Why Do Global Financial Organizations Flock to Singapore for Innovation?
Fintech, short for financial technology, is changing the face of the financial services industry. Globally, it’s attracted close to $100 billion investment since 2010, covering everything from robo advisors that purportedly replace financial advisors to cashless payments and digital funding platforms. In 2020 alone, fintech investment increased by 20 percent as the pandemic made traditional “high-touch” financial processes nearly impossible. The majority of this investment is going to new entrants who are challenging incumbent financial institutions and blurring the lines between financial and retail services.
According to Findexable’s Global Fintech Index, Singapore was the leading Asian fintech city in 2020. Considering the industry attracted $229 million as far back as 2017, when the sector was largely sluggish in the rest of Asia, this comes as no surprise. The funding was a combination of government subsidies, grants, angel investment, venture capital, and corporate investment. Singapore also has an active fintech association and hosts the annual FinTech Festival, which attracts global attendees and adds to the country’s credibility in the domain.
Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiative
Singapore’s reputation as a global fintech hub results from targeted policies to establish the nation as a “Smart Nation” and keep it at the forefront of the digital transformation. The Smart Nation initiative dates back to 2014, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong implemented actions to ensure the city-state has an ultra-high-speed fiber infrastructure and total mobile subscription penetration—both essential for the development and adoption of fintech products and services.
The Singaporean government’s regulatory structure is designed to support the fintech industry's growth. For both investors and entrepreneurs, it is unrivaled in Southeast Asia. But, in addition to regulatory support, tax treaties, and favorable ownership and share structures, it also offers a pool of talent and good relations with its neighbors in the region, as well as an extensive network of global organizations with regional headquarters in Singapore. All these factors combine to position Singapore well as a regional fintech hub, an incubator for innovation with opportunities to expand into other markets.
In 2020 the Singaporean government injected $185 million into the fintech sector to spur its growth. In contrast to many other countries, which banned digital currency investments, it introduced an appropriately regulated framework for digital payments through cryptocurrency.
In 2020 the Singapore Blockchain Innovation Programme accelerated the development and adoption of the technology through significant investment, with about 75 companies focused on 17 blockchain projects across multiple industries. As a result, blockchain and cryptocurrency now dominate the Singaporean fintech scene, making up 19 percent of the 430 fintech startups identified in 2020. Payments come second (16 percent), followed by investments and wealthtech (14 percent) and regtech (11 percent).
Non-bank financial institutions licensed as major payment institutions could benefit from direct access to FAST and PayNow. The connection allows for real-time fund transfers between bank accounts and e-wallets, making e-payment simpler for businesses and consumers.
Julius Baer Innovation Hub in Singapore
Singapore’s reputation as a fintech hub is even attracting talent and investment away from Switzerland, the traditional European banking center. For example, the Swiss private bank Julius Baer, headquartered in Zurich, has opted to set up an innovation hub in Singapore rather than at home in Europe.
Asia makes up around 25 percent of Julius Baer’s business, making it an ideal testing ground for new technology, which can then be scaled up and deployed in Europe. The new lab is situated in Julius Baer’s Singapore office, where Jonathan Chan has been heading a multi-disciplinary team with innovation and entrepreneurial backgrounds since December 2021.
Julius Baer has a history of collaborations with fintech firms through its partnership with the F10 Fintech Accelerator in Zurich, dating back to 2016. According to the bank, these have gained momentum since F10 also opened offices in Singapore.
Franklin Templeton Creates Singapore Incubation Program
US-based Franklin Templeton is another international financial institute looking to Singapore for innovative solutions for the future. It has partnered with the F10 Global Innovation Network in Singapore to create FT Singapore FinTech Incubator, an incubation program for early stage fintech startups. The incubator will be housed at 80RR FinTech Hub in Singapore’s central business district.
The first two-year incubation program is due to start in July 2022, and targeted fintech companies are those in the areas of AI, machine learning, blockchain, cybersecurity, and wealth management. Those selected to participate in the program will receive seed funding from Franklin Templeton and may be considered for collaboration projects with the global organization.
The governments of several other Asian countries are currently copying Singapore’s fintech stimulation model. However, additional programs for startups and new technologies can only enhance the region’s potential, shifting it from a source of cheap, unskilled labor to one of knowledge-based talent and innovative technologies.