Comment: The incredible rise of Forrest Li, the humble founder of Singapore’s most valuable listed company


SINGAPORE: Forrest Li will long be adored by video gamers for bringing gaming to the masses in Asia.

Moreover, his achievements of rags to riches are nothing less than the proportions of Singaporean folklore, not how extraordinary he was an entrepreneur.

But for a very long time, Forrest Li has been a mysterious figure, unless you’re a gaming enthusiast or in the investor and startup community.

The shy media innovator certainly appeared, at least early in his entrepreneurship, content to let his gaming platform, namely Garena, do the talking.

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Even when his Shopee shopping chain hit the scene in 2015, few knew that the mastermind behind Garena was also responsible for what would become one of Southeast Asia’s most successful e-commerce businesses. It was ranked first in the Shopping category by average monthly active users.

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He certainly did not seem to have the outspokenness of Chinese Jack Ma, the media acumen of Briton Richard Branson, the charisma of Malaysian Tony Fernandez or the audacity of Canadian Elon Musk.

His modesty is surprising.

After all, his company Sea Limited is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Few of Singapore-based entrepreneurs have successfully listed their businesses on the world’s largest stock exchange.

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Sea Limited shares have grown sevenfold in the past four years, bringing the company’s valuation to US $ 120 billion (S $ 160.8 billion), making it the most valuable listed company from Singapore.

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Former company public relations manager Siwei Tan summed it up when she revealed at a public conference in 2017: “Forrest Li is very sweet and very reserved. He is generally very media shy and does not like to be in the limelight. “


When young Forrest Li – a student born in China – first arrived in Singapore 15 years ago, he was reportedly struggling with S $ 100,000 loans and was only earning enough money to rent a car. room in Braddell.

It has certainly come a long way since then, becoming one of Singapore’s influential billionaire groups.

As a naturalized Singaporean, some say Mr. Li has been able to follow in the footsteps of many Singaporean immigrants born in China in the past. These include the Ng, Tang and Kwek families. But with a big difference.

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Unlike many of these early pioneers, however, Li’s rise to billionaire status came from leveraging low-asset technology and intellectual property rather than heavy bricks and mortar.


But the tide can now turn when there are signs that Sea and Forrest Li recognize the need to build a broad image and brand identity on the outside.

These days, Mr. Li is a regular face in the media, garnering attention for his philanthropy, forays into new ventures, and for his business success.

Signage for e-commerce and gaming group Sea in Southeast Asia is pictured in its Singapore office on March 5, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS / Edgar Su)

Last year, Sea grabbed the headlines by taking over local Home United football club, making Li the new owner of renowned Lion City Sailors.

In January, he made more local sports history by spending € 1.8million (S $ 2.89million) to sign Brazilian midfielder Diego Lopes, making him the most successful signing in football. dear from Singapore.

In November, he was named Singapore Businessman of the Year at the 35th Singapore Business Awards.

In December, Sea was granted a license to operate a full digital bank in Singapore from the Monetary Authority of Singapore. In March, the group announced the establishment of a venture capital fund to finance promising start-ups in the region.

On March 24, the 43-year-old was appointed to the board of trustees of the National University of Singapore, five days before Sea gave the university its biggest corporate gift – a donation of 50 million dollars for research and education at his computer science school.

Where Li “usually did one media interview per year” and that too with a reporter who needed to be identified and warned so as not to be too aggressive, as Ms. Tan had revealed, he now regularly wooed the media with his announcements and quotes. .

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Of course, all of this media coverage is not just because Mr. Li is looking for more publicity.

Venturing into digital banking and venture capital, for example, can be attributed to commercial interests as Sea tries to grow its business even though some observers, like myself, wonder if it will be more strategic to the group to focus instead on the profitability of its existing businesses.

Even sponsorship of a football club and a donation to the university could have a positive impact on the commercial effects: strengthening Sea’s brand identity with a wider clientele and in new markets, as well as cultivating future ones. talents for the company.

Yet it cannot be ignored that much of this has been fueled by the desire for greater public visibility.

It’s no wonder, then, that soon after Ms. Tan was dismissed in 2017, Sea created a new position of Director of Strategic Communications that was intended to be more proactive, forward-looking and integrated. Certainly, different from Ms. Tan’s usual PR role.

New kit 2 Lion City Sailors FC

Home United, the Singapore Premier League team, has changed ownership and will now become Lion City Sailors Football Club. (Photo: MER)

For this new role, the group hired the head of the public relations company, Martin Reidy, who has built a solid reputation for leading communication agencies and strengthening the strategic presence of clients such as Uber, Bytedance, Grab. and

There was certainly an intention to increase Sea’s awareness and branding and broadening Forrest Li’s profile appears to be part of that strategy.


This strategy came at the right time for Sea, as strengthening Mr. Li’s public profile could prove beneficial with his future digital banking business.

With a full digital banking license, Sea Limited will be authorized to receive deposits and provide banking services to retail and non-retail customers. The other full digital banking license was awarded through a joint bid from Singtel and Grab.

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Compared to Singtel and Grab, Sea Limited is less well known although many buyers may be more familiar with its Shopee platform. Joint winners have the benefit of a trusted brand through Singapore’s largest telecommunications operator, Singtel, and a ubiquitous brand, Grab.

The latter exploited the media know-how of its founders Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling. Through their media appearances, among others, they have built a trusted logistics business that should translate into the company’s new venture, namely the bank.

Shopee signage is pictured in their Singapore office

A signage from Shopee, the e-commerce arm of the Southeast Asian Sea, is pictured in their Singapore office on March 5, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS / Edgar Su)

Acquiring new customers in the banking industry will involve gaining the trust of customers, as people need to be confident that their money is safe with a reliable and credible name.

Forrest Li is already moving in the right direction.

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Anything he does to raise his profile should in turn raise the profile of his latest digital banking company.

David Kuo is the co-founder of The Smart Investor and previously CEO of Motley Fool Singapore.



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