ICYMI: Singapore Tech Forum 2020

The third edition of the Singapore Tech Forum took place from 17th – 20th November 2020. This year’s forum was held virtually with short sessions and panels featuring top movers and shakers in tech, business and politics from around the world to share their insights on Singapore’s and the region’s tech ecosystem. In case you missed it, we recap on some of the highlights that happened during the event.

By SGN | 27 Nov 2020

“In Singapore particularly, [tech] is an area where we have a natural strength if we put our minds to it. If we can get it into our systems – not just individual apps and programmes, but get it fully into our Government, into the private sector, into the way we operate and live, then it can be an enduring advantage for Singapore.” – Prime Minister Lee

Singapore is an entrepot between the east and the west, and the country is also well-situated in the middle of the region’s rapid tech expansion. This year’s edition of the #SGTechForum featured a stellar line-up of the region’s top tech leaders and talents who discussed and gave unfiltered insights of our booming tech ecosystem. 

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong kickstarted the event, sharing Singapore’s efforts in developing its tech ecosystem, and spoke of how technology has risen through the ranks to become central to the nation’s COVID-19 response and how it impacted the government’s work. 

Product Spotlight: Tech That Makes an Impact

Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Chief Digital Technology Officer & Deputy Chief Executive at Government Technology Agency(GovTech) shared Singapore’s plans to build a digital government. He highlighted that scaling up digitally requires the right conditions: having strong leadership that aligns with national agenda, building a strong tech culture with a sense of purpose, and policing on data governance, compliance and security. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a driver for digital adoption and spurred the GovTech team to create meaningful products to equip the nation and combat the pandemic together. This included collaborative efforts to create digital products that prevent the spread, manage crowds and distribution, and to support the community. 

Li Hongyi, Director of Open Government Products at GovTech Singapore, talked about his experimental team of engineers, designers and data scientists who build technology for the public good. 

The team aims to create impactful digital products and improve reliability and security in a cost-effective and efficient manner. They have achieved quite the feat with the launch of Go.gov.sg, which protects against phishing attacks; and Isomer, a standard website template and hosting system that reduced downtime by 100 times and increased overall cost-efficiency. 

Opportunities to create products for the public good has crossed into the private sector as well. Nigel Teo, Founder of GoodHood.SG, spoke about his hyperlocal social network that aimed to realise Singapore’s “kampung spirit” rooted in neighbourliness and connectedness in the digital space. He explained that the increasingly insular society – lesser social support from friends and increased loneliness – Singapore faces today highlights the need for community to boost social health.  

Centring Government and Business Actions in the Tech Sector around Values and Purpose

The fireside chat with Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Senior Minister, and Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce centred on building an inclusive future with tech at its core. Focusing on how today’s workplace culture can strive for better equality, Marc highlighted that the world is facing a global health, economic and environmental crisis, stressing that there is an ongoing “crisis of equality” in the global workplace. However, Marc shared that the pandemic could be a “great reset” for a new, more compassionate, and fair capitalism. 

SM Tharman agreed that economic objectives should not be separate from social objectives. He said there are still significant work plans to “upskill people and help them to take opportunities and move up”, and this will be integral in creating more competitive companies and a better society.”If everyone does the responsible thing, and if you do it across industry clusters, you end up with a spiral that moves up for the entire workforce,” he added.

Singapore can be a model of a country that has women in the tech sector, said SM Tharman, adding that the government is making a conscious effort to develop role models and mentorship schemes for women in this space. Efforts include the SG Women In Techinitiative by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and an increased number of companies having dedicated schemes to hire and develop women in the tech space. 

“The world of engineering is changing. It’s now knowledge and data. I think it’s a very exciting opportunity for women, but we need a very conscious effort to make that a norm, develop the role models, develop the mentorship schemes. That’s a responsibility of government, of educational institutions, of corporates, and of community,” SM Tharman says.

Building A World Class Workplace Culture

In the #unfiltered sessions on the final day, Junxu Lye, Chief Product Officer and Partner at Endowus, said that workplace and engineering culture norms are evolving very quickly in Singapore, but argues that hierarchy is taken too seriously in the nation’s work culture. “In Singapore, sometimes you have to justify and educate and bring people along the process. Empowerment is essential to break through this hierarchy,” Junxu remarks. 

Panellists compared workplace cultures, leadership styles and tech talent in the east and west.

Heng Hong Lee, Director Engineering at Xfers, also commented that workplace culture in Singapore is very high-touch – where we would often seek to get the team’s involvement before agreeing on something – and that the industry would need to make a more conscious effort to get people together. To drum up Singapore’s tech ecosystem, he highlighted talents would require three key attributes – strong work ethics, great expertise and skillsets, and a strong sense of humility and helpfulness to gel well in a team setting. 

Singapore: A Place Where Talent and Start-Ups Scale Up

Gillian Tee, CEO and Co-founder of Homage, shared that she saw an inflection point in Southeast Asia (SEA) where there is a “huge exponential growth in the start-up ecosystem.” She said: “There are a lot of opportunities to create value and become market leaders across categories and consumer verticals.” 

Panellists shared their journey on moving or returning to Singapore to start and scale up their businesses.

Gillian also shared that companies in SEA have experienced eight times growth and predicts that in the next five years, companies will graduate from this growth stage. “There are going to be companies from China, India, Japan and South Korea looking at SEA with a lot of interest. We are seeing a huge group of growth companies emerging here, with a significant number of unicorns coming from this region – and we are just only getting started,” she said. 

Prithvi Rai, Founder and CEO of borneo, added that finding good talent in the region can be challenging as the talent pool of senior tech talent is small and competitive – hinting at the need for more talents in the sector. The privacy management platform bridges this talent gap by using a mix-and-match approach, of matching a steam of tactical candidates from the local talent pool with foreign talents, when building its team. 

Prime Minister Lee said: “[Singaporeans] have got to see the tech companies as bringing in expertise and experience, [and] building up the industry and capabilities so that our own people can learn from them, upgrade themselves and eventually build up our own talent pool.” Photo Credit: Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore

This echoed the same sentiments shared by PM Lee during his keynote. He shared that even as Singapore’s local tech talent pool grows, the nation will have to bring in foreign professionals at mid- to senior levels to build world-class teams, grow the industry and tackle urgent problems. PM Lee also says that while Singapore has a supportive environment for technology in terms of its infrastructure, talent is key. Onboarding foreign professionals, he says, will help to create a virtuous circle by expanding Singapore’s talent pool and strengthening the nation’s tech ecosystem.

Thank you for being a part of our 7,000 strong crowd, at our very first fully virtual Singapore Tech Forum experience! It has been four days of candid discussions and meaningful connections made. For those who were able to join us, we hope you’ve gained valuable insights into the future of tech in Singapore and Southeast Asia. And, for those you might have missed it, do sign up with us for first dibs on events like these in future!

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