Singapore: The Digital Hub of ASEAN

In the first half of the Spring 2017 semester at Sloan, I had an opportunity to take a 5-week student-organized course learning about the economic, political, and cultural landscape of the South East Asian region. This culminated in an incredible 2-week study tour through Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam during spring break which allowed us to experience firsthand of what we learned in the classroom.

Suffice it to say, the trip blew my mind (just like everything else I’ve experienced at Sloan so far). This is partially because I had never been to that region of Asia (which is sad to admit since I grew up in Mongolia), but mostly because of how much I learned about myself, my incredible classmates, and the complexities of life in that region through the journey. This is the first of a brief three-post series in which I will attempt to share some of my experience there with a specific focus on technology and entrepreneurship. Check out my other 2 posts here and here.

Picture 1: The solar powered Supertrees of Singapore at the Gardens by Bay

First stop on the trip was Singapore. When learning about the country in class before the trip, we watched a taping of Fareed Zakaria’s interview of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first PM and benevolent dictator, from a few years ago. The phrase he used over and over again to describe his past 50 years of effort in the country was an attempt to”build a first-world oasis in a third-world situation” and to communicate to its people the concept of the “survival of the fittest” and the need for a “long term approach” in everything. That was exactly what I saw and hadn’t fully grasped until I set foot in the country.

Digital Hub

One of Singapore’s most important and recent efforts to become the “first-world oasis” of the ASEAN region has been its increasing focus on technological advancements in the country – an attempt to improve productivity through efficiency gains rather than capital or labor gains. Although there were still significant traces of a third-world state (noticeable in our walks through the street vendors, food markets, and government-owned housing units), everything from the elevators, trains, vending machines, restaurant food orders, and even the bathrooms in the skyscrapers were a bit more tech-y than what I had been exposed to in the US. It was evident that the push for a corporate-driven digital innovation, consumer driven tech entrepreneurship, and foreign tech investments are improving the daily lives of the locals there.

However, key questions still remain for the future of Singapore. Can it continue staying the digital hub of ASEAN? Will its slowed growth be surpassed by its neighbors? Is the political and institutional set-up helping or constraining the development of entrepreneurship and innovation? How will the cultural and ethnic diversity of the labor force impact a continued innovation towards a more digital society?

Video 1: When visiting the bathroom during our visit to the Temasek’s office, a Singapore based investment firm.

Video 2: When ordering food at a Singaporean branch of Tsuta, world’s first Michelin-starred Ramen restaurant from Tokyo.

Video 3: When visiting the training center of the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) to simulate the near-future experience of its customers in their banks. Increments of innovations like withdrawing money of any denomination and ticketing booths can be seen to improve lives.

Long Term Sustainability

Another visible effort in building a “first-world oasis” seems to be its general green movement to balance its exponential infrastructure development. In addition to the solar powered Supertrees mentioned earlier in the post, most of the skyscrapers seemed to have whole floors or areas fully devoted to plants. According to the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint of 2015, the country is focusing more on eco-friendly buildings, smarter technologies, and car-lite streets for a “more sustainable and livable Singapore”.  As one of the most densely populated cities in the world, can Singapore truly effectively move towards a fully sustainable urban center in the long term? Can other big cities around the world replicate this approach?

Picture 2: Few of many buildings with greenery built into their designs

   

Lot of questions to ponder, but I am happy to say that this visit – although too short – was the perfect first exposure to the economic, political, and cultural landscape of Singapore. I will definitely be back in the near future to learn more about the country so that I can look for ways to replicate its success in the development of Mongolia.

Picture 3: Meditating on top of the Henderson Waves Bridge with a view of the Singapore skyline

 

Khatantuul Filer

Khatantuul Zorig Filer (Khat) is a 1st year MBA student at MIT Sloan School of Management where she spends most of her time working on the initial phase of her mobile app startup, learning about entrepreneurship and innovation, and finding ways to improve our lives, to advance our minds and bodies, and to make an impact in the world through emerging technologies (AI, Machine Learning, AR, VR, and IoT). Before coming to Sloan, she was a Technology Consultant at Accenture where she had variety of experiences in product development, business development, strategy, marketing, sales, finance, operations, analytics and project management for the defense sector. She studied Math and Statistics at University of Virginia. She was born and raised in Mongolia and hopes to help develop the country in the long term.

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