The Next Frontier Is Southeast Asia!

In October and early November 2019, I've traveled to Southeast Asia for business, and I've spent five weeks altogether in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. I attended conferences, trade shows, meeting with potential clients, network partners, entrepreneurs, investors, and so forth.

I was invited to speak at the 3rd Selangor ASEAN Business Conference in Malaysia. The event organized by the state of Selangor and Invest Selangor. I had the opportunity to present my topic, "Challenges and Opportunities in Building Food Tech System in ASEAN." I chose this topic because I believe the next thing that is going to happen is around food. The Global Food System has lagged the most when it comes to innovative technology, policy, and new business models. Everything else in other segments, such as A.I. and Machine Learning, IoT, Robotic, 3D Printing, Blockchain, Cloud Computing, Virtuality Reality, Games Development, and Health Tech, has been disrupted.

It was an excellent opportunity to share my thoughts and also create awareness with an engaged audience at the Malaysia International Trade Exhibition Center (MITEC) conference. I hope that students who were among thousands of spectators continue to stay involved. At this ASEAN conference, I've met many prominent speakers and business people whom I admired their tenacity and vision of making not only Malaysia but also the ASEAN region to be the hub where digital, innovation, and technology continue to thrived and flourished.

As a Malaysian-American, I'm very proud to see how far Malaysia has grown over the years. For those who are not familiar with Malaysia history, in May 2018, Malaysia, for the first time, welcomed a new ruling Party known as "Pakatan Harapan or PH in short" after, for many decades, the country ruled by Barisan Nasional. It was a historical event that I would never forget as long as I live.

Malaysia has been recognized for its rapid success in becoming one of the world's leading trading nations with a diversified economy. For instance, the Electrical and Electronics (E&E) industry is the number one contributor to the manufacturing industry in Malaysia. The manufacturing sector also has been the engine of economic growth in Malaysia since it embarked to be an industrialization country.

However, when it comes to the technology sector, I must say that Malaysia is lagging compared to its neighboring countries, such as Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia. That said, Malaysia tried to keep up with its neighbors; however, it lacks many essential ingredients that it is inevitable, such as the size of the population of Malaysia is merely 25 million compared to Indonesia with 250 million people.

Another thing is that Malaysia needs to keep on developing its talent, and also building a high-quality infrastructure at a very affordable price. One more thing, and in my humble opinion, what was lacking and imperative was the lack of funding to support the startup ecosystem in Malaysia. I hope to see Malaysia - one day, one of the unicorn companies will be coming out of Malaysia.

When I was in Indonesia attended the 34th Trade Expo Indonesia, I got a chance to meet many Indonesian entrepreneurs, government agencies, investors, so on. I took part in the "USA - Indonesia Regional Discussion Forum." It was great to hear a different perspective on Indonesia and the U.S. in the area of trade between these two countries. The trade flows between Indonesia and the U.S. have reached close to $30 billion. Yes, it sounds like a modest number considering Indonesia possesses one of the largest domestic markets in Asia and has experienced growth rates over 5% per year over the last seven (7) years. Hence, it is not surprising to hear at this forum, that Indonesian leaderships wants to double the trade flow of up to $60 billion in five (5) years or less.

Indonesia is not only want to double its trade between the U.S. but also to catch up with Silicon Valley when it comes to creating the next Unicorns. They already have Tokopedia, Traveloka, GoJek, and Bukalapak, and the list keeps growing. The Indonesia government is already playing a more significant role in pushing Indonesia to be the next Asian tiger. I believe this is undoubtedly doable, despite the many challenges Indonesia as a country has to deal with it. Problems such as lack of infrastructure, lack of access to funding, and lack of talent. These challenges are the same faced by its neighboring countries. However, the Indonesia market is unique in itself. For instance, each city, such as Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogjakarta, has its own set of challenges in building the startups ecosystem; therefore, it needs different kinds of approaches for each this city to see it succeed. No one-size-fits-all approaches would work in a country with 250 million people.

That said, there are other opportunities in Indonesia beside in the major cities such as Jakarta and Bandung. These opportunities available in the outer Java Islands, such as in the Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Bali, and Bali Tenggara, are growing faster than Greater Jakarta or Bandung. The reason is that the Indonesian government executes a lot of unique projects in those regions.

On a separate note, I also was fortunate to witness the inauguration of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo while I was in Indonesia. It marked his second and final term in office, after having won the election back in April. Indonesia will march forward for a better under his continued leadership.

While I was in Singapore, I met with several investors and entrepreneurs. My visit to Singapore was somewhat brief, but Singapore is small, so within four (days), I think I've covered quite a lot already. Even though Singapore is a small country, but it undoubtedly is the Asian heavyweight champion compared to its neighbors. Yes, the market size is small; however, I must say they know how to position themselves in the eyes of the world. Kudos to the Singapore government for relentlessly promoting Singapore as a jumping-off connection to the rest of the Southeast Asia market. Singapore is at the forefront of everything, and they are good at it, and they did it with ease. That is why it is not surprising that Singapore is a leader in many areas. No wonder ASEAN and global companies flocked to Singapore and moved their companies H.Q. in Singapore.

Another thing to recognize is that Singaporean embraced digital, innovation, and technology faster than its neighbors. Going digital is the way forward for a tech-ready nation like Singapore, where digitalization results in higher speed and seamlessness, and convenient digital options are increasingly popular. In contrast, other countries are adapting but rather at a slower pace compared to Singapore.

After spending quite some time in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia for the past five (5) weeks, I do not hesitate to conclude that Southeast Asia is the next frontier.

Why is it ASEAN matters? ASEAN matters because it has 630 million people, and placed as the 3rd largest population in the world with a GDP of 2.4 trillion dollars. The total US-ASEAN bilateral trade increased by 78% since 2004, from $154 billion to $274 billion. Many of you may be thinking that ASEAN is small. Yes, it is small but mighty in number. Believe it or not, Southeast Asia is gaining momentum and emerging as a growth engine for local and global companies alike. If your organization has not yet thought about expanding in this region, it might be worth considering to enter SEA market before it is too late.

Here is the 2019 Internet Report prepared by Asia Partners. You can download teh full report and learn more about Asia Partners here. I hope you will find the report useful, and please feel free to share share it with others as well. The more people know about Southeast Asia, the better.

If you or your organization have a plan to expand in Southeast Asia, please reach out to me via email at

To learn more about Hakim Saya (Global Navigation) consulting, follow us on LinkedIn or Facebook Page.

Thank you for taking the time reading my message.

Best wishes,

Murat Wahab

CEO & Founder

Hakim Saya (Global Navigation)



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