Singapore & Silicon Valley

I received an email interview request from a reporter at Business Times after meeting and chatting with her at yesterday’s Tech Venture event. I decided to reproduce my responses for the purpose of record and transparency, and hope that it can maintain the quality of conversation that our nascent ecosystem needs.

Hey James, nice talking to you yesterday at TechVenture.
Q1 Were you serious about helping with my SV story? Haha.

I’m always serious ;-).

A couple of questions for you, if you may:
Q2) How long were you at SV? And doing what?

I was there for grad school (Stanford) from 2005 – 2006 and again for work between 2007 – 2009 when I was working at Infocomm Investments, visiting venture-funded startups every other month to try to convince them to set up software engineering teams in Singapore. Since 2010, I’ve visited at least once a year to keep in touch with our fund’s investments in the US.

Q3) In SV, did you notice more Singaporeans moving there for work?

It wasn’t as obvious from over there since the Valley is filled with immigrant engineers of which Singaporeans represent a minute fraction.

It got a lot more obvious after I returned to Singapore in 2006 and tried to wrap my head around the shortage of startup-compatible software engineers in the Singapore tech ecosystem. I noticed that software engineers above a certain quality/talent level who were sufficiently exposed to western tech media, tended to aspire to leave Singapore (small fish pond) for SV (cutting-edge large homogenous market) to work at startups there. Many of them cite the higher standards of software engineering, higher salaries, better quality of life (cheaper car + house, more room to explore physically/mentally, be different and be accepted) and greater respect for software engineering as a profession as major pull factors.

I have many Singaporean friends who are now working in SV startups ranging from the more well-known ones like Google, Twitter and Quora, to the less known but equally awesome ones such as Kicksend. I also have seniors from my secondary and junior college days who stayed in the US and are still working at Apple and Nvidia.

Q4) Why is SV great / not great?

It’s great, period. Everyone wants to emulate SV, and everyone has failed to date.

It’s the only spot in the world that has consistently delivered globally relevant and successful companies and kept up with its virtuous cycle of paying it forward, and celebrate failure as much as it celebrates its successes. They’ve managed to suspend reality in a zone between San Francisco and San Jose as entrepreneurs and capitalists pursue often-impossible dreams, and backed by capital sources that understand that with high returns come high risk.

Q5) Do you think Singapore is the SV of Asia, like many articles claim?

No way, far from it. The “Silicon Valley of” label carries with it a heavy burden of expectations that we’re still far far away from. Our own ecosystem bled out after many startups here just about missed out on the IPO boom post-dot-com-bust at the turn of the century and again during the telecom bust; talent bled out as they sought to even out their individual opportunity costs. We’re only just beginning to see a revival of key elements in our ecosystem over the past 2 years – designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, capitalists, investments, acquisitions – yet much more remains to be done by us collectively before we can look back in the annals of history and claim Singapore to be the SV of Asia.

A more appropriate term could be to call Singapore the “SV-of-Southeast Asia in the making”; we’re not able to claim SV of Asia when we’re faced with the gravitas that are the 2 large markets of China and India, north and west of us, and smaller but still significant markets of Japan and Korea. There’s also only 1 Silicon Valley. Singapore will have to form its own basis for relevance amidst Southeast Asia. At best, we can try to become the SV of Southeast Asia, by fostering stronger interactions between Singapore’s ecosystem and other large markets around us, such as Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Give us time, grant patience to bureaucrats to avoid constant course corrections when it comes to their ecosystem and innovation efforts, and wish upon us all a strong dose of luck, and we might just get there.

Q6) I can hear you snickering already, haha. But thanks anyway!

I don’t like snickers. I prefer to take a break and have some Kit Kat!

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.