Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong argued the island nation must welcome foreign talent to realize its goal of becoming a technology center, while acknowledging the tensions this could foster with the local population.
The tiny country of 5.7 million must place technology, which proved instrumental in quelling Covid-19 this year, at the heart of its future development, Lee said in a keynote speech at the Singapore Tech Forum, an annual gathering for professionals from Silicon Valley to Asia.
A city-state with few natural resources but an open business climate, Singapore is trying to portray itself as a regional technology powerhouse backed by a supportive government. Under Lee, Singapore has sought to leverage these advantages to welcome foreign investment and global talent.
“We are trying to build a society which is different, where opportunities abound, where we make full use of tech and yet human spirits will flourish,” Lee said. “That requires the talents of Singaporeans, but also, we welcome talents from around the world to come and join us and help us build this society.”
On Tuesday Lee again touted the “Tech.Pass” program that aims to draw top talent to Singapore. The program will allow 500 highly qualified individuals — “the movers and shakers of the tech world” — to secure a new type of visa to start and operate more than one company and become an investor, consultant or mentor for local startups.
U.S. tech giants such as Google, Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Salesforce.com Inc. already regard Singapore as a springboard to the rest of Southeast Asia, one of the world’s fastest-growing internet arenas. Chinese tech behemoths such as Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Bytedance Ltd. are also building up their presence in Singapore after setbacks in the U.S. and India.
While tensions between the U.S. and China exist, “we try our best to keep our links to both sides and to do business with both sides, with Alibaba and Tencent on one side, and FAANGs on the other side,” Lee said. “For now, it is possible, but whether going ahead it is possible, that depends on how well the U.S.-China relationships go.”
Lee said talent is crucial to Singapore’s future, but recognized the potential for friction between foreigners and locals. He argued that the influx of expertise builds the country’s overall capabilities and benefits all in the longer term.
The prime minister has been one of the most vocal global leaders calling for the world’s biggest economies to avoid a destructive clash that could force smaller countries like Singapore to choose sides on everything from trade and technology to Covid-19 vaccines and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. With its economy dependent on trade, Singapore supports a strong American presence in Asia by allowing the U.S. to use its military facilities, while also counting China as its top trading partner.
“We all want to work together with the U.S., we all want to work together with other vibrant economies, we would like to cooperate within the region,” Lee said in an interview with Bloomberg Editor-In-Chief John Micklethwait at the New Economy Forum this week. “I think not very many countries would like to join basically a coalition against those who have been excluded, chief of whom will be China.”
Lee’s administration is betting the technology industry can help invigorate the economy, which contracted 7% in the third quarter from a year earlier as unemployment climbed to its highest level since 2004. The government has pledged about S$100 billion ($74.4 billion) in stimulus across five aid packages.
Singapore has combined business-friendly policies with heavy investment in the tech sector. It has kept research and development spending at 1% of gross domestic product and allocated a S$19 billion budget for research, innovation and enterprise activities for a five-year period through 2020, up 18% from the previous five-year period.