Singapore: From Trade Centre to Innovation Centre?

When I arrived in Singapore, I had just finished reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In this iconic 1931 novel, Huxley imagines a hyper-controlled future which blurs the line between utopia and dystopia. For those if you who have visited Singapore, you might understand why this was so resonant. The city-state is perhaps the closest thing we have to a real manifestation of these utopian sci-fi imaginings, with its gigantic artificial ‘Supertrees’, ultra-modern shopping malls with towering screens broadcasting beautiful smiling people, and exaggerated architectural structures like the Marina Bay Sands (a gigantic ship balanced on three skyscrapers) and the new Esplanade Theatre (like a pair of super-sized Durian fruits). And it isn’t just utopian in look, there is also the approach to governance in Singapore, which has been variously described as a ‘nanny state’ or a ‘benevolent dictatorship’.

Marina Bay Sands

So how does it fare on the utopian-dystopian scale? Pretty well by all accounts. Yes, there are a lot of signs reminding you what you can’t do, and warning of fines; but things work in Singapore, which is not something you can say of most of their Southeast Asian neighbours. The streets are clean, there are pavements and safe places to cross the road, there is a comprehensive and smooth-running metro system, and even the mosquitos that plague you everywhere else in the region seem to be under control. Most importantly, on the whole Singaporeans seem pretty happy with the situation – everyone I met with spoke highly of the government. The overwhelming feeling was: the country’s doing well and we have everything we need, so we’re happy to have a pretty controlling government because they’re doing a good job. Coming from a staunchly pro-democracy Western background, that can be a hard sentiment to listen to sometimes, but given the current political turmoil in the Western world, the argument certainly has some merit.

As an example, look at Singapore’s harmonious integration of multiple races, for it is an example of the nanny state acting for the greater good. Singapore is small and wealthy, and as such it’s a very expensive place to live. To counter this, the government supplies public housing, managed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Upwards of 80% of native Singaporeans live in these HDB apartments (which are of a much better quality than public housing in most countries). HDB housing is assigned based on a number of metrics, but one consideration is that each apartment block has a quota of different ethnic cultures, as dictated by the Ethnic Integration Policy, introduced in 1989. These quota restrictions ensure that the city doesn’t get divided into the ethnic enclaves that many large cities do, in order to promote ethic integration.

HDB apartment blocks Some of Singapore’s ubiquitous HDB blocks

But I am not here to ponder politics, my business is in the support of entrepreneurship and innovation. So how does the utopian vibe affect the startup ecosystem? The strict control by the government has led to low levels of corruption and well-structured policies designed to support business and encourage international investment. Singapore is a stable, safe and trusted brand for those looking to invest money in Southeast Asian businesses, including startups. For this reason, many startups from the neighbouring ASEAN countries (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will incorporate in Singapore to give themselves a better opportunity for securing foreign investment and international clients. The same goes for foreign startups wanted to either start a new business in the region or expand into the market. The tax system is simpler, the legislation more familiar, the economy steadier, than countries like Indonesia or Thailand.

And yet the actual market in Singapore is tiny – it is an island city-state after all – with a population of around 5.4 million, compared with 67 million in Thailand, and 250 million in Indonesia (the largest of the ASEAN markets). What Singapore provides is access. Access to one of the fastest growing market regions in the world, and one which has developed a rampant passion for mobile technology, e-commerce, and social media. Access has always been the key to Singapore’s success. It first became a powerhouse of the region in the 19th century, when the British turned the Singapore port into one of their key control points of the trade routes from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean, using its strategic position to oversee trade through the vital Straits of Malacca.

Singapore was built on its strength as a trade centre, and it is still one of the most significant trade ports in the world. But as we move into an increasingly digital era, can Singapore also become a trade point for technology and innovation? We’ve already discussed the benefits of Singapore as a business trade point, and the evidence is there to see, with towering skyscrapers bearing the name of the world’s largest banks, along with other conglomerates. For startups too, we’ve seen how it can be an excellent location to simultaneously benefit from ASEAN markets and international funding. Recently, the Singaporean government has expanded its ‘Block 71’ startup hub, into a sprawling collection of buildings known as ‘Launchpad’ – supposedly the densest startup cluster in the world.

Launchpad canteen Launchpad’s super cool food court

But what about innovation? Just because there are startups in Singapore, does that mean there is innovation? It’s an interesting question, and the answer, in this case, may be no. This is where you’re probably thinking, ‘ah, but what exactly is innovation?’, so let’s just go for the simple definition of ‘something new’. Startups in the ASEAN region (as in many other developing markets) have a general tendency to take existing successful business models and translate them to fit the local market. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, it’s an eminently sensible approach – why waste time reinventing something when you can simply tweak a proven formula?

Part of my research is to consider the inherent capability for innovation in different regions. When we look at Singapore, we see a pragmatic, efficient culture; one that trusts its government and is happy for it to make the decisions. While that may be a recipe for harmony, it is not a recipe for creativity and innovation. In fact, innovation often thrives on disharmony and destruction, as people are forced to find new ways to solve problems. It is the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl, and perhaps Singapore just isn’t gritty enough.

What’s also interesting is the attitude towards innovation. While in the West, we tend to put innovation and new things up on a shiny pedestal, many of the Singaporeans I spoke to just didn’t think it was important – what was important was bringing existing ideas over to benefit developing nations. In fact, innovation may be a waste of resources if there is already a perfectly good idea out there: pragmatic to the end. I didn’t encounter the same thinking in other ASEAN countries. In Thailand, for example, those working with startups lamented the trend for copying ideas and look forward to the day that their ecosystem is evolved enough to show the world how creative the Thai people can be.

And so, maybe Singapore will become the new port for innovation, just not its own. It has the opportunity to become the nursing area for the innovation of the ASEAN nations, helping them to connect to the wider world from the safety of a well-structured business environment. Perhaps Singapore can become the region’s incubator: a small market for a test-bed, while also co-ordinating the trade routes out across Asia and the world. And with this strange utopia for its innovation port, what a powerful region ASEAN could become.

Singapore's supertrees