Founder Analyse Asia podcast
Bernard Leong is the Head of Digital at Singapore Post, where he works on digital strategy including web, mobile, innovation, social media and digital marketing. Bernard is also the founder of Analyse Asia, a podcast featuring over 200 interviews with thought leaders across Asia and the US. His passions are technology, media and entrepreneurship, and he enjoys mentoring entrepreneurs on how to connect to the start-up and venture community. He is also an angel investor in the Southeast Asian entrepreneurship ecosystem.
How did the Analyse Asia podcast come about?
I like to think of it as I’m telling the story of 4.4 billion people in terms of business, technology and media to the rest of the world through the Analyse Asia podcast. I was inspired by Horace Dediu’s Asymco podcast where he analyzed companies such as Apple, Google and Tesla and offered many insights into why they are successful. I believe that we can tell the same stories given that Asia is the home of technology giants in China, Japan, Korea and India.
The mission of Analyse Asia is to dissect the pulse of business, technology and media in Asia. From time to time, we also bring in global leaders who offer a different perspective. By using the medium of audio, I can tell deeper stories, and it spares me from the hassle of day-to-day breaking news and gives me the time to reflect and ask the right questions as to why major events in Asia have unfolded.
Before the Analyse Asia podcast, I worked on an earlier podcast called “This Week in Asia” with a group of friends. We stopped it because as we grew up and had families, that made it difficult to coordinate our schedules. The other issue is the quality of the podcast. I wanted a high quality podcast, probably due to my background in theatre as a producer, so I settled on a one-on-one interview format. As I started the podcast, I leveraged the contacts I had and slowly built the podcast to what it is today.
How do you combine your day job and creating such a labor-intensive content product like a podcast?
I love my work, whether it’s in my corporate role or getting a podcast episode out on the market. Because I have two young children, I dedicate only five hours to the podcast. I adopt the Japanese concept of Shokunin, the craftsman mentality of getting better day by day and at the same time, iterate on my processes. From sourcing guests to distributing the podcast, I have ensured my workflow gets shorter so I have more time to juggle my corporate day job and hobby. Most episodes typically take two to three hours to produce depending on recording and editing, and then everything else is automated.
I also treat the podcast as a startup. When I started the project, I wrote a business plan and the metrics I wanted to achieve in three years time, and I refine that over time. To me, it’s now a side hustle where I meet interesting people and uncover their stories, and it complements my corporate job.
You’ve done over 200 interviews. Who are some of the interviewees that have impacted you the most and why? And what are the top three episodes we should listen to and why?
The first is Horace Dediu from Asymco, who has done six episodes with me. Every time I interviewed him, I felt that he educated me three years in advance on technology disruption and business theory. His analytical precision has helped me to understand the subjects better and allowed me to apply them to my work in digital products and strategy.
The second is the interview with Helen Duce and Uma Thana Balasingam from Lean In Singapore. It was a difficult interview for me, as I spent a considerable amount of time preparing the questions so there would be no unconscious bias. Helen and Uma did a great job discussing the challenges of women leadership in the workplace and how to overcome them.
The third is an interview with three movers and shakers: Vijay Shekhar Sharma, CEO of Paytm (startup unicorn of India), Andrew Ng (world leading expert in AI) and Gary Vaynerchuck (CEO of Vayner Media). They look at things very differently from many people and have made significant achievements in their lives. It’s actually challenging to interview movers and shakers because you have to think about how to draw on their insights without making them feel like you are wasting their time.
What are some key insights you have learned through doing the Analyse Asia podcast?
I am often surprised by the direction Asia is moving with innovation, in that it’s not related to how the Western world views it. It is more driven by pragmatism, the need to solve people’s problems on a day-to-day level, and in the words of Clayton Christensen, “jobs to be done”. That helps me calibrate how I think about different markets across Asia.
Another key insight is the speed of innovation in Asia. In the past few years, even the US is running slower than China with respect to innovation. One factor to this is that the Chinese government respects the need for innovation and will only step in to regulate if citizens are not protected. The best example is mobile payments. Where many developed nations are saddled with legacy payment infrastructure, China will probably be the first country to reach a cashless point on a large scale because the tech giants are able to leverage their data to help the unbanked population gain access to financial services.
My final insight is that Asia will be an engine of growth for the US and Europe for at least the next decade. Hence, most Western companies are starting to understand that they need to figure how their solutions can be localized in order to gain a foothold in this diverse market from China to India.
What are the 5 most innovative technologies or companies in Asia to know about?
The massive manufacturing capability of Foxconn to scale production, the deep technology work on semiconductors by TSMC, mobile payments pioneered by Alipay for the unbanked, the Wechat app by Tencent and how it monetized messaging, and robotics in Japan with SoftBank leading the charge with Pepper robot.
What does the future of the digital economy look like and what is the place of Asia in the global innovation landscape?
The future of digital economy is that it will be embedded within everything shifting from bits to atoms. What I mean by that is that we will find the digital capability in the online world shifting more and more towards the physical world and not just physical assets such as cars and infrastructure, but the capacity to reshape them in different forms. Self driving cars in the future may not look like the cars of today because you will have time to do other things instead of just concentrating on driving. It’s not surprising that technology companies are now trying to re-imagine how a car should be. Soon they may go into planes and physical buildings.
Asia’s place in the global innovation landscape will be the ability to manufacture the physical world that will be connected to the digital world. It is also the largest market that will be both the importer and exporter in these technologies. When I hear Western media comment that China is only cloning the technology in the US, I believe that they are talking about the last decade. Like South Korea in the 1990s, Japan in the 1980s or US in the 1900s, all cloned their predecessors to spark their own industrial revolution and ended up leapfrogging their predecessors. China is now in this phase of growth. The same can be extended to India and the rest of Asia. It is no surprise that the next decade of innovation will be from Asia and they will transform the innovation landscape given Asia’s pragmatism in solving problems.
Can you describe your experience at Singularity University? What impressed you the most? How has SU changed your perspectives?
I spent two and half months in Singularity University at the NASA Ames Centre in Mountain View, Silicon Valley, where I was exposed to groundbreaking technologies that will change the world. We spent the first six weeks on lectures, then the remaining four weeks on team projects. From the program, I learned to think 10x instead of 10%, and saw how technologies like AI, blockchain and CRISPR can solve the most pressing problems for greater than 1 billion people in everything from climate change to space exploration.
One thing that I was impressed with was that they also focused on human performance, so they taught things like mindfulness, meditation, breathing techniques and how to push ourselves into a flow state. Prior to this, I often became stressed with work and had frequent heartburn that required medication. After the program, I was able to control my stress and increase my performance and happiness, and now I no longer have heartburn episodes. I have always aspired to be a start-up CEO or group CEO of a public listed company—an ambition that will come with unlimited stress—so SU taught me how to overcome that and prepare for the future I want.
What is your view on the concept of singularity and the idea that technology will displace labour?
I see the concept of technology singularity as a philosophy and with that, I have an optimistic view of the future. When a technology reaches singularity, one immediate consequence is that the technology will render a resource abundant that is previously scarce based on demand and supply economics. The way to think about this is by the following example: an aluminium fork cost $150K in the 15th century and could only be owned by kings and queens. The discovery of how to extract aluminium from aluminium oxide brought the price of the fork to less than $1 dollar today such that you and I can own it. I would love to see a Star Trek future where everyone has a replicator and can produce anything they want.
The issue that technology will displace labour is a complex one for the next few decades. It requires different stakeholders such as governments and businesses to figure out what the future of work means. My personal perspective is that business owners need to figure out how to re-train their workers for new jobs and at the same time shift them to complex tasks as fast as possible. Otherwise they will be displaced by technology faster than before given the accelerating pace of exponential technologies. My view is that we need to have exponential empathy in how we can help society grow along with technology, for example automating boring and monotonous tasks in today’s jobs. I am not convinced by the universal basic income idea as a solution to that. My argument is that you are just setting the baseline of zero with a new number in an economy that is defined by supply and demand. However, I believe that when resources become abundant and we achieve singularity in different technologies, humans will not need to work.
What are you going to learn in the year ahead?
Well I have a habit of reading books for at least 30 minutes a day, so that helps me to learn more about things I am curious about.
Go-to-resources to stay on top of key trends
Los Alamos Preprint Server for the latest physics & mathematics research papers, Quanta Magazine, Nature, Financial Times, BBC, Nikkei Asia Review, Bloomberg, Recode, The Economist, Coindesk and The Information.
One book that has influenced you the most
Titan by Ron Chernow. It’s the biography of oil tycoon John D Rockefeller and tells the story of how he managed a business empire on a huge scale, leveraging on the latest communication technology of his time, the telegram. What’s impressive is that Rockefeller spent three afternoons a week with his children and relied on the telegram to communicate with his team on the oil pipes he built across the United States. He was known to be a dedicated family man and rebutted the notion that a successful entrepreneur has to forgo family in order to be successful. In today’s world, Rockefeller ran a US$850B (if you do a time value analysis of his net worth today, which is 10x more than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) and managed to spend a significant amount of time with his family.
On your reading list now
Favourite TED Talks and podcasts
My favorite TED Talk is The Long Reach of Reason by Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and my favourite podcasts include Recode Decode, The Ezra Klein Show, The FiveThirtyEight Political Podcast and Acquired.
Industry columnists, bloggers or influencers to bookmark right now
There is a whole list of them that I believe most technology people usually follow, but a few who I think are worth following, but rarely mentioned include Albert Wenger’s Continuations, Bill Bishop, Newley Purnell from WSJ, Tim Culpan and Andy Mukherjee from Bloomberg Gadfly.