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EXCLUSIVE - Helping Singapore reach for the stars: A dialogue with SSTA Founder and President Jonathan Hung

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.

Talent development

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.

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