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Can Singapore be Asia’s Innovation Hub?

Zafar Anjum | Nov. 6, 2013
Can Singapore become the Silcion Valley of Asia—experts at the recently held Google Big Tent deliberated on this matter and shared some sharp diagnoses and exciting suggestions.

Google Big Tent

Panelists discussing innovation in Singapore at the Google Big Tent

Can Singapore be Asia's Silicon Valley?

Barring Hong Kong in Asia and Tel Aviv in the Middle East, and potentially Bangalore in India, no other Asian city seems to be jockeying for this position. Tokyo, Tai Pei and Seoul can boast of some big ICT corporations but when it comes to innovation, Singapore seems to be doing something right. That's why the world is looking at the city state with a certain awe and promise, even though the Fortune magazine named only Hong Kong in Asia as one of the top four world's tech capitals after Silicon Valley and New York.

Surprisingly, Hong Kong did not even figure in the Global Startup Ecosystem Index compiled by Startup Genome and Telefonica. It ranked Singapore 17 among the top 20 innovation ecosystem of the world. Silicon Valley was number one followed by Tel Aviv. Sydney was at number 12 and Melbourne at number 18. Bangalore in India was at number 19, one rank above Santiago.

Two weeks ago, I was in Silicon Valley, and a friend from Arizona, who has been involved with some modest startups, made an interesting remark. He told me that he increasingly saw Singapore as the Silicon Valley of Asia. Another friend from Los Angeles told me how the United States government was slashing research funds to universities whereas the Singapore government was pouring tons of money into the innovation engine of its research institutions.

He referred to a Time magazine article that made that point (East Asia leads the world in business funding, Times Higher Education, 12 August 2013). According to the article by Jack Grove, the World Academic Summit Innovation Index shows companies are investing the equivalent of US$97,900 in each scholar in South Korea to carry out work in innovation and research on their behalf. Singapore is in second place, bringing in an average of US$84,500 per academic, whereas the US lies in 14th position, with industry contributing nearly four times less to its academic researchers (US$25,800 per person) than in South Korea.

Phil Baty, editor of the THE World University Rankings, sees Asia investing more than the US in research as "a shocking wake-up call for the West'".

However, when I attended the Google Big Tent event in Singapore on 29 October, I had the feeling that while the world believes in Singapore's potential to be an innovation city, it is the Singaporeans themselves who are sceptical of the Singapore promise.

At the event, questions came up from locals casting doubts at the country's future potential for innovation. Was something wrong in the Singaporean education system that neutered the innovativeness of Singaporeans? A journalist even asked if there was any accountability for the millions of dollars that the government poured in startups year after year, without much to show for it. She seemed to ask if such blind investment could yield any worthy fruits?


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