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Start-ups poised to change politics in Singapore

Start-ups poised to change politics in Singapore

As Singapore seeks new sources of growth, the micro-nation is positioning itself to become Asia’s start-up hub. By promoting outside-of-the-box thinking, Singapore could see political spillover as the government loosens control over the commanding heights of the 21st century information economy.

Lee Kuan Yew’s (LKY) passing in March signalled the belated death of Singapore’s 20th century political and economic paradigms. The government, now run by LKY’s son, may still maintain a firm hand in the future; however, Singapore’s highly educated, mobile, and technologically savvy youth are pushing for a more open society. 2015 has been an auspicious year for the Asian micro-nation, as it also celebrates its 50th anniversary.

With LKY notably absent, Singaporeans are understandably nostalgic, but also enticed by the future. While the government is “listening, hearing criticisms, receiving feedback and improving itself” according to Burhan Gafoor, high commissioner to Australia, political change will be spurred by the changing nature of Singapore’s economy.

Singapore needs a new growth formula

Singapore’s government long fostered growth by controlling the commanding heights of the economy and focusing on specific sectors such as shipping, shipbuilding, and finance. Large formalized institutions and their attendant hierarchies allowed the government to keep close tabs on the economy while garnering legitimacy from their sound economic stewardship.

The problem now facing Singapore is that, as a mature economy, it can no longer rely on these sectors alone to ensure growth.

From 2004 to 2014, Singapore’s annual GDP growth declined from 9.5% to 2.9%, largely due to a maturing economy. Companies in the aforementioned sectors have also seen their stock performance decrease, with some being cut from the benchmark Strait Times Index. This is a major issue, as shipping, shipbuilding, and commodities have long been the lion’s share of Singapore’s market capitalization. However, the average daily trading volume for these sectors has dropped from $1.24 billion in 2010 to $816 million in 2014.

Hozefa Tapiwalla, head of research for South-east Asia at Morgan Stanley, sums up the paradigm shift that Singapore is undertaking:

“Historically [the Singaporean government was] focused on industries and what they wanted and what they don’t want. What they are doing right now, as a strategy and philosophy clearly, is saying we clearly don’t know what’s going to work. Hence, it’s facilitation now, rather than directing which sectors and what’s going to work.”

In order to maintain economic vitality and public confidence, the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government needs to foster growth in emerging sectors, notably information technology and e-commerce.

Singapore pursues foreign entrepreneurs

Singapore can capitalize on its ethnic and linguistic links with many parts of Asia to help foster the creation of an Asian investment and entrepreneur hub. This strategy is proving successful, as witnessed by Alibaba’s decision to base its overseas business headquarters in Singapore.

Alibaba subsequently announced that Aliyun, its nascent cloud computing branch, will also be headquartered in Singapore. In explaining the decision to be based in Singapore, Ethan Yu, VP at Aliyun stated “many Chinese enterprises we serve have stepped out of China and come to Singapore.”

Singapore has been proactive in attracting foreign tech firms, launching the EntrePass program, a streamlined visa for foreign entrepreneurs seeking to found and run businesses in Singapore. Unlike similar programs in other countries, EntrePass allows applicants to raise start-up capital from any source, not just Singaporean investors.

Applicants can also apply for permanent residency in two years – or after only one renewal of the one year visa. Similarly, as part of its National Framework for Research, Innovation and Enterprise, launched in 2008, Singapore touts the Global Entrepreneur Executives initiative: an investment scheme designed to convince high growth, high tech firms to relocate to Singapore.

Creating a domestic start-up ecosystem 

Alongside attracting foreign firms, Singapore is seeking to promote its domestic start-up scene. Singapore’s current leaders can take inspiration from LKY’s statement that “the quality of a nation’s manpower resources is the single most important factor determining competitiveness.”

To this end, Singapore is harnessing the creative energies of its population in order to drive innovation. The aforementioned National Framework also includes programs for 1:1 funding matching plans for early-stage ventures. There is also the Technology Incubation Scheme, which is comprised of diverse incentives, including offering 85% of start-up capital when investors contribute the remaining 15%.

The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), which was created at the turn of the millennium, is also fostering local start-ups. Through IDA’s investment subsidiary, Infocomm Investments Pte, IDA is promoting its accelerator program, which seeks to grow and build high-growth tech start-ups at the seed and early-stage levels.

These various programs have spurred a start-up wave in Singapore, with new firm creation rising from 54,000 in 2010 to 77,000 in 2014. Moreover, Temasek, Singapore’s sovereign investment fund, has sought to diversify its portfolio by backing various start-ups; unlisted private investments now comprise 30% of Temasek’s portfolio, up 10% from 2004.

As a result, venture capital investment in the tech sector has risen from less than $30 million in 2011 to more than $1 billion by 2013. Singaporean millennials are also increasingly taking interest in the start-up ecosystem, with investment clubs springing up at Singapore’s universities. These clubs accept members from all faculties and are training the next generation of entrepreneurs, with the National University of Singapore (NSU) Investment Society holding a public symposium at the Singapore Stock Exchange. These programs are disseminating into wider society; 9% of Singapore’s workforce are currently employed in start-ups.

Political spillover

As the government encourages people to think outside the box and explore new ideas, it risks a large portion of people questioning other elements of Singaporean society. By fostering public input and energy in shaping Singapore’s economic trajectory, the PAP may begin to loose its monopoly on economic leadership which has underwritten its legitimacy.

Yet, by promoting start-up creation via state incentive and investment schemes, the government may well seek to shape the nascent start-up ecosystem so as to be dependent on and comfortable with a government-directed capital pool. This would allow the government – in some sense – to continue to exercise a top-down approach. However, such a plan poses its own problems, given the fluid and fast-paced nature of venture capitalism.

Kenneth Tan, vice dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, commenting on LKY passing, made a pertinent point about Singapore’s political situation, stating that he expects “the opposition to make inroads now, and in part this is to be expected in a more mature society. I hope that they do become a stronger opposition […] so we can go back to being the kind of place that experiments with alternative ideas.”

As Singapore encourages experiments with alternative ideas in the economy, it may well be sowing the seeds of diversification in the political sphere, as well.

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