[James Seng. Flckr photo by Joi Ito]
Back in 2004, I spent six fascinating days in Singapore on freelance assignment for Network World. I was just gaining my enthusiasm for this blogging thing, and I also blogged a series of posts on my experience. These were my first international posts and were the best received of anything I had blogged up until that date. But they were virtually ignored by the Singaporeans I had met. While much of what I saw and learned about Singapore, the quality of people in its government, it's wonderful food, libraries, port and Internet access, I could not find a start up in the city state that impressed me.
But the people I met, were world class in knowledge, education and technology sophistication. Among those who most impressed me was James Seng, with whom I spoke only briefly. He had the heart of a geek and the acumen of a global player. (Wikipedia tells his story better than I can.) Last month, months ago, my friend Jeremiah met up by coincidence with James, and came home talking about hot start ups, implying that my data had badly aged.
So I decided to catch up with James Seng for the SAP Global Survey. Indeed a great deal has changed since I visited and James seems to be part of a good deal of it. He has moved out of IDA and has started a small investment fund for Singapore startups called Thymos Capital. BTW, James will be visiting Silicon Valley between Sept 19-21 and Jeremiah and I plan to hold some kind of event on his behalf. If you'd like to meet him, please email me.
1. When we met back in June 2004, you were at IDA, the government organization, where you were in charge of emerging and disruptive technologies. You seemed to me to be among the few Singaporeans interested in disruptive technologies. How has that changed over the past three years?
The IDA Technology Group has always been interested in disruptive technologies, and they continue to be. There is also a wider understanding of disruptive technologies and various government agencies are more willing to experiment with "crazy ideas" than when you visited.
Government has given social media, in particular strong attention and the interest goes all the way to the top echelon as it has both political and social impact. Just a few days ago, various government agencies announced they are going to adopt blogging and online community as a mechanism to interact with citizenry.
2. I spent only one day meeting with Singapore start ups. There didn't seem to be that many of them in 2003. I met none focused on blogging & social media. How has this changed?
The year 2006 was a turning point for Singapore. Before that, there were startups but they were just bread-and-butter efforts, focusing on strong cash-flow businesses. In 2006, we started to see more interesting entrepreneurial events like the Unconference and Nexus organized by E27 Singapore and The Digital Movement. With that, more interesting startups started to emerge.
In terms of social media, we have social commenter mrbrown who produce the popular podcast Mr. Brown Show and dabble with WTF! Show, both sponsorship supported. Several bloggers are making good money from advertising like Xiaxue with crossover gigs in the traditional media.
3. What motivated you to start Thymos Capital?
Several months ago, I wrote about why Singapore is not ready for Web 2.0
I was in the right place at the right time to meet some of the right people who then asked me if I want to do something about it. I decided to start by mentoring and funding. Mentoring particularly is important because while there is a will to do a startup, young Singaporean are often lost in the world of VCs and fund raising and the lingo and practices.
4. You are considered one of the pioneers of the Internet and open source software in Singapore. How have these two technologies impacted Singapore over the last 10-15 years?
The Internet has certainly changed Singapore in the last 10-15 years. Both socially and politically, Singapore is slowly becoming more open and liberal because of the internet.
The 90s was mostly a period of social liberalization as Singapore embraced the Internet. As people gained access to more information and became aware of differences in social culture, some of the more conservative practices were quietly dropped. For example, the introduction of RA18 (Restricted Art 18) for porn films. There is also a wide and ongoing debate on Penal Code 377A (criminalizing gays).
In the last few years, the impact of social media has become particularly profound. In our 2006 election, despite an explicit ban on online political commentary, bloggers continued to post about the election. Citizen journalists posted photos and videos that mainstream media ignored. Because of the loop-sided reporting from the mainstream media during election, there was a lot of anger and distrust of the media. In fact, in order to preserved some credibility, the newspaper eventually reproduced these photos several days later.
There were also numerous incidents where the mainstream media was "forced" to report on incidents widely circulated online on Tomorrow.sg, which I founded & Sammyboyforum. There is a well-documented case recently about Li Hongyi , thanks to reporting on Tomorrow.sg.
There are many more examples but let's stop here for now.
Regarding Open Source, I wish I could say there has been a greater impact on Singapore but unfortunately it isn't so. While there is a small community of Open Source users and advocates, it remains merely a small portion of the larger economy.
This is not to say Open Source isn't used in Singapore. It is, both in the public and private space. However, there aren't any highlights worth mentioning.
5. How are Singaporean people using social media and in what numbers? Is the top-down culture of Singapore changing at all because of social media?
Three years ago, I conducted numerous litmus survey tests among students (and others from anecdotes). In a class of 40, when asked how many blogs, you often see 39-40 hands up. Bloggers started as young as age 10 and continue all the way up. That's why I decided that Singapore is ready for a blog aggregator and that is why we started Tomorrow.sg.
Singapore's youth are information junkies, reading and writing blogs, using instant messaging more than email. There was also Wikipedia data showing a large contribution from Singaporeans. Friendster was popular among the youngsters. MySpace isn't really popular in Singapore but Facebook is starting to catch-on.
6. What about businesses and global enterprises headquartered in Singapore?
There are many large national and global companies that put their Asian headquarter in Singapore. Unfortunately, most are merely sales and support outlets and, as such, are more focused on business than innovation. The local Managing Directors have very little incentive to experiment, nor do they have much authority to do so.
7. How does social media play into Singapore's aspirations to serve as a digital hub for South Asia and the Pacific Rim?
I was just discussing this with Preetam, one of the Tomorrow.sg editors last night and also Globalvoices for Singapore. He travels quite a bit in Asia attending various tech and blogger meetups.
We generally agree that while Singapore has a a head start in social media in South East Asia, the surrounding countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have zoomed past Singapore in terms of size and impact.
8. Can you comment on how social media is evolving in different cultures and in different parts of the world?
I dont think I am in a very good position to comment on this since I only monitor Singapore, Malaysia and the US.
But there are sharp differences between Singapore and Malaysia. Malaysia is still very sensitive about pornography whereas Singapore is more liberal. On the other hand, Singapore is still very sensitive about politics whereas Malaysia enjoys higher political freedom (although the government started to clamp down on it).
9. How can an enterprise like SAP use social media moving forward?
Social Media means openness. "No more secrets" (Sneakers, 1992). Those who have things to hide are the most afraid. Those who don't have nothing to fear.
I am not sure what SAP wants from Social Media but first and foremost, dont be afraid to embrace it, be it engaging community like blogging or building a community in Facebook.
10. How do you think social media will change South Asia over the next decade?
The South Asia region is generally conservative; bound by so-called "Asian values." There is a general "see no evil, hear no evil, do no evil" principle. Traditional media is either heavily controlled or corrupt. The former is why there are so many bloggers in Singapore and latter is the reason for why OhMyNews thrives in Korea.
In the next decade, we will see social media migrate to mainstream media. Who and how to manage this change is challenging. Over the last couple of months in Malaysia, politicians have become uncomfortable with the rise in blogger influence and have taken steps to rein them in, via lawsuits and detained under Internet Security Act.
These efforts are unfortunately ineffective in the long run. Any leaders in a democratic and open country will have problems if their views goes against the middle-intellectual population, short of using force and aggression to suppress that dissent. (which is still true of several northern asia country).
The answer is in engagement, not making martyrs for causes.