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The events that shaped Southeast Asia’s tech ecosystem in 2021 | KrASIA year in review

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Southeast Asian companies hit important milestones, while the region still faces unequal internet access and data protection challenges.


2021 has been a busy year for Southeast Asia’s tech industry. Most countries in the region struggled and are still toiling to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, more people are embracing the internet. Southeast Asia saw 40 million new internet users in 2021 take advantage of various digital services. Now, 75% of the region’s population is online.

Local tech companies have also hit significant milestones. Some became unicorns, others raced to the public market. However, the region still faces several challenges affecting the development of its digital economy, including digital illiteracy, limited internet connectivity in rural areas, and poor data protection.

While we hope to see significant improvements in Southeast Asia’s digital ecosystem, KrASIA looked at eight of the most important events that shaped the region’s tech environment this year.

Military coup and internet shutdowns in Myanmar

On February 1, Myanmar’s military staged a coup and detained de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, senior officials, and activists, seizing control of the country’s government. The military declared a state of emergency for one year. Then, on March 15, it restricted internet connections nationwide to maintain “stability” and prevent “disinformation or fake news.” Access to social media networks like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter has also been blocked since February.

The frequent internet shutdowns that affected Myanmar for over 70 days after the coup also impacted the tech industry significantly. Leading mobile wallet Wave Money lost half of its users in May, while the turmoil also hit food delivery businesses and gig drivers providing delivery services.

Responding to the emergency, Myanmar’s government in exile—The National Unity Government, a group formed in mid-April by ousted National League for Democracy politicians in exile or hiding, representatives from several ethnic minority groups, and activists—embarked on a wave of digital initiatives to support Burmese residents from abroad. Among them, the NGU launched edtech initiatives and vaccination efforts.

Fixed-line connectivity in Myanmar resumed on April 28, according to accessnow.org, although recent reports indicate there have been other internet cuts affecting 25 cities and towns.

Gojek and Tokopedia merged to form GoTo

In May, Indonesia’s super app Gojek and e-commerce platform Tokopedia tied the knot to form GoTo, a platform offering services including ride-hailing, e-commerce, food delivery, logistics, payments, lending, and digital banking in partnership with Bank Jago.

The company, which is looking to go public in Indonesia in the first half of 2022, bagged USD 1.3 billion in the first close of its pre-IPO fundraising in November. GoTo generated over 1.8 billion transactions in 2020, with a gross value of over USD 22 billion.

GoTo is expected to accelerate its IPO process after Indonesian authorities formalized new regulations on December 2 that allow tech companies to issue multiple voting shares when conducting an initial public offering in the country. GoTo is also planning to list in New York soon.

GoTo is Indonesia’s most valuable startup. Photo courtesy of GoTo.

Shopee pushes for global expansion

Shopee, the e-commerce arm of Sea Group, is the largest online marketplace in Southeast Asia and Taiwan, with more than 343 million monthly visitors. In 2021, Shopee also landed in other parts of the globe, particularly in Latin America, Europe, and India.

In the Americas, Shopee launched services in Mexico in March, followed by Chile and Colombia in June. The company had already been present in the region since October 2019, when it entered Brazil.

Shopee has also been building its businesses in Europe this year, launching localized e-commerce platforms in Poland, Spain, and France. As of December, Shopee is among the top three e-commerce sites in all these European markets, according to App Annie.

Shopee also entered the crowded Indian e-commerce market in November with a localized site. In India, it competes against tech giants like Flipkart and Amazon.

Bukalapak went public on Indonesia’s stock exchange

E-commerce firm Bukalapak debuted on the Indonesia Stock Exchange on August 6, under the ticker symbol “BUKA.” The company raised USD 1.5 billion, making it the largest public stock offering ever in the country.

However, after the company’s shares soared 25% on its first trading day, they tanked over the next few weeks. Bukalapak shares plummeted to the lowest price of IDR 426 (USD 0.30) on December 7, roughly 50% of its IPO price of IDR 850 (USD 0.59).

Bukalapak is the third most popular e-commerce platform in Indonesia with over 30 million monthly visits, trailing Tokopedia and leader Shopee.

Grab is now trading on the Nasdaq

After months of anticipation, Grab finally launched its initial public offering on the Nasdaq exchange on December 2, trading under the ticker symbol “GRAB.”

Grab went public via a SPAC merger with Altimeter Growth Corp, which gave the firm a valuation close to USD 40 billion. The combined entity raised USD 4.5 billion in gross proceeds, making the largest US market debut by a company based in Southeast Asia. However, Grab’s shares fell 21% to USD 8.75 on the first day of trading. On December 16, Grab’s stock price closed at USD 7.26. The company has a market cap of roughly USD 27 billion.

Grab runs operations in 465 cities in eight Southeast Asian countries—Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Its services span ride-hailing, last-mile courier delivery, food delivery, payments, insurance, and lending.

Grab rang the IPO opening ball from Singapore on December 2. Photo courtesy of Grab.

At least 14 new unicorns were minted in Southeast Asia

The region’s tech ecosystem is maturing as 14 tech companies reached a USD 1 billion valuation. Singapore was the country with the largest number of companies that entered the three comma club this year, including Ninja Van, Nium, PatSnap, Matrixport, Carousell, Bolttech, Advance Intelligence, and Carro. Indonesia saw three new unicorns: J&T Express, Xendit, and Ajaib.

In Thailand, Flash Express and Ascend Money became the first billion-dollar tech companies, while Carsome joined Grab as Malaysia’s second homegrown unicorn. At the same time, Vietnam-based Sky Studio, the developer of NFT game Axie Infinity, reached a USD 3 billion valuation after it raised a USD 150 million investment in October.

Reportedly, other companies, including Tiket.com, Blibli, and Secretlab, have also reached a unicorn stage or are close to hitting a USD 1 billion valuation.

The year of Axie Infinity

NFT-based online video game Axie Infinity had an exceptional year. It was one of the world’s fastest-growing video games, with nearly 2 million daily active users, reaching USD 33 million daily sales volume in August.

Since its launch in 2018, Axie Infinity, which allows users to earn money while playing, has generated around USD 2.3 billion in total sales volume. The popularity of Axie Infinity led to the emergence of crypto gaming guilds in the region, such as Singapore’s Avocado Guild, Yield Guild Games from the Philippines, and GuildFi from Thailand.

Struggles with weak data protection measures

Indonesia saw multiple major data breaches this year, including the leak of a dataset containing the personal information of 279 million citizens from the server of Indonesia’s Healthcare and Social Security Agency. The government is currently reviewing a draft law on personal data protection, but it has not yet made a decision regarding the positioning of the regulatory body.

Massive data breach cases have also occurred in other markets as well. The personal details of at least 106 million international travelers who traveled to Thailand from 2011 to this year were exposed online in August before Thai authorities managed to remove the data from the public domain. Vietnam also recorded more than 3,900 cyberattacks in the first seven months of 2021 alone.

While Southeast Asia’s digital economy blossoms, cybersecurity remains a blind spot for Indonesia, the region’s largest internet economy, and for many other neighboring countries.

KrASIA is a digital media company reporting on the most promising technology-driven businesses and trends in the world’s emerging markets.

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