Mika Tirronen: Southeast Asia is becoming an epicenter of data science and economy


Mika Tirronen: Southeast Asia is becoming an epicenter of data science and economy

Singapore excels in the newest QS university ranking underlining the competitive nature of the island country. Singapore universities are utilizing their high rankings by attracting leading experts especially in AI, cloud and quantum technologies, which are in the core of the nation’s innovation strategy. As the state has become more bold in its investment policy, much of the attention is focused in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, global tech giants such as Alphabet (Google), Amazon and Microsoft are spending significant amounts of money to expand their cloud and AI services and data centers in Southeast Asia. This is to diversify geopolitical risks – and to boost science, technology and innovation in the region in a big way.

Race for rankings

Singapore news media did not miss the newest QS World University Ranking, which was released in early June. The reason was understandable: NUS and NTU, the two crown pearls of Singaporean higher education system, were ranked highly: NUS was global 8th, NTU 15th. For NUS this news was like “another day in the office”, as the ranking was the same as in previous year. NTU ranking climbed up by 11 places from last year. 

In Singapore university rankings are taken seriously. They are seen not only as a sign of excellence but also as a tool to attract talented students, top scholars and funders to contribute further to the success. Attractiveness has made Singaporean top universities international: the rough foreign student population in NUS and NTU is between 20 and 25%. 

In addition to students, leading universities are ambitious in attracting top scholars to their staff. This holds especially in strategically selected focus areas such as AI and data science. NTU president Ho Teck Hua revealed in a recent interview, that there have been attempts from China to poach professors from NTU – with no success. Head hunting is the name of the game. Competitive salaries, top-tier research facilities and a collaborative culture are the means to make ambitious professors stay in Singapore. And to ensure high rankings also in the future.
The logic goes, that an attractive research and study environment is bound to boost also domestic excellence. The need of domestic talent incubation was reflected in the newly released quantum strategy.

Quantum technology to boost innovation and economy 

As a part of the national approach to emerging deep technologies deputy prime minister Heng Swee Keat published on May 30 National Quantum Strategy, which allocates SGD 295 million of fresh funding (EUR 200 million) in the next five years to strengthen Singapore’s position as a leading hub in the development and deployment of quantum technologies. The investment is targeted to four focus areas: quantum research and development; engineering capabilities; talent; and partnerships. One hundred master level and one hundred PhD level students will be educated with the funding. This boost doubles the 273 million euro funding, which the National Research Foundation has allocated into quantum technologies since 2002. 

Director of the National Quantum Office, Ling Keok Tong, estimated that there are around 350 researchers and students within Singapore Quantum Ecosystem. Singapore seeks to develop endogenous quantum chip technology, while the country keeps an eye on the future developments of the domain – which of the major quantum chip technologies would take a leading role in the future. Superconducting, trapped ions and photonic qubits are among the most promising and contested ones. A big share of the input will go to safer bets, such as quantum sensing and quantum communication. Singapore is developing significant capacities in quantum sensing, which can be applied in biomedical imaging and in subsurface critical mineral exploration and mapping. Any of these domains would be an interesting cooperation area for Finnish universities and companies.

Singapore seeks and makes investments

In its never-ending approach of national empowerment, Singapore has benchmarked global success stories and applied best practices in a tailor-made manner. A strategic, long-term and coordinated planning combined with state-run holding policy has made Singapore a global giant in investments. This can be seen in neighboring countries: Singapore is number one foreign investor in China, in India, and in Vietnam, for instance. Meanwhile, Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) attracts foreign companies to set-up their businesses in Singapore, making the country as a testbed and home base for data intensive industrial operations.

As the most recent development Amazon Web Services announced its plan to spend USD 8,8 billion to expand cloud infrastructure in Singapore during the following four years. The funding goes to cloud technologies and AI capacity building. Amazon aims to organize AI workshops for more than 100 companies in order to boost their adoption of AI-based solutions. This brings the company’s total planned spending in Singapore to USD 17 billion by 2028. 

Foreign and domestic investments are bound to make Singapore a core hub of AI and cloud based technologies in a way Finland needs to benchmark carefully. Our High Performance Computing and quantum ecosystems hold significant strategic importance in the current geopolitics of science, technology and innovation. It makes sense to engage with Asia’s major data hub, Singapore, in developing Finnish data science and economy to keep abreast of global developments. 

Asia’s growing cloud ecosystem seems anything but cloudy

Soon after Amazon’s announcement, Microsoft released its plan to spend nearly USD 5 billion in Southeast Asia for data center investments. USD 2 billion will go to developing digital infrastructure in Malaysia during the following four years. The planned spending is directed to cloud technology and AI, with a plan to support Malaysian cyber security projects and to educate 200000 experts for the adoption of AI. Additionally, Microsoft will establish data centers in Indonesia and Thailand. CEO Satya Nadella said that the company plans to spend USD 7 billion to develop digital services and data centers in the belt extending from Japan to India. Microsoft is contending with likes such as Alphabet and Alibaba Group to win over businesses in Southeast Asia. Global tech giants seek to diversify their functions beyond China to reduce their geopolitical risks. Southeast Asia is a fast-digitising region of more than 650 million people, which makes it a lucrative market for digital businesses. Massive investments are to boost higher education demands, which might create collaborative opportunities for Finnish higher education institutes in all aforementioned nations as well.  
Southeast Asia (and Asia-Pacific altogether) is clearly becoming a global epicenter of data economy. Nowhere else in the world the intensity of investments, innovations and businesses is so tightly bound, and geopolitically so contested, as in this region. This, combined with a huge and aspiring talent pool, makes the area a hotspot of interest for countries such as US, for instance. Finland has a lot to learn and gain from the region, now and in the future.

Text and photo: Mika Tirronen, Embassy of Finland in Singapore, TFK-expert in South East Asia