Is small Singapore a good test bed for new technologies?

OVER the last eight years, I've been lucky enough to see Singapore's evolving landscape as a test bed for new technologies. Earlier this year, I started a venture developing and investing in companies in Smart City technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT).

As the innovation enabler of private investment firm Marvelstone Group, I've been impressed by Singapore's remarkable ability to attract and nurture some of the best entrepreneurs and tech innovation from around the globe.

Lately, I noticed there has been a growing debate about whether Singapore is an ideal test bed for new technologies. It's my view that while no individual market can ever take the title of being the perfect test bed for innovation, Singapore deserves to be recognised as one of best in the world.

"Too small" complex

During my time living in Singapore and studying the city as a foreigner, I've observed that Singaporeans often suffer from a "too small" complex. By this, I mean that Singaporeans tend to underestimate what they are capable of achieving - now and in the future.

Of course, in terms of population and size, Singapore is indeed small. But in terms of the impact it has on the global community, it is already bigger than many countries.

I should remind Singaporeans that your nation has been a successful startup for the last 70 years. What this means is that you don't need to look for your entrepreneurship DNA outside yourselves - it's already a part of who you are.

Innovation does not require lots of people. To be a leading technology and innovation hub doesn't require lots of people or land. It requires focus. Singapore's vision and impact has always gone beyond its physical size.

In any case, size is a comparative thing. Insecurities about domestic market size are historically also a challenge for countries like South Korea and Taiwan, especially when compared to a bigger neighbour like Japan. Though these two countries are 5-10 times bigger than Singapore in population terms, they were still never big enough to enjoy growth spearheaded by domestic consumption.

Leaning on our strengths

In March, Singapore topped a ranking of more than 200 cities around the world for the best infrastructure, according to consulting firm Mercer's annual ranking.

As a financial hub, it's become so attractive that cybercriminals consider it a top global target - a worrying trend that is thankfully driving rapid innovation in cybersecurity to help businesses galvanise against these very threats.

The government's support for young, innovative companies was this month further evidenced by its decision to establish an umbrella brand called Startup SG to unify support schemes for startups. Meanwhile, bodies such as SGInnovate continue to do great work in helping local entrepreneurs leverage science to build incredible tech.

And while some might criticise Singapore's startup ecosystem as being too driven by the government, we need to remember that very few countries boost entrepreneurship successfully without aggressive government support.

The best of East and West

Singapore's business, regulatory, and legal environments are a near-perfect melting pot where East meets West. It enjoys great access to the wider region of more than 600 million people - mostly in emerging markets - while at the same time being recognised a global English-language financial capital alongside the likes of New York and London.

A World Bank report from last year noted: "It takes an entrepreneur just over six working days to get a new business going in Singapore, with low startup costs. Overall, taking into account other factors, including business licensing, taxes, credit legal rights and investor protection, Singapore has about the most business-friendly regulation in the world."

The cherry on top is a world-class education system that is starting to produce fantastic IT and tech talent. Recently announced tweaks such as the expansion of aptitude-based admissions and the extension of subject-based banding in schools are examples of how future entrepreneurs are being encouraged to pursue their passions and talents.

Singapore's biggest asset: its people

I sometimes do fear the new generation does not show the same levels of hunger as the one that preceded them. That desperation to succeed has, in some cases, been swapped out for a comfortably numb existence. Indeed, life in Singapore for today's university graduates is far from the struggle it once was.

But I don't think we can easily increase the level of hunger of the new generation. We cannot create artificial struggle just to make them hungry. The only solution is to motivate and inspire them relentlessly.

A few years ago while working with an Israeli VC, I was impressed by how Israel became a startup nation under such disadvantageous conditions. Though its size is not much bigger than Singapore's (8.2 million versus 5.8 million), its overall geopolitical environment posed far greater challenges. Today, there are 93 Israeli companies listed on the Nasdaq (versus 128 Chinese companies). For a small country, Israel's influence on the global startup scene has been tremendous.

It's true that Singapore's youth of today are still struggling to identify their business role models and globally recognised consumer brands. But that's starting to change with a new wave of brilliant entrepreneurs and startups, and the recognition that Singapore is itself a startup success story.

Moving forward, Singapore needs to focus on what it does best: its world-class financial services sector and infrastructure that lends itself so effortlessly to the testing of fintech, AI, and IoT technologies. It shouldn't worry about its perceived smallness versus other markets.

The city is fast transforming into a nation of entrepreneurs capable of packing a big punch on the world innovation stage. I see no reason why it won't go from strength to strength as a test bed of the technologies of the future.

  • The writer is CEO of Marvelstone Ventures.