Singapore’s leading telecommunications group is investing in innovative technologies and building digital capabilities to keep pace with rising customer expectations in an evolving digital world, says Group CEO Chua Sock Koong
Singapore has been pushing digitalization and e-commerce in order to speed up the development of the region. In your opinion, what is the potential of ASEAN and what is the role of digitalization and technology?
The numbers speak for themselves. ASEAN has a growing population of over 630 million people, most of whom are young and tech-savvy, and a combined GDP of US$2.6 trillion. The region offers tremendous potential. While the mobile communications infrastructure in many ASEAN countries has been basic, new investments in fibre infrastructure have vastly improved connectivity. This is where telcos like us play an important role. In the region’s larger markets, where we have over 300 million customers in Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, connectivity has been a catalyst in boosting economic activity and productivity. We expect ASEAN to be a pioneer in the development of new digital services such as mobile banking and e-commerce.
Singtel is involved in linking ASEAN to North Asia and to Australia, and has also been responsible for developing soft infrastructure. How do you support the development of the region with both physical and soft infrastructure?
Together with our regional associates and our Australian subsidiary Optus, we are Asia’s leading communications group with an ecosystem that spans 21 countries. When European or U.S. companies set up manufacturing bases in Vietnam, Malaysia or Indonesia for example, they often choose Singapore as a communications hub, knowing that we offer superior tech infrastructure and digital connectivity.
Within ASEAN, we are focused on connecting SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) which play a vital role in driving and developing local economies. We have an initiative called 99%SME to spur the adoption of digital technologies among home-grown SMEs in Singapore. It helps them establish their online presence on an e-commerce platform which opens up new opportunities beyond Singapore.
We’ve also made a concerted push to build a pan-regional eco-system of digital services that leverages the Group’s joint capabilities, like mobile payments for example. Many people in the region are unbanked and mobile wallets provide them with a fast and convenient way to transact. Digital services such as these are key to helping the region develop.
Singapore is making a very big push towards digitalization to create an ecosystem which allows companies to have a conducive environment for innovation and for creation. In your opinion, how important is this upgrade for Singapore and what kind of opportunity does that represent for the private sector?
Changes in technology have disrupted nearly every industry and forced businesses to adapt and change. Digitalisation has also raised the expectations of customers who are exposed to the cutting-edge services of the world’s leading tech companies. To keep pace and stay ahead in the digital economy, it is critical for Singapore and companies like ours to start improving our digital capabilities and developing our own IP relevant to this part of the world. This is why we’ve set up corporate labs with institutions like A*STAR and Nanyang Technological University to explore solutions in robotics, the Internet of Things, data analytics and AI.
To further generate ideas and solutions, we set up Singtel Innov8, a corporate venture fund of US$250 million with teams working in Silicon Valley, Israel, China, Singapore and Australia. Although modest, it has given us early access to cutting-edge technology and digital solutions that enhance our capabilities. Singtel Innov8 has invested in over 70 companies globally across industries such as marketing, mobile video, big data and cyber security.
Where do you see Singtel today and what are the goals for tomorrow?
Six years ago, we embarked on a journey to transform the Group into a communications technology company, at a time when the mobile internet revolution was threatening traditional revenue streams from voice and SMS.
We’ve had to adapt to a faster, more interconnected world and rebuild our business around data and digital. For the consumer business, we looked at how our consumers were connecting and accessing content, and we offered relevant new services and experiences. On the enterprise side, we moved up the value chain and expanded beyond connectivity into services and solutions, such as cloud and cyber security. We also looked at other industries which were likewise disrupted for opportunities to leverage our telco assets and customer relationships in new ways.
All this has changed our revenue mix with our digital and ICT businesses now contributing 24% of Group revenue. As scale is paramount in the digital economy, we are building a digital ecosystem with our regional associates to unlock the value of our joint 700 million customer base across Asia. While our services and technology might evolve with the digital revolution, our commitment to building a better connected future for our consumers remains.
Through new business segments, how do you see the geographical footprint of Singtel in the future?
Let’s look at our footprint in two ways – traditional communications and digital. The traditional communications business is subject to the constraints of regulation in terms of license conditions and foreign shareholding limits for example. Despite this, we’ve been able to add significant value to these businesses. While our mobile communications business is limited to our existing footprint, our digital businesses have a global footprint obviously, given the nature of the digital economy.
When we look at the history of Singtel, it has gone through a rapid transformation, always ahead of the curve. Has this advantage become a core competency of Singtel?
A change mindset is very much a part of our DNA. Be it our early venture overseas in search of investments, or our digital transformation six years ago when the shift from voice to data accelerated, we have always been open to change.
The experience has taught us that if we are willing to take risks, the pay-off can be tremendous. This mindset is even more crucial today to stay relevant and ahead of the curve given the technological disruption and rapid pace of change.