possess a unique openness to other cultures that positions them well for a global career. This advantage derives from growing up in a plural society, one where multiple languages are spoken and friends and neighbours are of various ethnicities. 

“I’ve been in China and the US, the two biggest economies in the world. And I think as a Singaporean, our strength lies in our ability to bridge the east and the west,” he remarks. “We are a small city that understands what’s happening in the world.” 

What also puts Singaporeans at ease in the world, Lionel notes, is their resilience, which he attributes to Singapore’s roots as a small island nation that has successfully emerged on the world stage. “Here in New York, I’ve met so many impressive, enterprising Singaporeans who push their limits and pursue their passions.”

Lionel shared about his journey in tech with students of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore.

His epic adventures continue

Through sharing his experiences, Lionel hopes to inspire young Singaporeans to find the courage to venture out into the world, whether it’s to explore career opportunities or to go on a student exchange. 

“Just go for it. Remember the things that make Singaporeans special: our resilience, our adaptability,” he says. “And know that you’re not alone. I’m always so grateful for the support of Singaporeans I can count on wherever I go, and I want to make sure that I pay it forward.” 

Lionel himself is not quite done exploring the possibilities the world has to offer. And when he finds someone to settle down with, he knows it will be someone adventurous, who enjoys meeting people and experiencing cultures as much as he does. 

“I hope that when I’m 60 or 65, I will have friends in all parts of the world that I can connect with,” he says. “And I will tell my grandchildren the story of how I travelled around the world with two suitcases. 

“It’s going to be an epic story.”

About Lionel

Based in New York City, Lionel is a global tech professional who has worked at leading companies such as Apple, Tencent and TikTok. He was named one of Ad Age’s 40 Under 40 in 2021 and is a strong believer in cross-cultural leadership, having lived and worked in Singapore, Japan, China, Australia and the US. 

Connect with him here.

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