Goodbye 2019, Hello 2020!

My year in review, and some thoughts for the year ahead.

As I enter the final two years of my 30s, I find myself in the midst of a new journey of self-discovery that has taken me towards new work- and life-arcs. I look forward to 2020 with equal parts of fear, hope and awe.

2019 Annular Solar Eclipse, as seen from Singapore
The 26 Dec 2019 Annular Solar Eclipse at its peak at 1:23pm, as seen through my Sony A7R3 + 70-200mm lens, from Hong Lim Park in Singapore

The last time I felt this way was a decade ago, at the end of the previous decade (Nov 2009), as I broke my scholarship bond with 2 years 8 months to go and left public service to launch and run Neoteny Labs with Joichi Ito. Looking back, I think this was a pivotal moment in my “life tree” where *in this deep husky Star Treky voice* multiverses formed around my reality and futures reflowed *echo, echo, echo*. I’m thankful for this twist.

I’ve been trained as an electrical & computer engineer, worked my first job in the public service developing the ICT industry in Singapore and catalysing the startup engineering core, before taking the red pill and switching hats to venture capital, tech incubation and entrepreneurship. There’s been all sorts of ups and downs, such is life, but I’ve generally had a good run, with exits on both investing and entrepreneurship fronts. If I had to reflect critically on how I could have done better, it was that I did not dare to risk more and swing for the fences. It’s about time to step it up a notch (or two).

Guess what this is?

This time round 10 years later, I find myself at the basecamp of the Mountain of New Beginnings putting together the pieces of a new business that’s firmly in between the world of atoms and bits. This is probably the worse of times (global politico-economic cycles and all) to take risk and start a new company, but it is also the best of times (thanks to my anchor Uzia Sng and our children’s love that motivates) for me to create a bigger impact while attempting to attain escape velocity, by harnessing all that I have internalised over the years; from investing in the confluence of design, software and hardware, to operating at the intersection of ideas, talent and capital.

While fundraising for my new venture recently, I was asked by an investor prospect whether I’m prepared to commit at least 10 years of my life into it. He later asked if I was prepared to sign a 10-year founder vesting schedule. It’s obvious that the age of the unicorns is over, and the rhinos will soon be upon us. The white rhinoceros lives for up to 40 – 50 years. I think any founder setting up a business today needs to be prepared to lead his company for at least 10 years, if not more. Profitability over exits, customer-centricity over unicorn-ability!

I am grateful for all that I have, at peace for that which I have not, while yearning for that something more. It’s an itch deep inside that I’m guessing I won’t be able to properly scratch until this new decade will be over, by which I hope I can claim that I’m sated. I don’t know where it will take me, but I think it’s going to be awesome.

There are only two constants in this world; change, and my family. My better half and our children will always be my best investment. They give me motivation and that inner strength to keep plodding on, no matter the outcome, knowing that I’ll always have them.

Our family of 5 taking a break on our hike to Cathedral Cove in Coromandel, New Zealand. It was an epic 23-day, 5500+km road trip in our 7.2m long motorhome.

May we all find and scratch (all?) our itches in our next 10 years! (And hopefully be scratching them together 🤪). Belated Merry Christmas, happy new year, and a happy new decade to us all.

Hello world!

It’s good to be back from my self-imposed blogging exile.

You can take a look at what this site used to look like (thanks to the Wayback Machine), with key snapshots in Jul 2017 and May 2011. Some of the other snapshots don’t retain the blog format well; the equivalent of bit rot in online web archival, I presume?

I then drifted to Medium for a bit, but could never shake off the feeling that the blog was never quite “mine”. It didn’t take long to reinstall WordPress, relink my domain and restart.

This time round, I’ve hopefully put in stronger protection for my instance so that my public digital memories have a better chance to stay.

Selfie at Te Wahipounamu, Maori for “the place of greenstone”, also known as Milford Sound – New Zealand, 8 Dec 2019

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll try to consolidate old WordPress archives (if I can find them!) and migrate Medium posts over to here, and squeeze some new content in if time permits. Wish me luck!

‘Gotong Royong’ is the Only Way for Indonesia Fintech

Ask ten thousand people when they think the Indonesian fintech industry was born, and you’re going to get as many birth date guesses as there are islands in Indonesia. Some would say it began with the release of OJK Regulation №.77/POJK.01/2016 by Otoritas Jasa Keuangan in January 2017, where Indonesia’s regulator unveiled its initial framework to regulate and facilitate the development of the fintech industry. Others would claim it began earlier, with the founding of the earliest fintech startups in the various fintech verticals of payment, remittances, crowdfunding, lending, asset management and marketplaces. And then there are others — banking and finance veterans — who try to remind us that fintech is merely the latest buzzword coming off the backs of earlier waves of digitization in banking and finance that gave us online banking over WAP before the age of smartphones.

Over the past few decades, the definition of fintech has expanded rapidly to match the relentless pace of technological progress; from the initial application of technology to the back-end of banking and finance, to its present-day portmanteau that applies innovation to the frontiers of information and communication technology, transforming financial activities for individuals and companies. With the likes of networking, computer science, computer vision, artificial intelligence, machine learning and even distributed ledger technology, we’re seeing the complete overhaul of the finance experience for individuals and companies across the realms of trade, banking, financial advisory, and in the origination, underwriting, pricing, promotion and operations of financial products.

History Repeats Itself, I-Win-You-Lose, but There Is Hope.

As the Luddites of the early 18th century (1811–1816) have shown us, technology-induced disruptions in any industry tend to incite significant feelings of helplessness and despair among the disenfranchised, while exacerbating gaps in efficiency and competitiveness between those who become adept in harnessing its innovation and those who can’t. I started my career in 2006 as a policy maker specializing in the ICT industry in Singapore, became an early-stage technology venture capitalist in 2010 investing in tech startups in Southeast Asia and North America and have been a tech entrepreneur in Southeast Asia since 2013. Across all three sides of the table — initially as policy maker, industry developer and regulator, later on as investor and fund manager and most recently as entrepreneur and business leader — I have developed keen appreciation for the levels of close cooperation and ‘constructive agility’ needed between regulators, innovators and consumers to ensure that there is a sufficiently robust regulatory sandbox to give innovation room to thrive, while minimizing those that are left behind by the growing digital divide.

It is with the above in mind that I laud OJK’s invoking of Indonesia’s gotong royong kampung spirit as encouragement for greater collaboration between alternative fintech and mainstream banking and consumer finance. It is a breath of fresh air amidst antagonistic media portrayal that positions fintech companies as upstarts competing with financial institutions for customers and eroding the income of those who are slow to embrace new technologies. Ironically, some banks have even been quoted to expect regulators to level the playing field by ensuring that there is equal regulation between traditional banks and the fintech industry to ensure that banks will have no difficulty in competing with new-kid-on-the-block fintech. Among fintech players, Aidil of UangTeman has not helped matters by suggesting that the Indonesian online lending is a tragedy waiting to unfold for regulators and investors alike, thanks to the easy availability of cheap and dumb foreign capital flooding into Indonesia seeking fast and aggressive growth.

As banking, finance and fintech industries experience rising entropy, we see those among us who have chosen the easier “I-win-you-lose” narrative and focus on negatives and how our differences divide us and potentially hurt one another. I stand opposed to this regressive view and adopt the other side of the same coin, arguing instead that it is much more sensible for upstart fintech and mainstream banking and finance to seek out common ground and mutually beneficial opportunities. I am heartened to note that I am not alone in holding this view, and am at least joined by banking veterans such as Jerry Ng, President Director of Bank BTPN, who discussed the differences in operating cadence between traditional banks and fintech companies, urging both parties to leverage on their core strengths in credit scoring using unconventional data by relying on the balance sheet of banks and the data science capabilities of fintech players.

TunaiKita as Part of Indonesia’s Fintech “Gotong Royong”

My talk at Money 20/20 Asia titled “Enabling Smarter Credit Decisions with New Datasets and Models”.

As one of Indonesian regulator OJK’s forty-odd registered peer-to-peer lending platforms, TunaiKita has actively promoted our unique institution-to-peer (i2p) lending platform — the first of its kind in Indonesia — to our banking and multifinance lending partners in Indonesia. Unlike traditional crowdsourcing peer-to-peer players in Indonesia, we do not accept consumer lenders on our platform and instead work exclusively with institutional lenders such as local banks and multi-finance companies.

Our mobile app is accessible across the 27 largest cities in Indonesia, across the islands of Java; Jabodetabek as 5 cities, Bandung, Surabaya, Semarang, Kudus, Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Magelang, Malang, Kediri, Jember, Gresik, Banyuwangi), Bali (Denpasar), Sumatra (Medan, Palembang, Padang, Pekanbaru, Batam), Kalimantan (Banjarmasin) and Sulawesi (Makassar, Manado, Pontianak).

Our fraud-resistant platform acquires new and repeat individual borrowers entirely via online channels through their smartphones and our mobile app, performs e-KYC to ensure their identity and provides borrowers with an accurate credit score powered by our proprietary ‘lending robot’. Individuals can then apply for loans that match their needs, backed by institutional lenders.

As a peer-to-peer loan arranger, we recommend and facilitate a loan between our institutional lenders and consumer borrowers, giving Indonesians anywhere-anytime access to unsecured consumer loans from the convenience of their smartphones, with loan amounts ranging from as low as Rp.500rb up to Rp.20mio with flexible tenures of between 10 days to 12 months. We approve and disburse loans to borrowers’ bank accounts 7 days a week within 24 to 36 hours via multiple redundant integrations with local Indonesian payment providers. We remind borrowers to repay on time and conduct respectful loan collection from overdue borrowers on behalf of our institutional lenders.

Despite being a startup in Indonesia with barely a year of operations under our belt, TunaiKita is actually a subsidiary of Wecash, a big data tech company founded in Beijing in 2013 that has since raised more than US$260 million over 4 rounds and more than 800 people across our offices in China, North America, Brazil, Singapore, India and Vietnam. TunaiKita also counts publicly-listed multi-finance company Danasupra Erapacific (IDX:DEFI) as its local minority shareholder. We have successfully commenced a lending collaboration with our first BUKU III bank earlier this year; all this while growing our Asia Pacific team to over 100 people across Singapore, Indonesia, Beijing, India and Vietnam, and climbing up the ladder to become the top free lending app in the Finance category of Indonesia’s Google Play Store since 22 May 2017.

It takes the Wecash village — comprising of our team, lending partners and tech partners — to raise the TunaiKita child. It would take everyone to embrace the gotong royong spirit (and each other) if we are to move the fintech-finance industry forward in the coming years.

Indonesia Fintech’s Four Horsemen: Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt and Greed

Yet, all our talk about collaboration in Indonesia fintech will go nowhere if we allow ourselves to be blinded by fintech-finance industry’s Four Horsemen.

Conquest, War, Famine and Death, reborn as Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt & Greed

Let me start with Fear.

There is a common misconception that fintech companies should have higher non-performing loan (NPL) ratios compared to traditional banks and consumer finance companies. Purporters of this fallacy fail to recognize the technological prowess of big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence to collect vastly more data and to dynamically train and tune credit models and cut-offs to achieve far better and responsive results than traditional underwriting typically conducted in mainstream financial institutions. By conflating NPL of consumer loans to that of corporate loans, or by relying on snapshot portfolio NPL instead of more indicative NPL figures via vintage analysis, we allow ourselves to be distracted by the shadows of fintech’s “high NPL” and fail to appreciate its benefits in providing greater financial access to the missing middle in the Indonesian society.

Next comes Uncertainty.

Another common misconception is that higher NPL by fintech companies relative to banks and multifinance companies’ NPL ratios equals higher risk and implies poorer credit quality and portfolio performance. Propagators of these falsehoods fail to recognize that thin-file, new-to-credit customers are inherently higher-risk and harder to acquire compared to more digitally aware, bankable consumers. Interest rates for shorter-term loans will always be higher for riskier borrowers than installment loans for borrowers with better credit scores, to account for higher loan delinquencies in those borrower segments. The NPL of any new loan portfolio with new borrower segments will always take time to stabilize as credit models get trained and underwriting improves.

And then there’s Doubt.

How could fintech companies ever identify and approve borrowers without requiring a wet (ink) signature? Indonesian banks need to comply with face-to-face Customer Due Diligence (CDD) KYC processes or fallback to biometric (face, fingerprint and/or iris scanning) protocols. How can Indonesian regulators so cavalierly permit fintech companies without greater levels of equity capitalization to perform seemingly weaker versions of e-KYC act as peer-to-peer arrangers of loans? Can Indonesian banks act as institutional lenders via fintech P2P regulatory frameworks? How would banks’ CDD KYC requirements work under P.OJK77/2016? Should peer-to-peer fintech companies be subjected to greater equity capitalization requirements than just the minimum IDR 2.5 billion OJK mandated?

There are so many questions lingering on our minds, yet so few ready answers to blow away the clouds of Doubt. Yet, if there is a will, there will be a way. You can be a doubter by the sidelines, or you can be a do-er and build this industry up, felling one doubt at a time alongside the rest of us in the fintech-finance industry.

Last but not least, we are left with Greed.

As the old saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Yet, even amongst fintech players, there are some who view other peers as competitors out to starve each other of oxygen in the room. I think the fintech industry is currently far too nascent in development to focus on competing with our peers. The market is large and early enough such that we aren’t yet bumping into each others’ elbows (yet!). The finance industry is also unique in the sense that no one winner can ever take all. It behaves more like a network of centralized trust nodes. Banks lend to each other and also to multi-finance companies, while consumers borrow from different banks and multi-finance at different times for different purposes. We have also seen how a bank’s popular loan product often quickly inspires countless other me-toos by other banks.

And in other news, money is green.

This same network effect between capital, corporations and consumers is set to repeat itself in the fintech-finance industry where sharing, collaboration and frenemies should always trump outright disdain, antagonistic relationships and petty squabbles between competitors.

I’m pretty sure fintech naysayers are gleefully clapping when we fight among ourselves and jostle for favour with regulators. I have come to learn about interest groups that lobby regulators for an interest rate cap to create greater distinction between lintah darat-like payday loans and peer-to-peer platform loans. This goes against the spirit of “gotong royong”. First up, payday loans are short-term loans alongside installment loans for consumers and corporate loans for businesses, with each serving entirely different borrower segments and risk profiles. Peer-to-peer is a mechanism of loan arrangement and co-underwriting, and can be used to facilitate loans to consumers or companies. It does not make sense to compare the two. Secondly, I do not believe it is pareto-efficient to prematurely introduce lending interest rate controls in the name of “consumer protection” from “predatory interest rates” this early in our growth curve when Indonesia will be better served in letting the market undergo several years of price discovery (just like China did) and permitting fintechs to bring thin-file, new-to-credit customers onto the SLIK system and our newly formed credit bureau databases.

Profit (or Loss) = Principal x (1 — NPL) x (1+loan interest) less Operating Expenses less User Acquisition Cost less Cost of Funds

No matter whether you are a fintech peer-to-peer arranger, a bank or multi-finance, we all operate upon the same universal formula (above). With or without enforced interest rate caps, the inherent NPL of subprime new-to-credit customers will stay the same; capping loan interest can only result in an increase in the Cost of Funds to maintain overall profitability. A clearer distinction needs to be made on consumer protection as applied to consumers as lenders and consumers as borrowers. In deliberating on consumer protection where consumers are borrowers, regulators should avoid the heavy hand of interest rate caps and focus more on consumers’ financial literacy, standardized interest calculation and fee representation by peer-to-peer platforms.

Gotong royong is the only way for Indonesia fintech. What do you think?


It’s been an exciting past year and a half in the Indonesian fintech industry, and I thank my team and institutional lending partners for their support. I’ve learnt a ton from my friends and partners in the industry and look forward to speaking to more like-minded folks on how we can harness the kampung “gotong royong” spirit to transform the consumer finance experience for individuals across Indonesia. You can write to me at james@wecash.asia or james@tunaikita.com.

Goodbye 2017, Hello 2018!

My year in review, and some thoughts for the year ahead.

This is the last week of 2017, and as the year draws to a close, I stay in Singapore and try to slow down a little, breath and think. It’s my annual ritual to reflect upon the past year and plan for the next, a habit I started since last year’s transition from 2016 to 2017. I subscribe to the belief that privacy is a modern invention that has since become obsolete; our hyper-connected world has changed the playing field from physical rivers and coastal areas into digital rivers and waterways in which our physical constraints no longer hold sway. The better we get at managing a cohesive self in our networked world, the better we develop our abilities to surf the disruptive waves of data and technology that lies ahead of us.

Sunset in Australia
The most beautiful sunset during our 2+ week November getaway in Mount Tamborine, Australia

Last month, I took a long trip with the family to Queensland, starting with Gold Coast and Mount Tamborine and ending at Brisbane. The trip helped me break from my usual daily mad-rush routine and reflect upon the past year. If 2016 was a year of consolidation, 2017 was a year of endings and beginnings for me on all fronts. I’d like to share my thoughts here in adherence to my adoption of radical transparency in my life.

The Silicon Straits Group, in Transition

THE PIRATES’ 3-year journey

Silicon Straits is turning three — it’s only been three short years but so many things have happened. Let's take a short moment to watch our short video summarizing our story so far.

Posted by Silicon Straits on Monday, May 23, 2016
A commemorative video made by the Vietnam team during our third anniversary; happier moments forever cherished amongst our alumni.

This year, I was sad to preside over the end of my Silicon Straits Foundry partnership with Kent Nguyen and Andy Bui after a solid run of 3+ years. We started our Vietnam office in 2013 as a subsidiary of Silicon Straits, growing to a team of 30 in Saigon in 6 months and reaching a peak of more than 90-strong in end-2016. Earlier this year, we spun out one-third of the team to become the IT arm of 7-Eleven Vietnam, sold another one-third of the team to a regional tech unicorn for cash and stock and spun out the remaining team into an independent design studio playfully named Naughty Vision. It was a good financial outcome for all of us, but I couldn’t ignore the bittersweetness of it all.

I had started experiencing increasing friction on management matters with Kent Nguyen and Andy Bui throughout the second half of 2016 till its end — ironic given how 2016 was Silicon Straits Foundry’s biggest year ever in terms of revenue, profits or team size in our brief 3-odd years of existence —with the straw that broke the camel back being the manner in which the 7-Eleven Vietnam tech spin-out was structured without Silicon Straits Foundry’s involvement or my opinion. That led me to put an end to our partnership, starting with the sale of our 20-odd strong Bluebird project team in February, our ex-CEO Jonas Eichhorst’s departure also at or about February, the paring-down of surplus headcount in Vietnam throughout the year by Andy and finally ending with the spinning out of Naughty Vision in November. With the massive changes in direction and partner dynamics, Jonas and I both felt there wasn’t much point for him to stick around so he left shortly after the acquisition. We’re now in the final throes of a clean cut between Vietnam and Singapore, and I’m glad to be in a position to put everything behind us going into 2018.

A spanking new 7-Eleven Vietnam store opens in November in place of our quasi-public cafe in Phu My Hung.

I guess things could have ended on a better note given how our trio had gone out with a (good) bang — clocking our successful first and profitable entrepreneurial exit — but you make lemonade when life serves you lemons. I’m glad we’re all now in a position to put things behind us and move on. I’d also prefer we counted our blessings and shared memories rather than focus on any of the lows along the way. I’ve had a profitable venture fund with Neoteny Labs and can now add the next feather to my cap in the profitable exit with Silicon Straits Foundry. I’ve learnt a ton from my Vietnam experiment and wish Kent and Andy all the best in their future endeavours.

From the ashes of Silicon Straits Foundry rose a new subsidiary Silicon Jungles that I cofounded with old buddy Sam Hon in March, where we built a boutique Singapore-based agile product foundry team building interesting stuff that will launch in early 2018. It’s always refreshing to start anew and rebuild while applying the learnings from my Vietnam experiment. One of our first collaboration is with AsiaBoxOffice to build the “Stubhub of Asia Pacific” through a joint venture named ABO Labs. I’m really honoured to be working with Sam who I greatly respect as a serial tech entrepreneur and CTO virtuoso, and we’ve been cooking up a storm thus far with some interesting loafs of opportunities in our proverbial oven. Hit us up if you’re looking for a new challenge and want to know more[1].

Our tribe at Silicon Straits is all about the perfect balance between venture capital and venture building; investing in the convergence of design, hardware and software and operating at the intersection of ideas, capital and talent. After investing in Carro in 2016, I then co-invested with Aaron Tan into PolicyPal. I also invested into Udu (a Neoteny 3 fund portfolio), Razmig’s new startup Pixel Labs and SurePark. I also made a significant investment into TunaiKita, the Indonesian subsidiary of Wecash, as part of our group’s venture builder strategy.

Thanks to Sam, Ken and Celine at Silicon Jungles and also Sandra, Helena and the rest of the amazing team at SmoothOps[2], I’ve been able to spend ~10%-15% of my energy on team building, strategy and business development without any detrimental impact to our growth, while throwing myself into the next challenge of my life, Wecash Southeast Asia.

[1]I wish I could share more, but we hate to count our chickens before they hatch.
[2]I invested and started with Sandra and Helena in 2014 as a subsidiary of Silicon Straits but have since sold part of our stake back to them, turning the company into just an affiliate of our Group.

Project Wecash in Southeast Asia

Wecash cofounder & CEO George Zhi (支正春) with me in Cambodia in Jan 2017

The bulk of my time this year was spent on jumpstarting Wecash in Southeast Asia as CEO for the region. I tied up the joint venture agreement between all parties for our go-to-market in Indonesia just before Chinese New Year. Frontend product design and development started right after, led by my able lieutenant Zeng Feng Ping and her then-small team in Beijing as we made good progress. On 22 May, we launched our online lending platform on Indonesia’s Google Play Store and submitted our registration application to OJK after a mere 14 weeks. We made our app public and held our press conference on 26 July. We then completed our registration with OJK on 24 August and started the 1-year countdown to full compliance with OJK’s P.OJK77/2016 regulatory framework for peer-to-peer fintech players. We had initially launched with only cash instalment loans with tenures of 3 to 6 months but added short-term loans with tenures of 10 to 30 days towards the end of September. I would spend most if not all of my weekdays in Jakarta, with the occasional trip to Beijing. From a humble beginning of just 5-strong in Beijing and myself in mid-December 2016, the Wecash Southeast Asia team grew to today’s team of 7 in Singapore, 50-odd in Jakarta and 29 in Beijing. In 2018, I expect our family to grow across the region and look forward to welcoming new team members and entering new markets in the coming weeks and months.

On 22 May, we launched our online lending platform on Indonesia’s Google Play Store and submitted our registration application to OJK after a mere 14 weeks. We made our app public and held our press conference on 26 July. We then completed our registration with OJK on 24 August and started the 1-year countdown to full compliance with OJK’s P.OJK77/2016 regulatory framework for peer-to-peer fintech players. We had initially launched with only cash instalment loans with tenures of 3 to 6 months but added short-term loans with tenures of 10 to 30 days towards the end of September. I would spend most if not all of my weekdays in Jakarta, with the occasional trip to Beijing. From a humble beginning of just 5-strong in Beijing and myself in mid-December 2016, the Wecash Southeast Asia team grew to today’s team of 7 in Singapore, 50-odd in Jakarta and 29 in Beijing. In 2018, I expect our family to grow across the region and look forward to welcoming new team members and entering new markets in the coming weeks and months.

My fellow director and TunaiKita cofounder Andry Huzain hard at work.

Peer-to-peer lending in Indonesia is truly at an inflection point as we head into 2018. I’m excited that we’re getting a chance to apply first principles of mobile, technology and finance to build the best institution-to-peer lending platform in Indonesia and provide sustainable, responsible credit to improve the lives of our customers. I’m a lot less bearish than fellow fintech entrepreneur Aidil Zulkifli who recently published an op-ed on TechinAsia titled “Indonesian online lending is a tragedy waiting to unfold”. I acknowledge there is a fair amount of hype especially from the seemingly never-ending pipeline of Chinese lenders looking to enter Indonesia. I also concur that some form of reality check will kick in at some point across the sector. Having said that, I do not agree with many of Aidil’s other points and believe his strawman and logical fallacies deserve a post of its own; stay tuned!

Team TunaiKita at work in Setiabudi Atrium.

I’m particularly pleased with what the team has accomplished in 2017; we set out to avoid reusing any design or code from China to avoid inheriting any technical debt or China-specific design that won’t work in Indonesia. George and I swapped plenty of notes and I studied our China apps as well as our competitors’ in both China and Indonesia to ensure we had a product that could delight our users. It was the first time I played product owner, product manager and programme manager all at once while building out our Indonesian team and its operations with my TunaiKita cofounder Andry Huzain. It was a lot more intensive and at-scale than building up Silicon Straits Foundry in Ho Chi Minh, and I felt truly challenged for the first time in a long while.

Our Customer Excellence team at one of their internal coordination meetings, led by Astrid who had just joined us from UangTeman.

I’m really proud of our team in Jakarta and Beijing that accompanied us through our 22 May launch; we burnt long hours and consecutive weekends with nary a complain to ensure that we could launch on time. I remember the personal sacrifices made by folks such as Andry, Feng Ping (and many others in our Southeast Asia team in Beijing), Mega, Gerry, Ben, Ardi, Bambang, Nadia and Princess, when we operated out of Setiabudi Rework and later when we partially moved into our partially renovated office in Setiabudi Atrium; those days will always serve to remind us of what’s possible when we’re fully aligned and motivated.

TunaiKita's main entrance, afterhours

As our product organisation grew over this past year, I started stepping back from the product management role and handed more of the product’s ropes over to Joe Lee who joined us as Head of Product. We added to our team across all departments and deployed our first real-time loan underwriting engine in November after having collected enough training data and backtesting our initial model against our historic portfolio. Our Android app is now live in 18 cities across Indonesia, with the count slated to rise to 26 cities by the end of next month. We’re set to welcome our first institutional peer lender next month alongside our own affiliated peer lender, with many more institutional lenders in our pipeline. Our product and technology roadmap is looking strong. I expect rapid growth in the coming year, with a good shot at profitability if we achieve or exceed my forecast for 2018.

Me at work in the office I share with Andry; can you spot the Forbidden Research scarf I kept from MIT Media Lab’s conference in July 2016?

I’ve been an extremely demanding leader in 2017, and my expectations are only set to go higher as the peaks ahead of us that we need to scale grow taller. I expect a lot from myself and expect the same high standards from those around me. I apologise in advance to my team and partners if I come across as being too blunt and direct, unrelentless and unforgiving, but I do not suffer fools gladly, yearn to meet people who can point out my mistakes, and hope you’ll understand where I’m coming from if you ever cross my line of fire. Only then can we have a solid chance at building a world-class product and company that serves tens of millions across Southeast Asia well.

On Friends and Family

They grow like weeds and are cute-as-hell; I miss them dearly whenever I‘m not by their sides.

I’ve been a terrible friend, husband and father in 2017. I don’t make enough time for myself, and by extension, to my friends and my wife and children. Over the past few years, my friends and work contacts have overlapped to the point that I’ve got a small circle of work-related friends who I resonate with and at different points in time, spend more time with. I can count on one hand the number of non-work friends I’m still weakly in touch with. I had to turn down a year-end party invite by Wei Qing yesterday evening as our helper had gone home for the holiday period and I was neck deep in housework and caring for the kids. I flew almost every week and am only home on weekends. Even when I’m home, my mind is racing so fast as I subconsciously juggle the various moving parts on my work and personal fronts that my wonderful wife has had to tolerate me being “physically present but mentally absent” at times.

My younger dorky self at a group photo from our joint December camp hosted by Raffles Computer Science Club during my teenage years. This must have been taken in 1996 or 1997. It was refreshing to actually have female geeks to interact with for a change as Raffles Institution had been an all-boys affair during my 4 years there, from 1994 through 1997.

A work friend of mine asked me 2 weeks ago over breakfast whether being this much “on the edge” was worthwhile. I paused for a bit, commenting that she had asked a darn good question, before replying that I no longer know how to stand going any slower, but am striving for lagom in everything that I set out to be or do. After all, we only live once and time travel is not possible (yet).

Family portrait at Gold Coast Movieworld
Our recent family portrait with a subset of the Justice League; Green Lantern, Superman, Wonder Woman and Flash!

2017 also marked the year where I got back into cryptocurrencies. I bought a secondhand Butterfly Labs 5Gh/s Bitcoin Miner that ran at 9+Gh/s (probably overclocked) back in 2014 and mined a grand total of 0.18 BTC before it went kaput (suspected quality control problem on the PCB, likely due to the overclocking). I lost my USD bank accounts from my college days due to inactivity and gave up too easily trying to figure out ways to buy in (big mistake). I ended up buying some BTC, ETH and XRP and trading some and believe I’ll be getting back into cryptocurrencies in 2018 in a much bigger way than I was in 2017 or 2014.

The Birthday Book 2017: What Should We Never Forget?

Last but not least, there’s The Birthday Collective that I helped jumpstart in 2016 with a S$25,000 donation. This year saw the release of our second edition, with 52 essays responding to the prompt, “What Should We Never Forget?” I also oversaw a website refresh, and worked with Cherie Lim and Malminderjit Singh to incorporate The Birthday Collective Limited as a Public Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG) and (finally) open our bank account. Wei Leong was so kind as to whip our accounting books into shape via Google Sheets. Malminderjit got us some publicity via a series of 5-minute phone interviews during 938FM’s Monday lunch slots. Still, I felt that we had lost a bit of momentum after the launch of the book as everyone got busy with their own work and lives. I hope we’ll rally and execute better in 2018 as we head into our third edition with 53 new contributors sharing with us their thoughts on “The Roads We Take”. Volunteers are always welcomed!

This post was originally posted on my Medium account and mirrored here on 12 Jan 2020.

Goodbye 2016, Hello 2017!

My year in review, and some thoughts for the year ahead.

Today marks the 3rd day of the new year. I write this aboard my flight back from Cambodia, where I’ve spent the past few days exploring everything in between Khmer ruins and Cambodian beaches and urbanity of Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Koh Rong and Phnom Penh. It’s an annual ritual most of us conduct to reflect upon the past 366 days, so as to guide myself better in the next 365. I’m doing this publicly because I consider it an important exercise in transparency and accountability to my family, friends, partners and investors — in an era where our very notions of privacy in a hyper-connected world are being challenged, and where the nature of work is evolving with the research and development of faster, better and cheaper technologies across the colliding wave fronts of self, society, religion, politics and technology. It also forces me to stop and think about the stuff I’m working on and its impact on the world around me.

(taken with my iPhone 7+) My first footsteps on the pristine beaches of Koh Rong in the New Year.

Before I get started, I also wanted to share my recent reading list for added context. I recently completed 2 books; former technocrat hustler virtuoso Phillip Yeo’s biographical book “Neither Civil Nor Servant”, and Joshua Cooper Ramo’s “The Seventh Sense”. I’m still trying to finish “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” after making slow progress over the past few months. I also came across 2 links shared by my friend Jeff Jonas; former Head of Civil Service Peter Ho’s speech at a recent conference titled “Disrupted Balance — Society at Risk”, and a forward-looking trends deck by Centre for Strategic Futures. I also clipped Professor Tommy Koh’s recent op-ed on Straits Times on his three great expectations for 2017. Their content serves as my latest brainfood in reflecting upon 2016 while keeping an eye on the rest of 2017.

I continue to juggle my many hats and expect this to continue for the rest of my life; on the professional front as an investor, entrepreneur and all-round startup hustler in the technology realm across China and Southeast Asia, and on the personal front, as a husband and new father of our third child. It’s physically exhausting and mentally invigorating, but my wife and family’s support keeps me highly motivated.

(taken with my Panasonic GH4) From left to right — Kiera, Kyler and Keidi (carried) under our Christmas tree.

On the Professional Front

I continue to oversee the US$5 million “Neoteny 2” Neoteny Labs fund that I started with Joichi Ito in May 2010, but it no longer takes up much of my time. We returned US$6.76 million at the end of our fourth year (Q4 2014), and continue to have an unrealised portfolio valued at ~US$17.8 million as we approach the end of our sixth year (Apr 2017). Noteworthy investments from our remaining portfolio include FormlabslittleBitsBlackStorm LabsAnimocaHelloSign and Burpple. I don’t foresee any exits from the portfolio in 2017, but also don’t expect any write-offs.

I remain the Executive Chairman of the Silicon Straits Group and oversee its continued growth with the rest of our management, Jonas Eichhorst, Kent Nguyen and Andy Bui. Over the past 3 years, the Silicon Straits Group has evolved into an innovation tribe in Southeast Asia that makes early-stage investments and works with entrepreneurs and enterprises to build products and companies. We achieved this across 4 entities; Silicon Straits Pte. Ltd. (Singapore parent group holding), Silicon Straits Foundry Pte. Ltd. (Singapore revenue centre subsidiary for Vietnam team), Silicon Straits Sai Gon, Ltd. (Vietnam revenue/cost centre subsidiary for Ho Chi Minh team) and SmoothOps (Asia) Pte. Ltd. (50% subsidiary providing finance, admin and ops services).

  • We reached a record revenue year for Silicon Straits Foundry — more than doubling from FY2015 — ending the year with more than 90 people in Ho Chi Minh, with delivered products, teams and incubated startups across Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. Noteworthy projects include 7-Eleven Vietnam (from scratch, all of the tech!), Bluebird Indonesia (uberization of a traditional taxi fleet), Tankfind and ParcelPerform.
  • We scaled back on our physical presence in Singapore, ending our lease at Block 71 due to my disinterest in playing the incubation ‘numbers game’ with JTC. It was a great home base while it lasted, but much of our opportunities and growth is outside of Singapore anyway. Having said that, we made a couple of new investments into startups in Singapore (CarroParcelPerformPolicyPal and SurePark), India (One Eight Technologies) and USA (UduPixel Labs being Razmig’s post-Viki startup).
  • Our other operating affiliate SmoothOps continues to operate out of the same Block 71 office now inherited by TNB. I also made the decision to sell back 20% of our stake in the business to my partners Sandra and Helena, leaving Silicon Straits with 30% in SmoothOps. Their team has been a great help to our group on the finance, admin and ops front as we scaled across Southeast Asia, and I’m really grateful for their support.
  • We’re planning to do a better job on the Silicon Straits website in Q1 2017; you know the drill…not enough time for our own stuff as we drown in client and partner product design and development.
  • We continue to explore opportunities to expand our direct presence and partners in Indonesia and Myanmar in 2017, with an eye on growing a second product engineering team out of Singapore.
(taken with my iPhone 7+) Christmas 2016 decorations at our District 7 office in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

I remain as one of the board members in Burpple, having seen it through its Series A fundraising in late-2015/early-2016. It’s been a long and productive relationship between Dixon, Daniel and myself from their earliest of days. I still recall the pen-on-tissue discussion we had in 2011 that resulted in me leading their seed investment in 2012. We interact frequently on strategy, product and growth management. It has also been great to see the Series A investors —Tembusu, Singapore Press Holdings and Triumph Capital — jump in, challenge assumptions and actively add value; the team certainly appreciates the added perpectives to help them scale greater heights in the coming year.

I remain as one of the board members of E14 Fund, a pro-bono role that Alexander Lourie, Mark Masselink, John Underkoffler and I undertook back in 2014, after I had consulted for Joi and MIT Media Lab to help set it up. Dave Strand retired and the team/strategy is currently undergoing reframing and alignment with the rest of the MIT.

I ended my role with GreyOrange after 3 years of association; initially as an advisor from Oct 2013 till May 2013, and later on with an operating role from Jun 2015 till Oct 2016. I devised and executed upon their Japan entry, grew the sales pipeline in Asia Pacific/Japan (APACJ) and built the APACJ team out of Singapore. I deepened personal connections with new and old friends; Wolfgang Höltgen who is GreyOrange’s earliest angel investor, Sriram Sridhar who was a trusty right-hand sales lieutenant that hustled with me, my old Carnegie Mellon and Stanford school mate Xianyi Wu who has fit right in driving the company’s product and interface design across Singapore and India, and Nalin Advani who I first got to know from TiE Singapore and joined as CEO (APACJ). Looking back, I underestimated the complexities and dynamics of an Indian-headquartered logistics robotics startup trying to attract and keep talent, maintain product cohesion and quality while entering ex-India markets with different norms, realities and competitors in Japan and China. GreyOrange co-founders Samay, Akash (and myself) were bummed as I had expected to continue contributing for longer, but I ultimately felt I had checked enough boxes, our family was welcoming our third child and that it was time for me to rebalance my overall commitments.

I had a brief interlude with Formlabs for 3 months to serve as the bridge for the expansion of their China efforts — market strategy, business development and talent acquisition — disengaging after having gotten them off to a running start. As an investor in Formlabs through Neoteny Labs’ seed investment in late-2011, I was glad to have had the chance to interact with the team on a more personal and professional level; Maxim Lobovsky, David Lakatos, Luke Winston, Scott Papenfuss and Gideon Balloch. The company has an awesome product in Form 2 and is well-poised for continued growth in North America, Europe and Japan. China is an entirely different beast though, one that will require a seasoned and local team to take it on by its horns. I look forward to more good news from Team Formlabs!

Towards the end of 2016, I added the fintech feather to my cap, assuming the role of Chief Strategy Officer of Beijing-headquartered fintech company Wecash, and serving as their regional partner for our Southeast Asia expansion, starting with Indonesia. Founded in 2014, Wecash develops big data and machine learning technologies for unsecured institution-to-peer loans underwriting between funding sources (banks and multi-finance companies) and consumers. The company has raised over US$40 million and has a team of over 400 across China, USA, Brazil, Singapore and Indonesia. Wecash checked 2 key boxes for me; Indonesia and fintech. I also developed a strong rapport with and respect for Wecash founder George Zhi. Over the past 3 months, I’ve been learning from and collaborating with the Wecash Beijing team while assembling our initial Indonesian team. Our battle plans are crystallising and I’m confident 2017 is going to be a busy but exciting year for the Wecash Southeast Asia team.

On the Personal Front

(taken with my iPhone 7+) A self portrait at Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia on the last day of 2016

On the family front, we welcomed our third child, Keidi Chan (second daughter) to our burgeoning young family of 5. I continue to be indebted to my wife who remains my biggest pillar of support as I jet between Singapore and Ho Chi Minh, Jakarta, New Delhi, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, San Francisco and Boston. Despite my crazy travel, I’ve only missed 4 or 5 weekends with the family in 2016; it’s a personal commitment I made to our family. She has inspired, motivated, cajoled and harangued me to be a much better man and person, and I am really thankful for her persistence and patience at my nonsense.

On the personal front, I have borrowed heavily from my personal time in 2016 for work and family. In that sense, my “personal account” is completely bankrupt and it’s been an extremely tiring (albeit fulfilling) year. I don’t have time to exercise, and don’t feel like I’m spending enough time with my wife and the family. Ultimately, we can’t have it all; I made my choices and shouldn’t really complain. For 2017, I strive to strike a better balance between myself, family and work.

(taken with my iPhone 7+) Sunset crepuscular “Jesus” rays in the horizon off Koh Rong, Cambodia

On the Non-Profit Front

Last but not least, I’d like to give special mention to a non-profit project I contributed to in 2017. Apart from authoring an article to the inaugural edition of The Birthday Book titled “Pulling the (virtual) world to Singapore” as my response to the 2016 edition’s prompt, “What is Singapore’s Next Big Thing?”, I (through Silicon Straits) also donated S$25,000 to The Birthday Collective to fund the print runs of the first 3,000 copies of the book, and participated in its planning and organisation alongside Malminderjit Singh, Aaron Maniam, Kah Gay Ng and Daniel Ong. I see this as a natural projection of my aspirations for a more mature and participatory civil society in Singapore; one that is less self-entitled, complains less and takes on a greater onus to own our country’s issues and act on them, rather than expect for all our solutions to be provided by our government. Governments can’t run like tech startups do in Silicon Valley. A more dynamic and participatory civil society can strengthen our nation’s responses to a less-certain future. We’re going to incorporate The Birthday Collective as a CLG legal entity to hold the proceeds from book sales. We’re not quite ready to be a charity or IPC just yet, but want to operate legitimately and be in a better position to accept future contributions. We’ve completely sold out our initial 1,000 copies and are well into our next 2,000 copies. I think we might even be at break-even by now. We’ve also commencing work on the 2017 edition, having finalised this year’s prompt and an initial list of possible contributors. One thing we’ve done better in the new year is to get started earlier; the 2016 edition took us a harried 3 months from start to end, but we should have a good 8 months for the 2017 edition. Look out for our launch sometime in August 2017!

Pulling the (virtual) World to Singapore

Until the invention of the first electronic general-purpose computer in 1946, humanity sought to bring order to our analog world by sorting and classifying information through manual, then electro-mechanical means. Networking technologies became tinder to the kindle that is computers, eventually becoming the fire of the Internet.

Apart from changing the way we create, connect, communicate and consume, the Internet has brought about dramatic shifts in how businesses compete, underpinning wave after wave of fast-growing companies that create a slew of intelligent software and networked machines.

These are displacing an increasing number of jobs in offices, factories and even on the road. Jobs are being polarised not just in Singapore but also in other advanced economies. To make matters worse, the network effects of the Internet encourage winner-takes-all outcomes, with a handful of companies making most of the profits. Today, we are faced with the Internet Condition — a new paradigm where such companies transcend geography and sovereignty, with some becoming more powerful than countries.

In 2015, Facebook’s 15,879 employees generated revenues of US$17.9 billion while Google’s 61,814 employees generated revenues of US$74.5 billion. Combined, the two behemoths have a “GDP per capita” exceeding 20 times that of Singapore. Eight of the biggest United States technology companies, accounting for more than a fifth of the US$2.1 trillion in profits that US companies hold overseas, added US$69 billion to their cash hoard in 2015.

In comparison, the Singapore Government had an operating revenue of S$64.2 billion [1] and over 146,000 public servants [2].

Singapore’s economic restructuring has entered its next lap with the formation of a Committee on the Future Economy. But this is in itself may not suffice in transforming Singapore’s economy as our world moves beyond the Internet to the Internet-of-Everything.

Singapore needs to nimbly refashion itself to benefit from this technology-accelerated paradigm shift. The Internet, an interplay between Capital and Data, is a stateless and potentially chaotic global commons where rule of law, equality, and general good sense do not always prevail. Some free software and services are not actually free, as they often result in the service providers obtaining and monetising valuable personal information of users. The cross-border distortions brought on by such witting and unwitting trades will not be accurately represented by a national statistic such as the Gini coefficient, which measures distortions between Capital and Labour.

Currently, governments can address income inequality arising from existing distortions through transfers. However, Internet-exacerbated gaps create natural monopolies in a virtual world. These do not require physical presence in-country to generate revenues and do not necessarily contribute meaningful tax revenue to their foreign markets.

Google made £6 billion in profits from the UK in the decade after 2005 but paid less than 3 percent in taxes. Granted, Google had contributed non-tax value to the UK economy by investing £1 billion to build a 5,000-employee office in London, but not every country will be as fortunate. The Economic Development Board estimates inbound investments of US$8 to 10 billion into Singapore for this year, down from US$11.5 billion in 2015 and our lowest in a decade [3].

The case for a more Internet-oriented dimension to Singapore’s restructuring efforts is clear when one considers the massive opportunities latent in the fact that two-thirds of the world’s 7.4 billion people remain disconnected from the Internet, and are more likely to get online through either closed platforms by Facebook or Google, or open-source initiatives by the likes of Mozilla Foundation.

Facebook launched Internet.org in 2013 alongside Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm to provide affordable internet access to all. That same year, Google announced Project Loon to provide Internet access to remote areas through high-altitude balloons. Despite declines in recent years, Mozilla’s Firefox browser remains the third most popular browser on desktop and mobile in the world.

We should not distrust the chaos of the Internet or seek to control it; it is intrinsically anarchic. Yet, there is no reason why Singapore cannot learn from these companies and organisations to embrace the principles of the Internet itself — collaboration, sharing, transparency, and empowerment — and augment our traditional twin economic “actors” of Capital and Labour with Data.

Mozilla started in 1998 as a free-software community created by members of Netscape but has since evolved to champion an open and participatory Internet for everyone. Just as Singapore’s National Trades Union Congress is our national advocate for the unique tripartism between our labour unions, employers and the Government, the Mozilla Manifesto guides its own form of “networked tripartism”: among Mozilla Foundation as a non-profit, Mozilla Corporation as a taxable entity generating US$329.5 million in revenues from over 1,000 employees, and Mozilla’s online user and contributor community.

Such tripartism could well be Singapore’s next big thing; there is no reason why governments cannot compete with technology giants for the trust of their populace [4]. The Smart Nation effort is an important first step, but we can do more, quicker and better; and offer platforms that not only improve the lives of our people and spur commerce and innovation, but also strengthen Singapore’s thought leadership and international stature.

Citizens around the world rely on government-issued documents for proof of identity. Our government could consider developing a framework for a nation-wide digital identity and payments platform that compete with existing solutions by the likes of Apple, Google, Facebook and WeChat.

For instance, Singapore could update SingPass, the Singapore Government’s online tool for access to local e-services, to employ a combination of block-chain based Public Key Infrastructure, user behaviour monitoring and multi-modal biometrics (such as voiceprints, facial and iris recognition) for more robust user authentication and fraud detection. A more secure SingPass with the potential to substitute the need for in-person identity checks could serve as a robust gatekeeper to MyInfo, and catalyse the adoption of SingPass and MyInfo not just in public e-services, but also in banking and payments, both on our shores and beyond.

This can equip Singapore to not only serve its resident populace well, but also give our country the ability to reach out to overseas Singaporeans while inducting e-citizens — aspiring businessmen, foreign workers, emigrants, and individuals abroad — who want to invest, interact or associate with “virtual” Singapore.

Singapore can then build a “national operating system” around the SingPass-MyInfo core that manages, stores and permits appropriate access to data gleaned from the tens of millions of smart objects embedded throughout our homes, neighbourhoods and work places.

While working towards widespread adoption within Singapore, our government can leverage upon the Smart Nation-inspired execution to drive international conversations around the ethics, regulations and standards for similar implementations in other countries; partially open-sourced, with the remainder rebuilt locally due to local conditions or data and security concerns.

Over time, this could create an online federation of e-national identities that, when linked to an individual’s e-identity and database, could permit quicker, easier and more transparent immigrations and customs activity.

An Applications Programming Interface — a set of protocols that allow apps to talk to one another across different services and technology platforms — could be provided for the same system.

From this, a national or regional online developer community could be fostered and encouraged to develop its own applications, thereby spurring innovation and lower cost.

Conceptually, this is no different from how our country courted multi-national corporations and their technology and investments during our industrialisation years of the seventies to the nineties. However, instead of attracting Capital and offering Labour, Singapore needs to offer a firehose of Data to appeal to future innovators. We urgently need to skate away from our physical waterways of today, towards the digital river pucks of tomorrow.

Our past was built on intelligent and audacious risk-taking. We will need similar courage in the future. Our next phase of evolution will need us to exert a virtual “pull” on the world, rather than simply pushing ourselves onto and into it.


View the original essay in The Birthday Book 2016: “What is Singapore’s Next Big Thing?”


REFERENCES:

[1] Budget 2016 — Analysis of Revenue and Expenditure

[2] Straits Times — Parliament: Singapore’s public sector workforce expected to grow 2.5% a year

[3] Straits Times — Foreign investments to drop but more skilled jobs ahead

[4] lithub.com — Why do we trust a corporation more than the government?

I first authored this piece for The Birthday Book 2016, a book of essays by 51 different authors on Singapore’s Next Big Thing that launched in end-Aug 2016. I made further tweaks to my piece thanks to TODAY’s editorial team, which was published on 16 December 2016. I then merged the best bits of the original piece and TODAY’s version for the article’s v3.0. You can find the original article at the end of this page.

Amazon’s entry an urgent wake up call for Singapore’s retailers

I authored this essay for TODAY’s commentary column which was run on 4 August 2017. Many thanks to Jason Tan of TODAY for the invitation to contribute my thoughts and to the editorial team for helping with the title. I am republishing my submission as public record.

Singapore’s glistening skyline disguises a worrisome decay that has stricken the retail sector over the past few years. Faced with the one-two punch of a smartphone-toting consumer demographics making purchases on-the-go and the relentless onslaught from e-commerce, local retail stores and chains are finding themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Many have been forced to downsize, relocate in pursuit of cheaper rent or shut down. Amazon’s entry into the Singapore market last week marks another development which could significantly alter the retail landscape here.

It is grudgingly accepted that Singapore and Orchard Road are no longer the shoppers’ paradise they once were. Rumours of Amazon’s planned operations in Singapore had been swirling in business circles and reported by media over the past months, so its entrance into the Singapore e-commerce market last week came as little surprise to me despite the overwhelming demand from consumers. Much of the damage to Singapore’s retail and commercial real estate sectors had already been inflicted by Amazon’s predecessors in Singapore, so this latest development feels less a harbinger of further retail demise along Orchard Road and more the opening act for Amazon e-commerce’s inevitable expansion into Indonesia.

Granted, the decline in traditional retail is a global phenomenon not unique to Singapore. The retail sector in the United States has been hard hit, with nine bankruptcies and apparel companies’ stock prices hitting multi-year lows. Chainstores JC Penney, RadioShack, Macy’s and Sears have each announced more than 100-store closures. From 2010 to 2016, Amazon’s sales in North America grew four-fold from US$16 billion (S$22 billion) to US$80 billion. In comparison, Sears’ revenue in 2016 was about US$22 billion, a mere one-third of Amazon’s growth over six years. In China, local and foreign retail players shut stores without opening new ones over the past few years, with companies such as Parkson and Marks and Spencer hit hard.

While mind-boggling, such phenomenon is not new; new technology and their corporatised torchbearers displacing lagging predecessors have repeatedly played out since the Industrial Revolution. What is more worrisome is the accelerating pace and scale of the resultant labour displacement and the declining job mobility of disenfranchised workers that are keeping politicians and policymakers around the world awake deep into the night. Amazon fulfilment centres employ less people than traditional retail stores and rely heavily on software, robotics and automation. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the US retail industry has lost an average of 9,000 jobs a month this year, compared with average monthly job gains of 17,000 last year.

Still, with e-commerce in South-east Asia set to hit US$88 billion by 2025 from US$5.5 billion in 2015, further store closures are likely to spread from downtown Singapore into our heartlands. I was just at Kallang Wave Mall this past weekend with my family and almost missed the empty shopfront that used to be a Harvey Norman store. If a store closes in a mall and no one is there to notice, does it still make a sound?

The Amazon of the early 2000s was blamed by some for contributing to the downfall of offline bookstore chains such as Borders. The Amazon of today is a diversified behemoth extending beyond online retail and marketplaces into groceries, cloud computing, content and artificial intelligence; a far cry from its humble origins as an online bookstore that took more than four years to break even after going public in 1997.

Beyond bricks-and-mortar retail, local and regional online players will also come under pressure. Giosis’ Qoo10, Alibaba’s Lazada and SEA’s Shopee are the first three names that come to mind, followed by Indonesia’s homegrown players Tokopedia and Bukalapak. In the online groceries space, Lazada’s Redmart and start-up HonestBee will soon feel the heat of going toe to toe with Amazon’s one-hour and two-hour delivery guarantees. If and when Amazon Prime Video makes landfall, it will join a crowded cast of video streaming options such as Netflix, Rakuten’s Viki, HOOQ, Singtel CAST and StarHub Go in vying for local eyeballs. To be sure, local and regional retailers have started to offer similar integrated services with the likes of Lazada’s LiveUp that also adds the allure of Netflix, Uber and UberEats to enhance consumer loyalty. Same-day deliveries are already being offered by Lazada and Qoo10 by now.

An Amazon fulfilment centre – from Wikimedia Commons

The jury is still out on whether Amazon can successfully woo consumers after Prime Now’s bumpy introduction into the Singapore market last week — uncharacteristic of Amazon given its assumed familiarity with the region and its track record for a well-oiled logistics and delivery in North America and elsewhere in the world. Most of us forget and take for granted Amazon Web Services’ presence in Southeast Asia through Singapore since 2010. While that is 4 years ahead of Alibaba’s S$279.1 million investment in SingPost back in 2014, Amazon is without the extensive logistics and delivery infrastructure it enjoys in North America. But these are early days.

Amazon’s bigger challenge may lie in conquering South-east Asia, home to more than 600 million consumers with a high smartphone and mobile internet penetration in the key markets of Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. It is also a fragmented region fraught with socio-economic nuances and operating complexities that will take significant resources and time to overcome and may constrain return-on-equity payoffs when compared against larger and more homogenous markets of India and Middle East. Some may even go so far as to claim that Amazon is slow to act in South-east Asia compared to Alibaba, but it would be premature to write off Jeff Bezos’ next move. One thing’s for certain though; to conquer this region, Amazon will need to build up consumer loyalty by delivering the same unparalleled experience it is famed for in North America to regional consumers, starting with Singapore.

Consumers are the biggest beneficiaries of intense online-to-online and online-to-offline cannibalisation as they gain product, pricing and service choices across players. The picture is less rosy for businesses and companies connected to retail brands, stores, mall developers, owners and managers. My family of five has switched the bulk of our consumption away from offline stores to local and cross-border e-commerce from several years ago. I no longer watch cable television, preferring online groceries and home-cooked meals to eating out and have limited our mall visits to coffee joints, the occasional weekend meals and movie outings. I predict more families like mine to follow.

It is easy for shareholders of retail brands, stores, mall developers, owners and managers to misread their tea leaves and be convinced that there is still plenty of time to respond to online threats given their relatively lower cost of financing and larger balance sheets. It is also challenging for non-technology companies to transform management and gain the organisational capabilities to successfully manage the transition to the new retail paradigm. In the meanwhile, Amazon has showcased its checkout-free Amazon Go concept store and acquired Whole Foods for US$13.7 billion. Alibaba also launched three new Hema supermarkets in Beijing and Shanghai with significant mobile and payment integrations as part of its online-to-offline “New Retail” strategy. In response, local retailers here have been forced to up their game, investing in quick-wins such as self-checkout counters and new initiatives including NTUC FairPrice’s first unstaffed cashless convenience store under its Cheers banner, and Sheng Siong’s Allforyou e-grocer service. But is it enough?

The Internet encourages the formation of natural monopolies that aggregate data and users and where winners take (nearly) all. It is not Amazon that is late to South-east Asia, but traditional retail and malls that have largely missed the plot. Bricks-and-mortar retail and malls are set for darker days ahead with further consolidation and loss of market power. However, good malls, however disrupted or transformed, can remain relevant as social and community spaces that offer a respite for gatherings by friends and family amidst a rapidly urbanising region.

New malls will always attract initial buzz and visitors because they represent the undiscovered in the known Singapore urbanscape, but not all malls will maintain their footfall over time.

At the end of the day, a fundamental change has taken place in the conversations between retail tenants and mall owners, with the latter once used to having the upper hand in rental pricing now having to adjust to online retail and its ability to add new brands with impunity at near-zero marginal cost.

The next wave of online retailers will blend the Internet-of-things and artificial intelligence to transform the offline retail experience and extend their reach further into the physical realm. It will be important for Singapore’s corporate leaders and denizens to understand the changing dynamics, step out of their comfort zones and chart their own way forward amidst these turbulent waters or risk being left behind.

Photo source: George Hodan of publicdomainpictures.net

Once Bonded, Reloaded

Just like Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, I penned my name on a legal document in 2000 that effectively willed 6 years of my life – after the mandatory military service and the sponsored US university education – to the Singapore Public Service.  The ‘golden ticket’ was like a dream come true – a chance for the eldest son of a very middle-class Singapore family to get away from the stuffy Singapore British-inspired education system.  In exchange for a 4-year all-expenses paid education in a top-class American engineering university, both my parents became my sureties; an act that would have made them liable for a staggering sum of S$472,000 in liquidated damages if I ever reneged on my scholarship contract.  Up till then, I had never heard about study loans or bursaries, or understood concepts such as ‘leverage’ or ‘opportunity cost’.

It was towards the end of 1998 that I was informed by my teachers that I had not done well enough at the end of my first year at junior college to sit for 2 ‘S’ Papers at the 1999 GCE ‘A’ Level exams.  I appealed for the chance to sit for 2, but was only successful for 1.

Truth be told, I deserved it.  I could quote family issues and an over-commitment to my extra-curricular activities as reasons for my poor performance during the year-end Promotional exams, but deep in my heart I knew there were no excuses for failing to meet the mark.

In those days, overseas scholarships were deemed as the epitome of a Singapore student’s academic career.  Scarcity can be deceptively alluring; everyone, including me, wanted a shot at one.  At the same time, everyone believed only candidates with two ‘S’ Paper distinction holders (on top of a four straight A GCE ‘A’ Level result) would qualify to be considered.  As the ‘A’ Level exams drew close, all my classmates (which represented ~80% of the class) that were registered for two ‘S’ Papers at the ‘A’ Levels received invitations in their mailbox to apply for government scholarships.  For weeks, checking my mailbox became a daily routine, one that always ended in disappointment.  It would seem the elitist pressure-cooker Singapore education system had not deemed me to be worthy enough of an invite.

I refused to give up and took my crusade online, where I found the Singapore Inc. scholarship application forms available for download.  I printed, completed and mailed it at about the same time as every other double ‘S’ Paper candidate, and was pleasantly surprised and quietly triumphant when I made it through all 3 rounds of the gruelling selection process.  The government’s generous offer was not missed by my ego, especially after witnessing many peers that I had considered superior to myself get drop by the process at each stage.  So quick was my acceptance of provisional scholarship offer in February of 2000, that I had to say “thanks but no thanks” to the Public Service Commission’s invitation for a second round interview when they called me up some weeks later.  I had naively thought that one government scholarship (or entity for that matter) was no different from another, and that it would not matter where I served as long as I was in government.  It would be many years later before I understood that not all scholars were ‘born’ equal.

Unlike Yu-Mei, I never revisited my bond documents in the years that followed.  When I started work on August 1st, 2006, the thought of breaking my bond never crossed my mind.  I was eager to serve and repay the debt of honour that comes with being a government scholar.  I was, and still am grateful for the opportunities to learn at world-class universities, meet all sorts of people and see the world while I was at it.  Many Singaporeans like to say that their time in the army turned them from boys to men.  For me, it was my 4 years abroad in the US that really helped me mature into an adult.

Once I got past the honeymoon period and found my public service ’sea legs’, I was better able to objectively evaluate the overall construct that I was a part of.  There’s really no denying the good that we public servants do – from the jobs created, foreign direct investments secured, progressive tax policies formulated, ever-increasing levels of value-add to our economy – the list goes on.  What I was more curious about was whether the construct also subscribed to the same set of Organisational Behaviour principles that I resonated with.  And so I kept my eyes and ears open, soaking up every nugget of information with an open mind, and in the process, despite the optimist in me, I was powerless to prevent myself from becoming jaded.  I observed unhealthy levels of groupthink and top-down decision making; bloated and risk-averse middle management that was also afflicted with delegation disease; managers who were keen to ‘do things the right way’ instead of ‘doing the right things’.  I admired the few good men that remained behind to hold the fort, but lamented the big chunk of talent that had since left the bureaucracy.  Most of those who are left behind have largely lost their fire.  You can see it in their eyes.

I have many friends who work in the ministries, who describe a vastly different work ethos and levels of derring-do with their ministry colleagues and superiors.  It would seem that the Public Service Commission has gotten something right there.  A case of agile and nimble ministries with an essentially flat organisational structure perhaps?  Or a fear of more severe reprisals from the Ministers themselves?  Whatever it is, I’m glad it works for them.  I just wish our statutory boards had more of those positive elements throughout the rank and file.

And so I kept my head down, working hard and learning from everything that came my way, while doing my best to keep my own fire alive.  I spent the following 3 years (1) promoting Singapore’s infocomm e-government expertise and solutions to counterpart government agencies of developing nations, (2) attracting and anchoring venture-backed start-ups to establish R&D operations in Singapore, (3) making equity investments in Singapore-based growth-stage infocomm enterprises and (4) formulating and designing industry development policies and incentive programmes.  I considered myself very lucky because I was able to serve my country without sacrificing my personal and career growth.  I reported to great bosses and worked in awesome teams.

Yet, in the end, I still made the decision to leave – before my 6 years was up.  November 27, 2009 marks my last day of public service after 3 years and 4 months.  I am terminating my bond, and have officially joined the ranks of “quitters”.

One can always glean valuable insights by reading the speeches released by the various government agencies.  I was cued to an interesting one titled “Defending Scholarships but not all Scholars“, delivered by the Chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC), Eddie Teo at the recent Singapore Seminar 2009 in London on October 31, 2009.  In his speech, he shared that in the period of 1999 – 2008, there were only 7 PSC scholars out of a total of 791 (0.88%) that had terminated their bonds without serving a single day in the Service.  The statistic was (presumably) to lend authenticity to PSC’s scholarship selection process’ ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

However, we still get upset with scholars who break their bond without serving even one day after they finish their studies.  They have wasted the PSC’s time and effort and used taxpayers’ money upfront for their selfish purpose. Even if there is no scholarship quota, there is an opportunity cost to every taxpayer dollar spent on scholars.

Interestingly, Mr. Teo had less figures to show for scholars who complete their bond and leave the bureaucracy.  I only hope the bureaucracy’s ire does not extend to this unmentioned group of ex-scholars that I now belong to.

There are also some scholars who finish their bond and leave for positive reasons. Some scholars move on because they want a change in career. Nothing wrong with that especially if they stay in Singapore or contribute to Singapore in other ways. Others want to care for their young children. As a family-friendly nation, we should applaud such a motive. A few get invited to tea and become politicians. Others go on to become successful entrepreneurs and managers in the corporate world. And if they stay in Singapore or work in Singapore firms overseas, they can still make a contribution to Singapore.

What of those who finish their bond and leave for less positive reasons? The topic is deftly avoided – handiwork of a masterful speech writer.  Does the second bolded statement also reflect the Singapore Government and our Ministers’ stance that Singaporeans who don’t stay in Singapore or don’t work in Singapore firms overseas can’t make a contribution to Singapore?  I sincerely hope our mandarins have not become this myopic.

I caught up with a scholar friend over lunch one day, and the conversation topic naturally gravitated towards the state of affairs of the bureaucracy, and more specifically, my personal opinions about the challenges faced by the senior management and HR departments of our statutory boards in building an organisation that has a high ability to retain its talent, in order to achieve its full potential to implement policy decisions by our ministries.  His subsequent pragmatic reply came as no surprise:

It’s more realistic (for oneself) to work within the boundaries of the system, and be realistic about what one can control and change, while continually extending one’s sphere of influence.

I tried to tell him that while the above may be the perfect mentality to adopt in order to keep that personal ‘fire’ burning, it certainly doesn’t make what was going on within the construct acceptable.  I was concerned about the lack of urgency and conviction in resolving some of these issues, and reiterated my concern at the apparent pace (at least to me) at which our statutory boards were losing talent (both scholars and non-scholars).  His response is a classic example of one well-honed by the system to say a lot, without really saying anything at all.

Some people are better suited at playing the game than others.

I guess my departure meant I was not suited to the ‘game’.  Social engineering has trained a large cohort of cows who moo when they are told, yield milk when their udders are tugged and eat when they are set loose to graze.  Have we become a nation honed in the art of taking orders and following instructions, but faring poorly when crossing unchartered waters?  God bless Singapore!

Whoever drew up the terms of these scholarships should be awarded a Public Administration Medal, for the excellent deterrence provided to the less patriotic amongst us who have lost the desire to repay their debts of honour to the nation.  All the perceived ills of the establishment would not have been sufficient to push me to take the red pill, thanks to the hefty 6-figure liquidated damages that still remain on my contract.

I chose to leave because I have been granted an extraordinary opportunity to change Singapore, and hopefully change the world much faster than I could ever have from within the bureaucracy, as an insignificant Grade-8 Assistant Manager – tiny really, in the overall scheme of government things.

With this post, I fulfil a promise to myself, to share my own story someday.  If you come across this, and are or once were a government scholar, I urge you to share your tale (good or bad) and track back to my post.  Our youths deserve to know what they are signing up for.

NB 1: A friend of mine later printed out and commented on my original post. I rediscovered the document that I’d uploaded onto Slideshare. I’m including it here as a footnote, to reflect the fear of reprisals that was prevalent in the minds of most back then.

NB 2: This post was recovered thanks to The Wayback Machine. I had lost the original content when my old blog on the same domain had gotten hacked. Over the years, it became apparent that the post had helped other scholars to think through their own journeys. I’m restoring the article to its rightful place.