“Why is Southeast Asia Prime for the Next Decade?” was a panel that featured Thomas G. Tsao of Gobi Partners, Davide Cali of CrossFund, and Winston Utomo of IDN Media, moderated by Yimie Yong of TechNode Global at the ORIGIN Conference. ​​ The panellists, based in Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia respectively, discussed about the reasons why Southeast Asia is prime for the next decade and where they see opportunities within the region.

They also discussed the challenges of investing and operating in the Southeast Asian region and had given some pieces of advice to investors and companies looking into this multi-cultural and diverse market.

The text below has been edited for clarity and brevity:

Thomas G. Tsao, Co-Founder and Chairperson of Gobi Partners:

Malaysia is sometimes an overlooked market in Southeast Asia. I think Malaysia, especially for our friends from China, can serve as a “Penta” hub. Penta means five, so the five-sided hub. By going to Malaysia you can connect to the five of the biggest investment trends on the planet.

Malaysia shared a similar language (Malay and Indonesian language) with Indonesia and both countries have a large Muslim community. You can go to Indonesia directly and you could also use Malaysia as a stepping stone into Indonesia.

Malaysia’s strength is its diversity. Malaysia has a thriving Malaysian-Indian community. So from Malaysia, you can connect to India. Malaysia also has a thriving Malaysian-Chinese community. They have Michelle Yeoh. Even Hong Kong is trying to claim her but she’s also from Malaysia, right? So you can connect back to the Greater Bay, China through Malaysia. Malaysia is part of the British Commonwealth, they speak good English. You can connect to Europe, North America, the West through Malaysia.

I think the last huge opportunity is because Malaysia is positioning itself as a center for ‘Taqwa tech’. It’s innovation focused on the global digital Muslim economy. Taqwa is the Arabic word for faith purposes.

When you look at the big opportunities: China was huge, because it was 1.4 billion people. What’s bigger than 1.4 billion? 2 billion, and that’s the number of Muslim consumers on the planet. And what Gobi is trying to do is, through Malaysia, and we’re building out in Pakistan, Bangladesh. We have a presence in Indonesia. Imagine connecting that across Southeast Asia, South Asia and MENA (Middle East and North Africa). That can be a big opportunity and again, you can access that through Malaysia.

You mentioned Carsome (Malaysia’s first unicorn). We think Malaysia’s second unicorn is emerging, Aerodyne. if Kamarul (founder of Aerodyne) decided to set up the company in Singapore or Indonesia, the company would probably worth three times what it’s worth now. So you’re getting a huge bargain. Come to Malaysia. There are great opportunities for Chinese investors. There’s still a lot of room you can find great bargains. There’s still a lot of undiscovered gems.

Challenges: Southeast Asia is amazing but it is also diverse. But diversity is what makes it so interesting. The reason why Alibaba was interested in Lazada was because Lazada had created a regional footprint. Alibaba didn’t necessarily have to go into every market to build it. The opportunity for investors or builders, is to go into Southeast Asia. And if you can create a regional platform that could be very, very valuable later on for larger companies from the US from Europe, India, Japan, and Korea, that are trying to enter.

It’s not easy, but that’s why I think Southeast Asia is a perfect testbed for Chinese companies to globalize or internationalize using Southeast Asia because it will challenge your management capabilities.

Sometimes you overlook the opportunities in your own backyard. I think for a lot of folks in China, the US, and Europe are always great markets. But don’t forget, the friendly neighborhood in the south – Southeast Asia, with 700 million people, all very young, sometimes gets overlooked. I expect those investment flows to definitely increase and I think this conference is a nice first step to accelerate that process.

Davide Cali, Founder and Director of CrossFund:
Vietnam has a different composition. Vietnam is mostly a bridge between China and the Khmer countries. There are about 100 million people in Vietnam, more than 60 percent of the population is around 30 years old.

One of the problems in Southeast Asia is the lack of talents, tech talents. There cannot be a lot of startups without tech talents. I think this is one of the strongest points that Vietnam has in the region.

I’m from tech background. So tech scene is the first thing I see. There are 500,000 developers in Vietnam, and they are growing by 10 percent every year and there are about 1 million people work in ICT. I don’t think you can find this number easily.

Every country may have their strong point, Vietnam has strong developers, especially for AI and blockchain. I think it will become the tech hub for Southeast Asia in the future. This is my prediction.

There are also some challenges. The main problem in Vietnam is there is no highway, the first deepwater harbor was just opened. Now they’re building the second one. So if the country doesn’t invest massively in infrastructure, they do risk to miss the opportunity and gets stuck in the middle income trap.

Winston Utomo, Founder and CEO of IDN Media:

First, Indonesia is the large country. We are the fourth most populous country, with 270 million population and growing. From the 270 million, 210 million are internet users, which grows very fast in the past few years. Based on many analysis, and research report, we will become the fourth or fifth biggest economy in the world by 2045.

Second, we have abundant natural resources, coal, oil, natural gas. in fact, we are the biggest coal producer in the world. but the government has made a big push as well towards renewable energy.

The third is political stability. I think that’s one good thing about Indonesia, especially in the past 10 years. The government has been quite friendly regarding businesses, and foreign direct investment. The fourth one is economic growth. This year’s projection is around 5 percent, which is quite good and higher than many other regions. Last year’s growth was more than 5 percent. And the last reason is the rising middle class. Based on the report from the World Bank, Indonesia has about 55 to 60 million.

So these are the reasons why Indonesia is prime for investment from China and other parts of the world.



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