SINGAPORE - 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 also operates businesses in gaming and digital finance.
Mr Li was on Tuesday night (Nov 24) 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 the Singapore Press Holdings News Centre auditorium and live-streamed on Tuesday. The SBA is jointly organised by Singapore Press Holdings' 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.
However, the acceleration of digital transformation can be unsettling for many people, as the global pandemic creates more urgency for communities to go online, he added.
"As a tech company, Sea bears a big responsibility here. 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 the Shopee Seller Support Package, a regional programme that includes a range of initiatives to help small and medium-sized enterprises to overcome economic challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Among other measures, the programme helps SMEs to ease operational costs and 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 only come to places like Singapore 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, Mr David Chen and Mr 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: this time, by providing a deep and skilled talent pool. We built a strong team here, both from local professionals and bright young graduates from the local universities. They enabled us to take full advantage of every opportunity."
Past recipients of the Businessman of the Year title include PhillipCapital Group executive chairman, Mr Lim Hua Min, and Raffles Medical Group executive chairman, Dr 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.
For example, a FairPrice on Wheels initiative was launched during the circuit breaker to sell groceries in mature estates with a higher proportion of low-income seniors. The mobile grocery trucks carry items such as rice, meat and dairy products, as well as house-brand products that cater to more budget-conscious customers.
Mr Seah told The Straits Times that FairPrice stepped up to respond to the pandemic, 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. Human beings are quite resilient and can rise to the occasion when they need to adapt. We can overcome challenges when we work as a team," he said.
Mr Seah added that due to Covid-19, the roles of workers in essential services such as healthcare, transport, food and supermarkets are better understood and appreciated.
The outstanding overseas executive award went to Ms Jessica Tan, 42, group co-chief executive officer 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 solutions provider AEM Holdings bagged 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 company has a 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."
SBA co-organiser DHL Express Singapore's managing director Christopher Ong said that leadership at its best is often forged in a crisis. "All our winners this year showed exemplary fortitude and ingenuity in steering their businesses through unprecedented waters. Their remarkable stewardship allowed their businesses to continue to thrive even in such a challenging climate."