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Startups

Investors fret over Singapore talent shortage as investment booms

City-state's position as tech hub faces challenge from manpower crunch

Business leaders, left to right, Vertex Holdings CEO Chua Kee Lock, UOB Venture Management CEO and managing director Seah Kian Wee, EDBI senior vice president Paul Ng, and iGlobe Partners founding managing partner Soo Boon Koh speak at the Nikkei Forum "Innovative Asia" in Singapore on Jan. 16. (Photo by Karina Nooka) 

SINGAPORE -- Even as Singapore remains a hub in Southeast Asia for investment, from startups to multinational companies, the city-state's position as a thriving center of innovation is under pressure due to a talent shortage.

Panelists speaking the Nikkei Forum Innovative Asia in Singapore on Thursday highlighted the challenge despite better-than-expected data on inward foreign investment for 2019 published the same day.

The Economic Development Board, the government agency tasked with attracting investment, released figures showing the city-state drew $15.2 billion Singapore dollars ($11.3 billion) in investment commitments last year, beating its own forecast for SG$8 billion to SG$10 billion.

Paul Ng, senior vice president for investment at EDBI, the EDB's investment arm, told the audience that the challenge for Singapore, as it strives to keep its competitive edge, is to find the people needed to sustain enterprises as they grow.

Ng said higher-order skills are crucial to keep things running: "We need to develop a differentiated level of skill -- adaptability, focus on problem-solving capabilities -- so that we can innovate and we can value-create."

While Singapore can attempt to source talent from overseas, Ng said there is also a need to develop the domestic talent base in the country.

The government has stringent measures to calibrate foreign manpower flows into the city-state, but it has also acknowledged the challenges that high-growth companies face in finding the right people.

Singapore last year announced the Tech@SG scheme, which allows fast-growing tech companies to bring foreign talent into the country to build a core of team members for their businesses.

Panelists, left to right, Tokopedia President Patrick Cao, Zomato founder and COO Gaurav Gupta, Financial Times chief correspondent international finance Henny Sender (moderator), Sequoia Capital India managing director Abheek Anand, and Appier CEO Chih-Han Yu discuss challenges for Asian startups. (Photo by Karina Nooka) 

Soo Boon Koh, founding managing partner at Singapore-based venture capital firm iGlobe Partners, noted, however, that talented people may not be attracted to Singapore because of its small market size.

Koh said entrepreneurs in Singapore should collaborate with their counterparts in Southeast Asia to broaden the talent pool: "We have to build our own talent. So I don't believe that because we are Singaporean, therefore we think that we are better than the Indonesians or the Malaysians. I don't think so. But we need to cooperate with people."

Regarding what types of skills are needed, Seah Kian Wee, chief executive and managing director of UOB Venture Management said persuasion is a key skill for entrepreneurs. "If the entrepreneur can't even convince his best friend or family members to invest, I think he will probably have to think again whether he will be a good entrepreneur," Seah said.

While finding the proper people is a challenge, startups must also focus on tailoring their products and services to the needs of specific markets, said Abheek Anand, managing director of venture capital firm Sequoia Capital India.

Anand said that to draw interest from investors, companies do not necessarily need to have completely original ideas, but must at least differentiate themselves from competitors in specific ways.

"The definition of originality is not one of large differences, it's one of a series of small differences that makes a solution better suited for a market. And we definitely, absolutely look for that," Anand said.

Patrick Cao, president of Indonesian e-commerce platform Tokopedia, warned that even if a company has had a measure of success, it must not be lulled into complacency and should constantly challenge itself to do even better.

"You really build out your ecosystem and surround yourself with people that reinforce those positive messages and allow your company and your employees to maintain that spirit," Cao said.

Where emerging technologies like artificial intelligence are concerned, Chih-Han Yu, chief executive of Taiwanese startup Appier, said his goal is to create value for companies by helping them adopt AI in a practical way. "What we do is actually try to help [them] use AI technology, but embed it in a very driven way, such that a company can feel the power of technology," Yu said.

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