The rise of Singapore and Web 3.0
The story of Singapore and their future
Hey all, Robin here. I haven’t written a Substack in a while thanks to school, but I’ve found a groove to make sure I can write at least two a week.
Today’s Substack is about Singapore—a nation that you’ve probably heard of, thanks to their rapid development as a launching point for Western businesses in Asia. Perhaps you’ve heard of Sea—$SE—or maybe even the mega app Grab.
Collectively speaking, companies in Singapore have raised a whopping $67 billion dollars over the past twenty years.
But how did a a poor British colony that was deemed to be filled with “the very dregs of South-Eastern Asia”—prostitution, gambling, drug abuse, illness and no natural resources—become so critical to the future of Asia.
The Dregs of South-Eastern Asia and a Failed Merger
It was 1854 and Singapore’s primary newspaper described their own country as being filled with “the very dregs of south-eastern Asia”.
That assessment was pretty accurate as the island was the hub for human vices in South East Asia.
Fast forward to the post World War 2 era and Singapore chose to merge with Malaysia in 1963. At the time, being an independent country was out of the question—Singapore looked as uncertain as Evergrande right now. It had mass unemployment, housing shortages, and lacked natural resources. It was a small island that depended on Malaysia for petroleum and even drinking water.
However, this merger would be a failed one as massive violent race riots broke out in 1964. During this period, the government acknowledged that the merger failed—Lee hosted an emotional press conference to acknowledge the failure and said that it was the one thing that he wanted for his adult life. He believed that Singapore should be merged with Malaysia with all his being.
Lee’s tune would soon change as he realized how to chart a new path for Singapore.
The little island that could, The Oasis, and the magic of Vision
Shortly, in a press conference after the failed merger, Lee decided to chart a new future for Singapore where he aligned himself with the West and made sure that Singapore would not become a communist nation and vowed to create “a first world oasis in a third world region…”.
In a 2007 interview Lee elaborated on his thoughts at the time:
“We knew that if we were just like our neighbors, we would die. Because we’ve got nothing to offer against what they have to offer. So we had to produce something which is different and better than what they have. It’s incorrupt. It’s efficient. It’s meritocratic. It works.”
The fascinating thing about how Lee spoke was that he was treating Singapore like a vision that he not only had to sell to constituents but also to the whole world. At the time Asia was, let’s just say… a burning trash bin for the most part. China just finished deleting at least 45 million people, Japan was rapidly growing and rebuilding, and the Viet Cong and South Vietnam were duking it out for control over Vietnam.
However, Lee was a man with a vision and he desired to change Singapore—his mechanism for doing this was inspiring the population with vision and a paddle. For example, one of Lee’s key objectives was turning Singapore into a clean society with the fervor of a germaphobe. We often simplify the situation and think that the prospect of being smacked by bamboo is what enabled this change. Logistically speaking, if the majority of the population was not brought into the vision, enforcement would have been near impossible. To achieve the compliance needed, the strategy has always been to persuade the population through information and then administering punishments for the minority who wouldn’t comply at a later date—without mentioning the fines during the information campaign.
This was Singapore’s grand plan, a “great leap forward” without the mass killings and erosion of trust.
Singapore looked at their country in a radically different way than most of the world—they looked at the country as a vehicle of achieving a good society, but didn’t fall into the trap of being bound by ideology. They were open to iterations, yet didn’t let the iterations derail themselves from their path. They were a “vision driven organization” for startup speak.
“We are pragmatists. We don’t stick to any ideology. Does it work? Let’s try it and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamored with any ideology.”
For example, let’s zero in on how Singapore approached public transportation. The vision was to have inexpensive and extensive public transportation that accommodated for a growing population. In 1995, Singapore privatized public transportation as a way to improve pricing and efficiency. This idea seemed great on paper, but reality was more complicated. The main company in charge of the process called SMRT was prioritizing short term profits and earnings since they were beholden to shareholders and the good old GE way—(the GE way is a style of corporate governance to focus on short-term performance above all else, popularized by CEO Jack Welch that was believed to be a successful style of management (it was for a period of time))—which led to delays and safety incidents.
When it was clear that the vision wasn’t achieved, the government bought out SMRT with Temasek (Singapore’s government VC arm). Today, Singapore’s public transportation is widely considered to be in the top 5 globally.
Thanks to Lee’s pragmatism and vision, Singapore has now achieved his vision. It has created a better life for the citizens of an impoverished island with rapid technological adoption.
His leadership style is best summed in his own words)::
“Some people play draughts—you eat one piece at a time. The affairs of men and nations are not that simple. This is a complicated business of chess.”
Today, Singapore faces their own challenges—a society with growing wealth inequality and balancing resource distribution. However, thanks to Lee’s style of thinking, Singapore has the needed foundation to solve these problems.
Lee gave Singapore the ability to have vision and the proper mental framework to iterate and to focus on what works instead of what satisfies ideology.
Now that we’re done covering the past and a bit of the present, let’s zero in how Singapore is key to Web 3.
The Island and The New Web
As the Singaporean government zeroes in on the use of big data, IoT, robotics and smart cities, the private industry is zeroing in on Web 3.
Here are just a few names: Nansen and CoinGecko are well known names focusing on data. Nansen is more geared toward professionals with on-chain data, and Coingecko gives users an easy hub to track coins. I’ve previously covered Enjin in this thread here (tl;dr blockchain gaming infrastructure play). Biconomy is an interesting play and I’d akin them to the Stripe of Web 3.0—they’re an easy plug and play tool for enabling gas-less payments on the ETH and Polygon blockchain, alternative gas payments, and value transfers between EVM chains and various L2s. Now, Ocean Protocol is a behemoth that deserves its own Substack but, tl;dr a new way to trade data.
Looking to the future, it’s clear that Singapore is a nation with a bright future and their adoption of Web 3 and Crypto will surely ensure that they have a big place in the future on the global stage.
Thank you for reading and do good in the world.
Disclaimer: None of this is to be deemed legal or financial advice of any kind.