A clear legal framework, political stability and a free market economy are what makes Singapore continue to be a conducive environment for international television networks to house their Asian headquarters.
Industry insiders say that while the English-speaking environment in Singapore already serves as an advantage for international networks’ operations, compared to rival cities such as Hong Kong, it is the government’s incentives and legal framework of media convergence that sets the city-state apart from the rest of Asia.
Anthony Fung, co-director of Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies and a journalism professor, says Singapore has a clear framework for media convergence, whereas Hong Kong, also a free market economy posing as an international finance hub, faces an uncertain future over media industry development, such as over-the-top platforms.
A number of major international media players operate their Asian headquarters in Singapore. Besides HBO Asia and Netflix, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific is also headquartered in Singapore. The Walt Disney Co. Southeast Asia, based in Singapore, announced last year that it will form an integrated media network called Disney Media Networks. Fox Networks Group, headquartered in Hong Kong, has a significant presence in Singapore.
Companies that are yet to set up Asian headquarters in Singapore are expanding to the Lion City. In February, Turner Asia Pacific, headquartered in Hong Kong, announced the establishment of a Southeast Asia arm based there.
In 2012, the government-appointed Media Convergence Review Panel submitted a study on media convergence brought on by technological advances and growing connectivity, recommending a streamlining of licensing online content services. According to a report by multimedia industry association Casbaa, regulatory bodies were merged to form the Infocomm Media Development Authority last year.
The pay-TV industry association also credited Singapore’s efforts in copyright protection by amending the law in 2014, a move generally welcomed by international players. Hong Kong, on the other hand, fails to create an environment that is favorable for international networks.
The Casbaa report says that although a regulators’ merger took place in 2012 to form the Communications Authority, telecommunications and broadcasting remain to be regulated separately. The pay-TV association was dismayed by the city’s failure to amend the outdated copyright law due to local political disputes.
“There are great uncertainties to the development of OTT in Hong Kong,” says Fung.
International TV networks benefit from the employment policies in Singapore. Producer Peter Tsi, who was a TV executive in the 1990s, recalls that many international networks were headquartered in Hong Kong at the time. But they left the then-British colony for the Lion City expecting political turmoil from the handover to China. Plus there was the attraction of Singapore government incentives such as tax breaks and low rent in newly developed areas.
“It was when Discovery and HBO Asia moved to Singapore,” he says.
Incentives for foreign companies continue today. A wide range of grants and tax incentives are available for businesses. The government backs the employment of foreign workers, particularly the skilled talent, despite the fact that criteria for the application of higher grade visas were tightened in recent years.
But one factor that makes international networks feel at home in Singapore is the English-speaking environment. Unlike other Asian territories where television is a localized industry dominated by the local language, the TV workforce in Singapore is English-speaking, which eases operation there, Fung says.