What we can learn from Singapore about innovation, ambition and focus

Only recently I travelled to Singapore to get more familiar with the South East Asian innovation ecosystem and I wanted to share my experiences and insights from over there with...

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July 31, 2017
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Here are my five Singaporean takeaways for success to Belgians and anyone else interested:

1. Live by the rules

About an hour before you land at Changi airport, the cabin crew hands you a small piece of paper. In big red letters, it reads “DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW”. Is it just me or shouldn’t they tell you this before you get on the plane? Good thing my parents taught me that drug trafficking is wrong.

It’s not the only thing that feels off when you first arrive in Singapore. On the road, there are a thousand different types of road marking. All variations of similar themes – single or double line, yellow or white, full or dotted, straight or toothed – and variations on different rules – waiting, stopping, parking, crossing, day or night, holidays. What struck me most is that everyone seems to know and obey these rules. Only after three days did I first see a Singaporean police car. I didn’t hear a single siren. Imagine that in London or Paris!

The strangest thing of all to me is how you claim a table in a bar.  You put your phone on it! And then you walk to the bar to order. When you come back nobody took your table and the phone is still there. That’s probably why Singaporeans are far more often than any other nationality victim to theft on international holidays.

At first, all these rules and customs seem odd to a foreigner. But, it doesn’t take long before you realize that they are the necessary foundation for the next learnings:

2. Think with ambition

Drug traffickers are not the only ones that are not welcome in Singapore. The authorities decided they don’t like mosquitos either. Mosquitos bring zika, dengue and other gross diseases. A persistent and continuous effort combining genetically modified mosquitos and smoke canons makes Singapore a low mosquito island in a hot and humid climate.

It’s very inspiring to see how no force of nature is able to hold back the powerful Singaporean ambition. Through land reclamation the country already expanded over 25% and is continuing to grow! The only thing that can hold back this ambitious growth are the borders with the international waters. Singaporean ambition might beat nature, it will only be held back by laws and regulations.

3. Execute with focus

It’s very clear that if the Singaporean government wants something to happen, it will happen at any cost. And if they don’t, it won’t. This also counts for business. The government has strategic stakes in all major national companies, one of which is the telco Singtel. Singapore wants to be the world’s smartest nation and making that happen is clearly Singtel’s goal.

Why this ambition? Singapore is facing an aging population, and has only 2.6 hospital beds per 1000 inhabitants (Belgium has 6.5). That’s why homecare and telemedicine are becoming ever more important in the smart nation. Singtel sells a standard package with door sensors, motion sensors and panic buttons for the elderly. All of this is integrated with an app which allows the children to watch over their parents. One minor detail: the app also registers and monitors your energy and water usage and keeps you updated about the weather.

And because one company can’t do all the innovation by itself, Singtel innov8 was started, a corporate venture capital fund. In 2011 they turned - with 2 other partners  - a building planned for demolition into what is now coworking, events and community space Blk71. The Economist referred to it as the heart of Singapore's technology start-up ecosystem and the world's most tightly packed entrepreneurial ecosystem.

And still that is not enough. For almost 20 years, Singapore has had an ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) system. As you drive through different gates all over the city, you pay based on time of day and traffic conditions. Singtel has cooperated in turning the system from only generating revenue to predicting traffic hours in advance. And the next challenge will be to get rid of the gates and implementing an even more precise system.

4. Grow to scale

And that’s only a glimpse of what is happening inside Singapore. In a country of 5 million inhabitants, Singtel has 600 million global subscribers. Singapore is a great test area to further scale all across South-East Asia. Singapore has an established digital and mobile customer base. This middle class with growing disposable income happens to be the largest growing customer base all across South-East Asia, even the world. So, if your technology or business model works over there, your chances of success in the whole region will be significantly higher. That’s also why many multinationals have their Asian headquarters in Singapore.

The most exciting thing happening in Singapore right now is the battle for e-commerce. Rumor has it Amazon will be testing the Asian market starting in Singapore in the next couple of months. But Amazon will be very late to the market. Alibaba already made a 1 billion investment in Lazada, a Singaporean e-commerce player active across the whole region. After this, Lazada acquired RedMart, a Singaporean grocery startup, to offer a wider range of services. And Alibaba wouldn’t be Alibaba if they wouldn’t have taken a holistic approach and invested in the whole value chain. Alibaba also has a partnership with SingPost, in order to easier handle deliveries and merged with helloPay, to also manage transactions. Could the battle already be won by the Chinese? Does Amazon even stand a chance?

5. Educate for the future

To conclude: is everything better in Singapore than it is in Belgium? Maybe not, Singaporean students showed lots of interest in our open and equal schooling system. Because even though Singapore has one of the most highly rated education systems in the world, change has become very necessary.

Singaporean students and teachers have one single focus: the national exams at the end of primary and secondary education. Education is primarily focused on transmission of knowledge. Bluntly stated: it’s more important to know the right answer than to understand the question. Thanks to the extreme alignment of teaching and testing, Singaporean students achieve extremely high scores when tested.

Western parents say it’s hard to have to tell their kids not to think critically, but rather give the answer the teacher expects to hear. Western teachers think it is odd to have students complaining when class ends 5 minutes earlier or pages in the textbook are skipped. Are these the kind of students we need to survive in the VUCA-world of the 21st century?

Everyone is aware of the problem, though. And I’m sure the Singaporean education system will come up with new rules, thought out with ambition and executed with focus, that will allow the nation to grow an education system for 21st century skills to scale.

Frederik Simoen
Frederik Simoen
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July 31, 2017
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