Thursday, September 21, 2017

So long, Singapore

The stage is set for Myanmar’s tech-savvy native sons and daughters to return from overseas and develop the local industry.

More than 60 people gathered in Singapore’s startup central to get news on Myanmar’s tech scene. Photo: SuppliedMore than 60 people gathered in Singapore’s startup central to get news on Myanmar’s tech scene. Photo: Supplied

“Myanmar is hot right now, people,” Code for Change Myanmar founder David Madden told about 60 attendees at Myanmar Startup Day in Singapore, an event hosted by Ooredoo’s entrepreneurship-focused offshoot Ideabox Myanmar on October 11. “Come home.”

Singapore has long been a draw for Myanmar. Some estimates put the number of Myanmar living in Singapore at 100,000, nearly 2 percent of the city-state’s total 5.5 million people, often driven to the city for economic reasons.

According to the IMF, Singapore’s unadjusted GDP per capita for 2013 came in at $55,182. while Myanmar’s per capita GDP, by contrast, stood at $1113.

“Historically, there’s been a pretty strong flow of people out of Myanmar into other parts of the region, especially Singapore,” Mr Madden said. “I think for many people Singapore was the default place to go and get a university degree, to get further education. It was the place to get a good job, a well-paying job with an internationally known company.”

But that stream of people is changing course, especially for those interested in technology. “What we’re seeing now is that there’s so much interesting and exciting stuff happening in Myanmar that there’s a real case for people to come back, to come home,” Mr Madden said.

Improved infrastructure helps boost that case, as Myanmar is heading online. “Four telcos [are] now falling over themselves to get people connected, and that’s a sea-change,” Mr Madden said. Both Ooredoo and Telenor, two private telecoms providers whose services the government greenlit for rollout last year, seek to cover more than 90pc of the country in five years, according to the companies.

And tech talents are hoping to work for themselves and other Myanmar companies, rather than ship out. Mr Madden reported that, of surveyed Code for Change Myanmar hackathon participants, less than 5pc wanted to work overseas. Fully two-thirds said they planned to create their own tech company, while 17.1pc sought a career at a tech startup in Myanmar.

“For a long time, there was concern from technology companies in Myanmar about training people up and then seeing them disappear as soon as they had any sort of saleable level of skill, and that seems to be much less of a problem now,” Mr Madden said. “And at the same time, we have all these other examples of people coming home and starting their own companies or joining other companies.

Many don’t need much convincing to return to Myanmar. “They do feel strongly about home,” said Ooredoo Myanmar director of digital services Julian Gorman. “Part of it is family, part of it is food … It’s just the culture.”

Startup founder Ko Thar Htet, who returned to Myanmar in 2012, also highlighted how ties that bind can motivate a move, even in the face of instability. “I understood that conditions will never be right,” he said. “But the change in Myanmar has started, and we have opportunity to shape and direct where it goes.”

“There is no better reason for anyone [than] to make a better home,” he added. “It’s their home.”

He sees more entrepreneurs than tech workers returning to Myanmar, where the former gets opportunities 10 times larger than elsewhere, he said.

Major issues, such as a complete lack of mobile payments infrastructure, still hamper the development of Myanmar’s tech ecosystem. But the crowd gathered at Silicon Straits in the small, thumping heart of Singapore’s startup scene seemed hopeful.

“The word that kept coming up today was inspired,” Mr Madden said.