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Tiny Singapore to revamp venture capital rules as it angles for a piece of Silicon Valley’s pie

Singapore, nicknamed the "little red dot," is eyeing a sliver of Silicon Valley's pie, aiming to attract venture capitalists to grow a stable of start-ups in the regional financial hub.

Earlier this week, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) introduced proposals to simplify the authorization process for venture capital funds.

Under the current regulatory framework, managers of venture capital funds are treated like other fund managers.

But the central bank noted that in part due to long lock-up periods, it likely wasn't necessary for venture capital funds to meet the same higher capital requirements as other fund managers. Additionally, the MAS proposed easing the licensing requirements for venture-capital-fund managers.

Chia Tek Yew, head of financial services advisory at KPMG in Singapore, said he expected the MAS would fast-track the new regulations and that venture capitalists might start setting up shop in the city-state within six to 12 months.

Chia noted that Singapore already had a significant number of early-stage incubators for entrepreneurs, with these groups helping start-ups to either raise money or offering seed funds.

But he added that many of these groups didn't become formal venture-capital funds because of the high costs and regulatory requirements.

He noted that there's also "no shortage" of venture capitalists passing through Singapore seeking potential investments, but overseas funds had balked at setting up an office because the cost of entry was too high.

Others were also optimistic about the changes.

An employee works at the Garena Interactive Holding Ltd. headquarters in Singapore.
Nicky Loh | Bloomberg | Getty Images
An employee works at the Garena Interactive Holding Ltd. headquarters in Singapore.

Patrick Yeo, venture hub leader at PwC Singapore, called the changes "a good starting point."

Yeo expected the changes would raise Singapore's profile and attract more players.

"It sends a strong message that the government wants to improve the funding landscape for start-ups," Yeo said. "It will help change the impression of certain players who are planning to come to Asia, or who are considering between Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney. Hopefully, it will swing things in our favour."

The proposed changes to venture-capital regulations come hard on the heels of the city-state's long-awaited report from its Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), released earlier this month.

The CFE was set up last year to develop strategies to prepare the workforce for economic and social challenges, including digital disruption and an aging population.

The report's recommendations included efforts to deepen programs aiming to turn Singapore into a regional start-up hub and to encourage partnerships between small and large enterprises and improve access to venture capital.

Another factor that may boost Singapore's appeal for venture capitalists: Rising anti-immigrant sentiment and the potential for travel and immigration restrictions in the U.S.

Singapore's policies for obtaining permission to work in the city-state are relatively liberal.

"If you look at anything technology or innovation oriented, the immigration component of that is pretty high," KPMG's Chia said. "Whether it's a start-up or venture capital or established tech companies like Oracle or HP or Microsoft, there's a huge component of immigrant expertise."

He said companies may eye Singapore as a Plan B or Plan C to spread talent to other locations, creating a network.

To be sure, the city-state isn't likely to be eating Silicon Valley's lunch anytime soon.

KPMG's Chia said it's more likely that venture capital funds will set up in Singapore as part of a network.

He said that after start-ups reach the commercialization phase in other countries, they'll look to expand to other regions, using that network.

Some also expected the expansion of venture capital in Singapore would be more gradual.

Bob O'Donnell, chief analyst at TECHnalysis Research, a technology and financial consultancy, said he expected it would be a while before Singapore saw benefits from the regulatory changes.

But he added that Singapore was an obvious location for a "Silicon Alley," as many large technology companies already have their Asia-Pacific headquarters in the city-state.

In addition, Keoy Soo Earn, regional managing partner for financial advisory at Deloitte Southeast Asia, noted in emailed comments on Friday that increasing access to venture capital was just one of the "puzzle pieces of a jigsaw" to develop a vibrant start-up community.

For one, Keoy noted that Singapore will need to be able to facilitate access to a larger market than just the city-state, which has a population of only around 5.8 million and a land area less than a quarter of the size of the state of Rhode Island.

Singapore's state-owned investment company Temasek has also eyed what the U.S. tech scene has to offer, announcing on Friday that it opened an office in San Francisco.

The fund, which had a portfolio valued around $180 billion at the end of March 2016, was eyeing how to expand U.S. investments beyond their home country.

"Many companies we look at here in the U.S. are developing products and services that cater to users beyond the domestic market," Lim Boon Heng, chairman of Temasek Holdings, said in a statement. "They play to the changes in demographics in places like Asia and Latin America. We see a continuing focus on sectors that are a natural complement to what this region does well – technology, life sciences, and particularly, the congruence of the two."

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1

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