Third week of discovery of the tech, digital and social scene of Singapore, with, again, more insights gained as interviews piled in my schedule. After having talked – a bit – of the social media agency industry, of the cultural aspects to remember when doing business in South-East Asia, here are a few thoughts about innovation and creativity in the Sunny Island. Caution, though, because it may hurt a bit.
“The next big thing won’t come out of Singapore”
A common belief among foreigners living in Singapore, be they from Europe, Asia or event other countries of South-East Asia, is that local people lacks inspiration when it comes to social, digital or tech industry. Whatever you call it : creativity, transversal thinking, offbeat, chances are you don’t find a lot of it in Singapore. Hence this hard but reality-checked quote from one of my hosts : “The next big thing won’t come out of Singapore”. Explanation : “They don’t enough problems to solve, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be prepared to solve them”.
Sounds hard, but this competitive disadvantage is also being acknowledged by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who recently granted there was a problem with the way youngsters were educated. The Tiger mothers, he said, “should let their children have their childhoodâ€¦Instead of growing up balanced and happy, they grow up narrow and neurotic. No homework is not a bad thing. Itâ€™s good for young children to play, and to learn through play.â€
Asian youth is reportedly being put under high pressure from a very young age (some determinant examinations take place at the age of 6). They spend their free time working on extra tuition not to miss the opportunity to become a banker, a doctor, a lawyer, and these white-collar jobs highly valued by parents who made their place toiling hard the last decades.
Land of the copycats
A collateral damage, if we may say so, is that the main players are more and more being copycats of successful businesses established for a few years in Western countries. If it hurts the neo-romantic understanding of entrepreneurs as pure creators, this cloning is doing pretty well in South-East Asia.
Rocket Internet, the German clone-maker has found a new playground in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and even in Myanmar. They’re waging a “blitzkrieg” (in Olivier Samwer’s own words) in South-East Asia, rapidly growing ventures to fill the void let open by the absence of Amazon (with Lazada) or Zappos (with Zalora). JP Morgan invested 50 to 100 millions USD in the first, and an undisclosed amount in the second.
Another good indicator is the type of startups rewarded in official competition. Last week, at the IdeasInc conference (see summary here), Schmieden Electronics, led by a team of youngsters from the Nanyang Technopreneurship Center at the National Technology University, earned more than 200K SGD. Their product ? A tablet to connect your smartphone Apps on them. Sounds like Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab, but a bit more thick, and designed to be sold 99SGD. Again, no revolution, but probably a place to take 🙂
Innovating the Asian way ?
Again, I hope not to ruffle people here. Compared to Europe, the atmosphere here is optimistic, business friendly, nonhierarchical, and ready to put money when France, for instance, recently suppressed two key helps to startups and individual entrepreneurs. Copycats may not fit into the entrepreneurs mythology, but are accurate and able to execute where tons of startup stick in vain to one idea without even benchmarking or facing consumers at an early stage.
But they may be some opportunities for improvement of creativity and innovation in Singapore :
- More exchange programs and more time to allow the youth to travel in surrounding or distant countries, and bring some fresh air back home
- Soften the visa policy for foreign creative industries, which brings new talents and skills in the island
- More cross-discipline projects to engage people from various background to collaborate and think differently.
- More coworking spaces such as the Hub, Blk 71, the Kennel to allow people exchanging ideas and experience of the “big jump” in to entrepreneurship
Singapore is too efficient a base for work (infrastructure, money, educated youth) to miss the opportunity to take the regional lead in ideas production.