Crypto-Curious in Singapore: a Visit to Asia’s Fintech Hub

My Uber driver picks me up at the Singapore airport, and within three minutes, we’re talking about blockchain.

“I’m building an app,” he says.

“What’s it do?”

“It’s an app for taxi drivers.” He turns around to make eye contact, seemingly oblivious to the road. “It’s going to help drivers optimize their fares, by telling them where to go.”

“And it uses the blockchain?”

“It’s going to use the blockchain,” he says with some pride.

After parking at my hotel, he unfolds a few sheets of paper with notes, doodles, and diagrams of his app, ready to do a show-and-tell. I gather my backpack. He then asks, with no hint of irony, “Can you tell me what the blockchain is?”

The cabbie, in a sense, embodies the paradox of blockchain in Singapore, and perhaps blockchain in general: long on hype, short on specifics. I’m here for a conference called De/Centralize that’s trying to address this. This is the first time I’ve traveled to a country primarily for the blockchain scene; I can’t tell if I’ve leveled up or hit a new low.

I’m not an expert, and I’m not exactly a newb, but I am a “crypto-curious” generalist writer who, for various reasons, is traveling the globe, indefinitely. Last year I sold everything I owned, left New York, and now I’m zig-zagging around the planet. (Some people call this lifestyle a “digital nomad.” I just call it homeless.) At each spot I’m exploring the blockchain and crypto scene, talking to locals, and writing about it I’m hoping to better understand how this fascinating new technology is changing (or failing to change) the planet.

So I guess you could say this is a mix of blockchain reporting, travel writing, and a homeless guy’s opinion.

Money Chases Money

The Singapore skyline is sleek, modern, and icily beautiful, with jagged edges and swooping towers. My hotel… is not. I’m staying in something called a “pod hotel,” meaning that you actually sleep in tiny pods. The pods are coffins, essentially, that are lined up in stacks of two, back to back to back, like the cryogenic sleeping units in The Matrix. (But hey, free Continental breakfast!)

The pods help explain why crypto is so big here in Singapore. I’m staying at Hotel Matrix because it’s the only last-minute option in my budget, and for this we can thank Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s Founding Father. In 1965, when Singapore cleaved itself from Malaysia, it was an impoverished island with no natural resources. Yew flipped the script. In a 30-year run as Prime Minister, Yew cultivated a pro-trade, pro-finance, pro-business climate that helped the city-state go “from third world to first” in a single generation, as Yew liked to say. Year after year, Singapore is at the top of lists like “easiest places to do business” and, now, BREAKER’s own “Top 10 Blockchain Cities.” It’s the fintech hub of Asia.

So it’s very much on-brand for the Singapore government to take a pro-blockchain stance. Its central bank is exploring a cross-border, tokenized payment system with partners like Hong Kong and the Bank of Canada. It launched a blockchain competition. There are multiple teams racing to put medical records on the blockchain, such as Medilot and HealthFX.

I ask the lead organizer of De/Centralize, Kenneth Bok, why the blockchain space is so prominent in Singapore. “It’s because we’re centralized,” Bok says. “We’re a small country. We’re extremely technocratic. Our info-communications infrastructure is world-class. And we’re one of the most English-speaking places in Asia.”

There’s also the fact that Singapore has lots of money, and money chases money, and there’s money in blockchain. “It’s really safe to be a crypto-billionaire here,” Bok says with a smile. “We have good law and order.”

The non-billionaires are curious, too. Kelsea Wong is a student at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, and she’s interning for a semester at XSQ, a Singapore-based crypto-infrastructure firm. She says that back in the U.S., of the 15 people in her Villanova program, only two were interested in crypto. “Here it’s everyone I know,” she says. “The West has been so much slower than Asia in picking this up. When I go to a hotel, the manager is talking about putting their hotel on the blockchain.”

He should partner with my Uber driver.

Bigger Than the Iron Age

Day one of the conference. We’re in a ballroom of the Marina Bay Sands hotel, the crown jewel of Singapore’s skyline—three Vegas-esque towers that support a saucer of restaurants, bars, and gardens that seem to float above the city. (Incidentally, it’s the same hotel that Kim Jong Un visited on the night before his meeting with President Trump in June.) Yet honestly? A hotel ballroom in Singapore looks just like a ballroom in Tampa Bay.

“This is bigger than anything that has hit the earth,” says Tim Draper, or rather an image of Tim Draper’s 10-foot head, Skyping in. Draper is a billionaire and bitcoin evangelist. “The Iron Age was a big deal. So was the computer and the internet. All of these were a big deal, but with this decentralized technology, we’re going to affect everybody,” he says, waving his hands in excitement.

Draper’s speech is something of a blockchain pep talk, and it’s hard to parse the substance from the hype. “In five years, you’re going to walk into a Starbucks and try and buy a cup of coffee and use fiat, and people are going to laugh at you,” he gushes. This feels like an iffy bet, but Draper has a history of getting the long shots right. In 2014, after seizing assets from the online black market Silk Road, the U.S. Marshals sold 30,000 bitcoin on an open auction. Draper bought all of them. The price of bitcoin was around $650 at the time, yielding him a cushy return of over 1,000 percent.

He then proposes a use case for the blockchain that doesn’t get as much attention: disrupting governments. “There are two parts to government,” he explains, “terrestrial and virtual.” The “terrestrial” parts are services like the police, firefighters, and roads. In the future, according to Draper’s vision, the governments will still handle the terrestrial stuff.

Yet the “virtual” arm of the government? This includes our pensions, social security, health insurance, and even education. “Services governments provide that can be virtual will be virtual,” Draper proclaims. Exhibit A: Estonia. The nation now allows “virtual residents,” meaning that you can be a resident of Estonia—and enjoy all the benefits therein—without ever leaving your couch in New Jersey. Draper is Estonia’s #3 virtual resident. (Do you want to virtually live in Estonia? Just click here.)

Related: Blockchain in Paradise: Seeking Bliss with Bali’s Crypto-Nomads

The more you contemplate these truly “borderless” solutions, it’s easy to see why the institutions of power have reasons to be skeptical, or even fear this technology. Virtual Estonia isn’t threatening to topple the U.S. Yet what if there are hundreds or thousands of tiny virtual Estonias, all stitched together to provide us goods and services? Maybe this is far-fetched—just as it must have seemed far-fetched that the price of bitcoin would soar from $650 to its current ballpark of $8,000.

There are roughly 100 speakers and panelists at the two-day conference, but it feels like a thousand. There are panels galore: panels on artificial intelligence, real estate, and privacy. The theme: Actual things are starting to actually happen… but that’s drowned out by our collective infatuation with the price of bitcoin.

Homology = Topological Space

Walking through the hotel, I soon find that blockchain conventions are an odd jumble of extroverts and introverts.

The marketers, the networkers, and the ICO-seekers jump at the chance to pump handshakes. “Hi, I’m Daniel, and I’m building a dapp!” says a guy in a T-shirt, thrusting a business card in my hand. “It’s LinkedIn meets video games.” Others hand me their cards before they even say hello, which feels a bit like going for a kiss at the very start of a date. I meet mining equipment vendors, crypto recruiters, crypto investors, crypto exchange publicists, and on and on. Soon I have a fistful of cards. It’s exhausting.

Some of these introverts are forced to give speeches, and it’s refreshing, even charming, to see these whiz kids—some of whom are crypto-millionaires—awkwardly stumble through their presentations, reading prepared notes from their iPhones like a young groomsman giving his first toast at a wedding.

And then there are the introverts, who, at the risk of stereotype, tend to be the developers—the Wozniaks to the extroverts’ Jobs. They skulk through the coffee room with AirPods in both ears, avoiding eye contact, as if they’re on the subway. AirPods are the low-key star of the conference; they’re everywhere. One guy walks past me holding an open laptop in both hands, staring at the screen, with a power cord dangling behind him. I warn him about the cord—he’s about to trip—but he can’t hear me, thanks to the AirPods.

Some of these introverts are forced to give speeches, and it’s refreshing, even charming, to see these whiz kids—some of whom are crypto-millionaires—awkwardly stumble through their presentations, reading prepared notes from their iPhones like a young groomsman giving his first toast at a wedding. After one particularly awkward speech, the MC says to the crowd, “Thank you for sitting through that presentation.”

TheChain: Image

The co-founder and CTO of the protocol-company Constellation Labs, which describes itself as a “horizontally scalable hylochain with microservices,” attempts to give a technical breakdown of the project’s logic, showing us mathematic equations that look straight out of A Beautiful Mind. “Every single blockchain is a flat map over a monad,” he says casually, as if stating one of life’s basic truths. “Every single blockchain is a flat map over a monad,” he says again. “It’s that simple.” He guides us through other key principles, which are so simple and obvious I’m almost embarrassed to repeat them:

Homology = topological space.

U (x,n,pi) = f(x,n)^pi

N is bounded by network latency

I give it a 10 percent chance this guy might actually be crazy, but a 20 percent chance he’ll someday make the cover of Wired. A guy next to me whispers, “This whole space is just trying to monetize autism.”

The Iceberg

The two-day event is over-stuffed with panels and presentations, they blur together, and the crowd begins to discreetly file out of the ballroom, headed to “coffee breaks” from which they never return.

“Watching the speeches is a rookie mistake,” says Dan Clarke, who’s a regular on the crypto-conference circuit. Like many (if not most) of the attendees, he attends these things for the networking.

TheChain: Image

Clarke is the poster boy of what the Singapore government is trying to attract. He came to Singapore to incorporate his digital marketing business, lured by the cushy regulations and the lack of a capital gains tax. He then “moved sideways” into the crypto space as a marketing consultant. I later join him and others for drinks at the hotel bar, where the “happy hour” menu includes $10 beers. (Pricey booze is Singapore’s Achilles heel, along with a shaky record on free speech and human rights.)

“Crypto in Singapore is like an iceberg,” Clarke says, sipping his $24 cocktail. “There’s so much beneath the surface you can’t see.” He’s referring to the OTC market, or Over the Counter, where the “whales” are buying bitcoin in massive chunks, such as an order for 750,000 BTC, worth nearly $8 billion dollars at the time. These transactions don’t appear on the exchanges and are tough to observe, much less regulate. (If a whale places too big an order on a normal exchange, the very purchase can nudge up the price, causing “slippage” that could make the entire transaction more expensive. A good primer here.) “The OTC market completely dwarfs what’s visible,” says Clarke.

As I watch the schmoozing, I realize that this is where the real action happens. While cryptocurrencies are celebrated (and attacked) for toppling the traditional models of finance, there are many who are making gobs of money the old-fashioned way, by mingling and making nice with the influencers, thus getting in on the ground-floor of projects, pre-ICO or even pre-pre-ICO, and long before the average Joe can buy a coin on Binance.

Yet at the same time, it doesn’t feel fair to dismiss this scene, or the conference, or the crypto space writ large, as mere bubbly speculation. The next night—the final night of the conference—we’re once again at a hotel bar, this time atop the Marina Bay Sands, with a jaw-dropping view of the Singapore skyline. Crypto-millionaires (or aspiring millionaires) take selfies on the roof. The crowd is filled with networkers and investors, sure, but it’s also packed with coders, creators, and philanthropists. It’s packed with builders.

I don’t yet know if they’ll succeed, “moon,” or get steamrolled by the next-next-next new thing. It’s early days. But if this group’s collective spirit is any indication, the blockchain will eventually start doing stuff that impacts everyone. Even crypto-curious cab drivers.

Jeff Wilser is the author of The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden. All photos by Jeff Wilser. Follow him on Twitter.