South-east Asia a 'goldmine of untapped opportunity', says Grab co-founder Tan Hooi Ling

Grab's co-founder Tan Hooi Ling said that South-east Asia is a market the company knows best.
Grab's co-founder Tan Hooi Ling said that South-east Asia is a market the company knows best.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SINGAPORE - Even though South-east Asia remains underserved, solutions that are "copy and paste" from developed markets would not work well here, ride-hailing giant Grab's co-founder Tan Hooi Ling said.

"Everybody thought that they could copy and paste solutions from these more developed markets, pop them into South-east Asia and it would work well for our customers here," Ms Tan said to an audience on the second day of the Forbes Global CEO Conference held in Singapore.

"That wasn't quite true when it came to services that, like ride-hailing, have a physical aspect as well as a technology, operational, online aspect."

Ms Tan was one of four panellists on the Unicorns: Fast Take-off session on Wednesday morning (Oct 16). She was joined by Eric Gnock Fah, chief operating officer and co-founder of travel platform Klook; Forrest Li, chairman and group chief executive officer of Sea, parent company of Garena and Shopee; and Tan Min-Liang, co-founder and CEO of gaming company Razer.

Asked if Grab is planning to expand beyond South-east Asia, Ms Tan called the region a "goldmine of untapped opportunity" and a market the company knows best.

She said that even while global economic conditions remain gloomy, South-east Asia is still widely considered the region that is bringing the biggest opportunities for continued growth and innovation.

"Why go elsewhere when everybody else is trying to come here?"

For Klook though, Europe with its gloomy outlook instead presents a different set of opportunities.

The company is a platform offering tours and day trips, rather than flights or hotels, and Mr Gnock Fah said the opportunity lies in the fact that the travel industry is a mobile-driven one where users tend to make such bookings at the last minute.


"I would say we are in good times and lucky times with Asia growing because when we work with the operators in Europe, they actually see their own market relatively flat or probably even on a decline."

"But when they work with a platform like ours, they see incremental growth and growth that comes from Asia, not just in terms of numbers, but also just generally Asians also tend to spend a bit more when they go on a trip," Mr Gnock Fah said.

A common thread for the four panellists was the importance of staying focused on their specialisation while staying open-minded. For Razer, Mr Tan said Razer had built a cult brand, but its focus on its users remains the most important.

"One of the biggest questions that I've always been asked is, why don't we go mainstream? We could easily expand our hardware product line to productivity suites or to software and services. But I've always firmly believed that it's all about having a laser focus on our users... our motto is for gamers by gamers."

"But instead of us going mainstream, I think through the years mainstream has actually come to us, without us actually changing anything that we did internally," he said, noting that e-sports has gained mainstream prominence to the point of becoming a category in the South-east Asian Games.

For Sea, which owns gaming platform Garena and e-commerce arm Shopee, Mr Li said even if these businesses seem totally different, they share common key matrices in terms of key daily users.

However, in an already saturated e-commerce market, Mr Li said the company carved a niche for itself by deliberately not focusing on electronic products.

"Most of our peers are really focused on electronics, and probably for all e-commerce players, more than 50 per cent of their GMV (gross merchandising value) is from electronics."

"Instead, we really focus on the long-tail categories such as fashion, home living and health and beauty," Mr Li said, adding that mobile engagement remains paramount as 95 per cent of the orders the company receives come in through smartphones.