Wanted: More South-east Asia tech tie-ups with US

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran at a dialogue at the Asia Society (Northern California Centre) on Thursday, where he said that there is a need for more international engagement on the norms that govern digital economy activity
Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran at a dialogue at the Asia Society (Northern California Centre) on Thursday, where he said that there is a need for more international engagement on the norms that govern digital economy activity across borders.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

Important to spur American tech companies to partner those in region, says Iswaran

There is a need to promote greater collaborations between the United States and South-east Asia in their respective tech sectors, said Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran on Thursday.

In an interview to wrap up a six-day working visit to the vibrant tech sector in the San Francisco Bay Area in the US state of California, he said it is important to see what can be done to encourage tech companies in the US to seek out partnerships with those that are emerging in South-east Asia.

Talent flow can then go in both directions, he added.

Mr Iswaran was in California to meet top officials of start-ups and tech companies as well as Singaporeans working there, to update them of the developments in the tech sector in Singapore and beyond. He was also exploring partnership possibilities between the US and this part of the world.

Data flow figured prominently in Mr Iswaran's discussions.

He said: "Many of the companies here also talked to us about our regional agreements on data flow - ensuring data is able to flow through freely across boundaries, across national borders - so that we can share data and allow data to move across countries and create an aggregated outcome for AI (artificial intelligence) and its application."

Data is known as the oil of the 21st century, given how it powers the digital economy the same way that oil has fuelled the industrial economy.

Earlier on Thursday at a dialogue at the Asia Society (Northern California Centre), Mr Iswaran said that "there is a pressing need for more international and government-government engagement on the new norms, or the norms that should bind or should govern digital economy activity cross-border".

He said: "What we need in the new environment is digital agreements that cover the movement of bits and bytes across borders... Countries and governments need to engage on this in order to see how we can promote this flow."

Mr Iswaran, in his opening remarks at the dialogue, spoke extensively about the potential growth opportunities in South-east Asia.

Noting that the Asean economies are growing at about 5 per cent to 5.5 per cent, he said: "We are talking about a region of 10 countries, with over 600 million people, and the economy of about the size of US$2.5 trillion (S$3.5 trillion). So it is not small, it is growing and it is expected to be among the top four aggregate economies in the world by 2030."

 
 

This growth is driven by many factors, including the fact that the size of the middle class is expanding, which means that disposable incomes are growing. It is also a relatively young population in the region, he said.

"Therefore, adoption of new trends and technologies is particularly serious now in our part of the world, and that is manifested in the way the digital economy in turn is growing," he said.

"The projections are that the digital economy of Asean will travel in about seven years, to a size of about US$240 billion," he added.

Mr Iswaran also brought up how several unicorns had emerged in the region in recent years.

Unicorns, or private start-ups with valuations of at least US$1 billion, include ride-sharing platforms Grab and Gojek, gaming company Sea, gaming accessories company Razer as well as travel booking firm Traveloka.

"We are seeing more emerging quickly. So both in terms of the aggregate economy and the emergence of specific companies in this space are indicators of what is happening - the opportunity is clear."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2019, with the headline 'Wanted: More S-E Asia tech tie-ups with US'. Print Edition | Subscribe