Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Stepping off of my flight in my very buttoned down attire – sandals, shorts and t-shirt combo – I was greeted by the overbearing, almost insufferable, heat that only this part of Asia could provide. It was quite literally the warmest welcome I have ever received. An atmosphere guided by a humid summer, a plethora of spices and an urban development success story — this is Singapore; the place I will call home for the next few months.
According to a recent presentation by the American Chamber of Commerce, Singapore is definitely the place to look out for moving forward with innovative technologies and consumer products. In the beginning, I was quite skeptical. For every investor who claims that China and the rest of Asia are the gold mines of early-stage opportunities, there are teams of budding programmers and entrepreneurs who would do anything to get a seat in Silicon Valley. With that skepticism in mind and a thirst for adventure (if I could actually afford any here), I decided to take the opportunity to step outside of Los Angeles and see what is happening around the world. Through a mixture of personal-professional dilemmas, networking and luck, I have been given the privilege this summer to work out here in Southeast Asia with the ever-expanding startup scene.
To me, as it is for a lot of other people, Singapore is a very interesting and dynamic place. At a further level, there is the feeling of nostalgia. I walked into the Cold Storage (a cross between a mini-Albertsons and Whole Foods) and immediately I was faced with a difficult dilemma — do I buy my granola from “Mother Earth,” something I had grown up eating when I was in New Zealand or “Nature Valley,” the brand I associate with bulk purchases from Costco in California. As we walked through Cold Storage, I told my friend of the many times I would exchange my boxed bento lunches in elementary school for my friends’ hundreds-and-thousands sprinkled biscuits and vegemite-and-chips sandwiches. I love walking around the Botanic Gardens and seeing the brillance that is the Singaporean urban greenification — the very movement that Angelenos hope to see happen in Downtown LA has quite effectively been perfected here in the middle of Singapore. I will post up some photos of the Botanic Gardens soon — but imagine a place that models the vastness of Central Park and the beauty of the Huntington Garden (Pasadena).
In the way that Singapore is the convergence of the my two key identities (as a Kiwi and now as a California), it is the central node that has successfully converged business activities from Europe, America, Australia (and New Zealand) and the rest of Asia. In the past few years, with favourable government policies and public investments, Singapore has become the hub of startups here in SEA. What I have come to realize, over the last few days, is this: beyond all the macroeconomic statistics and the many praises people have to say about emerging markets, and whatever realities actually reside beyond those figures, is the same energy that exist back home in California most definitely exists over here in Singapore. Last night I was at a Meetup.com mixer with expatriates from all around the world and I had a very engaging conversation with an iOS developer who had spent the past decade or so here in Singapore. From what I gathered, he, and many like him, are eager to develop the next generations of PayPal, Google and Twitter. Creativity, innovative thinking and the ability to dream of realities that do not exist presently are quite universal things.
However, from the many people I have met thus far, it sounds like it will still be a few more years before ambitious individuals start to actively pursue entrepreneurship as possible career goals. From the many conversations I’ve had with college grads here, many continue to aspire to work in government agencies and other traditionally “stable” career roles. Furthermore, as Matthew, a seasoned banker I met on the MRT, conveyed to me quite astutely, there is still a very real talent vacuum here. He told me that in places such as India, the “drop out” rate is about 40% — in the United States, spotty track records of moving around different companies in short periods of time gives employers the thumbs-down for possible candidates. It says something about unreliability and similarly anti-work qualities. Regardless, I think the many employability and talent-related issues that preside in Singapore, India, Malaysia and other countries around here will be improved with time and changes in government policies. At least in the financing side of things, the Singaporean government is very eager to develop its startup scene and will invest regularly with investors to encourage activity. There is definitely a lot of energy out here.
Being the tourist I am, I took the elevator up to the top of One Altitude, the 360-degree rooftop bar at One Raffles Place near Marina Bay and with renditions of 90’s music playing in the background, I soaked in the nighttime cityscape. This will be an interesting summer.