May 27, 2017

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Someone using the Uber app while a taxi passes by

by Sharanya Pillai

PRIVATE-HIRE cars are now the rage on Singapore’s roads. Thanks to the likes of Uber and Grab, the number of chauffeur-driven private cars in Singapore is at an all-time high of over 40,000, The Straits Times reported yesterday (May 24). This is a 70-fold increase from 2013, when the ride-hailing disruptors first entered the scene. 

The taxi industry is facing stiff competition, given that the number of private-hire cars is now 1.5 times the number of taxis. The bulk of the increase comes from passenger cars that are converted into commercial ones via Grab and Uber. We look at the ways anyone can ride a car now:

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1. Economy and luxury cars

Ride-hailing apps Grab and Uber offer private rides on different price levels. Uber comes with the choice of UberX, regular economy cars, or UberExec, which offers models such as the Audi A3 and BMW 3-Series.

Similarly, GrabCar has two price ranges: Economy and Premium. For an extra $2, you can also hire a GrabFamily car, that comes with a booster seat for a child.

Both companies also offer SUVs that can seat up to six people.

2. Pool for a lower price

Sharing a ride isn’t just in vogue for late-night TV hosts, but also for budget-conscious customers. Uber rolled out the ride-sharing service UberPool last June, which matches passengers travelling along the same route, for a cheaper fare. Last year, one in every three UberX rides was pooled.

Not to be outdone by its rival, Grab launched a similar service, GrabShare, in December. One difference is that Grab only allows for two bookings to be pooled – minimising interruptions to the journey.

3. Get social with strangers

Grab’s social carpooling service GrabHitch lets customers share the ride with drivers heading to the same destination. Unlike the other services, GrabHitch is marketed as a “social” platform to meet new people, where customers are encouraged to take the front seat and talk to the drivers – not really for those who might prefer a quiet ride.

Another carpooling startup, RYDE, also markets itself as a social platform. Like GrabHitch, RYDE customers can choose their drivers, and the fee is determined based on distance. Prices are generally cheaper than regular taxis.

4. Getting the best deal

With the expanding number of choices, it can become difficult to determine which might be the most affordable or value-for-money option. British startup Karhoo was poised to help with that, by offering a ride-booking app that compares prices across all the competitors – but its Singapore office abruptly halted operations last year. For now, it seems like math skills and reading online reviews might be the best way for the budget-conscious.

With all the excitement over the disruption, it may seem like ride-hailing apps are the new royalty on the roads, it doesn’t seem like the traditional taxis are going away anytime soon. In its bid to take over SMRT’s taxi business, Grab faces obstacles in the form of concerns over the jobs of taxi drivers.

The ride-hailing apps may also need to rejig their business models to ensure stability, according to experts interviewed by The Straits Times. While Uber and Grab have tried to “out-discount” each other, offering promotions into the long-term is unsustainable, the experts said. Notably, Uber has been bleeding money at an alarming rate – which raises the question of whether the private car model is truly a profitable model.

But for now, as the incumbents and disruptors compete to dominate the roads, it looks like consumers can continue to benefit from the sweet deals arising.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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AN ADVERTORIAL

WHAT has technology really done to the dating scene?

Sure, it has helped singles reach out to a wider pool of potentials and given shy individuals a way to step out of their shells. A new set of challenges has arisen with the advent of online dating however.

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We spoke to the founder of Lunch Actually, Singapore’s largest and possibly oldest dating agency in Singapore, Ms Violet Lim, about the difficulties arising from the era of technology dating. One issue she pointed out was the sheer number of matches that dating apps provide singles with – so much so that dates don’t become special anymore.

Ms Violet Lim, CEO of Lunch Actually Group

Said the mother of two, “Because of the abundance of matches, singles nowadays do not value dates anymore and don’t feel the sense of urgency. They talk to multiple people at one time and arrange for dates with different people, it’s easy to lose interest and take the matches for granted.”

Technology has also resulted on “mini dates” through online chats such as WhatsApp. The problem with conversing online however, is that you can’t tell how a match is really like, and that might cause you to write him or her off prematurely if they appear boring or if they say something wrong, said Ms Lim.

Here are some other interesting insights into the largest dating agency in Singapore, which celebrates its 13th year in business this year.

1. How has the dating scene evolved these past 13 years?

Ms Lim: When we first started 13 years ago, there was a huge stigma attached to dating services. Many people had the impression that only “losers” – people who are not able to find someone on their own would go for such service. However, in the last decade, the perception has changed. In fact, some of my friends who used to be skeptical about dating services are now introducing their siblings or friends to join our service.

Over the years, it is evident that dating services serve a need for many singles out there. We are living in an era where people are used to outsourcing many aspects of their lives. For instance, when we are going on a holiday, we look for a travel agency; when we are looking for a job, we turn to a recruitment agency. It’s the same for many singles who are looking to find love. Rather than waiting for friends to introduce potential partners to them, many of them are now turning to a professional dating agency like Lunch Actually.

2. What are your most insightful observations about the dating scene in Singapore?

Ms Lim: WhatsApp has replaced phone calls as the most used communication tool between singles. While WhatsApp may be accessible and convenient, many singles have shared that it could also be a source of miscommunication, confusion and frustration. Unlike phone calls where you can hear the person’s voice and tonality, instant messaging apps are one-dimensional, and often one single sentence might mean A to the sender, but might be interpreted as B by the recipient. WhatsApp conversations could also be filters or “mini dates”. If one says something “wrong” or come across as “boring”, this could result in the single being “ghosted” or a planned date being cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

After each date that we arrange for our clients, we would ask them for their feedback and also if they were planning to go on a second date. For clients who say that they were not going on a second date with their match, when asked why, the reason is often – “no chemistry”. Many singles expect instant chemistry on the first date; many are looking for love at first sight. However, from what we have observed from our successful couples, it is often NOT love at first sight.

They had a good impression of each other, and continued to see each other for a second, third, fourth date. And from there, love blossoms. We always tell our clients to keep an open mind and have a positive attitude when going on first and subsequent dates. Rather than using the yardstick of how much you like the person to measure whether to go on a second date, we advise them to use the yardstick of whether you dislike the person. If you do not dislike the person, give the other person a chance. You are actually giving yourself a chance as well.

With the advance in technology and the number of mobile apps flooding the market, it has never been easier to meet other singles. At the same time, mobile dating apps also present a new set of challenges.

Because of the abundance of matches, dates are now seen as commodities. Compared to the past where each and every date is seen as important and precious, singles nowadays do not value dates as much. They are often chatting to multiple people online at any one time and are arranging simultaneous dates with different people.

Thus, it is easy to pick and choose, lose interest and take the matches for granted. Hence, the focus of all our services is to bring singles offline as quickly as possible. Like what one single has asked me, how do you know if someone is also dating others on the side? Well, the truth is, you will never know for sure. It is so easy to be messaging multiple people at the same time. However, he or she can only be seeing one person offline at any one time.

If the person is willing to invest most of his or her offline time with you, chances are, he or she is serious about you.

3. What are your most surprising revelations about the dating scene in Singapore?

Ms Lim: A survey we conducted last year with over 700 singles in Singapore revealed that while technology has helped singles to expand their social circle easily, it has also made dating more complicated. A total of 38 per cent of women, who are dating men they met from online dating platforms or dating apps, are unsure if the men are still dating other people. On the other hand, 36 per cent of men admitted to losing interest easily even before meeting the ladies after talking to them online. Therefore, they are not even giving their online match a chance to develop their connection offline.

Additionally, in relation to the increasing usage of mobile dating apps, many singles tend to misrepresent themselves in online dating as there is no verification that they are really who they say they are. This is echoed by the results of the Annual Dating Survey that we conducted with 2,000 singles in Southeast Asia late last year. When asked “Have you spent a long time chatting with someone online, only to be disappointed when you met the person in real life”, 60 per cent of women responded in the affirmative. Echoing the same sentiment, an overwhelming majority of 84 per cent of women felt that chemistry when chatting with a match online could not translate into the same chemistry when eventually meeting up offline. Lastly, 37 per cent of women also indicated that they felt that their online matches misrepresent themselves “all the time” or “most of the time”.

4. How has dating apps such as Tinder, CMB, Happn, Paktor, etc., affected Lunch Actually?

Ms Lim: And at the end of the day, there will always be new trends and new entrants to the market. I do not see the apps as competition, but as opportunities for us to also evolve and keep innovating. When we first launched esync (our online-offline dating platform), people in our team asked us why. With its lower price point, photos and so on, wouldn’t that be bad for us? Similarly with LunchClick, people feel the same way. LunchClick is free. However, at the end of the day, it educates people to outsource their dating life.

Having said that, I don’t think that the need for personal touch will diminish, as there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for singles. I think there will always be a need for different business models. Everyone is different and each single has different preferences. Some enjoy the convenience of a dating app where they can do everything within the app itself, but some would still prefer a personal service where they can interact with the dating consultant and enjoy the luxury of not having to do anything besides going on the date and meeting their match.

5. What have been your most memorable experiences?

Ms Lim: Probably when we signed up our first ever client. The first person who actually came to our office for a consultation was a friend of a friend after we spread the word around about what we do and our friends were also sharing about us to their single friends. That’s mainly how we got our earlier leads. So we did many role plays before that, and when the client actually came, the consultation took much longer than it usually does, and ultimately, the client said “Yes, I’ll sign up”.

Everybody was very excited and happy because that point was when it stopped becoming just a concept but something that is real, which someone was willing to put down money on.

Our most memorable set up was our first couple who got engaged.

Chris is a lawyer. When we first matched her up with Ben, she was furious. She didn’t understand why we would match her up with Ben, who is an entertainer (he does juggling, unicycling, etc.) As we had met up with both of them, we realised that they are very compatible, have many similar values as well as share a similar sense of humour. Furthermore, Ben is actually very well-educated, having a Masters from Oxford.

After much persuasion from our dating consultants, Chris reluctantly went on the date. In their own words, they got on like “house and fire”, and they got engaged within three months, and married within one year. They now are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters. We are very proud of this match as both of them would probably not have crossed paths if they had not met at Lunch Actually. And to cynics out there who might say that dating services take the romance out of dating, take it from Ben: “Love is love, no matter if you have met at a bus stop, a bar or a dating service!

6. Can you share any upcoming plans for Lunch Actually?

Ms Lim: We would like to expand into more markets in the region as well as offer more services to reach out to more singles. We would also continue to build on our positive company culture to grow and develop our Cupids and Transformers as we work together to hit our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) of creating one million happy marriages!

7. Any advice for singles who are looking for love?

Ms Lim: Yes, of course!

Like everything in life, it’s all about the mindset. Are you open to meeting the right one, are you telling yourself every day that all the good men or good women are taken? If you do not believe that you can actually meet him or her, chances are you won’t.

Create opportunities and platforms to meet new people. Dating is a numbers game. If you are not even meeting 10 single men or women a year, what are the chances you will actually meet the one?

Love at first sight usually happens at the movies. After the first date, if you did not experience fireworks and instant chemistry, know that most married couples did not experience that when they first met their soulmate. Go on a second and a third date to get to know each other better. Give your date a chance, give yourself a chance. Give love a chance.

 

This advertorial is brought to you by Lunch Actually.

 Featured image from TMG file.

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by Lim Qiu Ping

INNOVATION, technological change, internationalise – words and ideas like these are nothing new regarding how Singapore economy is steered. The SkillsFuture initiative and the principle of lifelong learning are being pushed hard. And the report from the Committee on the Future Economy released in February recommended strengthening the innovation ecosystem and raising the profile of startups.

Singapore is trying to reinvent itself, especially economically, at the individual, organisational and national scale. At the bleeding edge of this re-invention is the startup scene. Singapore’s quest for Silicon Valley-ism has seen the development of ecosystems that contributed to the vibrancy of startup hubs the world over.

One notable ecosystem piece is the accelerator: an intensive, short-term and structured programme available to founders that assure mentorship, funding, emotional and educational support, networking with potential partners and investors; all culminating in a public pitch event known as demo day. In exchange for participation in their programme, accelerators take equity, typically less than a 10 per cent share, from the startup. They earn when the startup successfully ‘exits’ – referring to how startups are to develop till they can either get publicly listed or be acquired by another business entity.

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Questioning Singapore’s accelerator boom

So, what are the bearings on a startup ecosystem if accelerators are the ones finding it difficult to survive? During mid-2016, at least 15 accelerator programmes could be found in Singapore, not least due to efforts by the wholly-owned investment arm of the Infocomm Development Authority, known formerly as Infocomm Investments (IIPL) and revamped as SGInnovate in November last year, which helped fund and launch several accelerators.

Questions were raised if there have been too many accelerator programmes here. Since 2014, IIPL (now SGInnovate) has embarked on an accelerator strategy to pump up the startup ecosystem of Singapore. It began signing Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with commercial accelerators and corporations, creating partnerships where IIPL supported accelerators to run their programmes for a certain length of time. The first such partnership was with Joyful Frog Digital Incubator (JFDI), a commercial accelerator, in March 2014. Other examples included the European financial tech accelerator Startupbootcamp FinTech, brought in in October 2014. And the partnership that sprung up with Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and California-headquartered accelerator Plug and Play in April 2015, formed SPH Plug and Play. Meanwhile, corporations such as DBS Bank and Mediacorp jumped on the bandwagon, setting up their own corporate accelerator programmes.

Then on Sep 14 2016, JFDI announced in a blog post that it would cease operating as an accelerator. It had not only been the first accelerator partner of IIPL but also Singapore’s first ever accelerator programme, founded in 2010. Three months later in January 2017, SPH Plug and Play confirmed that they would be closing.

 

How viable is the accelerator model in Singapore?

Ultimately, accelerators are businesses and businesses, no matter how valid its products and services to a community, survive according to the calculation of dollars and cents.

Mr Hugh Mason, 50, the co-founder of JFDI, explained the difficulty of sustainability in his company’s blog post. “In Asia, the time to exit is more like six to eight years and the valuation at exit is perhaps 30 [per cent] of that it would be in the US,” he wrote. In short, JFDI was unable to generate sufficient returns (from equity obtained) fast enough to cover the “high costs” incurred while operating in Singapore. He further recognised that the accelerator business model carried over from US did not fit well in the local and Asian context.

The model consists of setting up a team, which could include paid personnel such as programme directors, facilitators and a full-time secretariat. This team is only able to handle so many startup cases per programme batch, even if it benefits the accelerator to groom as many startups as possible in hopes of hitting gold with one that could garner a high valuation.

With this business model, the accelerator outfit is non-scalable. Mr Jarrod Luo, 32, a startup founder as well as startup consultant, explained the model and how the profitability of an accelerator is curtailed because of this. “To scale, you have to do a one-for-one multiplication… if you want to increase the cohort size, you have to increase your team size. [It is] logistically heavy, it takes a toll on your corporate communications, internal qualification… co-ordination gets more expensive as the team grows.”

Mr Luo’s role as a startup consultant from his consultancy firm 2Bite is akin to that of an accelerator programme. It has been financially tenable for him, so far. He has served as mentor to and point-of-network for startup founders, tailoring knowledge and advice on growing a startup to the needs of his clients, who were travelling on their own entrepreneurial journey. Payment type, however, is negotiable, rather than following the rule of equity in exchange for participation.

 

Accelerators in perspective: just one piece of a bigger puzzle

To point, the function of and need for accelerator programmes should be subordinate to the progress of the entrepreneur, who encounters different issues at different phases of growing a startup. The accelerator as a device has its place in the startup ecosystem because its structured curriculum provides some form of stability in an industry characterised by risk and unpredictability. Nonetheless, it is possible for the individual to gain guidance, know-how, contacts and even funding through other means.

As startup founders, Mr Luo and his two partners chose to skip the accelerator experience when Tembusu Systems, their financial technology startup, was founded in 2014. They already possessed the skills, vision and structural knowledge to develop their business idea. “We weren’t like newly graduated students with no contacts in the world and no exposure; no experience… We were already quite well-placed in whatever we’re doing. We’re already consultants. We had the necessary contacts in the local Singapore scene,” he explained. Participating in an accelerator programme was not cost advantageous to them and what the accelerators offered was not “critical”.

Other founders have also bypassed the accelerator programme experience, such as those from startups Shopback and ViSenze. The first is an e-commerce business and the second a visualisation and artificial intelligence technology used in e-commerce. Their source of support and grooming comes from NUS Enterprise, the entrepreneurial arm of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

 

A bigger vision?

NUS Enterprise facilitates entrepreneurship in a wider scope than the accelerator concept, more like a matrix of human and infrastructural resources as well as knowledge base. Truly, its greatest asset is its community – and relationships within – built through time. Though officially beginning in 2001, its roots could be traced back to 1988 when a university-level centre called the Centre for Management of Innovation and Technopreneurship was started. It was meant to “nurture entrepreneurial learning and venture creation among the NUS community”.

Describing how it stood apart from standalone accelerators, NUS Enterprise acknowledged the “significant benefits” of being set in a university “with strong roots in education and research”, even as it remained open to those outside of the NUS fraternity. The aim is to create culture, not only success stories. Part of student life could include six months to a year’s internship in startups for immersive learning, facilitated through a NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme. Shopback was started by alumni who knew one another as course-mates or through NOC. NUS researchers or serial startup founders could also mentor and re-invest in younger entrepreneurs, as they did with ViSenze. University alumni could return and tap into the entrepreneurial community established, gaining support and resources for startups planted within the ambit of NUS Enterprise. Other advantages include “access to technologies, research and intellectual property developed at NUS”. Start-ups such as ViSenze, have been spun out of technologies developed in NUS.

The accelerator is but a part of the NUS Enterprise mechanism, called the NUS Start-up Runway. NUS Enterprise explained it as “a series of initiatives and activities that help [startups] to grow and scale”. On its website, NUS Start-up Runway calls itself “the most comprehensive university-based incubation/acceleration programme in Singapore”. Access to it is part of the package of participating in the wider ecosystem unique to NUS Enterprise. With or without utilising the accelerator, people thrive in the startup industry. Therefore the industry thrives.

Perhaps, questioning what bearings the business survival of accelerators has on the startup ecosystem is to miss the forest. Rather, the thought for how healthy and self-sustaining the ecosystem is should frame the challenge of figuring out the most apt model for accelerators in Singapore.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Bertha Henson

I RECALL reading Dr Benjamen Gussen’s piece in ST in January and thinking to myself: this can never fly. So I was surprised to see that Mr Peter Ho had raised it as an example of thinking beyond national boundaries in his final S R Nathan lecture.

Dr Gussen, a law lecturer in the University of Southern Queensland, had proposed that Singapore and Australia set up a charter city in Australia. Think of it like a Special Economic Zone. Except that his concept was quite extensive, with equity partnerships and a constitution with a 10-year transition period after which the residents can choose their own representatives. He even called his hypothetical city Dilga. You can read it here.

Dr Gussen saw it as a demand and supply problem. Singapore needs space; Australia has plenty. Both sides have plenty to offer each other in terms of resources and know-how. It will be win-win.

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Why did I dismiss it out of hand? After all, it is true that Singapore needs space and Australia isn’t far away. There are plenty of Singaporeans working and living there. I suppose it’s because I’m used to the idea of Singapore as a little red dot on the map. Plus, immediate problems of national identity come to mind. We are a country that doesn’t even allow dual citizenship and chafes at the presence of so many foreigners within its borders. Then there are practical problems, like should charter city residents do National Service?

I’m afraid the cons came to mind much faster than the pros. Mr Ho is right to say that we shouldn’t let our physical size constrain our thinking. Perhaps, we wear our little red dot badge rather too proudly. Perhaps, we’ve been so conditioned by the vulnerability narrative that we only think in terms of what we can do here, get people and products here and how to prosper here. Mr Ho, a nice man, said it’s natural that we cling to what we’re familiar with and project the future from what we know of the present. But given the accelerating change that technology brings, the present is not a good predictor of anything.

Acknowledging that establishing a charter city would be difficult, he said: “But even if this specific idea may not gain much traction, it raises this possibility – that the idea of Singapore need not be confined to this small island.”

Have we done what we can with the space we have? At 719 sq km, Singapore is now 25 per cent bigger than it was two centuries ago. Late last year, the G said a new method which doesn’t rely so much on sand will be used to add to Pulau Tekong. We’ve built artificial islands, like Jurong, we’ve built upwards and we’re building downwards . Over the past two years, we’ve been talking about digging tunnels and developing spaces underground. We already have caverns to store liquid hydrocarbons and ammunition. We can also also build more intensively (we’re not as densely populated as Hong Kong), while, hopefully, remaining a liveable city.

Dr Gussmen and Mr Ho are futurists who believe that we should think about living somewhere else or even virtually – while still remaining Singaporean.

Mr Ho gave examples of what a few other small countries are doing to extend their boundaries – and he doesn’t mean land reclamation.

There is Luxembourg, with just 600,000 people, which is reaching for the stars. It introduced legislation in November last year to let companies own resources such as platinum, obtained from space. It has set aside money and attracted American companies dealing with the space industry. We shouldn’t laugh because the country happens to know quite a bit about space. It founded one of the largest satellite companies in the world. It’s no space cadet.

By the way, Singapore has a space and satellite industry too. It currently comprises 30 companies and employs 1,000 people. Late last year, the G said that the industry is a new cluster it will focus on growing.

There is Estonia, with 1.3 million people, and where babies get a digital identity at birth that would allow them later as adults to sign contracts and do transactions. It is pioneering e-residency, said Mr Ho.

“You may live abroad. If you become an e-resident of Estonia, you can use some of the digital services available to Estonian citizens, such as setting up an Estonia-based company. E-residency helps Estonia generate business activity for Estonian companies, from independent contractors to small companies with clients worldwide. More than 18,000 people have since become e-residents,” he said.

Come to think of it, if this concept was applied here, it would solve our manpower shortage problem. It’s like having Singapore permanent residents who live somewhere else. One condition needs fulfilling though. Singapore would have to be a really, really Smart Nation which is extremely “networked”.

Then this may happen: “In the future, digital platforms can tap into labour based abroad, without even setting up a Singapore-supported industrial park abroad. Such platforms, like Konsus, already exist. Konsus matches high-end independent contractors or freelancers with projects, including when the freelancer and the project client are based in different places. If cross-border supply of services increases, Singaporeans may be able to work with co- workers and clients based abroad, as if they were physically present in Singapore.”

Mr Ho thinks that Singapore is capable of overcoming constraints because, ironically, its small size makes it easy to change course – or do a course correction – quickly. Quick changes are inherent in Singapore’s DNA, which was why it succeeded from moving from Third World colony to global city.

But who’s going to steer the boat and will the people row? It comes back to politics and leadership.

“A key source of Singapore’s strength has always been our people’s trust in fair competition and just reward for effort and achievements, compassion for the unfortunate, and a restless yearning for continuous progress. The points on trust and compassion bear emphasising. This has to be carefully fostered by the leadership because, without it, it would have been impossible for our leaders to forge consensus on far-reaching policies and tough trade-offs between different priorities, interests, and groups.”

The above is from his fourth lecture.

But I prefer the way he discussed leadership in his second lecture.

“Change requires leadership, because it means leading people out of their comfort zone. Getting them to change is an act of will. The future-fit leader has to persuade his people to believe in the need for change, instil confidence in change, and empower his people to change.

“Successful leaders of change also make their people brave enough to express their opinions, change their behaviour, take risks, and learn from failure. They tolerate mavericks – even if they do not embrace them – because all future-fit organisations need mavericks. They are the ones who are prepared to challenge conventional wisdom and come up with the ideas that can change the rules of the game.”

Yup. Everyone needs to open up their minds, challenge orthodoxy and even slaughter some sacred cows. And if it’s done in the country’s interest, no one should be batting an eyelid. That’s the way to find our future.

Majulah Singapura.

 

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by Bertha Henson

MR PETER Ho isn’t like Mr Ho Kwon Ping, the entrepreneur who threw a couple of grenades when he was the first to take on the S R Nathan lectures. Nor is he like Mr Bilahari Kausikan, the veteran diplomat who made no bones about what he thought about soft-headed approaches in diplomacy. Mr Ho, the former head of the Civil Service who gave his fourth and final lecture yesterday,  is gentle and scholarly. His lectures can also be described as an attempt to get people to understand that…

a. The world is moving is so fast that it is well-nigh impossible to predict problems.

b. Today’s problems are so complex and intertwined that new approaches which encompass the big picture are needed to solve them – and even then, not everyone will be happy.

c. Singapore needs a new, broader mindset that goes beyond the traditional idea of a national identity bounded by natural borders if it wants to prosper.

It is in his fourth and final lecture that Mr Ho makes his recommendations for the future. The first three are a lead-up to his point about not letting Singapore’s constraints get us down. The above points probably over-summarise his lectures, which were extremely scholarly and delved deep into how to develop a mindset to deal with the unexpected.

So here is a selection of quotes that struck me, as well as my one cent worth of thoughts.

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Besides Black Swans, he talked about Black Elephants

“The black elephant is a problem that is actually visible to everyone, but no one wants to deal with it, and so they pretend it is not there. When it blows up as a problem, we all feign surprise and shock, behaving as if it were a black swan,” he said, giving the example of how the British establishment didn’t think that Brexit could happen and was caught flat-footed when it did.

Nope, he didn’t give a Singapore example of a Black Elephant which is cross between the black swan and the proverbial elephant in the room.  Perhaps, the swelling of the foreign population in Singapore in the late 2000s could well be one of them. It needed an election and a backlash over the White Paper on Population to get the G to rethink its foreign manpower policies. As for a Black Swan event, there’s the 2003 Sars crisis which Singapore responded to magnificently with a Whole-of-Government (WOG) approach. See next point.

He talked about a WOG approach to coming up with solutions

“But while Whole-of-Government may be an imperative for dealing with wicked problems, it is not easily achieved. Governments, like any large hierarchy, are organised into vertical silos. For Whole-of-Government to work, these vertical silos need to be broken down, so that information can flow horizontally to reach other agencies.

“It requires not just a lot of effort but also a real change of culture to surmount this instinct to operate within silos, in order to make Whole-of-Government work properly. Often, the leader must nag his people to remind them that the Whole-of- Government imperative takes precedence over narrow sectoral interests and perspectives.”

Nope, he didn’t give any examples of difficulty. Rather, he gave examples of how the G was already taking this approach, which includes establishing institutions which work in the WOG way, such as the National Security and Coordination Secretariat and more recently, the Smart Nation & Digital Government Group.

He talked about the difficulties of challenging the official view

“But even if they try to do that, it is not always easy for the planner or policy-maker to challenge the official future, especially when that future is consistent with an organisation’s biases and preconceptions. Those who articulate a radically different future are at danger of being branded as subversive or lacking a sense of reality. So they will have a real incentive to make their scenarios more palatable for their audiences. But in so doing, they also inadvertently reduce the impetus for the organisation to confront uncomfortable alternative futures and to prepare itself for them.”

Maybe the paragraphs above reflect his thinking about the paucity of naysayers and the dangers of groupthink, which was a hot topic recently. Note, however, he is taking an organic approach – that all big hierarchical institutions have the same problems.

He talked about mavericks

“Some will argue that leaders should be more tolerant of mavericks. My response to this is “Yes, but only up to a point.” A maverick is a maverick only if he is fighting the establishment. If he believes enough in his ideas, he ought to have the courage and conviction of his beliefs to push them, even against resistance. If he gives up the moment he runs into some opposition or official rebuff, then in my book, he is not a maverick. I think this is a sound approach. It is essentially a Darwinian process in which only those who have thought through their ideas, and are prepared to stand up and defend them, deserve the chance of a second hearing. Some mavericks will survive.”

This was in his second lecture, delivered on April 19. So it wasn’t directed at a certain someone who wrote an unfortunate Facebook post.

He referred to the blame culture

“When things go wrong, as they often do, how do we respond? Do we just look for someone to blame, or do we work to solve the problem? A blame-seeking culture can be both destructive as well as unproductive. It might satisfy a human impulse to hold someone accountable. But it certainly does not solve the problem.”

So decision-making is an imperfect process. There’s so little time to come up with a solution, which can’t please everyone anyway. But surely holding someone accountable is not just a human impulse but also the right thing to do, just as we reward the meritorious? It is part of the process of transparency, which he didn’t touch on.

He said that Singapore can be more than a little red dot on the atlas.

“The central question that is posed in this evening‟s lecture is whether Singapore is merely a price-taker, or whether it has the ability to influence and alter the factors that shape the future?

“A thread running through all these four lectures – and this evening‟s in particular – is a hopeful view that even small city-states can influence, shape, and even create, not just markets, but also their operating environment. It is a belief in this view that hope can be redeemed for even a little red dot like Singapore.”

This was from his final lecture where he referred to small countries like Estonia and Denmark which envision e-nations in their future. But that is the subject of another column.

 

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Cyber attack

by Bertha Henson

I’M WRITING to you now because you’re the only one whose physical address I have. I only have email addresses for all my other friends. I’m sorry if you find it difficult to read my handwriting. I am so used to typing that I am not sure how to hold a pen. So I am using a pencil, so that I can erase ugly writing easily and, thank goodness, I still have a rubber from my Primary School days.

First, I hope that things are fine on your farm. Rearing chickens and growing vegetables don’t require the Internet right? Or are you logged in to that giant brain which is now in a coma? I feel envious of you. At least, you deal with real worms and not those which make you WannaCry. You know what I’m talking about right? Some NSA fellow in the US lost some spying software and now some jokers are holding a lot of people to ransom.

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I’ve been somewhat paralysed over the past few weeks and hopefully, by the time you read this (if nothing goes wrong with flight controls and air traffic), this time of stasis is over. In any case, I am using carbon paper while writing so that I can post a duplicate letter by sea-mail.

Right now, I’m re-learning everything, like what to do with my hands and fingers now that my cell phone is useless. I have taken to pen twirling and using one of those Fidget gadgets that’s become so popular.

Do you know how terrible it is to live without Google? I can’t answer queries in class as quickly as before or finish my assignments on time. I actually had to go to the library to do research. You should see us there…like monks in medieval times copying out notes. Lectures were even almost cancelled because the passes that get us into the lecture halls couldn’t work. We had to call the firefighters to break down the door. It was the first time I saw someone wield an axe in front of me.

Everything has changed.

My grandmother got sick and decided to see the sinseh instead of going to hospital. She’s worried that the hospital will prescribe the wrong medicines now that its system is down. So she had some needles poked into her and we managed to find a traditional Chinese medicine shop to buy the herbs and whatnots to brew her medicine at home.

My father says things are crazy in his office because he can’t get access to his files on the computer. He stopped storing hard copy versions a long time ago. All his old paper documents had been shredded to comply with the Personal Data Protection Act.

The good thing is that the worm hasn’t burrowed itself into the train system so we’re all still travelling from Point A to Point B. Except that sometimes, the doors at Point B can’t open. Our train operator made it clear it was a signalling problem and had nothing to with the malware although those of us stuck on board really wanna cry.

I can still reach my friends through the landline and watch free-to-air TV. My father bought a transistor radio as well because he said that’s the most reliable communication system we have. I think he’s paranoid.

He doesn’t want us to touch anything electronic or technological because he’s afraid of cross-infection. He wants to buy patches but they’re only available via the Internet, which of course, has died here. By patches, I mean a software that upgrades the computer system, defending it from cyber attacks. Think of it as a band-aid for a cut wound. He wants to buy plenty because the wound is still bleeding. I told him to also get bandages, in case he gets into an accident in his driverless car.

My mother says hi and wants to know how you keep uncooked food fresh when you have no refrigerator. I told her you kill your food or harvest your food every other day. She didn’t know, because she never went on a school exchange programme like I have.

The good thing is that I am getting more sunshine – and rain. I meet my friends more often and visit relatives in their home even though it’s not Chinese New Year. That because I can’t stay cooped up in my room staring at my blank computer. I am actually getting used to talking again. Having face-to-face conversations is such an exciting experience, especially when there’s no ring tone to disturb the flow.

I have to stop here because I have to recite the anthem of the Smart Nation. I think you are wise to stick with Mother Nature, even though we’re slowly killing her. But, at least, she can’t die overnight.

Sincerely,

Your Internet-savvy friend

 

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HACKERS are having a great weekend, with the recent spate of cyber attacks. At home, concerns over internet security hit a new high when the the Ministry of Education revealed that the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University were targets in a “sophisticated” cyber attack last month.

And in the rest of the world, a major cyberattack on Friday (May 12) hit schools, companies and even hospitals in over 70 countries. The choice of weapon? A ransomware tool called “WannaCry”, that locks people out of their computers unless they pay up.

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More worryingly, experts suspect that the hacker group behind the attacks, the sinister-sounding “Shadow Brokers”, was using software stolen from the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US. We look at some of the countries affected, alongside other developments in the hacking world:

1. London, UK: Healthcare calls in sick

NHS Ambulance, United Kingdom. Image by Flickr user Lee Haywood.

British hospitals affected by “Wannacry” were forced to divert patients needing emergency treatment to other neighbouring hospitals. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May said this was not a targeted attack at the National Health Service. “It’s an international attack and a number of countries and organisations have been affected,” she said in response to the cyber attacks. More than 40 hospitals and health facilities reported that they had been hit by the virus on Friday.

The attack had affected X-ray imaging systems, pathology test results, phone systems and patient administration systems. Doctors warned that this attack, the biggest in The National Health Service (NHS) history, could cost lives. Important information, medical records, and patient details could be lost if hackers delete the files. On Friday, doctors and nurses were left to treat patients without access to their medical files. Some patients had their operations cancelled. However in a statement, the NHS said, “At this stage we do not have any evidence that patient data has been accessed. We will continue to work with affected organisations to confirm this.”

The scale of the attacks on NHS raised questions about the security of its systems. Cyber experts said that this was because some health care organisations were using obsolete systems, while others failed to update their software.

2. Madrid, Spain: Phone companies stay on hold

Telefonica building, Madrid, Spain, Image by Federico Jorda.

Victims of the “Wannacry” virus in Spain included Telefonica, the nation’s biggest telecommunications firm, power company Iberdrola and utility Gas Natural. Spain’s government warned organisations of a possible cyber attack on Friday. Some organisations took precautionary measures as a result.

It is not clear how many Spanish organisations were affected by the attack. Telefonica said that the attack was limited to some of its employee’s computers on an internal network and did not affect its clients or services. After the attack on Friday, Telefonica switched off all the computers in its Madrid headquarters, and staff were told to shut down their workstations.

The Spanish government said in a statement that, “The cyber attack had not affected the provision of the companies’ services or the operation of their networks and the national cybersecurity institute was working to resolve it as soon as possible.”

3. Moscow, Russia: “We’re victims too!”

Palace Square, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Image by Flickr user Ninara.

When news of the cyberattacks broke, heads immediately turned to the Kremlin, which is facing allegations of using hackers to influence elections in the US and France. Russia was quick to assert that it wasn’t the criminal here, but a fellow victim.

Experts assessing the damage so far have concluded that Russia is the worst hit, followed by Ukraine and Taiwan. The Russian Interior Ministry confirmed that 1000 of its computers were hit, although its servers were unharmed.

But suspicions still abound, with pundits pointing out the possible links between the Shadow Brokers and Russia. Last year, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted out suspicions that the hacker group is backed by the Kremlin. Guess it all adds to the palace intrigue.

Edward Snowden tweets on links between the cyberattack and the Kremlin. Image from twitter.

4. Washington, DC, US: The Russian plot thickens

Former FBI Director James Comey and Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates at a briefing in 2016. Image by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Other than the PR disaster that the NSA now faces, the US has emerged relatively unscathed from the cyber attacks. International courier FedEx reported that it is “experiencing interference” due to the attacks, but did not provide any further assessment.

The Americans, meanwhile, are preoccupied with the allegations of Russian hacking into the presidential elections. While President Trump has ousted FBI director James Comey off his back for now, he faces even more pressure to find a new FBI director – will the new head continue the investigations?

And a fresh set of revelations suggest that there is precedent for Russian meddling in US elections. A new report alleges that the Russians attempted to hack the US election as far back as 2007, targeting Barack Obama’s campaign managers. Maybe the Russian hackers were there all along, just that no one noticed them?

5. Paris, France: What doesn’t kill you

Ensemble la France! Emmanuel Macron campaign poster, Paris, Image by Lorie Shuall.

Hackers prey on flaws in cyber security, but they can’t attack your psychological defences, as the French have proven. Right before the end of campaigning, hackers dumped frontrunner Mr Emmanuel Macron’s emails and financing documents online – in a eerie echo of the cyber attack on Mrs Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Once again, fingers pointed at Russia.

But unlike the US, France acted quickly the control the fallout. The election commission warned the press against republishing the information during the “quiet” period when candidates are not allowed to campaign. Some commentators think the US should emulate the French system of having a cool-off period.

And as satirist Andy Borowitz put it, the “French annoyingly retain (the) right to claim intellectual superiority over Americans.”

 

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by Suhaile Md

YOU’D think that with all the anti-Islam prejudice us Muslims chafe against, we would be better at recognising and weeding out the bigotry in our own backyard. Apparently not.

Last Monday’s (May 1) Yahoo article on the minority Ahmadiyyah community in Singapore drew a flurry of Facebook comments. This particular one bothered me:

Yes, Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim even though mainstream Muslims don’t, given the fundamental differences in some beliefs. Even so, neither threats nor anger are justified responses. I was hoping this blatant bigotry was a one-off incident but sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The Muslim community is not a homogenous one. Just like how Christianity has a multitude of denominations, Muslims are diverse, with many sects and groups approaching the faith in different ways. Broadly speaking, there are two main sects: Shi’sm and Sunnism.

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Earlier this year, Minister for Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim spoke about the need for Muslims to embrace diversity in an interview with Malay-language newspaper Berita Minggu (BM). He specified the need for the majority Sunnis to respect the minority Shias, reported ST which had referred to the BM interview.

Said Dr Yaacob: “They pay MBMF (Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund). They come to our mosques. They pray together with us. They celebrate the same Hari Raya. So why are we not treating them as fellow Muslims but different?”

So why are we not treating them as fellow Muslims but different?

There are no firm numbers in Singapore, but a 2009 Pew report estimated less than 1 per cent of Muslims here are Shia. Over 457,000 Muslims reside here according to the G’s 2010 population census. Globally, up to 13 per cent are Shia.

There was no Shia-Sunni divide during Prophet Muhammad’s time. The split happened a few decades after his death over competing views on who should lead the Muslims. The political struggle evolved into a religious split as different interpretations emerged from different sources of authority, resulting in some differences in practices and theological views on certain issues.

There are many sub-sects within Sunnism and Sh’ism. A minority of Shias in Singapore are from the Dawoodi Bohra sub-sect. They tend to be Indian Muslims and they pray at Masjid Al-Burhani in City Hall, the only Shia mosque in Singapore. The majority Malay Muslim Shias tend to be from the Twelver branch.

Like Dr Yaacob said in the interview, Islam is “very diverse”. Nonetheless both Shias and Sunnis share the same fundamental tenets of the faith. In 1988, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) issued a fatwa (ruling) that Shias are Muslim. A MUIS spokesman said that the fatwa remains valid to this day.

Still, “there are some within the [Malay Muslim] community… they hate Shia,” said Mr Yusuf Roslan. The 32-year old radiographer, who became Shia about 10 years ago, once overheard a Madrasah teacher praise the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for killing Shia Muslims. Another time Mr Yusuf’s friend was chased out of a mosque near little India when his turbah was spotted. Unlike Sunnis, Shias rest their forehead on a clay tablet, or turbah, when prostrating during prayers.

there are some within the [Malay Muslim] community… they hate Shia

Mr Habib Albaity has been involved in various Shia organising committees through the years. The 61-year old taxi driver said that there were times when the application to use mosque facilities for Shia events were unsuccessful. He is sure it had to do with them being Shia Muslims. While they have their own space on the second floor of a shophouse at Guillemard Road, it’s inadequate for larger events. They opened their new, larger, Shia centre yesterday (May 11).

When TMG emailed MUIS to ask if Shia Muslims can hold events at mosques, whether said events can be publicised on mosque property, and the possible reasons why they might be denied the use of mosque facilities, a spokesman only had this to say: “A mosque is an open, shared space for all Muslims regardless of orientation, to use for worship, learning and service. All Muslims are free to attend congregational worship together.”

It’s a curious response. Surely, a simple yes you can hold Shia events at mosques but like everyone else successful applications depend on availability, would have sufficed? There was no response to the question on publicity.

But the challenges are not from the Islamic authorities, said Mr Habib. It’s from the ground. People don’t understand Shi’ism and “give bad remarks as if we are not Muslims but very bad people”.

Since her school days, for example, 28-year old Ms Sakinah Abdul Aziz said she has heard offensive comments like “Shia are Kafirs (disbelievers)… oh they are orang sesat (deviant)”.

These are not benign stereotypes.

These are not benign stereotypes. In October 2015, a video of Shia Muslims singing and slapping their chest – a well-known practise – was uploaded on Youtube. There was public backlash significant enough that the owners of the private space near Bedok North, which they had rented, advised them not to apply the following year, said Mr Muhammad Al-Baqir. The 32-year old who was part of the organising committee added that the owners “have nothing against us… it was just the situation at that time”.

So it’s not too much of a stretch to think that mosque managers would prefer to avoid rocking the boat by disallowing Shia Muslim events to be held.

This discomfort with Shi’ism has taken a nasty turn up north. Shia Muslims face legal persecution by the authorities in Malaysia, said Associate Professor Syed Farid Alatas. But it wasn’t always the case, added the National University of Singapore (NUS) academic who specialises in sociology of religion.

A 1984 fatwa by the Malaysian Islamic authority, JAKIM, made it clear that Shi’ism was acceptable. This was reversed in 1996. Anti-Shia fatwas were issued in various states in subsequent years. This is contrary to the views of leading Islamic scholars, like the Shaykh Al-Azhar and Shaykh Qaradawi, from around the world. Now, Shia Muslims are detained and harassed by Malaysian authorities, their places of worship raided. Hate speech is also allowed to circulate.

“The thing is, Singapore is being influenced by this,” said Dr Farid. And it’s to a “very great” extent, he claimed.

The thing is, Singapore is being influenced by this

I went online to see for myself. A quick search led me to posts and comments on social media and Youtube which demonised Shia Muslims as monkeys, satanic, kafir, sesat, and so on. There’s also a public Facebook group called Melayu Singapura Tolak Syiah (Singapore Malays reject Shi’ism) with over 1,800 members.

It’s not just online. A trip to some Muslim bookstores along North Bridge Road and Geylang Serai revealed some questionable material on Shi’ism – mostly from Malaysia – like this book for example:

Self-flagellation as shown on the cover was outlawed decades back by the highest Shia Muslim religious authorities, said Mr Habib. The blurb describes the book’s contents as a “clear” outline of the “ideological background, and threats posed by Shi’ism against the true Islam… a warning against falling prey to the calls of the Shi’ites.”

There are legitimate doctrinal differences to discuss but “usually these anti-Shia books present a caricature and attack that caricature… it’s substandard scholarship,” said Dr Farid. Traditionally in the Malay- Muslim world, he said, the majority “Sunnis are not anti-Shia” to the extent it is now. There are many reasons for this shift.

One reason is “the rise of more extremist Ulama (religious scholars) influenced by Salafism” which in turn is “partly related to the greater influence of Saudi Arabia in Malaysian affairs”, he said. Salafist anti-Shia propaganda from Saudi Arabia spread in response to the Iranian revolution in 1979 which saw a secular government replaced by a Shi’ite-oriented leadership.

While there is extremism in many branches of Islam, including Shi’ism, Dr Farid believes “Salafism is the most dominant form of extremism in the Muslim world today”. He stressed however that “the vast majority of Salafis do not condone physical violence and are in fact against terrorism”. He meant extremist “in the sense that” it is too “exclusivist” and “legalistic” to the extent that even Sunni branches of Islam like Sufism are also considered deviant and dangerous. That said, Salafists are Muslims and he is “not a fan of banning” them.

Exclusivism, or the idea that there is only one narrow interpretation of Islam, is at the heart of the discomfort with Shias. This poster from 2015 for example advertised a seminar on the creed of the Sunnis and the “dangers of Shi’ism”:

Seminar on the creed of the Sunnis and the dangers of Shi’ism to be held on the Deepavali holiday.

It’s not clear if the seminar went ahead or whether anyone had complained to the authorities.

It’s more difficult to hold such seminars now. Since Jan 1 this year, all religious teachers must register under the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) to ensure what is taught takes Singapore’s context into account.

According to the Code of Ethics which must be followed, an Islamic teacher “must recognise that there are diverse opinions and schools of thought in Islam and may choose to adopt and teach any of these” so long as it does not cause public disorder. Also teachers cannot claim any practice of Islam is “deviant or unacceptable” unless the “Fatwa Committee has pronounced it to be so in a ruling”.

This is good methinks but more can be done. Given what is found in some bookstores, on social media, and the personal accounts by Shia Muslim Singaporeans, it’s clear that anti-Shia sentiments in Singapore are not insignificant. While such sentiments cannot be banned out of existence, stereotypes that fuel bigotry need to be engaged directly by religious and community leaders of all stripes together along with the community.

MUIS’ azatizah code of ethics recognises that there are “diverse opinions and schools of thought” in Islam. Maybe MUIS can consider having exhibitions and seminars presenting the diversity of Islamic thought at the various mosques – a grassroots education programme. Intra-faith dialogues at mosques would also be a good start.

Recognise that there are diverse opinions and schools of thought in Islam

There is a view that addressing differences in plain view – even if not sensationalised like the Imam video case – will blow the issue out of proportion riling people up unnecessarily. I think this misses the heart of the problem.

The point of the ARS is to ensure Islamic teaching is contextualised to our own society. But foreign celebrity preachers have the largest social media presence. Who vets them? Some like Zakir Naik are controversial and are banned from speaking here.

Yet through videos and social media posts, the ideas flow unchallenged, freely, online, publicly. Closed door engagement will never come close to the reach of viral videos. We risk having only one narrow interpretation of Islam dominating, that too a foreign one. Islam’s diversity in Singapore should be actively defended.

So public engagement should supplement closed door sessions. No doubt some will see engagement as a direct challenge and get upset. But it’s cowardly and wrong to stand by quietly while bigotry festers. Let’s take a stand, please.

 

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by Danielle Goh

GAZELLES. Adaptable, fast and incredibly rare.

But these gazelles are not the four- legged animals native to Africa. It’s a term for fast growing and profitable startups. With a 20 per cent increase of profits each year, these startups are highly sought after. Their natural habitat is an ecosystem of cutting-edge research, plucky investors and initiatives by the G.

Only 8.1 per cent of startups in Singapore are gazelles, making them an endangered species here. “While the number of startups have increased, and more have received government support, not enough are becoming successful gazelles,” explained Dr Wong Poh Kam, Director of NUS Enterprise, in an interview with The Middle Ground.

Companies like Razer and gaming giant Garena are examples of gazelles from Singapore. Founded in 2009, Garena has amassed annual profits of US$200 million, evolving into one of Southeast Asia’s biggest startups.

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Before 2010, startups in Singapore were hardly a buzzword, but now they are the talk of the town.

You’ve heard of Smart Nation, and of ministers hammering on about the need for innovation and to transform our economy. In fact, the G has been steadily building initiatives to further develop the startup scene in Singapore. Helmed by Finance minister, Heng Swee Keat, the newly revamped Future Economy Council will implement proposals by the Committee of the Future Economy (CFE) to fund more research and help startups build networks overseas.

With more investors and funding from the G, the number of startups have doubled between 2004 and 2015, showed the findings of a recent study by NUS Enterprise. In the study, younger startups surveyed were companies that were founded after 2010 and mature startups were companies that have been around before 2010.

Dr Wong Poh Kam, director of NUS Enterprise speaking at Innovfest Unbound 2017. Image from NUS Enterprise

The main thrust of the research is that while efforts have paid off in creating a thriving startup ecosystem, few make the leap to become gazelles.

We break down the key developments in Singapore’s startup scene and what it could mean for the future:

1. Increased number of new startups

Startups in Singapore rank first in business churn when compared with other countries, higher than UK and the US.

What this means is that many new startups are set up, and those that don’t succeed exit.

A high business churn generally bodes well for startups. “It’s a dynamic that attracts new players. This suggests that there’s more entry into the startup scene in Singapore, and it could be an indicator that it’s growing,” said Dr Wong.

The booming numbers of startups here can be attributed in part to an improving infrastructure and ecosystem. Yet, the results are not as great as they should be. Not enough startups are becoming successful, and gazelles continue to be far and few.

 

Diagram of different types of High-tech startups in Singapore. Image by NUS Enterprise Study

 

2. Highly innovative and better protected

Younger startups are more innovative than mature startups. And many have introduced new products and services to the world. The NUS Enterprise Study also found that those who dedicate resources to research and developing tech tend to have higher profits.

While more companies own Intellectual Property (IP), a huge jump from 19.6 per cent in 2010, to 49.5 per cent in 2016, still only less than half of startups in Singapore have their own IP.

Having IP is an asset to startups, as innovations are protected. A strong IP also helps investors to be confident that the products of startups are truly unique and new.

Both young and mature gazelles in Singapore list a dependence on major customers as one of their top concerns for 2016. Dr Wong sees this as a result of some gazelles not having a strong IP.

“The large customer, knowing that you are highly dependent on them, may squeeze you on price by threatening to switch if you don’t meet their demand. It will be less of a concern if you, the supplier has strong technology or IP that is not easy for other competitors to replicate.”

3. More cha-ching from the G and investors

Roboy, an advanced robot developed at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the University of Zurich. Image by Wikimedia user Adrian Baer

Younger startups benefit from more government support schemes and venture investments than their predecessors. This is a good thing. However, these resources must be directed toward ideas that can be competitive in the global market.

For Dr Wong, deep tech is the way forward. Think Artificial Intelligence (AI), DNA sequencing and supercomputers.

“This may require looking at reallocating funding support. Although there are higher risks and higher returns, deep technology is more likely to succeed in the global market,” said Dr Wong.

For more gazelles to be created, both startups and investors must be willing to take risks, and be invested in ideas that can change the world. The G may have already got the memo, as Dr Yaccob Ibrahim, Minister for communications and information, announced the launch of AI.SG at Innovfest Unbound 2017. This initiative will bring together investors, government agencies, startups and universities to advance AI research and development. The National Research Foundation (NRF) will invest up to US$107 million in the project.

4. Younger and more equipped

Founders of startups are getting younger. About 62 per cent are 39 and below, and increasingly more founders are female, up from 5.9 per cent in 2010, to 10.6 per cent in 2016. The majority of founders are also trained in technical disciplines and have work experience.

University programmes like NTUitive and NUS Enterprise help entrepreneurs in their first forays into the startup scene. They provide support for aspiring founders, and aim to transform research into commercially viable products. NUS Overseas Colleges links students with startups from around the world, with opportunities to work in Silicon Valley, Israel, Beijing and Stockholm.

What’s exciting is that these programmes have the potential to link breakthrough research with startups.

5. Many are expanding across borders

More startups are outward looking: over 50 per cent have branches overseas, and 72 per cent derive their income from international customers. For startups to grow, they need to tap into global networks and markets.

“Singapore’s domestic market is too small, if firms want to grow, you need to get regional and global,” said Dr Wong.

Some startups like Ascent Solutions have been global ever since it started and almost all of its business is international. Six years ago, it launched a GPS tracking solution for companies transporting cargo in Africa and now it is dominating the market there.

What is clear is that although the startup ecosystem is teeming with more innovative companies, more gazelles are needed.

It’s difficult to become a gazelle because a startup must be both quick to grow, and also profitable. While there are many fast growing or growth-seeking firms, they must take risks that can sometimes cost them gravely. Cautionary tales abound: Redmart, once the largest online grocery in Singapore, had substantial amounts of VC funding, but it ran out of cash before achieving profitability. Investors quickly pulled out. It was then sold to Lazada at an estimated price between US$30 million to US$40 million, a much lower value than before.

Yet there have been some who successfully make the transition: Razer, an American gaming company jointly founded by Singaporean entrepreneur Mr Tan Min Liang and Mr Robert Krakoff, who is an American, is what Dr Wong terms as a super-gazelle.

“Both startups and investors need to take risks for startups to make the transition to become gazelles.” said Dr Wong. “It may be risky, but if there is a breakthrough product, the startup can achieve success.”

 

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PUBLIC holidays – a time for rest… and a time for protest?

While Labour Day went by without too much fanfare in Singapore, the occasion was politically-charged in many other parts of the world. People took to the streets to call for better working conditions, while labour unions aired their grievances to politicians.

And with the rise of the far right in the US and across Europe, this year’s protests were also uncomfortably tinged with anti-immigrant sentiments. Have May Day protests become an even more potent political force? We look at significant ones from this year:

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1. Paris, France: Going too far against the far-right

Image by Wikimedia Commons user David Monniaux.

Divisive elections and large gatherings can be an explosive mix, as the French found out on May Day. A peaceful march near the Bastille monument escalated into violence rapidly, as protesters hurled Molotov cocktails at the police, who responded with tear gas.

Six officers were injured, with one suffering third-degree burns. The tensions came on the heels of the terrorist attack at Champs Elysees that killed an officer, stoking fears about national security in an increasingly volatile country.

The majority of protestors claimed to be marching against presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and her anti-immigrant rhetoric. There are suspicions that the crowd was hijacked by a group of about 150 agitators, who were upset that Ms Le Pen had made it to the final round of polls. But their outburst might have turned into political mileage for the far-right stalwart, who has long condemned violent riots in the country.

 

2. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Garment workers ‘sew’ dissent

Image by Wikimedia Commons user Thenetparadigm.

The Cambodian government had officially banned labour unions from marching on May 1, but for disillusioned citizens, disobedience was the only option. Thousands of garment workers took to the streets to demand an increase in their monthly wages and better working conditions. Police on site did not interfere with the march.

The apparel industry is one of Cambodia’s biggest sources of income, generating $6 billion for the country annually. It has long relied on suppressing wages to maintain a competitive edge globally, but this has come at the cost of entrenching some 600,000 workers in poverty.

Over the years, the Collective Union Movement of Workers, a Cambodian labour union, has achieved small victories for garment workers, such as a $13 raise in the minimum wage effective this year. But until they obtain their requested minimum wage of $171 per month, the workers will take their grievances far beyond May Day.

 

3. Jakarta, Indonesia: Flowers on fire

Image by Wikimedia Commons user Jonathan McIntosh.

Around 40,000 protestors flooded the streets to demand higher wages, and improved working conditions. Workers marched toward the presidential palace, while other activists carried signs advocating for the rights of female domestic workers.

But the peaceful labour demonstrations in Jakarta were marred by the burning of flower boards left for Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja. A group of trade unionists from Indonesian Electric Metal Workers Federation and the Confederation of All Indonesian Workers Union (KSPSI) destroyed the boards and set them on fire. Trade unions have opposed Ahok as they are unhappy with the minimum wage set by his administration for Jakarta. Some have interpreted their actions as politically motivated and an unwarranted distraction from the advocacy of labour rights. “Jakarta today – a handful of people trying to tarnish the labour struggle…this is shameful” said a netizen on twitter.

Defeated in the 2017 Jakarta elections, Ahok and his running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat got only 43 per cent of the votes. His rivals accused him of making blasphemous statements against Islam. Indonesian prosecutors had called for him to be jailed.

 

4. Istanbul, Turkey: Reminder of a gruesome history 

Image by Wikimedia Commons user Mstyslav Chernov.

May day protests in Turkey turned violent as the Turkish police fired tear-gas and rubber-bullets at demonstrators in Istanbul. Among those who attempted to reach Taksim Square Mosque, 200 were detained by authorities. Experts say that tensions were heightened especially after a crackdown and a failed coup on July 15 last year.

Clashes erupted in various parts of the city as demonstrators, led by members of left-wing parties and trade unions, took to the streets.

Taksim Square was the place that demonstrators gathered to celebrate Labour Day until 1977, when the protests turned ugly, with dozens killed on “Bloody May Day”.

Turkey’s Western allies say Ankara has sharply curtailed freedom of speech and other basic rights in the crackdown that followed a failed coup last year.

 

5. Oregon, United States: Pepsi takes centre stage

Screenshot from Twitter user Doug Brown.

And on the lighter side of things – Kendall Jenner’s infamous Pepsi ad got disproven in real life. In a May Day protest in Portland, someone actually attempted to hand a can of Pepsi to law enforcement, in nearly the same fashion that Jenner did in the now widely-spoofed video.

But no, the crowd did not erupt into cheers. Rather, the officer simply did not react to the gesture. And other protesters pelted the police with Pepsi cans instead. Not so refreshing, after all.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Johan Fantenberg. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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