EXCLUSIVE - Helping Singapore reach for the stars: A dialogue with SSTA Founder and President Jonathan Hung
The small tropical island-state of Singapore has a history of achieving excellence and setting high standards, be it in governance, economic growth, or sustainable urban living. Perhaps the ability to dream big and reach for the stars against all odds is one of the driving forces that motivates the Little Red Dot.
Recently, OpenGov had the pleasure to speak to Mr Jonathan Hung, Founder and President of the Singapore Space and Technology Association (SSTA), to find out more about Singapore’s aspirations as a regional space hub.
SSTA is Singapore’s lead association focused on developing Singapore’s space technology industry by acting as a neutral, non-profit platform to facilitate information and communication for government, industry and academia.
“SSTA is a trade body which works closely with the industry, local and foreign, to drive space and technology-related programmes and thought leadership. We work very closely with key stakeholders in the Singapore Government that are looking at various space-related activities. We also work closely with academia and research and development (R&D) institutions,” said Mr Jonathan Hung.
“Interacting with all three circles – government, industry, and academia – SSTA plays a co-ordinating and sharing role where we take the best practices in the industry and space programmes into national collaborative efforts, so that all three paradigms can work on space projects together,” he added.
Engaging stakeholders is key to creating synergies and growing the space industry. To this end, SSTA constantly tries to align interests and objectives to propel Singapore’s space technology industry forward in the right direction, through catalysing relevant projects and initiatives, inspiring local youth to take up good jobs in the knowledge-intensive sector, and attracting top talents.
Key ingredients for space industry
Mr Hung shared with us some of Singapore’s key advantages in the development of space technology and said that “Singapore has a lot of key ingredients for space development”, including good foundations in aerospace, electrical & electronic engineering, and precision engineering.
In explaining Singapore’s advance in developing space technology, Mr Hung traced back the economic development of Singapore that gave the country a strong foundation for space industry.
According to Mr Hung, a country will need a good aerospace foundation to do well in space development. It will also need the electronics sector; which Singapore has had as a backbone since the 1960s. In that sense, Singapore’s ability to attract big electronics firms and multinational corporations (MNCs) has been serving the space industry very well.
“Satellite manufacturing, for example, is hard electronics and heavy electronics work. The Electrical & Electronic Engineering (EEE) foundation has been very important, and that has allowed us to do many other things that we stand today in the age of intelligence. Then we also need to have a fairly good understanding of telecommunications as the space industry also encompasses a lot of communications activities, whether it is large-scale GPS communications or smaller point-to-point communications,” he continued to explain.
Mr Hung also emphasised the importance of small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) community in supporting precision engineering and forming a vibrant ecosystem for the space industry.
This industry foundation and ability to develop unique and competitive electronic systems makes for good space economy. It allows Singapore to benefit from the distributed nature of the space industry, where outsourcing is common and thereby overcome its natural limitation of inadequate space for testing and launching.
According to Mr Hung, SMEs in Singapore have been doing very well in many of the heavy and complex manufacturing industries, such as aviation, marine, transport, EMS and oil and gas industries. The large SME community, a lot of them being local companies and supported by local workforce, gave Singapore a strong backbone and foundation to develop its space industry.
The importance of international collaboration
Innovation in the space industry is often the result of collaborative efforts of the international community. As such, we asked Mr Hung about Singapore’s experience and strategy in working with its counterparts.
Mr Hung stated that all space programmes are cooperative by nature and that there are very few complex space programmes in the world that can be done without international collaboration.
Citing the example of the on-going multi-national initiative International Space Station, Mr Hung described the space industry as “one of the few unique industries that is always open to international collaborations and somewhat free from politics, should broad objectives be aligned”. It is because the industry is very expensive, resource intensive and cannot always depend on government funding.
Other than collaborating with other members of the international community, Singapore also participates in ASEAN workshops and programmes for youth and professionals and shares the work and progress.
Singapore’s space strategy
In this long journey of space development, every country brings a unique value proposition to the ecosystem. For Singapore, smart satellite development and manufacturing might be its differentiator.
Mr Hung shared that in terms of satellites development and manufacturing, Singapore has mastered certain components of it. In the Southeast Asia region, Singapore is ranked among the top in terms of satellite development, engineering and manufacturing.
Although Singapore does not have its own space agency nor a long heritage in space development, it has taken the time and effort to grow its space competency, particularly in developing the know-now to build satellites domestically.
“I am quite proud to say that domestically, we can do quite of a bit of the hardware piece, software engineering and systems integration in a cost-effective manner,” he said.
As such, another key strategy of Singapore’s space technology is the emphasis that Singapore-made satellites must be exportable.
Mr Hung pointed out that space development in Singapore is driven by commercial considerations and that Singapore is always open for business for companies and countries to collaborate. Demand from the market or validation from international conferences are testaments to the exportability of Singapore-made satellite systems.
It seems that Singapore has chosen to focus on the manufacturing of small satellites. Mr Hung commented that Singapore’s focus on smaller satellites, as opposed to manufacturing conventionally larger satellites, is not new.
“Singapore’s focus has always been on smaller class of satellites, with Singapore Technologies first setting up its commercial arm ST Electronics (Satellite Systems). It is not that we cannot make larger satellites which are typically above a ton, we just do not produce the entire large satellites in-house,” said Mr Hung.
He explained that Singapore’s strategy to take a deliberate and steady approach in space development requires the city-state to start small, taking one step at a time.
“We are focusing on new, small, low-cost satellites being deployed at lower barrier to entry. This is logical for Singapore that we can actively participate in space programmes through this effort of going smaller, cheaper and better. When you add on the IoT part to the satellites, you create smart satellites. Smaller remote sensing satellites are some of the lowest hanging fruits for Singapore,” he explained.
At the same time, academic research in small satellites are also more effective as it requires less space and resources.
Like many other fields of science and technology, Singapore’s space industry faces the problem of talent shortage.
According to Mr Hung, SSTA recognises the challenge of talent shortage, which is always a perennial problem.
To alleviate the problem and grow a talent pool in Singapore, SSTA works with industry partners to identify the key demand drivers, then create relevant and good jobs. This is in line with the policy of the Singapore Government as well.
For example, SSTA runs the Space Academy programme with instructors who are former or current scientists and engineers in the field and run dedicated academic, research and experiential programmes and Space camps for youth in Singapore. The programme is not just for university students but is also open to polytechnic students and younger children.
“SSTA looks at youth development as a key cornerstone. It is not just to encourage interest, but also to build the right foundation at an early age,” Mr Hung emphasised.
SSTA’s talent development also extends to young professionals and mid-career professionals through targeted workshops. First, it identifies industry needs through companies’ human resources and talent acquisition teams to study what are the requirements in their programmes and where are the gaps. Together with the industry, SSTA curates programmes to see where the Singapore talent pool fits in, be it from the engineering pool, government agencies, or R&D institutions in Singapore. Then, targeted workshops are conducted to address the needs of the industry.
Mr Hung explained that such approach aims to bring industry players to the table and provide SSTA’s thorough assessment of the value chain of space industry.
“Today, many industries and SMEs are still not aware of the fact that they can participate in aerospace programmes. There are plenty of new business opportunities, such as through outsourcing and partnerships,” he said.
According to Mr Hung, the space industry is a “catch-all”. It encompasses the entire spectrum of engineering, industries and various segments of society. As such, SSTA hopes to galvanise the space industry for everyone in Singapore.
SSTA announced at its recent annual Global Space and Technology Convention in February that it intends to launch a commercial end-to-end accelerator to support the industry, a platform to fuel greater innovation within the industry.
“Singapore does not have a space programme, but that can be built. Today, we see more space start-ups set up in Singapore, companies moving headquarters here and getting talent here. Singapore attracts a good global pool of talent and that is also key to growing a space ecosystem,” he concluded.