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Technology

Singapore tech companies vie with Thailand for region's talent

Survey of executives finds retaining technical staff among biggest challenges

Singapore is attracting global investors who want to use it as a base to invest in Southeast Asia's tech sector.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Thai training startup Vonder is planning a fresh round of fundraising as it seeks to expand to Singapore, and to triple the size of its team, becoming another tech company racing to attract the best from the region's talent pool.

Like many Southeast Asian startups hoping to take advantage of the boom in digital businesses, Vonder needs the right people to move the company forward.

"It would be the right move to go to Singapore first," Vonder founder Shin Wangkaewhiran told the Nikkei Asian Review recently. "The government [in Singapore] really supports the startups, even if you are a foreign startup, and there is also a lot of technical talent there."

Vonder produces fund modules online for corporations to teach their employees new skills. The tech company, founded by the former journalist in 2018, received seed funding of around $130,000 and is hoping to raise more capital in a Series A round.

With the proceeds, Vonder wants to increase staff to 27 from the current 13. Thai companies like his give their Singapore peers a run for their money. A survey of about 150 executives conducted by SGInnovate, a tech investor owned by the Singapore government, showed that these top managers consider Thailand, a thriving startup hub, a top rival for talent in Southeast Asia.

In the poll conducted last year, 23.6% of respondents named Thailand as the biggest competitor in the region for attracting research and development and technical professionals. Malaysia was thought to be the second-biggest competitor, with Indonesia third and Vietnam fourth.

Shin Wangkaewhiran, middle, founder of Thai education technology startup Vonder, has plans to expand his business beyond Thailand, and is looking to hire more tech talent. (Photo by Dylan Loh)

A spokesperson for SGInnovate said the competition to attract talent is due to "exciting opportunities happening in these markets." Indeed, Singapore state investor Temasek Holdings and U.S. consultancy Bain & Company last year projected that the region's internet economy will hit $300 billion in 2025.

"Singapore, compared to most places, does have a higher number of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] graduates in relation to the percentage of population, and has some great talent. But when we look at the demand versus supply, it's still not keeping up," said Aziza Sheerin, regional director for General Assembly, which runs programs to develop technology skills.

Worries over a brain drain are reflected in the SGInnovate survey. While 87.7% of respondents were confident Singapore can remain competitive as a science and technology research and product development hub, 41.3% said retention of talent was a top challenge, and 17.4% said the ability to attract skilled workers from overseas was another test.

Gog Soon Joo, chief research officer at SkillsFuture Singapore, the agency tasked with helping Singaporeans develop skills to meet changes in the workforce, said companies needed to have long-term plans for their employees to keep them engaged.

"The company has to think ahead three to five years," Gog said. 

SGInnovate offered the same view, saying: "Instead of big salary increments, startups and organizations including public sector agencies are known to dangle juicy carrots in the form of a technical challenge to attract talent."

Clarence Quek, senior client solutions director for recruitment agency Randstad Singapore, said technology companies must also place a greater emphasis on deeper engagement with staff right from the start of employment.

"Employee engagement begins from when you start the hiring process," Quek said. He added that companies should empower lower-level executives in making decisions to give them a greater say in how things are run in an organization, within limits.

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