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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story
The Cyber-Dreamer
Asia is trying to nurture its own

By Stuart Whitmore


Ricky Wong for Asiaweek
SURFING: MyWeb's TV-top Net link aims for the China market

In 1996 the three new graduates who started MyWeb had nothing but an idea: a cheap device to link TV sets to the Internet. With no office and no investors they set up shop in a kitchen, pooled their pocket money and doggedly pursued their business plan. Today MyWeb has offices worldwide and its stock is listed in New York. In June the firm beat Microsoft to the punch by launching a $180 set-top device in the hottest hardware market around - China.

Another Silicon Valley success story? Well, yes and no. MyWeb's founders are actually from Malaysia and Singapore. All were students at the National University of Singapore, and the trio's original kitchen-cum-office was in the Lion City. But today it is the City by the Bay, San Francisco, that MyWeb calls home. Explains co-founder Danny Toe: "Silicon Valley is where it's happening in the Internet."

It is a common refrain. A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California (www.ppic.org) says about a quarter of Silicon Valley companies are headed by immigrants and 30% by ethnic Chinese or Indians. The West Coast's business climate holds the allure. "It is much more open, much freer," says Christina Lim, a California-based vice president for Singapore venture capital firm Vertex Management. "The idea flow is quite indescribable."

In Asia, by contrast, entrepreneurs too often find their dreams stymied by state regulations and investor indifference. No tales of billion-dollar companies born in a garage in Singapore. Indeed, until recently, the law prohibited running a business from home in the public housing estates where countless Singaporeans live. The boys from MyWeb had to meet in the kitchen of a local optical shop, a registered business. No wonder Silicon Valley's supportive atmosphere beckoned.

There are signs of change. In the drive to create knowledge-based economies, Asian governments are realizing that their countries lack one crucial element: knowledge. Reversing the brain drain has become a top priority. Singapore has unveiled a comprehensive set of plans to jump start "technopreneurship." Bankruptcy laws are to be made less punitive (they currently bar a director of two failed firms from company boards for five years). Immigration policies will be relaxed to attract foreigners with high-tech skills. Investors in new firms will get tax breaks, as will employees exercising stock options - the main ingredients in Silicon Valley's wealth formula.

"The government is saying 'it's okay to take risks'," says Jane Crawford, managing director for Southeast Asia with British venture-capital firm 3i. That is a vital message if the region is to replicate California's freewheeling atmosphere. Even then, some have their doubts. "Asia could never be a Silicon Valley," contends Masaki Kotake, CEO and president of Singapore-based venture capitalists Nomura Jafco Investments. "The Asian mindset is risk-averse."

Wong Toon King, 32, knows it well. The Singaporean left a promising state job to set up e-commerce pioneer SilkRoute. Seeing him live on a fraction of his old salary and sleep on his office floor made Wong's mother ask why he was ruining his life. "It's not just your parents," adds Wong. "The banks, the venture capitalists - they look at us like loan sharks."

In Singapore, the entrepreneur is often still seen as an oddity. "People think they were born this way," says Crawford. But she believes there is a better understanding now. "There was this belief an entrepreneur had to jump off cliffs," she expains. "That is changing."

Some governments are trying to attract high tech through big-ticket infrastructure: Malaysia's Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) and Hong Kong's Cyber-port. Manila is tendering for its own tech zone. The thinking seems to be: If you build it, they will come. But critics wonder whether Cyber-port can be made cheap enough to lure start-ups already struggling with rock-bottom rents. And will a multinational care about the MSC's facilities if there are worries about Malaysia's currency controls and free flow of information? Still, the money being expended on the projects shows how serious the Hong Kong and Malaysian governments are. And both Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad and Hong Kong's Tung Chee-hwa have personally pushed the strategy, with Tung due to visit Silicon Valley on July 22.

Ultimately no amount of spending and prodding by government can produce overnight success. "It takes a generation," says Lim. "The whole education system has to change. The whole culture has to change in terms of entrepreneurialism, how we view success and failure. Silicon Valley wasn't built in a day either." For Asia, at least, that long march has finally begun in earnest.

- Reported by Andrea Hamilton and Paul Mooney


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