Support for the best ideas can sometimes come from unexpected places. Some of the biggest tech companies in the world, including Google, HP and Cisco, found their footing in Silicon Valley thanks to Stanford research and funding.
Singapore plans to create more opportunities for partnerships within and outside of its local tech industry. “There’s a sensation that we’re not sufficiently coordinated. And we weren’t listening to the industry as a whole,” says Ang Chin Tah, Senior Vice President of Digital Industry Singapore (DISG).
Singapore formed DISG in 2019 as an answer to this gap. Ang shares its unique approach and lessons in nurturing homegrown tech companies.
Tap big tech for training
Countries can create a good business environment by engaging big tech firms to interact with local companies, Ang says. “We are seeing ample opportunity for these large bellwether companies to contribute to the tech ecosystem in Singapore,” he adds.
Singapore is partnering with big tech to train local talent. It launched the Google Skills Ignite Program, which aims to train 2400 individuals in digital skills ranging from digital marketing to cybersecurity.
Google will train another 4000 individuals and SMEs to bring their businesses online, under a joint programme with multinational bank UOB. Singapore also worked with SAP’s startup incubator to help local businesses reach Southeast Asia.
Local tech firms can help with training too. For example, Shopee is training 500 software developers, data analysts, UI and UX designers, as well as product managers.
This programme allows Shopee to meet its own staffing needs, as it gets first picks on potential hires. Ang’s team will work to connect more small companies with those who can offer support, he shares.
This partnership with tech firms will lead to a “very virtuous cycle”, Ang notes. The more talent Singapore trains, the more investments it will attract. This in turn draws more talents.
Experts call this the “tech ecosystem flywheel”, a concept borrowed from platform companies, he shares. “[The more you do], the faster the flywheel spins, the market will grow.”
Put tech and tech together
The tech industry needs a closer-knit network to help smaller players navigate the tech landscape. “In this sector, it’s not just about the knowhow. It’s also about the know who,” says Ang.
“The founders of the first generation China unicorns all know each other. What is our equivalent?” he adds.
This is a gap governments can’t fill: “we can’t tell entrepreneurs and engineers how to do their job better.” And the last thing businesses want is to have a “stuffy old bureaucrat” telling them what to do, Ang shares.
He sees the potential for DISG to connect leaders of global conglomerates and local firms. His team is looking into organising events and building a social graph to track how these relationships grow over time.
Connect tech with policymakers
As an advocate for tech companies to the government, DISG is in a good place to set up conversations between them.
It is working to put innovators in the same room as regulators to inform policies on data privacy, digital taxation, and content regulation, says Ang. This can also open conversations with foreign businesses to set up think tanks and research institutions in Singapore.
He sees this an important step for Singapore to become “a trusted regulator for all issues digital”, he shares.
“An international regime that’s based on technonationalism and contestation doesn’t help Singapore or the companies,” he explains. Singapore aims to keep discussion channels for tech policy open to ensure they remain in the conversation.
Singapore as a safe harbour for tech companies
This would allay one of two main concerns tech companies have, Ang says. First, technonationalism – where tech firms are being discriminated against based on the country they’re from – is on the rise.
This could crowd out space for innovation. The Covid-19 pandemic has also disrupted supply chains, leading to even more uncertainty in the international tech landscape.
“Singapore wants to establish ourselves as an innovative node that’s connected to other similar nodes”, he shares. Everyone from the US to London and China to Tel Aviv would be welcome to build tech on Singapore’s shores.
“This is actually us being very clear saying that we are a small nation, we need to interoperate,” he adds.
The second concern tech companies have is talent, both in attracting foreign talent and equipping locals. DISG has partnered with the education ministry, Workforce Singapore and the Infocomm Media Development Authority to provide on the job training for undergraduates.
Tech can only grow when there is intentional support and connection. This valuable lesson from big tech is helping Singapore develop its own tech industry. “We started with the hypothesis two years ago, and now we are convinced,” says Ang.