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Growing Singapore’s Economy as a Tech Hub with Jacqueline Poh, Managing Director, Economic Development Board

Singapore has grown into one of the world’s most advanced economies in just five decades, actively updating pro-business policies to keep pace with global advancements. As a highly open economy dependent on international trade, the Southeast Asian economic powerhouse is frequently regarded as a bellwether of world growth.

Robust investment in the tech sector has aided the country’s development. According to the Global Data Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Projects Database, Singapore was the leading destination in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc for foreign investment in manufacturing, software and IT services in 2022. Semiconductors accounted for more than half of FDI, with 142 projects worth $8.2 billion in the first six months last year.

The country is continuing its efforts to be at the forefront of developing and adopting cutting-edge technology. Singapore launched the Smart Nation initiative in 2014 with one overarching goal: to support the development of people and businesses in an increasingly digital landscape. The initiative leverages developments in digital technologies to create seamless, tech-driven experiences.

Collaboration with businesses is critical to achieving the city-state’s goals. Enterprises with AI and data analytics capabilities, cybersecurity, immersive media, and the Internet of Things will be central to Singapore’s Smart Nation digital transformation.

Regulation, infrastructure, and people

Its commitment to development built on solid policies has allowed Singapore to grow into a regional – and now an increasingly global hub – for economic activity. And with a 60-year legacy, the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) is one of the drivers of this national transformation.

EDB has an established reputation for fostering economic vibrancy and relevance by attracting corporate or individual investors to use Singapore as a launchpad for their business ambitions in Asia and globally. The city-state has become a favoured location for major technology companies to establish their global or regional headquarters.

Jacqueline Poh, Managing Director of EDB, discussed the Singapore Government’s strategies for enhancing the nation’s appeal to global investment and technology development in an interview with Mohit Sagar, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of OpenGov Asia.

Jacqueline believes that one of the key factors contributing to Singapore’s success is its pro-business regulatory environment. The nation’s commitment to the rule of law ensures stability and predictability, which is highly attractive to businesses.

“Regulation in Singapore is extremely progressive and pushes the envelope. Tech companies are looking for a place that has facilitative regulation that allows data, for example, to flow and be analysed easily. Singapore does not have specific rules related to data residency. We want to be a data hub and a place where data analytics can be done without much hindrance.  We have also set up frameworks to both facilitate the development and use of AI and are thinking of ways in which to think about governance and ethical use of AI,” Jacqueline explains.

Additionally, Singapore’s robust infrastructure and talented workforce are crucial elements that support the nation’s continued growth and prosperity.

Infrastructure is critical for any country aspiring to become a tech-empowered powerhouse. Renowned for its excellent infrastructure and connectivity, Singapore is a top choice for companies looking for a reliable base. As a result, the city-state has emerged as a hub for submarine cables and data centres, with the widespread availability of high-speed wireless broadband access, including 5G and 4G networks.

The Singapore Government also promotes experimentation and innovation by establishing regulatory sandboxes to test new and innovative initiatives and technologies. These sandboxes allow for experimentation in a live environment, with guardrails to protect the public.

“We’ve got sandboxes in various areas. And one of the more famous ones is in fintech. For example, the Monetary Authority of Singapore has set up a sandbox for FinTech innovation over several years, resulting in some interesting developments and ventures that have gone on to do big things,” Jaqueline shares.

Leading technology companies offer exciting projects and the right scale to attract software developers, UI/UX designers, machine learning experts, and IoT specialists.

To attract talent and help companies build their A-team here, Singapore has introduced various employment passes and made the application process smoother and more transparent.

“If you’ve got enough of a base of people doing big and interesting things, they attract other people who want to learn from them and take part in that journey.  Cutting-edge projects can come from big tech companies or MNCs but we’re very proud to say that some of the tech startups we incubate are also working on interesting things,” says Jaqueline.

Southeast Asia is emerging as a digital innovation and startup hub for the world, given the region’s population of approximately 650 million, most of whom are under 35 years old. This demographic, combined with the region’s economic growth and increasing technology adoption, creates a conducive environment for digital innovation and startups to thrive.

As a result, Southeast Asia is attracting significant interest from investors and entrepreneurs worldwide, making it a hotspot for digital innovation and startups. However, with competing countries in the region, Singapore needs to ensure that it remains an attractive destination for top-tier talent by fostering an environment that supports innovation and growth.

Jacqueline and her team are also championing advanced manufacturing, which already has exciting developments in robotics and IoT. There are also interesting innovations in various technological fields, such as AI, cybersecurity, Web 3, and fintech. These areas present new opportunities for Singapore to remain at the forefront of technological innovation and attract top talent and leading technology companies.

“Another big emerging area for Southeast Asia is SaaS. There will be a lot of cloud computing solutions adoption and exciting developments in B2B SaaS over the next decade, says Jacqueline, adding that she is convinced there will be growth in this area amid the current slowdown in the global economy. Even though the tech sector globally is facing some current headwinds, its long-term prospects remain strong. Previous market corrections have also shown that some of the best and strongest companies emerge from within a down cycle.

With its conducive environment for digital innovation and startup growth, Singapore is well-positioned to take advantage of these developments and emerge as a leader in these emerging technological fields.

Technological advancements create exciting opportunities for small businesses. The availability of top talent, a supportive regulatory environment, and access to funding make Singapore an attractive destination for companies looking to capitalise on tech innovation and achieve long-term success.

LKYGBPC to refine the business

Jacqueline has been involved with the Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition (LKYGBPC) as a judge for some years. Her involvement with the competition demonstrates her commitment to fostering entrepreneurship and supporting the growth of startups in Singapore and beyond.

The LKYGBPC provides aspiring entrepreneurs and startups a platform to showcase their innovative ideas and gain exposure to investors, mentors, and industry experts.

She has been impressed by the high quality of submissions – from startups to post-revenue companies to businesses with fully-fledged minimum viable products evaluated in the marketplace. They reveal a level of maturity in terms of having a solid business plan and demonstrating a use case in real life, including finding a market for their product.

The competition provides an excellent opportunity for entrepreneurs and startups to refine and improve their business concepts and gain exposure to investors and industry experts who can provide valuable advice and support.

“It’s a great opportunity to get feedback from judges. And if you win, it’s a great opportunity for you to market your startup, your concept and your product,” she states emphatically.

In Southeast Asia, many issues need to be addressed, which present significant potential for entrepreneurship and innovation. Jacqueline believes that entrepreneurs should focus on developing products and services that solve real-world problems. By creating solutions to these problems, entrepreneurs can contribute to the digital economy in the region and have a positive impact on society.

Jacqueline’s emphasis on problem-solving highlights the importance of creating products and services that have a tangible impact on people’s lives. Entrepreneurs can create solutions that benefit society and drive sustainable growth and development.

“There are many problems to solve – digital payments, wealth management, asset management and investment insurance,” Jaqueline acknowledges. “Moreover, there is much potential in the sustainability space, particularly in carbon services, monitoring, verification, and reporting for carbon credits. With the Southeast Asia region’s growing focus on sustainability, entrepreneurs can develop innovative solutions to help address the pressing environmental challenges facing the world today.”

Jacqueline encourages more women to participate in the tech industry, knowing there is ample opportunity for them to contribute to both the engineering and non-engineering aspects of technology. As a prominent woman in tech herself, she recognises the value of diversity in the industry and the need to increase the representation of women in technology-related fields.

“Tech is everywhere. And that requires a whole range of skill sets. There’s a common misperception that tech means you need to be a software developer or a machine learning expert. If you’re interested in hardcore engineering, there are many places for you to be and very good job prospects, but tech is now a sort of broader concept. Tech needs soft skills,” she elaborates.

Jacqueline’s perspective highlights the value of diverse backgrounds and skill sets in the technology industry. At the top of the field, she says, quite a few CEOs come from non-engineering backgrounds, having studied History, Anthropology, English language and Literature.

This shows that doing well in the sector is not limited to individuals with just one type of educational background or expertise. There are many opportunities for people with different experiences and abilities to contribute to the growth and success of tech companies.

In addition, advanced technology like quantum and AI has far-reaching implications and requires technical skills and a broader understanding of governance, regulations, ethics, and other related areas. Jacqueline’s background in social science – she used to be an economist – has lent to her belief that it is essential to have individuals with diverse backgrounds and skill sets working together to ensure that these technologies are developed and used responsibly and ethically.

While technical expertise is crucial, the inclusion of social science and humanities backgrounds can provide a deeper understanding of the impact and implications of technology on society. It is essential to have a diverse and inclusive workforce that represents different backgrounds and experiences to drive inclusive and comprehensive innovation and success.


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