Singapore: An Emerging Bright Spot for Tech Business

Singapore has experienced stellar growth in the technology sector, and it is beyond a commercial centre today. Global tech companies have set up regional headquarters here and are steadily building industry-leading product and engineering teams, and homegrown companies are flourishing with Singapore as a springboard for the region.

But what truly makes Singapore an emerging hot spot for tech and businesses? How will this impact future jobs in the industry and what are the in-demand skills required of tech talents in the future economy? We chat with Chin Tah Ang, Vice President at Digital Industry Singapore (DISG) and Shiyan Koh, Managing Partner at Hustle Fund, to find out.

30 October 2020 / By SGN

Southeast Asia (SEA) alone has over 600 million consumers and an emerging middle class, much of them young and digital native – and Singapore is at the heart of all the action. As a bustling city-state with a rapidly evolving tech ecosystem, Singapore is fast becoming a hot spot for tech businesses to base at. 

Another key driver is the ongoing digitalisation of Singapore’s society and economy, says Chin Tah Ang, Vice President at Digital Industry Singapore (DISG). He shares that the pandemic has accelerated the permeation of digital services and adoption of tech, with more people and enterprises turning to online solutions to transact, work and entertain. 

Shiyan Koh, Managing Partner at Hustle Fund, shares the same sentiment that the pandemic has been a major accelerant of tech adoption. “I was thrilled that I could use my phone to buy lunch at a local hawker centre; without that push, I’m not sure we could have bent the curve on adoption as effectively,” she says. 

She is also a big believer in the potential of Southeast Asia’s ecosystem, and shares that the region’s macro factors (demographics, relative political stability, organic growth, mobile and internet penetration) create opportunities “for founders to build generationally defining businesses.”

Singapore as a Regional Tech Hub

A combination of government efforts – such as marketing, tax deals, ease of incorporation and more – have made Singapore a prime location for companies to headquarter operations at. Singapore’s diversity and ecosystem of mixed cultures coupled with the lack of language barriers have also been a convincing factor for global talents and businesses to base here. “The fact is that it’s just easier to convince people to move to Singapore – it feels more familiar here,” Shiyan says.

For companies wanting to set up base in Singapore, the fundamentals of the business landscape matter. “More than 80 of the top 100 digital and software companies have set up here and we won’t let up till we catch them all,” Chin Tah says. He and his team at DISG think of ways to make it easy for people and tech companies to connect and grow with Singapore. Their passion, he says, is to build a vibrant and diverse tech ecosystem here at home.

The Smart Nation initiative, which works towards a goal to make Singapore the world’s first smart nation by 2030, creates the underlying infrastructure over which companies and entrepreneurs can leverage on to further innovate. “The investments that the government has made into national payment protocols, digital identity, island-wide sensor networks, and understanding the citizen journey throughout our lives not only directly help companies and individuals to be more productive, but enables companies to build new tech and business models,” he says.

One of the key ideas behind this agenda, according to Chin Tah, is to “send out a rallying cry to engineers, entrepreneurs and enterprises from all over to help solve big problems in healthcare, education, finance, logistics and security.” This will spur opportunities to create new solutions and innovations that can meet with Singapore’s needs and ultimately be exported to the wider region. 

Knowledge Versus Skills: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Chin Tah, who started out in Economic Development Board’s (EDB) healthcare and biotech practice, moved to Sao Paulo to start up EDB’s South American office before relocating to New York. He returned to Singapore after 6 years abroad into a policy role, where the focus was making sure enterprises could bring in the right talent for their businesses. In many ways, he continues to do that in DISG, as he believes that talent is a how tech companies compete, and the most crucial component of Singapore’s tech ecosystem.

“The ability to translate legacy processes into new modern, internet-enabled workflows is hugely valuable today,” Shiyan says. To stay relevant to the job and skill demands of today, talents will have to be open to continual learning and proactive tinkering – which includes skilling up with soft skills and domain expertise at different points in one’s career. 

“Soft skills, skills of empathy, skills more related to the right-brain, such as design and storytelling will feature strongly in a sector and a world that’s increasingly fast-paced,” Chin Tah says. 

In Singapore, there is an increasing number of people who have made mid-career switches into digital industries. “We’ve met with individuals who have come from a banking background trying their hand at managing digital payment products for the region – the fit has been great, and the experience, they say, has been a refreshing and dramatic departure from their previous jobs. I also know someone who used to run an advanced manufacturing line who now heads up the AI technical team for, of all things, a games company,” Chin Tah says.

DISG anticipates the creation of over 30,000 roles in the sector over the next few years, of which half are not technical in nature. Chin Tah reckons that these jobs would be catalytic in helping Singapore transition into a “bona fide tech hub that builds cool products for the region and the world.” These run the gamut from the technical to the commercial, and include roles in data analytics,software engineering, product management, UI/UX design, regional commercial operations, business development, finance, and human resource.

With Great Talent Comes Great Opportunities 

Shiyan’s first exposure to technology was as a summer intern writing technical documentation for a small 30 person startup (today, publicly traded NASDAQ: TNAV) She worked in a series of finance and investing roles (JPMorgan, Institutional Venture Partners, Bridgewater Associates) before joining NerdWallet as employee #10.  Over the course of six years at NerdWallet, she led product teams, ran business operations and corporate development, and helped grow the company from $1M to $150M in revenue. Shiyan returned to Singapore in 2018 to start Hustle Fund’s Southeast Asian investing practice. 

Part of DISG’s efforts of building Singapore’s growing tech ecosystem is to connect the right talents with the right opportunities. This includes working alongside companies to create regional rotational programmes that expose Singaporeans to the wider market and build a deeper talent bench.

The DISG team also actively speaks with individuals who are interested in making a career switch to the tech sector or who have recently arrived in Singapore. “They were both looking to plug into the community, to understand the lay of the land, make friends, find mentors and opportunities,” Chin Tah says. 

In Singapore, there is an influx of talents from different communities across the Valley, Southeast Asia, Hangzhou, and New York, and Shiyan shares that issues of socioeconomic equality and opportunity will have to be addressed as the tech ecosystem continues to grow. One way to go about it, she thinks, is to find solutions that help us to be less transactional with foreign talent and to think of ways to absorb talents who truly want to be part of the Singapore story into our community. 

Additionally, the DISG office has developed their own social map of individuals, identified the gaps within the broader Singapore tech network, and are now working with community builders like Singapore Global Network (SGN) to bridge connections with content and events.

“Singapore’s own experience with the tech sector has been a learning journey, and we want to continue to grow, adapt, evolve as the world changes. I’d like to warmly invite you to visit virtually, for now, and check it out for yourselves,” Chin Tah says. 


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