Unlocking ASEAN’s Entrepreneurial Potential

The Tech For Good Institute co-hosted the 8th ASEAN Economic Community Dialogue: Promoting the Growth of the Digital Start-Up Ecosystem in ASEAN with the ASEAN Secretariat and ASEAN Business Advisory Council on 5 October 2022. This article highlights the first panel session “Unlocking ASEAN’s Entrepreneurial Potential”.

Moderators and panelists:

  • Kiren Kumar, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) Singapore
  • Karaniya Dharmasaputra, President Director, OVO
  • Paula Paw, Co-Chief Executive Officer, Versafleet
  • Dita Aisyah, Co-Founder & Chief of Business Development Officer, Binar Academy
  • Sivaram Superamanian, Head, Digital Economy Division, the ASEAN Secretariat

Key Insights from the panel:

1. Proximity to customers is a key ingredient to innovating right.

Digital economy growth in the past five years has focused on enabling consumers to go digital in various applications and services. The business-to-business space is expected to see significant growth as all industries seek to digitalize at scale, which presents a great market opportunity for cloud-based, commercially ready solutions. ASEAN startups are well-positioned to flourish and must be close to the customer to innovate. The emergence of unicorns in the region has demonstrated the importance of customer proximity in innovation. Startups that are adaptable, robust, and resilient while able to diversify quickly will be best positioned to succeed in the diverse set of urban and rural problems faced by each ASEAN country.

2. A range of funding and investment approaches characterize a diverse and innovative ecosystem.

Governments can encourage funding for startups through co-investment matching programs, but entrepreneurs should focus on true viability instead of propping up valuations if the market is sustained through subsidies. Growth should not be pursued at all costs, and entrepreneurs should prioritise responsible innovation and strategic moves while demonstrating strong fundamentals and steady growth towards profitability to attract funding. Investors should balance their focus on profitability with potential long-term impact, which digital economy companies in Southeast Asia are well-positioned to deliver. However, digital startups face unique challenges in fundraising and growth. An example is cash tie-ups for new subsidiaries in other countries as paid-up capital requirements for foreign companies can be high. Such untapped funding can be better employed for local employees, customers, and technology investment.

3. The talent gap is a limiting factor to digital economy growth

In ASEAN countries, lack of access and basic digital literacy is the first barrier to building an inclusive digital economy. Investments in internet connectivity and affordable computers are the first step to address this issue. The digital trend has made technology skills essential for all industries, which requires digital education to be accessible, affordable, and relevant to different career outcomes and industrial needs. Upskilling and reskilling are necessary for all members of the workforce. ASEAN also needs a “talent supercycle” that embraces and supports entrepreneurial and digital talents worldwide to foster a more innovative ecosystem.

4. Public-private partnerships can support both digital startups and the digital economy.

Initiatives like SAP.iO Foundry, Unilever Foundry, and Singapore’s PSA unboXed foster collaboration between larger private sector companies and startups. They help startups learn the language and processes of working with larger companies and facilitate open conversations between the two groups. These conversations have been very helpful as established companies are also seeking startup solutions. Collaboration between the public, private, and civil sectors is equally essential in implementing short and medium-term programs to upskill and reskill both fresh graduates and the existing workforce. The private sector can play an important role in company-led training.

5. Regulatory innovation is needed to ensure responsible innovation.

The speed of innovation and regulatory reform is often mismatched, creating the need for public and private sectors to get aligned on their regulatory concerns and desired outcomes. Self-regulatory organizations and sandboxes can drive innovation and growth while safeguarding markets and society, but prescriptive, process-focused, or rule-based regulation can turn obsolete amid technological advancement. A principle-based or outcome-oriented approach can better engage stakeholders with the purpose of regulation so that regulation and innovation complement rather than contradict each other. To achieve their full potential, ASEAN digital economy companies require better alignment among different jurisdictions’ relations in data protection, cross-border data flows, and artificial intelligence. Shared frameworks can lower compliance costs and foster confidence in ethical and responsible technology development and deployment.

The booming digital economy means that there are both challenges and opportunities for SEA countries to tackle before achieving their full-potential growth. The young, tech-savvy workforce, diverse investment sources, and public-private partnerships in SEA allow digital economy companies to experiment with new technologies and expand their impact scope. However, the talent gap in job allocation and the mismatch between innovation and regulation can hinder such growth. Though there are no ultimate solutions to these challenges, SEA governments and companies are well positioned to address them by implementing digital training and standardizing digital policies across the region.

(English) Promoting the Growth of the Digital Start-Up Ecosystem in ASEAN

(Event Day Reel) 8th ASEAN Economic Community Dialogue

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Mouna Aouri

Programme Fellow

Mouna Aouri is an Institute Fellow at the Tech For Good Institute. As a social entrepreneur, impact investor, and engineer, her experience spans over two decades in the MENA region, South East Asia, and Japan. She is founder of Woomentum, a Singapore-based platform dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs in APAC through skill development and access to growth capital through strategic collaborations with corporate entities, investors and government partners.

Dr Ming Tan

Founding Executive Director

Dr Ming Tan is founding Executive Director for the Tech for Good Institute, a non-profit founded to catalyse research and collaboration on social, economic and policy trends accelerated by the digital economy in Southeast Asia. She is concurrently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore and Advisor to the Founder of the COMO Group, a Singaporean portfolio of lifestyle companies operating in 15 countries worldwide.  Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology, business and society, including sustainability and innovation.


Ming was previously Managing Director of IPOS International, part of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, which supports Singapore’s future growth as a global innovation hub for intellectual property creation, commercialisation and management. Prior to joining the public sector, she was Head of Stewardship of the COMO Group and the founding Executive Director of COMO Foundation, a grantmaker focused on gender equity that has served over 47 million women and girls since 2003.


As a company director, she lends brand and strategic guidance to several companies within the COMO Group. Ming also serves as a Council Member of the Council for Board Diversity, on the boards of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC), and on the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.


In the non-profit, educational and government spheres, Ming is a director of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC) and chairs the Asia Advisory board for Swiss hospitality business and management school EHL. She also serves on  the Council for Board Diversity and the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.


Ming was educated in Singapore, the United States, and England. She obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University and her doctorate from Oxford.