DPM Heng Swee Keat at the Founders Forum Asia

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 17 April 2024

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Founders Forum Asia on 17 April 2024.


British High Commissioner Kara Owen
British Trade Commissioner for Asia Pacific Martin Kent
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning. I am delighted to join you for the 3rd Founders Forum in Asia Summit. A warm welcome to those who have flown in from the region and beyond to be here today. 

Founders and startups are critical in today’s economic landscape, contributing fresh ideas and innovative solutions to address challenges big and small. I was in China last week and met promising startups doing exciting work in fintech, drug discovery and more. Likewise, when I visited the US, Switzerland, and Germany last year, I was struck by the energy that startups bring to the respective ecosystems. Many of them were developing cutting-edge solutions for global challenges like decarbonisation, increasing health spans, and growing agriculture productivity. This is very encouraging because science and technology will be critical to developing the breakthroughs needed for greener development, healthier peoples and more fulfilling lives. And startups which are more nimble and agile, can be at the forefront of pushing these boundaries and defining the next bound. 

Today the global environment is more challenging than before. The global geopolitical outlook remains uncertain, and conflicts in Europe and the Middle East persist. The high interest rate environment over the past two years has tempered business investments and consumer sentiments. Strategic competition between the major powers has led to a resurgence of industrial policy and economic protectionism. This has reshaped supply chains and constrained the movement of investments, ideas and talent across borders. The competition has also spilled into the science and technology space, making collaborative research and exchanges more difficult. Taken together, these have resulted in a funding winter for startups and other innovative enterprises over the past two years. 

At the same time, there are many reasons to remain optimistic. Let me just cite two. As I mentioned at the start, the key bright spot is the potential that science and technology offer to build greener, more sustainable and healthier lives for all. This is a key reason why tech companies continue to garner significant interest and funding, particularly at the early stages. There is particularly strong interest in deep tech, which require longer and more patient investments, but offer the prospect of disruptive, game-changing solutions. In Singapore, the number of deep-tech deals in 2023 grew 30% year-on-year. And there is overall plenty of dry powder waiting to be deployed to innovative startups and enterprises. A second reason to be optimistic is that notwithstanding a gloomier global outlook, there are opportunities abound in Asia, underpinned by strong fundamentals. The IMF expects Asia to grow 4.5% this year, contributing to about two-thirds of global growth. Southeast Asia will continue to contribute strongly to this growth. We are a market of 650 million people with a growing middle class. ASEAN is energetic and forward-looking. We are making a big push to grow our digital economy, which is estimated to triple by 2030 and reach US$1 trillion. We are now negotiating a Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA), the first ever regional digital agreement, to harness digitalisation to integrate our economies further.  

So taken together, the outlook for startups is overall positive, so long as you position yourselves well to seize opportunities and ride these new waves. Most of you are at the forefront of your respective fields, offering excellent products and solutions and seeking to achieve greater impact. You would be looking for a stable base with access to capital and talent, so that you can expand to new markets and grow your business. And across the world today, there are many innovation nodes that enable you to do so. 

Today, we are gathered here in Singapore, located at the heart of Asia. Like you, Singapore is small, relative to other countries and innovation nodes. We know that we cannot merely compete on the basis of size alone. As such, we focus on harnessing our small size to our advantage, while always taking an open, outward-looking orientation to finding like-minded partners and grow opportunities together. This is encapsulated in our ambition to serve as a Global-Asia node for technology, innovation and enterprise by firstly developing a strong research, innovation and enterprise ecosystem that supports the growth of all enterprises, especially startups and secondly, leveraging strong linkages to the region and beyond, to enable startups and business to scale. Let me speak of each in turn. 

A vibrant RIE ecosystem 

The innovation ecosystem is key to growing startups. Here in Singapore, we take a proactive and comprehensive approach to developing this ecosystem – spanning Research, Innovation and Enterprise, or what we term the RIE ecosystem. 

Over the years, we have set our successive plans to fund basic research, support innovation, and grow enterprises. n the latest RIE2025 plan, we have committed S$28 billion. Many of the topics for today’s breakout sessions are priority areas for us, including advanced manufacturing, human health and potential, urban solutions and sustainability, and the digital economy. This consistent investment has enabled us to develop a rich and diverse research landscape in Singapore, with world-leading capabilities in areas like material science, biomedical engineering, and computer science. We have a strong suite of universities and research institutes, and also foster collaborations with other leading universities and researchers through platforms such as the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE). 

We are accelerating the growth of our innovation ecosystem by putting in place forward-thinking national plans in emerging growth areas. Our National AI Strategy 2.0, or NAIS 2.0, is an example. Over the next five years, Singapore will invest more than $1 billion into AI compute, talent and industry development. National plans like NAIS 2.0 benefit startups by allowing them to use Singapore to test and refine their ideas here. For example, Singapore-based WIZ.AI is developing a talkbot which can deliver automated customer interactions in Southeast Asian languages including English, Malay, Mandarin, Thai, and Tagalog. This talkbot was refined in Singapore, by tapping on our finance, telecommunications, e-commerce, and healthcare industries. 

A critical ingredient of the innovation ecosystem is the availability of capital, to enable startups to grow and scale. In this regard, Singapore’s venture capital scene has grown more lively in the past five years. There are some 400 VCs in Singapore, almost double from just five years ago. The value of VC investments in Singapore was more than S$8 billion in 2023. This amounted to more than two-thirds the value of VC funding in Southeast Asia. This is a key reason why Singapore is now home to over 4,000 tech startups and 200 incubators.

Beyond government investment and capital availability, a particular strength of Singapore’s ecosystem is our ability to mobilise different stakeholders to create new value and win-win outcomes. Singapore is home to more than 7,000 MNCs, many of whom have set up their regional HQ and R&D hubs here. The value add that we offer is to be intentional about reaping synergies and engineering mutually beneficial collaborations across our compact ecosystem. For example, we have more than 20 corporate laboratories, where public sector researchers work closely with industry researchers, often from multinationals like Applied Materials or Rolls Royce, to develop industry-relevant solutions. Our agencies are also very deliberate about “matchmaking” – building connections between MNEs and local enterprises, which can supply products and innovative ideas. This is particularly salient given the more volatile geopolitical situation, where global enterprises are seeking greater resilience and manage supply chain risks. 

Linkages to the region and beyond

This brings me to my second point. Besides what we are doing to grow and deepen our innovation system, Singapore has strong linkages to the region and beyond, which positions us well to support all enterprises, especially startups, to tap opportunities in the region. We have excellent air and sea links to the region, and you can fly to most major ASEAN cities in less than three hours from Singapore. 

Beyond physical connectivity, we also a wide network of Free Trade Agreements, Green and Digital Agreements, and Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreements. Companies based out of Singapore, MNEs and startups alike, enjoy benefits in market access, investment protection, and taxation through these agreements. This has made Singapore the largest source of FDI to countries in Asia such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India and China. As a Global-Asia node, we have strong connections to other innovation nodes through our Global Innovation Alliance. Our Global SG Launch Programme helps growth stage startups use Singapore as a launchpad to expand and scale in Southeast Asia. Singapore has also become a gathering spot for startups and innovative enterprises. The Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SWITCH) always attracts a strong following of funders and startups from across the world, while the Singapore Fintech Festival is the largest Fintech festival in the world. I hope to see some of you again at these events later this year! 

Taken together, these different elements – a proactive innovation ecosystem supported by strong linkages to the region and the world – explain why Singapore is ranked #5 in the world, and #1 in Asia, on the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO)’s Global Innovation Index. As a trading nation, Singapore has always adopted an open posture, and we welcome like-minded talent from around the region and beyond to collaborate with us, and to grow through us. We are home to established talents like Anthony Tan and Forrest Li, who chose to internationalise and scale Grab and SEA Limited respectively from Singapore. We are seeing a next wave of founders, including early employees of Gojek, Tokopedia, Grab, Alibaba, Flipkart, Google and Stripe – choosing to build new ventures here. At the same time, Global companies like ENGIE, Schneider Electric and Standard Chartered Ventures are also hiring great founders here in Singapore to incubate and head up their corporate ventures. We are keen to invite more global founders to build new ventures, and to grow with, and grow through Singapore.


Let me conclude. While the global environment is remains challenging, there are still many opportunities for startups to grow and scale, especially in Asia and Southeast Asia. Startups will benefit from an integrated innovation ecosystem as well as strong linkages to new markets, to scale and grow. Singapore, as a Global-Asia node, can serve as a good location for startups and founders to tap into these new opportunities, and achieve your next bound of growth. I hope that this Forum will provide you with useful insights, and that you will also have the opportunity to learn more about what Singapore can offer. 

I wish you a successful forum, and a fruitful time in Singapore. Thank you.