Singapore wants to become a leading e-commerce hub in Asia — but there may be challenges ahead.

As the pandemic reshapes consumer behavior worldwide, more and more people in the region are shopping online and Southeast Asia’s digital economy saw significant growth.

“E-commerce in Southeast Asia — it’s surging. But what sets Singapore apart (is) its policies and its initiatives that help cultivate an environment for the digital industry and the digital economy to thrive,” said Ben King, country director at Google Singapore.

Still, the city-state faces a skills shortage for digital talent — and that’s critical for its ambition to become a global e-commerce player, he told CNBC’s Christine Tan.

The problem that we’re seeing is not necessarily jobs — it’s skills. There’s an urgent need to help the workforce build digital skills to take on these jobs.

Ben King

country director at Google Singapore

To address the issue, the government partnered with Google under the Skills Ignition SG initiative, to provide jobs training for those looking for a digital career.

“The one challenge we see in realizing this vision of Singapore really becoming a much more meaningful and much more advanced regional e-commerce hub is talent development,” said King. “The problem that we’re seeing is not necessarily jobs — it’s skills. There’s an urgent need to help the workforce build digital skills to take on these jobs.”

A group of Black Friday online shopping purchases photographed in delivery boxes filled with polystyrene packing pellets, taken on September 13, 2019.

Neil Godwin| Future Publishing | Getty Images

The U.S. tech giant has also been focused on helping to reskill people who have been impacted by the pandemic.

“What we’ve really designed that program to do is to meet the needs of Covid in real time. It’s really geared towards taking people who have found themselves out of work, providing opportunities for them to train over a six- or a nine-month window,” King said.

“What we’re trying to do is develop skills that we think are going to be pivotal to the development and the evolution of e-commerce across the region.”

Shifts in consumers trends 

Despite the pandemic headwinds, internet usage across Southeast Asia continued to surge.

Some 40 million new users in the region joined the internet last year, according to an e-commerce report on Southeast Asia by Google, Temasek and global consultancy Bain & Company.  

The pandemic has brought about a “permanent and massive digital adoption spurt,” the report said.

About 36% — or more than 1 in 3 digital service consumers — were new to online services. Among them, 90% intend to continue using these services even after the pandemic, the report said.

The three key pillars of the smart nation (are) really to have a digital economy, a digital government — but also a digital society.

Selena Ling

chief economist, OCBC Bank

In order for Singapore to capitalize on these trends, several factors need to come together to fuel that growth, said Selena Ling, chief economist at OCBC Bank in Singapore.

“You need to have a fairly internet savvy population, high mobile penetration (and) good internet connectivity which is affordable,” she said. Plenty of offerings in terms of both goods and services are also essential, she added.

Young woman taking perfume from cosmetology gift box. She is sitting on floor near laptop at home

YakobchukOlena | iStock | Getty Images

As part of Singapore’s e-commerce strategy, the government plans to launch two 5G networks across the city-state by 2025. 5G networks are the next generation of mobile internet connectivity that promise faster speeds.

They will “form the backbone” of Singapore’s digital economy and boost the infrastructure’s capacity to manage large online sales orders internationally, according to the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

The Singapore government has taken the lead by putting in place a “smart nation” strategy, OCBC’s Ling pointed out.   

“The three key pillars of the smart nation (are) really to have a digital economy, a digital government — but also a digital society. So, it does cover all the requirements to have a successful e-commerce strategy,” she explained. 



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