Midway through this year, sales assistants at Singaporean digital payments start-up MatchMove stopped making cold calls to potential customers.
The number of inquiries from companies wanting to digitise their payment systems had “shot up 10 times” from the beginning of the year and staff could not keep up, says Shailesh Naik, chief executive.
Behind the drive was a powerful force: Singapore’s government. The Asian city-state has been pushing technology even before the coronavirus crisis, often funding companies’ digitisation efforts.
“In Singapore this is not happening by default, it is by design,” Mr Naik says. “The government is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to digitisation . . . and actively incentivising companies.”
These incentives include a grant scheme where the government co-funds 80 per cent of digitisation expenses or up to half the cost of adopting artificial intelligence and data analytics.
Even traditional open-air hawker centres (cooked food markets) — one of Singapore’s last bastions of cash transactions — are going digital under a unified payments system led by the government.
Singapore’s “digital road map” was already well-established and defined before Covid-19, says Lee Joon Seong, a Singapore-based managing director at Accenture, the consultancy.
However, the pandemic has quickened the pace of this digital transformation, as companies look not only to improve social distancing but also become more productive and resilient in the long term.
The government push was underlined in August’s “Fortitude Budget”, which set aside more than S$500m (US$365m) to assist Singaporeans and local businesses manage the crisis through digital transformation.
Nowhere has the approach borne more fruit than financial services, a priority for a global financial hub such as Singapore. Fintech companies are offered digitisation grants, and can be paired with banks and asset managers to help them digitise.
The Investment Management Association of Singapore, a group set up by the government to act as an intermediary between regulators and the industry, has been harnessing fintech companies to solve problems for traditional asset managers.
“The objective is to create a platform for fintechs and the asset management industry to meet and embrace change rather than have it thrust upon us and be too late to innovate,” says Carmen Wee, IMAS chief executive.
Singapore’s position at the heart of south-east Asia, as well its proximity to India, have made it a hub for companies to test such products.
“We have found a fintech from the region to develop a series of mini-games that teaches the public about investing,” Ms Wee adds. “Hopefully, this will change the way investors feel about investing their savings.”
It is this willingness to be a testing ground that also appeals to larger companies with a presence in Singapore, such as investment banks or financial services companies including Mastercard.
“It is a test bed [market] but it is also a market that many people are looking to,” says Ari Sarker, co-president of Mastercard Asia Pacific. Like many big multinationals, a number of the company’s global digital products were developed by the US group at labs in Singapore, he adds, such as its unified QR payments system.
However, questions remain over the effectiveness of the city-state’s digital push. Aaron Tan, founder of Carro, an online marketplace for cars that also provides financing, says Singapore’s efforts to improve digital literacy has had a “minimal” impact on his business.
Mr Tan says the drive’s focus is too narrow, especially compared with the US’s cutting-edge technology or the ability of China to offer low-cost technology at scale. There are too few companies doing “deep tech” — such as artificial intelligence and machine learning — in Singapore. “Finding the companies that can compete with the DeepMinds [Google’s AI unit] of the world, that is hard,” he says, adding that the city is “not there yet”.
But few deny there is a benefit to Singapore’s digital focus, especially as the world grapples with the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis. With Covid-19 still at large, the primary concerns of enterprises in the city-state are to stay in business and transform digitally, says Mr Lee at Accenture.
Singapore’s drive to be a smart nation holds it in good stead for the future, he says, adding: “Companies are looking ahead and participating in the creation of digital industries.”
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