Published on 24 Oct 2022

Singapore ranks as world’s 12th tech city, with room to grow as tech-savvy generation enter job market

They are all aged just over 20, studying computing, and hoping that when they graduate, they land a meaty career in a technology firm - a multinational, preferably.

University students Lin Jiayong, Davidson Chua and Jirapat Jirasevijinda belong to the generation born around or after the millennium, when Singapore doubled down on quantum psychics, data science, blockchain and plenty of cool technology as it pushed towards its vision to become a wired, high-tech and intelligent city.

Now, 42 years after it launched its first national computerisation plan in 1980, Singapore - placed 64th among cities for its population size - has come up as the world's 12th top tech city.

The standing, compiled from 14 metrics - including tech talent, real estate and business environment - puts the country behind three Chinese cities, six Indian ones, Hong Kong and Melbourne, but ahead of Sydney and Tokyo.

The inaugural Tech Cities 2022 report was compiled by real estate services Cushman & Wakefield (C&W) using data taken mostly from the first three months of 2022.

C&W managing director for India and South-east Asia Anshul Jain said the ranking reflects the country's draw as a tech hub: Eighty of the world's top 100 tech companies operate in Singapore and more than half have headquarters here, he said.

When the computerisation plan was launched, "we had less than 1,000 computer professionals", he added.

"Today, we have over 100,000."

There are now more than 4,000 start-ups here, translating into one young hustling venture for about every 1,000 Singaporeans.

Singapore is at a crossroads of opportunity, with a "once-in-a-lifetime chance" to become a global powerhouse in two sectors, said Mr Wong Wai Meng, chairman of SGTech, the trade voice for more than 1,000 tech companies.

He added: "We believe sustainability and digital trust are two key emerging areas for Singapore to be the front runner and create value in."

SGTech released a white paper last Thursday projecting that the industry could become a $4.8 billion market supporting almost 45,000 jobs in Singapore by 2027.

"It will include existing areas like cyber security and data protection, and there will be a whole new ecosystem that needs to be formed from professional and consulting services, standards and audit services, to legal and arbitration services," Mr Wong said.

Digital and green technologies will be the other frontier, alongside Singapore's Green Plan to become a hub in carbon services, green finance and energy. More On This Topic 'Competition for tech talent is fierce': Does S'pore have what it takes to compete globally? Singapore's Web3 scene gaining expertise with influx from Japan

The Information and communications sector was the seventh-largest contributor to Singapore's economy in 2021, at 5.6 per cent.

That was only 63 per cent of what could be its full potential, with US$17 billion (S$24 billion) worth of domestic digital output and the same amount in digital trade activities, said the Digital Prosperity for Asia coalition, a grouping of local digital companies.

Mr Koh said: "The Asia-Pacific digital economy pie can grow a lot bigger."

Mr Jefrey Joe of Alpha JWC Ventures, one of more than 100 tech investment firms recognised by the Economic Development Board, said that while Singapore has a smaller market compared with neighbouring countries, it has strengths that complement its neighbours.

Mr Bensen Koh, the coalition's secretariat, said a study it undertook shows that, combined, the 11 largest Asia-Pacific economies captured only 30 per cent of their digital economy potential in 2021. A US$2 trillion potential, to be exact, the study reported.

Mr Joe, the co-founder of the Jakarta-based venture capital firm, said: "Indonesia, with the largest number of digital consumers in South-east Asia, has massive talent and market opportunities.

"Singapore, with its business-friendly environment and future-ready digital infrastructure, serves as the hub that catalyses the formation of innovative start-ups and supports their growth."

Netizens have lampooned Singapore's efforts to giving the house away, with tax breaks and incentives to woo foreign firms. Singapore still has no home-grown star like Taiwan's Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company or South Korea's Samsung Electronics, they say.

Professor Boh Wai Fong of Nanyang Technological University said Singapore has taken a "sub-average game" approach.

"It's trying to make everybody better off, rather than what some countries are doing - being very protectionist so that they can grow some of their home-grown companies. Singapore can't afford to do that because we are just too small."

Instead, the government tries to develop an "innovation ecosystem", where it helps to grow start-ups with support and funding, she said.

Mr Huang Yaoquan, the chief executive of building and warehouse solutions firm Qbasis, said the lure of big pay cheques at foreign tech firms puts tech talents out of reach of some local enterprises, but he rejects suggestions that they eat the local boys' lunches.

Today, one could come up with a blockchain algorithm and find partners anywhere in the world with a laptop, he said.

"We also frequently work with talent overseas. There are talents overseas that could be had for a better price, or a higher price than what we have here. However, you want to use these resources is up to you as an entrepreneur.

"Because Singapore is being pushed as a global hub, we also got interesting opportunities," added Mr Huang, pointing to a Memorandum of Understanding between his company and an aerospace multinational after being shortlisted in the Open Innovation Challenge initiative led by the government.

Mr Sam Liew, president of Singapore Computer Society, named three challenges Singapore has to overcome: Keeping up with changing technology; procrastination over change; and spotting not just the next emerging skill but when to adopt it.

He noted: "In some cases, we want to be leading the way in the tech frontier, but in many situations, it might be much better that we take on the role as 'fast followers'."

In the next five to 10 years "I believe that the biggest risk to Singapore in staying at the top is the shortage of local talent", Mr Liew added.

"Adopting a DIY (do-It-yourself) approach with just local talent will not help Singapore innovate and scale fast enough.

"However, we need to be thoughtful in selecting foreign tech talent. Skills, domain and markets are key considerations. There is a need to ensure that their skills and experience, over time, benefit and grow the knowledge base in Singapore." More On This Topic Local tech firm to hire 400 poly grads for work-study programme to plug shortage of tech talent Tech and upskilling crucial to transform facilities management and draw talent

For the students, who are somewhat lured by rosy prospects to study computing, the future is both hopeful and daunting.

Mr Jirasevijinda, who left Thailand to study in Singapore because of its IT and finance hub status, said: "I realised that my motivations are driven partially by the global trend of digitisation and the growing number of high-paying jobs.

"The competition does scare me, so I would say one of my fears is not being able to catch up with others in the fast-paced environment. I'm also worried about the state of the economy and its impact on the tech industry," he said.

Mr Lin said: "I do not fear there being no job for me, but I fear not being a right fit for the job, or reality not matching my expectations.

"All I can do now is equip myself with skills like programming, communications and stakeholder management, alongside applying for internships at various tech companies."

Source: The Straits Times