As The Fintech Times is spotlighting countries that are taking part in the first-ever World’s Fair (Expo 2020 Dubai) in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region, the following will now look in Asia at the tiny yet powerful global hub of Singapore.
While wandering around the impressive Expo 2020 Dubai site, one cannot stop and not notice the impressive green-friendly Singapore Pavilion. As with many of the other bespoke design pavilions, Singapore’s is definitely one that impresses.
The Singapore Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai is very green for a reason, as walking around it showcases its intention of having that as the forefront, thereby visitors appreciate the benefits and possibilities of integrating nature within our urban environments. Layered with a showcase of greenery, digital solutions and art, the Pavilion exemplifies Singapore’s vision of becoming a City in Nature, and ethos of sustainable development via innovative and impactful urban solutions.
Commenting about the Singapore Pavillion, Yap Lay Bee, Deputy Commissioner-General of the Singapore Pavilion and Group Director, Architecture & Urban Design Group at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said: “The Singapore Pavilion demonstrates the potential to push the envelope to integrate nature, architecture and technology through various design strategies and digital elements.”
Bee further says: “We wish to invite visitors to contemplate their relationship with nature as they explore the Pavilion’s green, digital ecosystem and its artistic representation of the Pavilion’s integrated system of greenery, water and energy management. In doing so, visitors will be able to appreciate the challenges in realising the Singapore Pavilion, and the ways we can co-exist with our natural and built environment, where both people and ecologies are cared for.”
This is the fourth time the country of Singapore has participated in a World’s Fair – (previous ones were 2005, 2010 and 2000) – a testament to its strong position and importance in the wider global economy. By taking a step back at its past one can understand its present and also its future aspirations.
From a Trading Post to an Economic Powerhouse
Located in the Southeast Asia region and strategically placed geographically, the tiny island nation has been an important hub for trade. This included its importance as a trading and logistics hub during the British Empire. After leaving Malaysia it became an independent nation in 1965. Since the 1960s its impressive growth categorised it as one of the “Four Asian Tigers” – alongside Hong Kong SAR, South Korea and Taiwan. All four places experienced massive growth that was led through its rapid industrialisation and pro-business mentality, specifically around international trade and foreign direct investment (FDI) policies that overall helped its economic development and diversification strategy and implementation.
The attraction of not only FDI, wider international trade activities has brought upon it its own homegrown innovation. Much of Singapore’s own success has been the government’s prioritisation on education and empowering its citizens to have a high quality of life. This is reflective of the vision of the country’s leaders and aspirations, in particular under the leadership of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who was PM from 1959-1990.
The country had little choice but to open up, due mainly to the fact it has little natural resources nor space for that matter. Its forward-thinking and innovation has not only elevated the quality of life for its citizens, where Singapore enjoys a very high gross domestic product (GDP) per capita at nearly $60,000 in 2020 according to the World Bank, but also been a magnet attracting talent across all skillsets from around the world.
Financial Service, Fintech and Wider Digital Will Further Empower Singapore
There is without a doubt that Singapore has earned its place on a global stage and its various sectors that positioned itself to be so – from transportation and logistics to tourism and also financial services – was all thanks to the ambitions it had back it was still a developing economy. With regards to financial services, for example, Singapore’s banking sector alone according to the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is worth around £2trillion.
With respect to fintech, as shown on MAS’s website, it highlights that “The financial sector is an integral part of Singapore’s ambition to be a smart nation. Find out how MAS is creating a Smart Financial Centre through FinTech and innovation,” showing that the central bank is priortising the likes of fintech and innovation to further retain and grow the country’s financial sector and wider economic development. In addition, nearly half (40 per cent) of Southeast Asia’s total fintechs are said to be based in Singapore, housing over 100 incubators, over 40 innovation labs and over 150 venture capitalist investors.
As a whole, there are over 1,000 fintech firms estimated to be in Singapore. As quoted on MAS’s website, according to Ravi Menon, the Managing Director of MAS: “Singapore’s fintech journey is about innovation, inclusion and inspiration. Everything we do in FinTech must always have a larger purpose – to improve the lives of individuals, to build a more dynamic economy, to promote a more inclusive society.”
Many around the world often use Singapore and the likes of the UK, in particular London, as best practice and lessons learned with respect to much of the evolution of fintech. In one key area this has been with regulatory sandboxes. In Singapore, the Fintech Regulatory Sandbox was launched by MAS in 2016. In addition, in 2019 MAS launched Sandbox Express, which is a sandbox with a fast-track approval of 21 days that compliments the main sandbox.
To note, Singapore is home to one, and some might argue the most influential, fintech event – Singapore Fintech Festival. The 2021 edition laid claim to the title of the world’s largest fintech event featured more than 350 sessions, over 700 speakers, over 260 exhibitors, and 14 international pavilions, with another 60,000 streaming the event ‘live’.
Much of the world’s leading and recognised fintechs were developed and/or based in Singapore. The long list includes the likes of Nium, Bybit, Thunes, Aspire, Bambu – to name a few. Many of them are now not only catering to its local markets but across the rest of Asia and even beyond such as in Europe, The Middle East and Africa, and the Americas.
What Can 2022 and Beyond Bring to Singapore?
2022 could be an interesting year for Singapore and fintech. First, more cross-border payment collaborations can occur such as MAS and the Reserve Bank of India announcing plans last year to link Singapore’s PayNow and India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) real-time payment systems by July this year.
Also, potentially neobanks could grow, which generally hasn’t been as prominent say in the UK where in Singapore for instance the legislation around them has been strict. However, awarding licences in recent memory of the consortium of Grab and Singaporean telecom Singtel as well as Singaporean tech giant Sea can potentially set the stage for a neobank spotlight in the island nation.
Finally, with regards to open banking, which has been another topic of interest for much of the world in the fintech space, can also see other developments in Singapore. The country, unlike in other parts of the world in particular the UK which has been more legislative and mandate driven, has appeared to been a balance between market demand and legislative. For instance, this has been with MAS publishing the Financial World: Finance-As-A Service API Playbook in collaboration with the Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS). Like much of the world, Singapore’s open banking journey still has much to go and 2022 and beyond can possibly see more developments. For instance, the launch of the Singapore Financial Data Exchange (SGFinDex) at the end of 2020 was the first public-private open banking collaboration in the world and more of these innovative approaches can be seen coming out of the country.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, an easing of restrictions in Singapore and strong manufacturing helped propel its gross domestic product (GDP) to grow at over seven per cent last year, which has been the highest since 2010.
Heading back to Dubai and Singapore’s participation at the first-ever world’s fair in the MEA region, one still looks at the growth and vision of Singapore to continue to innovate. According to Chief Executive Officer of the URA Lim Eng Hwee: “The Singapore Pavilion is centred on our country’s guiding ethos of sustainable growth where we can have both economic growth and a high-quality living environment. Through the presentation at Expo 2020 Dubai, we hope to celebrate Singapore’s spirit of ingenuity and creativity by profiling Singapore’s innovative urban solutions, design and capabilities through programmes and activities that will take place throughout the six-month Expo.”
The question is not if but when will be the latest innovation that will come out of Singapore – whether it be in fintech, tech as a whole or other aspects that will impact not only its own economy but the global one.