I avoided Singapore for so many years. I had always seen it as a sleepy town with ridiculous gum laws. I felt there was no need for a regional hub for Asia when the countries in the region had such different market dynamics and culture. At the same time, I spent many years studying and working in China and traveling Asia, and I got tired of watching entrepreneurs use Chinese culture as a proxy for a business model, where translating a Web service to China was more important than starting from scratch and innovating a new user experience.
Last week, when I was preparing for my first trip to Singapore, I found myself warming to Singapore’s strategic location and the idea of it being a place for entrepreneurs to unlock opportunities in its uber-growth neighboring countries. I had no idea how I would test that hypothesis, but rather than sift through economic journals, before I left NYC I watched Anthony Bourdain’s Singapore episode on Netflix (thanks for the rec Michael Hynd).
That episode gave me a peek at a successful, if low-tech platform called “hawker food centers.” Singaporean hawker centers are large un-airconditioned areas of dedicated city real estate where high quality, cheap food is served from an unbelievablly tightly-packed stalls. Types of food served include Chinese, Malay, Indian, Thai, and Vietnamese. Singaporeans have no qualms using spices and sauces from different cultures on their dishes, and those dishes that support the most experimentation, e.g. Chicken Rice, are the big winners. That simple dash of creativity in mixing cultures in a public space was my first hint that despite its nanny-ist nature, Singaporeans might have the type of culturally agnostic aspirations that are key to entrepreneurial societies.
Most people think about Singapore in comparison to Hong Kong. Americans have scoffed at Singapore, because it is not as economically laissez faire as Hong Kong. The city models of Singapore vs. Hong Kong will be argued for many years to come, and I even took a class comparing the cities at Booth, but direct comparisons can be dangerous.
In particular focusing too much on population stats in each city is not the way to gauge the power of an entrepreneurship hub. Hamish mentioned in his post about Hong Kong that there are 1.8 cellphones per person in the city. Similarly, Singapore has had the most iPhones per capita since 2010. In a region like APAC, where there are flyover countries instead of flyover states (yes I look at Asia like a New Yorker, and I’m sorry Cambodia), cities take on a much stronger role in the startup ecosystem in that they most influence behavior in the neighboring territories. Rather than look at access to natural resources or whether a city is a financial center, today cities are looked at as to whether they are places where the best ideas come from, and if those ideas can become hot enough to engender new behavior elsewhere.
Singapore’s only identity is as a city, and cities as entrepreneurship hubs are the trend. For instance, they say Silicon Valley is “moving to SF”. NYC’s Mayor of Mayors, Michael Bloomberg has been trotting around to places like Singapore of late as he attempts to create a ‘web’ of supermetropolis mayors to empower cities to trade ideas. The tech world has its own mayors, and for Asia in particular I’m talking about Richard Robinson of Beijing and Ben Joffe of Singapore.
I saw Ben last Monday at Echelon right after he judged startup rounds at Startup Asia Jakarta. I also noticed that Richard Robinson was moderating at Startup Asia, the same role he had at TechCrunch Disrupt Beijing at the end of last year. Those tech mayors are introducing the world to new innovators in unlikely places. At Echelon, Startup Asia, and TechCrunch Disrupt Beijing there were a good number of copycat ideas. But to be fair, there are still some from time to time at the NY Tech meetup. If Singapore is going to be the hub for Asia, its nanny-state tendencies can actually help, as there’s a need for regional tech blog coverage to stamp out excitement about copycat startups in each Asian market.
Historically, Singapore built its position in the world on trade winds. When the trade winds blew in from China, the city would be filled with Chinese, and similarly when the monsoons changed the winds to come in from the Indian Ocean, Indians were the main event. Today, Singapore still benefits from those shifts in the market. If you talk to the foreigners in Singapore right now they say that they used to focus a lot on China. Now they say you can forget China, all the new business is coming from Jakarta where it is much easier to get deals done, where Web and mobile growth is spectacular. They generally lament that they are not spending enough time cultivating business in India. The inversely correlated growth in each market means it’s always hot in Singapore.
Of course hope can turn to romance, and Singapore’s position can be overstated. On my way home, I read a New York Times article about Singaporean activism that implied Singapore is becoming a more politically open society, but the truth is that I have no idea if that’s really the case. The New York Times is famous for blowing up small stories that show a hopeful view of democracy in an otherwise undemocratic pocket of the world. Similarly just because Singapore has a mercantilist venture capital community that is always trying to push the ecosystem forward, it may not be the case that it is making Singapore into the Valley of Asia.
In the past Singapore has looked to first world markets for investments, and it has invested in many US and EU startups, mine included. But now it is reaching into those three big “local” markets to which it has cultural ties, India, Indonesia, and China. For example, a Singapore-based entrepreneurship society called ACE opened up a chapter in Beijing last week. What would be interesting to me is to see who the new tech mayors are from Singapore and whether they are having any luck exporting a Singapore brand of entrepreneurship, just as Golden Gate Ventures’ Vinnie Lauria has been able to bring the lustre of Silicon Valley to Singapore.
For any city that considers itself part of the world of entrepreneurship, the fundamental question is whether it can turn up the heat such that the new behavior your companies create influences the rest of the world. If there’s a city that knows how to handle the heat, it’s this one.