Irish entrepreneurs knock on the gateway to Asia in Singapore

EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalists hear about country’s colonial legacy and the future of AI

Against the imposing backdrop of the Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore, finalists talk business with alumni of the programme. Photograph: Naoise Culhane

On the sliver of the Indian Ocean visible through a gap in newly rain-soaked tropical foliage lies a flotilla of container ships of all shapes and sizes, all queuing to get in or out of the world’s busiest commercial port. Framing this vista are the floor to ceiling windows at the Capella Hotel on the island of Sentosa, an imperial Japanese prisoner of war camp during the second World War and the site of former US president Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean premier, Kim Jong Un, in 2018.

In the air-conditioned room behind those windows, someone who describes themselves as a “human capital transformation specialist” is teaching a contingent of around 100 Irish entrepreneurs about how they can “harness the attitude advantage” in their professional lives.

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If it is a slightly curious juxtaposition, it is of the kind that tends to be part and parcel of the annual EY Entrepreneur of the Year (EOY) chief executive retreat. For many, the main event of the year-long EOY programme – now in its 26th year – this year’s iteration took place in Singapore, a city and island nation famous for curious juxtapositions.

Partially a learning opportunity and fact-finding exercise, the retreat is equally a crucial chance for the 31 finalists in this year’s EOY competition to meet and network with some 75 veterans of the programme. With representation from sponsors Enterprise Ireland and Invest NI, it is also an unofficial trade mission of sorts.


Over the course of the week, a typically packed agenda sees the group take in the sights, smells and tastes of Singapore: think outdoor yoga in equatorial humidity, Tibetan singing bowl therapy and dinner in a Chinese speakeasy. But, the meat and veg of the retreat is the list of speakers and panellists that Roger Wallace, EY partner lead for the EOY programme, and Eimear McCrann, associate programme director, along with their team have lined up for the week. This year, it includes a Facebook co-founder, the chief executive of a major global car brand and the head of Nasdaq-listed, Singapore-born unicorn with a market cap of more than $12.5 billion.

“We’re really trying to challenge the entrepreneurs to think about different markets in different parts of the world,” said Frank O’Keeffe, EY Ireland managing partner. “There are a huge amount of similarities between Ireland and Singapore, not just on population size but also as gateways. People see Ireland being a huge gateway to Europe for the likes of US companies and Asian companies. And, actually, Singapore is no different from the [wider] Asian market.”

It is a point that comes up again and again throughout the week. After an afternoon of “wellness” activities to shake off the jet lag at the Capella Hotel, the delegation is treated to a talk with Singapore’s ambassador-at-large and former envoy to the US, Tommy Koh, a veteran diplomat who has served in a range of roles for his government. He paints a picture of a country that has leveraged its experience as a British colonial holding, making it almost a point of pride in a way that might seem somewhat alien to a typical Irish audience. It is, after all, a place where English is spoken widely and proudly, where they drive on the left-hand side of the road and used three pronged plugs and sockets.

“We are quite unique,” says Koh, “among ex-British colonies, most of which have tried to get rid of the colonial names and so on. Singapore is one former British colony that retained all the street names and placenames.” There is even a Killiney and a Dublin Road in the city.

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Despite the brutal racism that structured Singaporean society at the time of British rule when “very clear division” existed legally and politically between whites and the rest of the population, Koh surprisingly believes the empire’s legacy in the country is “60 per cent good and 40 per cent bad”. Similar calculus made in an Irish context would be provocative to say the least.

But, while there are some key differences in colonial experiences, the parallels remain striking. Although it has come at a tremendous cultural and human historical cost, Ireland’s status as an English-speaking entry point to the rest of Europe is a point belaboured by state agencies and Government officials. Similarly, Singapore has cultivated its reputation as “Asia lite”, as one of the speakers tells the delegation, a place for foreign businesses to dip their toes before diving wholesale into the Continent.

Finalists Charles Cosgrave (left) and Ger Killian with Frank O’Keeffe, EY Ireland Managing Partner. Photograph: Naoise Culhane

It is, however, the differences between the two nations that stand out most to some of the Irish visitors. Ruled continuously by the People’s Party since its independence in 1959, Singapore is a country that combines pro-business policies with a muscular state that intervenes across many different layers of its society, including markets. Amnesty and other human rights groups have accused the government of repressing dissenting media voices. When same-sex relations were only decriminalised in February 2022, however, the country moved at the same time to ban gay marriage.

The flipside is that the city consistently ranks at or near the top of quality of life rankings in the region, thanks to heavy investment in infrastructure and public housing. In fact, about 80 per cent of the population lives in housing built by the government, although development land on the island is scarce and the private sector has been gripped by an all-too familiar price spiral in recent times.

Despite some claims to the contrary, homelessness does exist, albeit at a much lower rate than in Ireland, despite the similar population sizes.

“We’re seeing a very small snapshot,” says Nick Keegan, co-founder of Mail Metrics and a finalist in this international category of this year’s EOY awards. “But, you walk around and the place is spotlessly clean. There’s no traffic on the roads. And, there’s no [visible] housing crisis here and it just kind of shows what a country of a fairly similar profile and a rich economy, what they’ve been able to do.

“I think it just highlighted that the biggest business challenges we have at home aren’t actually related to business. They’re related to trying to find housing for staff and things like infrastructure.”

Another difference between Singapore and Ireland, says Helen O’Neill, chief executive of women’s health company Hertility, is the attitude to funding. “I think everyone is struggling from the current financial drought,” says O’Neill, a finalist in the emerging category. Against a backdrop of rising interest rates globally, “VC funds are preserving their cash flow for [their] current investment portfolio”, she says.

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That doesn’t seem to be much of a problem in Singapore at the moment. A trip to the well-regarded Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) incubator hub impresses upon the delegation just how active the government is in promoting Singaporean start-ups and how successful that strategy has been. Founded in 2003 by the country’s ministry of trade and industry, ACE became a private sector-led non-profit in 2014, although it works closely with the state and is led by Singapore’s current minister for manpower, Dr Tan See Leng.

It acts as the “bridge between the government and the start-up ecosystem”, ACE senior manager Desmond Low tells the group and the results have spoken for themselves. In April, Singapore was projected as the best overall business environment in the world over the next five years by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the country “dominates the region” in terms of share of equity funding, said Low.

Singapore has also given birth to some 29 unicorn companies, including Grab, a super-app company incorporating food delivery, payments and vehicle rental among other features.

A fireside chat with the Nasdaq-listed company’s co-founder, Anthony Tan, over dinner proves a particular highlight for some of the delegation. Asked about the pressure that debuting on the New York Stock Exchange after completing a SPAC merger in 2021 put on him, he says: “Well, you don’t raise $4.47 billion and cry.” Joking aside, his advice to the group is more sobering. If you want to be successful, “there is going to be a toll on your health”, Tan says after detailing some of the issues he has had. “So, try not to die.”

Overall, the picture painted is one of a country that makes it as easy as possible to do business. “I think,” says O’Neill, “with the backdrop of having launched a company in the UK where you feel like every door is in your face, here, all the doors are open. Everybody is very open and welcoming and friendly. And, it’s almost like it feels like whiplash to have to feel such an amount genuine good intention.”

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With speakers on the agenda like Facebook co-founder, Eduardo Saverin, whose Singaporean venture, capital firm B Capital, has around $6 billion in assets under management, disruptive technology and its potential and pitfalls emerge as a big theme throughout the week. Jim Rowan, the Scottish-born chief executive of Volvo, presents his vision of the future of cars, one that is data-focused, festooned with cameras and sensors and, crucially, runs on chargeable batteries.

Largely cutting out the middle man, automakers are increasingly looking to sell directly to customers based on the Tesla model, he says. Where this leaves the humble car dealership in the equation, however, seems to be becoming clearer and clearer. “The dealer network plays a large role,” Rowan somewhat unconvincingly says. “We just need to be involved in conversation. It’s not like we want to take the customer for ourselves. But, we want access to the customers.”

An expert overview of the applications of artificial intelligence (AI) from Sandeep Chandukala, associate professor of marketing at the Singapore Management Institute, gives this year’s finalists particular rich food for thought. Reasonable people can disagree about the technology and where it is going but for many of the finalists, the benefits are already clear and figuring out how to tap its potential is a priority.

“We’re looking at AI in terms of smart authoring questions,” says Louella Morton, co-chief executive of Irish online testing company TestReach, a finalist in this year’s competition. Companies have to match their promotion of AI with action, however, says her co-founder, Sheena Bailey. “There are a lot of people in our industry who are talking about AI and saying they have AI but they don’t and I think they’re looking in the wrong places at the moment to apply that AI.”

The message from speakers throughout the week has been clear, Bailey says. “It’s not going away. It’s going to be here a lot faster than any of us actually think and you need to be ready.”

Away from the intensity of the schedule, the retreat offers the finalists and alumni a vital opportunity to meet and get to know one another. More than one business relationship has flourished on previous iterations of the trip. A tight-knit group of more than 600, some 75 per cent of the programme’s alumni have conducted business with each other over the years, according to an EY survey.

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“Everybody spoke about how they had all invested in each other’s companies,” says Hertility’s Helen O’Neill, “How they had supported each other’s companies and that they did business with each other. I’m really hoping to get to know the other companies, what they do and how we can really work together because I think that I see that as being such a positive outcome.”

For Ted Wright, finalist in the international category and chief executive of Mullingar-based fire protection engineering company Writech, it is the personal aspect of the retreat that makes it so successful.

“I would have no experience in the retail industry, the food industry,” he says. “But listening to their challenges – we all have challenges, it’s like who has got the most but that’s phenomenal. That was the highlight: to listen to what other people do.”

Ian Curran

Ian Curran

Ian Curran is a Business reporter with The Irish Times