How Singapore Is Shaping Asia's Digital Future

Courtesy of HBO Asia
HBO Asia’s 'Invisible Stories.'

The city-state's forward-thinking tech vision has put it on the front lines of the streaming wars.

As the streaming wars go global, the battle for the hearts, minds — and wallets — of the vast Asian market very well could be decided in Southeast Asia. With China a nonfactor since all Western platforms are blocked in the country, the race is on to establish a foothold in a rapidly maturing market that boasts a population of 600 million.

The numbers underscore the region's potential: In its most recent annual forecast, Media Partners Asia put online video revenue in Asia this year at $27 billion, a rise of 24 percent year-over-year, while predicting it would top $50 billion by 2024.

That's why all eyes are on Singapore.

In terms of size (247 square miles) and population (5.8 million), the city is dwarfed by near neighbors like Malaysia (32 million residents). But the city-state has successfully positioned itself as the nerve center of the Southeast Asian market thanks to a combination of factors. Currently, the city plays host to the regional offices of Netflix, HBO Asia, Walt Disney Co. Southeast Asia and Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific as well as such digital giants as Facebook, Google and Alibaba. Both HBO Asia and Netflix will loom large at the upcoming Singapore Media Festival, where the former will showcase Invisible Stories, which examines everyday life in Singapore, while the latter is preparing for the rollout of its much-anticipated Chinese-language series The Ghost Bride.

"Singapore is well placed to ride on the opportunities presented by the shifting media landscape, being located at the heart of this growth in Asia and home to where East meets West, and tech meets media," says Howie Lau, chief industry development officer of Singapore's Infocomm Media Development Authority, which oversees the media industry in the city.

But it isn't just geography that has put Singapore at the forefront of Asia's digital future. The city has been investing in its tech infrastructure for years, but the streaming age — driven by Netflix's and HBO Asia's commitment to the region — spurred increased investment. One percent of the city's GDP is now committed to research and development as part of a plan called RIE 2020, rolled out in 2016, which pledged $14 billion toward digital infrastructure.

"With the convergence of media and info-comm technologies and the growing spend on leisure and entertainment, new opportunities have risen for the region's media and entertainment sectors," adds Lau. "With formats changing to keep pace with consumer habits, from shortform to mid- and longform, we are seeing new ways of using technology to tell stories."

Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo, who is putting the finishing touches on his HBO Asia series Food Lore, says the city's proximity to its neighbors and its well-funded, long-term media strategy have enabled it to assume the leading role it plays in the region.

"One of the benefits of being in Singapore is that I have already worked with so many people from across the region," he says. "That's what international partners find when they come here to work. The connections are already made."

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SINGAPORE MEDIA FEST: 3 EVENTS NOT TO MISS

Over the Top in China

The Asian TV Forum & Market goes big from the opening keynote address with Gong Yu, founder of Chinese streaming giant iQiYi, who will discuss the OTT landscape in a talk titled "Streaming the Future." Gong's video platform launched in 2010 and now boasts more than 500 million monthly users while tapping into licensing deals with Netflix and expanding into mobile content.

Dec. 3, 10 a.m.-10:40 a.m.

Leader of the APAC

Gong's address opens up an ATF "Leaders Summit" that includes the first public remarks from Giorgio Stock, WarnerMedia Entertainment Networks' freshly minted president, distribution and advertising sales, EMEA and APAC. The hope is that Stock will reveal what WarnerMedia has in store for Asia just as the region's streaming battle really begins to heat up.

Dec. 3, 10:40 a.m.-11:20 a.m.

Cartoon Networking

Animation in Asia entered uncharted territory in 2019, with both Japan (Weathering With You) and China (Ne Zha) tapping the genre for their Oscar entries for the first time. And with both films doing blockbuster box office — Weathering took in $126 million in Japan, while Ne Zha made a whopping $687 million in China — the ATF Animation Pitch offers a glimpse into the future of Asian toons.

Dec. 5, 2:40 p.m.-3:40 p.m.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.