If you are a fan of romantic comedies you may recall a scene in last year’s hit movie Crazy Rich Asians in which friends join the happy couple at an outdoor food centre for an evening of laughs, beer and Singaporean food. Amerasian Rachel is trying her best to fit in but is caught off guard by a particularly spicy mouthful of Laksa, much to everyone’s amusement. In some ways this typifies the visitor experience in Singapore. At first it can be hard to find your place in the cultural melange, but there are surprises around every corner and people are friendly once you’ve been properly introduced – so it’s very much worth persisting.
During a recent trip to Singapore I ventured into the Newton food centre where that movie scene was filmed. The venue exemplifies Singaporean society and politics perfectly with a spicy blend of regional cuisine subtly dominated and flavoured by the prevalent culture on the island. But perhaps that is part of Singapore’s magic formula which has been openly founded on the basis of a benevolent autocracy. And I must admit that it was a pleasure to spend a week in a society where trains and planes consistently run on time and there is no trouble from neighbours with barking dogs or idiot boy racers ripping up the tarmac. There are even plans to require registration of e-scooters, because it is simply the sensible thing to do.
The subtle hand of the State is found almost everywhere. Singapore has one of the largest sovereign funds per capita of any nation and many of the most influential corporations are State owned. But that is not to say that private enterprise is discouraged. Quite the opposite in fact. The city state has a very active startup scene and despite some obvious headwinds in the economy and increasingly stiff competition from neighbours such as Hong Kong, India and Dubai – Singapore remains the largest single source of investment in South-East Asia.
Co-working hubs like Found8 can dial you into local networks quickly and The List is a community that keeps founders in touch with all the coolest tech and innovation events around the region. I spoke to Sarah Yen from Simmonds Stewart’s Singapore office during my visit. The Wellington based legal firm assisted South-East Asian business clients to raise $220M in venture funding in 2018, which was double that transacted for their clients in the New Zealand market. Yen explained to me that after a brief lull, global venture funds based in the region are raising capital once again. The legal firm has built good relationships with U.S. based funds like Sequoia which have Asia focused funds for example.
New Zealand startups or growth stage companies seeking capital should not be shy about looking to Singapore, she says. Yen outlined how her firm can easily handle setting up a local presence for clients interested in tapping into the deep pockets of these funds. Taking VC investment is not everyone’s preferred pathway of course, but for those who choose to do so, it can be a hard road in New Zealand. For example the scarcity of follow-on funding has recently led to criticism by Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck in an explanation of why his company had to move to the U.S.
So perhaps we need to be a little more creative in how we engage with offshore funders. Either we need to somehow encourage global funds to engage locally more frequently or we need to develop structures that better facilitate inbound investment, whilst retaining economic value within the New Zealand economy. Otherwise we are doomed to remain largely excluded from the global flow of capital and confined to being an incubation nest for ventures that must eventually fly away and leave us.
Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Creative Forest and a mentor with Startup Weekends and Lightning Lab. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.
Photo Credit: Paul Spence