Forrest Li of tech giant Sea named businessman of the year

At the 35th Singapore Business Awards yesterday were (from left) Ping An Insurance (Group) group co-chief executive Jessica Tan's daughter Choy Yumin, who received the outstanding overseas executive award on her mother's behalf; Sea founder and group
At the 35th Singapore Business Awards yesterday were (from left) Ping An Insurance (Group) group co-chief executive Jessica Tan's daughter Choy Yumin, who received the outstanding overseas executive award on her mother's behalf; Sea founder and group chief executive Forrest Li, who was named Businessman of the Year 2019/2020; NTUC Enterprise and FairPrice group chief executive Seah Kian Peng, who was named outstanding chief executive; and executive chairman and director Loke Wai San of AEM Holdings, which won the enterprise award.

When Mr Forrest Li first arrived in Singapore more than 15 years ago, the then 28-year-old was deep in student loan debt to the tune of $100,000, had next to nothing in the bank and made only enough to rent a room in a flat in Braddell.

Today, Mr Li, 43, is the billionaire founder and group chief executive of tech giant Sea, which owns e-commerce platform Shopee and operates businesses in gaming and digital finance.

Mr Li was last night named Businessman of the Year 2019/2020, in recognition of his efforts in building Sea into a New York-listed global Internet company with the mission of improving the lives of consumers and small businesses through technology.

He took home the coveted title at the 35th Singapore Business Awards (SBA), held at Singapore Press Holdings' (SPH) News Centre auditorium and live-streamed yesterday. The SBA is jointly organised by SPH publication The Business Times and DHL Express Singapore.

Nearly 50 guests attended the event, which was held in a hybrid format for the first time.

Mr Li said digital transformation can enable even a small country like Singapore to have a profound impact on the world. But the acceleration of digital transformation can be unsettling for many, as the pandemic creates more urgency for communities to go online, he noted.

"It is now more critical than ever for us to help those who are uncomfortable with technology to learn how to use it, so that nobody is left behind. This has always been a concern for Sea, and something we will focus more on," he said in a speech at the event.

In April, Shopee introduced a regional programme amid the pandemic that, among other things, helps small and medium-sized enterprises to attract customers online by temporarily lowering administrative fees and providing marketing support.

Mr Li, a naturalised Singapore citizen who hails from Tianjin in China, also paid tribute to Singapore's role in Sea's success.

"There is a stereotype out there that businessmen come to places like Singapore only after they have found success elsewhere. That is not my story... Long before I had any success, (the Singaporean community) made me feel welcome, and let me and my family make our home here," he said.

He recalled how he connected with Sea's co-founders David Chen and Ye Gang here and how the Economic Development Board introduced them to Sea's eventual investor, tech giant Tencent.

"When we were ready to scale, it was again Singapore that enabled us... We built a strong team here, both from local professionals and bright young graduates from the local universities."

Mr Li joins past recipients such as PhillipCapital Group executive chairman Lim Hua Min and Raffles Medical Group executive chairman Loo Choon Yong.

Meanwhile, NTUC Enterprise and FairPrice group chief executive Seah Kian Peng, 58, was named outstanding chief executive for his efforts to ensure that daily essentials remain accessible and affordable to Singaporeans amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Mr Seah told The Straits Times that FairPrice stepped up in areas such as ensuring adequate supplies and protecting staff and customers.

"Covid has taught many of us that at the end of the day, basic, essential things are what matter," he said.

The outstanding overseas executive award went to Ms Jessica Tan, 42, group co-CEO of China's financial services and technology behemoth Ping An Insurance (Group).

The Singaporean was recognised for her achievements in rising to the top leadership of Ping An Group, leading its deep dive into tech and overseeing its development as a technology-powered retail financial services group.

Mainboard-listed AEM Holdings won the enterprise award. Over the past nine years, it has transformed itself from a niche automation company to a global semiconductor and electronics test solutions provider.

The firm has market capitalisation of about $1 billion and employs some 600 staff globally, of whom about half are in Singapore.

Mr Wong Wei Kong, chairman of the SBA organising committee and editor of The Business Times, said: "Under the bleak and unpredictable climate that the pandemic has brought upon everyone, these four winners demonstrated true tenacity and innovation in their businesses."

DHL Express Singapore managing director Christopher Ong said the winners showed exemplary fortitude and ingenuity in steering their businesses through the coronavirus crisis. "Their remarkable stewardship allowed their businesses to continue to thrive even in such a challenging climate."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2020, with the headline 'Forrest Li of tech giant Sea named businessman of the year'. Print Edition | Subscribe