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

Country wants to be Asia's startup capital, but will its citizens take pride in tech innovation that isn't "Singapore-born"?
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

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!

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