How much of Ed Saverin's innovation will Singapore be proud of?

How much of Ed Saverin's innovation will Singapore be proud of?

Summary: Country wants to be Asia's startup capital, but will its citizens take pride in tech innovation that isn't "Singapore-born"?


It's the Olympics and the folks here in Singapore, along with the other 204 nations taking part in this year's games, have been glued to their TVs as they watched their compatriots compete for that coveted medal.

A hot favorite here is paddler Feng Tianwei, who grabbed bronze in the table tennis women's singles, marking the first time since 1960 Singapore won an individual Olympic medal. 

Feng's FB profile
Feng Tianwei's Facebook profile

Amid the celebration, though, has emerged much contempt over Feng's origins. The China-born 25-year-old moved to Singapore in 2007 to train under the country's Foreign Sports Talent Scheme, and became a citizen in January 2008. The scheme is part of the government's efforts to scout and support the migration of foreigners who possess sports talent to compete under the Singapore flag.

But it has ignited much debate over whether Singaporeans should take any pride when a foreign import wins a medal for the nation. In an online poll conducted by Yahoo which asked this very question, 77 percent of 17,227 respondents said "No".

One reader on the site said: "If this is a national sport, the sportsperson has to be Singaporean, which means born in and bred in Singapore... Importing talent to represent Singapore is cheating."

Another reader, however, defended the win: "[Feng] has given Singapore more than any of us who are Singaporean only by right birth... It is not about the origins of the contributor but the contribution to the country."

In the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, the same debate was ignited when the local table tennis women's team comprising three China-born players, including Feng, played and won the silver medal for Singapore.

Noting the local sentiments, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong then said: "In the Olympics [2008] contingent, there are 25 members, half of whom are new Singaporeans. Why do we need them? Make a single calculation. The Chinese have 1.3 billion people. Singapore has a population of 4 million.

"If we want to win glory for Singapore and do well not only in sports, but in many other areas, we cannot merely depend on the local-born. We need to attract talent from all over," Lee said. "We welcome foreigners so they can strengthen our team and we can reduce our constraints. So let us welcome and let us encourage them."

The raging debate got me thinking about how Singapore would react when the government's bid to establish the country as the region's startup capital pays off and produces the world's next killer app.

What if the producer of this killer app isn't "Singapore-born"? And this is quite likely to happen, if you look at the number of foreigners flocking to the city-state to set up and invest in startups.

Importing tech innovation
One high-profile technopreneur who has called Singapore home since 2009 is Facebook co-founder, Eduardo Saverin.

Recently ranked 8th in Forbes Singapore's 40 Richest with a net worth of US$2.2 billion, Saverin said in a 2011 interview with local daily The Straits Times he decided to relocate to the city-state after discovering the various entrepreneur programs and "long list of government funding" made available for startups.

Eduardo Saverin

The Brazil-born bachelor who describes himself as a technology entrepreneur and investor, wants to be remembered also as a mentor. "I'm trying to use my knowledge for the next, and the next, startup. Facebook is difficult to top but I'm trying to do that," said Saverin, who has invested in Singapore-based company mobile apps developer Anideo, as well as U.S. startups Qwiki and Jumio.

If he does create the next Facebook right here in Singapore and help put the nation on the global tech map, will the same detractors who scorned Feng's origins also point out Saverin's Brazilian roots?

Will they do likewise when Swede Johan Stael von Holstein does the same for Singapore with his startup, MyCube? And how about the many more overseas startups that have chosen to set up shop here?

Globalization and modern technology--and air travel--have made the world a much smaller place. It's easy to cross borders and no longer unusual to meet someone who wasn't born in the country he would eventually die in.

Rather than scrutinize the original roots of an individual, I think we should look instead at how the adopted country has enabled the individual to excel and find success.

Feng, for instance, likely would not have received the training and opportunities she enjoyed in Singapore should she have remained in more populous China. Saverine and von Holstein also chose to move here because the country provides great access to investors, startup funds and other business resources.

Should Saverin indeed produce the next Facebook, I for one will be mighty proud he did it here. Team Singapore FTW!

Topics: Start-Ups, Emerging Tech, Singapore, Tech Industry


Eileen Yu began covering the IT industry when Asynchronous Transfer Mode was still hip and e-commerce was the new buzzword. Currently a freelance blogger and content specialist based in Singapore, she has over 16 years of industry experience with various publications including ZDNet, IDG, and Singapore Press Holdings.

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  • Benefits for Singapore

    The ruckus following the Singapore table tennis medal has been centred on national pride. Winning the medal doesn't bring any physical or tangible benefits for Singapore, so people are attacking the "symbol" of what the victory is.

    Getting great startups in Singapore would have tangible returns for the country. Jobs, investment, etc. would all happen. So hopefully people would celebrate any start-up that forms here, regardless whether it's from a foreigner or not!

    Even in the US I think Sergey Brin of Google and Jerry Yang from Yahoo were foreigners who created two super start-ups.
  • Confusing

    From my point of view, this whole debate shouldn't be about National pride. If someone is willing to move here and win a medal for us, then great. I think the main issue is that it seems the government has such little faith in the people of Singapore. It keeps saying that we need foreign talent in sports because of Singapore's small population, but both New Zealand and Jamaica's performance at the Olympics completely refutes that.

    We keep hearing how Singapore is the best at this, the top of that, but then the government keeps telling us that we need foreign talent to do so. I'm in no way criticizing foreign talent, I am grateful for those who come here. My issue is with the government that tells us we need foreigners to make Singapore a stronger nation.

    The debate over Feng Tianwei isn't about "true Singaporeans" vs. foreign born, it's about the government feeling the need to almost literally buy people from other countries rather than harvesting talent here. The government has instilled in us the idea that we should get other people to do things for us because we're not capable. Yes, we can benefit from foreign talent, but stop telling us we need them.
  • Are Singaporeans taking Singapore for Granted?

    If the US and President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not welcome Albert Einstein (a German-born Jew) and worked with him, you and I might not even be here writing this because our grandparents might not have survived the Japanese occupation in Singapore.

    Singapore has done well to position itself to attract not just foreign individuals but foreign brands and companies, which provided jobs for most Singaporeans.

    Many of these talents, be they individuals, brands and companies did not attain their success because of their governments. Likewise, if anyone is to feel so strongly that they are capable, please let their walk do the talk, instead of the other way round. Make that company, that brand and when you are there, you will know what you need to grow your company further.

    Most Singaporeans are 3rd generations immigrants. Our forefathers were "foreign talents" as well. You'll need a magnifying glass to see Singapore on the world map. And we do not have natural resources. I do not believe anyone can guarantee Singapore can survive the next 50 years.

    If Singaporeans feel that they can, then let's compete. The world is blown open. It has changed. Let's accept it.
    Samuel Koh