5 min read

6 non obvious reasons to bet on Singapore

(i) Cross posted from Singapore Global Network

Gaurav studied Computer Science at the National University of Singapore, worked as an early engineer at Spotify in Sweden before moving back to Singapore to start a company that didn’t hit product market fit; to then realize the need and moved into product management, at PayPal. This article is the kind of conversation he has with friends considering moving to Singapore.

1. Opportunities are becoming consequential in the region from a macro perspective.

  • With companies like Google, Twitter, Meta, PayPal, Stripe, Wise (read MAMAA), and more setting up their product/engineering offices HQ in APAC, along with a slew of early tech leaders with exponential scale-up experience in the valley moving here, the tech ecosystem continues to grow..
  • Local players including Grab, Gojek, Lazada, Carousell, SEA / Garena reaching unicorn statuses have proven to the world that Singapore can be a small island with big dreams.
  • Singapore is a tactical HQ for Chinese scale-ups looking to expand in the region with Binance, Alibaba and Tencent already setting up an engineering base here.
  • With easy access to capital, low corporate taxes paired with fair and transparent regulation, it’s only a matter of time for both scale-ups overseas and startups to set up their HQ here, tapping the local talent to then expand their engineering/product offices.
  • With the likes of Economic Development Board (EDB) / GIC (Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund) and EDBi , and top tier VC firms like Temasek (Singapore’s other sovereign wealth fund), Sequoia (Surge) having skin in the game backing aforementioned companies, thereby providing fertile ground to attract top class talent and widen the types and stages of companies here.

With the above tailwinds, as both startups and established scale-ups build for the needs of the next billion users (NBU) and SMEs which are the backbone of the ascending economies in the region providing, tech opportunities here will continue to get more consequential.

2. Product & Engineering management is burgeoning, yet nascent and direly needed

Given the growth and momentum of these startups, there’s a huge (and increasing) demand for experienced product and engineering leaders. As more companies scale along with the challenges in growing and developing leaders internally — which is acute in SEA — there is a need for seasoned and experienced leaders to shape and grow the talent here.

Managers are stretched to support teams larger than what they have seen before, and finding resources to develop them is a key concern among founders. As a side, given Singapore is geographically small and evolved to be digitally savvy, there is a lower barrier to seed and set up remote-friendly teams (with access to top-notch talent in India and Vietnam as an eg) as the culture to collaborate across timezone becomes the norm.

IC engineers, data scientists, and Product Managers (PMs) look for mentorship in their next role as a significant filter, which is a gap that’s rising and yet to be filled by seasoned operators, which is only to come from outside Singapore.

Despite the tech layoffs recently, startups and early stage startups are jumping on the opportunity to hire such top notch talent, specifically those that are confident to thrive the next 12 to 18 months.

3. Startups and scale-ups are becoming product driven / customer centric

In 2015, when I was interviewing for companies here, there were just a few recruiters specializing in PM as a function. Fast forward to now, you’ll find hundreds focused on hiring at all levels, with an accurate view of the market conditions. Additionally, Product Management FestivalMind the ProductProduct Led Summit which are top product-management centric conferences run in Singapore physically every year.

Anecdotally, during my stint at Grab, a memorable experience was the onboarding immersion program. Every Grabber gets to wear the Grab branded jacket to both deliver food and sit next to a driver partner with passengers (with their consent) for transport rides across a few days to really understand the challenges our customers face; this was enlightening and refreshing, influencing how different products were crafted and go-to-market (GTM) strategies were devised.

More recently, with the HackForPublicGood hackathon by open.gov.sg — which is the SG government wing for tech for the public good — my team had the opportunity to contribute as external participants. Before any code was written, every team went through rigorous user interviews, supplemented by design workshops to understand the problem being solved is critical.

Pre-hack design workshop brainstorming on what problem statements are worth solving for at HackForPublicGood 2022.

With the initial success of Singapore being a financial hub, i.e. indexing towards being business, operations, compliance or legal driven, I notice a change in a slew of companies that are actively customer and product-centric, keeping the user’s needs and pain points top of mind. Learning about trade-offs actively debated between different stakeholder asks are the crux of enriching chats I come across in meetups locally.

4. Crypto friendly regulation in a mature fintech ecosystem

Southeast Asia’s ascending economies have seen early adoption of crypto. Specifically, the Philippines (had early regulation in 2017!), Indonesia and Vietnam adopted and embraced crypto early, with their sizable (600M+) young and tech leaning population and sparking the web3 play-to-earn economy.

Monetory authority of Singapore (MAS), the fintech regulator, are tech-forward, while remaining prudent about balancing the act between seeding innovation and managing specific risks (anti-money laundering, terrorist finance, investor protection, etc). Coinbase, Crypto.com, Revolut, Coinhako and others getting (in principal) digital payment token licenses to buy, hold and sell crypto, help set the stage to see further innovation in web3 particularly DeFI, stablecoin use cases and NFTs / gaming.

As a callout, Partior, a collaboration between DBS, JP Morgan, and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek is disrupting cross-border payments with open and near real-time blockchain settlement between banks in SGD and USD, reducing friction in both time and fees for businesses to move money across the region.

Lastly, with the density of crypto startups increasing, I hope to serendipitously bump into Balaji Srinivasan (x-CTO of Coinbase, x-a16z partner) or Vitalik Buterin (Founder of Ethereum) soon as they make Singapore a base.

Despite the crypto downturn with the likes of FTX and Celsius recently, a sizable community in Singapore believes in core tech innovation of blockchains continue to build products and services, with the support of the Singaporean regulators.

5. No visa nightmares, easy access to a slew of work visas

Singapore has friendly work immigration visas that are not a lottery ticket, with a streamlined, timely, and straightforward process. With challenges in employment visa timelines and appointment scheduling in other countries, the employment pass (or EP) as it’s belovedly called is the easiest and fastest way to move for anyone earlier in their career given the processing times are now ~10 working days.

To attract highly skilled leaders, Singapore also recently introduced both the Tech.pass and Overseas Network and Expertise Pass which is promising to uplevel the tech ecosystem, along with Entrepass which continues to attract ambitious founders to establish their startups here.

Get an overview of Singapore’s work passes here.

6. Equity compensation is becoming table-stakes

Increasing inflation and the dampening of both private and public valuations have brought significant awareness to potential employees to actively consider and be incentivized to build companies long term with equity compensation or ESOP (Employee Stock Option Program). ESOPs help aligns incentives of early employees in building the company long term and reduce employee attrition.

In the state of ESOP report in SEA by Saison Capital, more companies are setting up their options program at the seed stages and proactively allocating it to the early employees. Coupled with globally relatively low personal tax slabs, building / joining an early-stage startup is lucrative.

Lastly, given Singapore is

  • English speaking (read: Singlish for the locals),
  • is very safe
  • mostly sunny
  • comfortable quality of life
  • Relatively affordable childcare
  • decent work-life balance
  • diversity of people & culture, and a
  • wide variety of cuisine

No geography is perfect and depends on what you are looking for in the phase of life you are in. However, the question remains — when are you dropping by for a roadshow?