Hey Singapore, the future is in our own backyard.

//This post was first published 18/07/19 on the author’s personal blog, awayintent.me//

Growing up, I was a kid in love with ideas and stories. Having kiddos perpetually glued to a screen wasn’t in fashion then, and every Sunday at Grandma’s I would take a hula hoop, pretend it was a magic school-bus, and take my younger cousins on field trips to make-believe realms filled with all sorts of oddities. In primary school, I created a fantasy role-playing game and got my classmates to become knights and mages for a year using nothing more than a 2B pencil, a jotter book and my vivid imagination. Every single occupation I aspired towards – archaeologist, historian, diplomat, writer – was about, in some sense, telling great stories.

Singapore has told the world a great story, and as much as I detest the heat and the crowds at home, I am still very much addicted to this read. But as young Singaporeans like myself continue the narrative, I wonder if all the trappings of a great story have left us blindsided to the reality of what’s going on, just next door.

From lack of democratic practices and press freedom to a politically sterile society of automatons, we are no strangers to critique, both justified or otherwise. But an article that was recently published by Rice Media really struck a chord with me. Beyond the stereotypes of cheap food and same-old tourist hotspots, Southeast Asia doesn’t quite excite the average Singaporean. Yet, this a region that is:

  • primed to become the 4th largest regional economy in the world by 2030
  • exploding with ideas, as seen by the number of startups sprouting all over the region. According to e27’s 2018 Startup Ecosystem Report, 1592 startups were created in Malaysia, 449 startups were created in the Philippines, 2089 startups were created in Singapore, 847 startups were created in Indonesia and 336 startups were created in Vietnam, in 2018 alone!
  • has one of the youngest populations in the world (with the exception of Singapore and Malaysia)
  • also at the crossroads of global economic and political trade winds.

When 8 out of 18 of the world’s best performing economies are found in the region and the impression most Singaporeans have are “dilapidated” and “backwards”,  we’re clearly dealing with a serious disconnect here. Why Singaporeans seem to have such a “backwards” perception of a region that is ironically not “backwards” has been debated to death, and changing perceptions is obviously going to take more than just a lengthy argumentative essay.

” a society which holds meritocracy as its sole yardstick nonetheless has failed to show innovation and entrepreneurial zeal.” 

Perhaps that “backwards” perception really stems from an entrenched aversion to risk. At home, we enjoy political and economic stability, and everyone simply aspires to a comfortable, material living standard. As a recent article by Tech In Asia points out, only 27% of the students said yes when asking if they were willing to join a tech startup. This is in blatant contrast to the trend in Vietnam, where nearly 75% of university graduates are interested in starting their own business.

A colleague of mine had a friend who did her Bachelor’s at NUS, and when asked what she thought of her fellow Singaporean classmates, she said “arrogant and all-assuming”

I had the privilege of participating in the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Summer School at Fulbright University Vietnam in 2017, and it was then and there that I got to meet many talented youths driven to better their lives and those of others by pursuing their own businesses or furthering social causes. Some of these awesome folks just turned 18 when I met them, and one of them was even running two side businesses and a couple of social initiatives – all while working as a manager for a state enterprise!

Youths are putting out all sorts of ideas across Southeast Asia, and the projects I’ve seen so far are a fair mix of labour-intensive, employment-driven social enterprises and high tech, lean startups. While the region is not quite as sophisticated as the likes of Silicon Valley, Stockholm or Shanghai,  e27 has pointed out that key sectors with the most number of deals in the region in 2018 include financial technology (Fintech), e-commerce, education technology and healthcare technology. With innovative startups like TrustingSocial (Vietnam) and Haruka Edu (Indonesia), and regional unicorns like Go-Jek (Indonesia) , Grab (Singapore) and VNG (Vietnam), youths in Southeast Asia already have a thriving ecosystem (and models) to turn to.

As a rejoinder to my earlier claim, Southeast Asia may lack the sophistication of more mature startup ecosystems, but it possesses a different sort of strengths and weaknesses, as well as opportunities – opportunities that Singapore, and Singaporeans, should be well-poised to exploit.

Returning to Vietnam 2 years later as part of the pioneer batch of the National University of Singapore Overseas Colleges Program (Southeast Asia) in Ho Chi Minh City, I’ve witnessed how an energized population can rapidly transform the face of the city they live in. The tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City is now the glitzy Landmark 81, and the sheer number of luxury high-rise construction projects across the city are a testament to Vietnam’s growth prospects. Street food vendors have visibly dwindled, but entrepreneurship continues to thrive in the number of youth-initiated startups or social projects in the country.  It’s a popular notion that Singaporeans are very “Kiasu”, but wait till you’ve seen how the Vietnamese do. Everyone here is in a perpetual rush, and there’s an unspeakable energy that’s propelling this country forward to breakneck speed.

Southeast Asia may lack the sophistication of more mature startup ecosystems, but it possesses a different sort of strengths and weaknesses, as well as opportunities – opportunities that Singapore, and Singaporeans, should be well-poised to exploit.

Everyone has ideas, and everyone loves stories.  Before the Wii arrived at Grandma’s, we’d always pester our parents for just a wee bit more time so that we can finish our traveling fantasies. Every boy in class became a fan of my RPG, and before long I started to spice things up with ripoffs from Warcraft and Digimon.  But both activities faded away with time, and I got lost chasing parochial visions along the way.

Singaporean youths need to snap out of these parochial visions, and we need to rethink our perceptions of the region around us. Southeast Asia is our future, and we need to look towards understanding it better, or risk losing the plot.

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