In a press release, Money 20/20 Asia explained the choice of Singapore as their chosen host city, calling it the “gateway to Asia.” Ernst & Young ranked Singapore fourth as a global fintech hub, behind Britain, California and New York. Given the ubiquity of digital technology, countries are jumping in the race to become the leading fintech hub. What is it about Singapore and New York that shapes them into conducive fintech hubs?
New York’s success as a fintech hub can be attributed to its proximity to established financial market expertise and network of entrepreneurs and venture capital. On the other hand, Singapore is well-endowed with business-friendly policies and technology investment. Much of the development can be credited to the Singapore government.
I grew up in Singapore and am currently a Business undergraduate at the University of Singapore (NUS). Through the NUS Overseas Colleges Program, I had the opportunity to come to New York for a one year internship program with Alloy. Prior to Alloy, I interned at TRIVE, a Singapore Venture Capital firm and Temasek Holdings, an investment firm. Having witnessed the fintech landscape of both the East and West, here are some insights that I have picked up.
Singapore and New York City Fintech Ecosystem Overview
Singapore has always been frustrated with being resource scarce and small (second smallest Asian nation after the Maldives). Essentially, Singapore was itself ‘a startup’ of sorts. Perhaps, this is why it’s seen a boom of entrepreneurs readily tackling fintech challenges like payments, banking, wealth management, insurance and cryptocurrency, which constitute the major fintech segments in the country. Much of the ecosystem development is enabled by the Singapore Fintech Association, the industry association which facilitates collaboration between market participants and stakeholders. Besides having one of the lowest business tax rates, the country’s robust regulatory regime differentiates Singapore from other fintech hubs, possibly giving it an edge over New York.
With a deep history in investment, New York’s original fintech verticals in financial management and payments remain healthy. However, innovations in financial wellness, B2B fintech for Small and Medium Enterprises and back-end banking technologies have experienced significant growth in recent years. The city also benefits from a huge range of players contributing to and supporting the ecosystem. Accelerators, incubators, business groups, innovation labs and government initiatives have been set up specifically to support fintechs from seed funding to exit.
The Singapore Government has identified fintech as a potential growth area for Singapore, thereby devoting vast resources and attention to drive fintech development. Singapore’s central bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) launched various funds and initiatives to facilitate access to capital for fintech entities such as the Financial Sector Technology and Innovation scheme. Through this one Scheme, the MAS has committed $165 million over five years (2015–2020) to fund technology infrastructure to deliver fintech services and provide support for early-stage development of innovative projects. Examples of such deployments include the pilot of national ‘Know-Your-Customer Utility’ to crack down on anti-money laundering lapses at banks in the city, as well as the development of a regulatory sandbox to encourage more fintech experimentation and partnership with the Association of Banks in Singapore on cybersecurity.
Other local regulatory authorities have also joined forces in support of fintech development. For instance, the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore launched a Fintech Fast Track initiative to expedite the file-to-grant process for fintech patent applications in as little as 6 months as opposed to an average of 42 months. The Ministry of Manpower has also relaxed the EntrePass (work visa for foreign entrepreneurs) requirements.
New York, on the other hand, experiences more bureaucratic bottlenecks rather than a fairly singular control organization. At the Federal Level, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency charters (OCC) regulates and supervises all national banks and federal savings associations as well as federal branches and agencies of foreign banks. At the state level, the Department of Financial Services (DFS) is responsible for supervising the vast financial ecosystem of New York City. The layered regulatory structure makes it more difficult for bills to be passed and more difficult for fintechs to engage with regulators than in Singapore. For instance, last year, the DFS has turned down the OCC’s support for fintech sandboxes as well as allowing fintechs to acquire bank charters to protect consumers.
Although fintech investments in Singapore more than doubled to $365M in 2018 from $180M in 2017, this pales in comparison to New York, which received $690 million in 2016, and as another point of comparison, to the $511 million received by Silicon Valley.
The Venture Capital (VC) industry has traditionally been the main source of funding for early-stage New York fintech companies, but now, major US banks and global players such as BBVA and HSBC have developed in-house VC funds to invest directly in technology companies. The size of these funds can range anywhere from $50 to $250 million.
Conversely, Singapore is much more dependent on the government for financial support. Some examples of public funding by the MAS include the $20M Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics Grant given to banks for the development of artificial intelligence and data analytics projects as well as the Startup Singapore Founder’s program which provides up to $30K by matching $3 to every $1 raised by a start-up in Singapore. In addition, the government also drove angel investment activity by introducing the Tax Deduction Scheme for angel investors who invested at least a minimum in a local startup.
Despite the growth, the fintech ecosystem is not without challenges, as fintech hubs worldwide are still encumbered by legacy systems and mindsets. But we’re seeing New York adopt some public-private fintech initiatives, like what Singapore has championed, and similarly, we’re seeing Singapore develop its private VC ecosystem.
In New York, The New York FinTech Innovation Lab, co-founded by Accenture and the Partnership Fund for New York City, assists early-stage ﬁntech companies in product and business development by introducing entrepreneurs to top bank and venture capital executives through a 12-week program. The NYC Fintech Innovation Lab’s 31 alumni companies have raised a total of $296 million in ﬁnancing after participating in the program. [Note: Alloy participated in the Lab — read more about our experience here]
In Singapore, TRIVE is a venture capital firm focused on seed-stage technology startups investment in Southeast Asia. Their passion for building the entrepreneur community and nurturing the pay-it-forward culture is definitely apparent. During my internship experience there, I saw TRIVE partners help with recruitment, beta testing, building connections and personal mentorship. So far, TRIVE helped 38 Singapore startups raise $5.6M in government grants and seed funding. Though startups may start small, they are also highly agile, especially when compared to legacy financial institutions. And each successful startup may spawn the next generation of startups, so the future for both Singapore and New York fintech is definitely promising.