Sea Ltd: Singapore’s answer to Alibaba and Tencent, combined

Throwback to 2017: Executives and guests of Sea Limited (NYSE:SE) visit the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to celebrate their IPO. To mark the occasion Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, Forrest Li, rings The Opening Bell®.

Gamers may be familiar with Garena and Free Fire, while E-commerce users should be familiar with Shopee, particularly with the pandemic causing a spike in e-shopping.

The company behind these brands is Sea Ltd, no doubt a titan in Singapore’s and Southeast Asia’s business world and one of Singapore’s biggest success business stories to date. This is especially after the company spectacular spike in its New York Stock Exchange listed stock price, soaring some 880% this quarter, according to Bloomberg. This is better than Tesla and the FAANG companies’ performance in the same period.

The man behind the company is 42-year-old China-born, naturalised Singaporean, Forrest Li. Yes, he named himself after the Tom Hank’s character, Forrest Gump, in the titular movie. He is now among Singapore’s wealthiest, with a net fortune of $6.8 billion, according to Forbes.

Move to Singapore is credit to Forrest’s wife

While the Sea Ltd founding leaders are China-born, the company is very much rooted in Singapore. The startup story is that Forrest and his co-founders started Garena during the post-global financial crisis of 2008/9 in a “scrappy shophouse space in Maxwell Road”, as reported in the Straits Times.

Similarly, a Bloomberg story noted that Forrest’s future Sea Ltd founding business partners, David Chen and Gang Ye, were lured to Singapore because of government scholarships:

Both Chen and Ye arrived in Singapore as teenagers under a government effort to recruit foreign talent through scholarship programs that began in the 1990s. Chen studied computer engineering at the National University of Singapore, while Ye, also originally from China, went to Hwa Chong Institution and Raffles Junior College, and later got bachelor degrees in computer science and economics from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Forrest, on the other hand, was raised in Tianjin. He studied at Shanghai Jiaotong University before heading to Stanford for this MBA. On graduation, he would follow his wife, a fellow Stanford alumni, to Singapore. In Singapore, he would meet his co-founders through his wife’s circle of friends, and the Sea story would begin.

Being humble – the key core value

Both CNBC and Straits Times journalists have singled out Sea Ltd’s core value of “always being humble” as unique for a tech company. Forrest shared more about this during a SPH business forum discussion, The Cutting Edge. In response ST’s Associate Editor Vikram Khanna, Forrest said that this value is the most important because having humility is important to being willing to learn and adapt. He added that the core value is also a reminder of their struggling startup days.

The link to Wah!Banana and Cristiano Ronaldo

Some trivia: Sea’s gaming arm, Garena, is behind the YouTube channel Wah!Banana. These content creators produce skit-type comedy videos, and the comic performers are notable social media influencers.

Sea’s e-commerce platform, Shopee, is also responsible for this cheesy, cringe worthy ad starring Cristiano Ronaldo. It is so bad that it got people’s attention… well, any ad with Cristiano will get attention. Here’s a screenshop. The video is so bad that I will not link it.

Digital banking licence

With e-payments services such as SeaMoney or AirPay, the company is in a good position to take on a digital banking licence. Sea Ltd has been touted as a strong contender. It remains to be seen though if the company will be awarded the licence.

The Covid-19 crisis may delayed the Singapore government’s plans to move ahead with digital banking. But when this happens, Sea Ltd will be the company to watch.

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