The question of whether the next big thing could come out of Singapore recently popped up when The Jakarta Globe reprinted Sandra Davie’s story “NUS revs up scheme to spur start-ups” under the thought-provoking headline “Making Singapore’s Own Zuckerberg”.
Most of the article chronicled the success of NUS’s entrepreneuship program, the NUS Overseas Colleges program (NOC). Indeed the program has definitely been one the most successful, if not the most successful institutionalised entrepreneurship program in Singapore. But how far is Singapore from producing a Mark Zuckerberg?
Singapore is a very small city state, surrounded on all sides by primarily non-English-speaking countries. Despite statistics that cite a 500 million large market for the whole of SouthEast Asia, or a to-business market within a seven-hour flight-time radius, it doesn’t reveal the true landscape for entrepreneurship at all. The truth is, these markets are highly disparate in language, nature, customs and legality. It’s literally fraught with potholes for any struggling entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurs who design products for the elites — the many iPhone- and iPad-totting consumer you’ll come across in Singapore — will find that they have little space to expand within this region. The only other city with a parity in income levels is Hong Kong.The other hope for the entrepreneurs is in courting the elites of the capital cities of Jakarta, Bangkok, Manila and Kuala Lumpur.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs who design products for the masses — those still stuck with Nokia-era devices or feature phones — find that they can scale their products but will never be able to capture the hearts of the elites.
Such is the dilemma of entrepreneurs from Singapore. Stay in their comfort zone and they’ll be restricted. Target the masses and forget about being able to serve the elites. Without a contiguous market, it is really difficult to achieve a Zuckerberg-Facebook kind of success. It’s just like how European startups can only be moderately successful in their home turf, pushing many European entrepreneurs away to Silicon Valley so that they can achieve any global success (i.e. Skype). We’re seeing exactly the same push out of Singapore, even for the startups featured in Sandra’s article. Scaling technology startups require large continuous markets. Singapore and SouthEast Asia just isn’t ideal for that.
The positive here is that it’s actually pushing our most talented off our all too comfortable shores into these new territories. The NOC program has managed to groom entrepreneurs comfortable enough to tackle these new lands. Finally, global social networks are a cultural phenomenon more than a technological phenomenom. Facebook grew because it was “cool” to be on it. And alot of the cool-ness was sparked off from its early days as an exclusive Ivy-League only network. Subsequently, after its move to Silicon Valley, it caught on with the Silicon Valley elite and then the massive Californian consumer market. California has, for ages, been a net-exporter of culture; from Facebook to iPods to Hollywood. That’s why it’s possible for Californian cool to go global.
Singapore, on the other hand, has always been a net-importer of culture. Singaporean cultural habits and its accompanying Singlish (Singaporeanised English) has never spread very far. Because of these factors, it’s difficult for startups to achieve Zuckerberg-style successes. Nevertheless, we do have a good crop of knowledgeable, globalized entrepreneurs who can easily create good products in niche areas such as group-buying, mobile apps and SaaS.
But a Zuckerberg is really a far stretch — at this point in time.
Justin Lee is a co-founder of e27 and PointStar.