SUPPORTING BUSINESS: COMMENTARY

Commentary: A merger to better serve Singapore Inc

UP until around the turn of the century, the conventional wisdom about corporate evolution was that companies should establish themselves in their domestic market first, and then venture overseas. In the 1990s therefore, it would have been typical for a seasoned tycoon to advise a young entrepreneur: Develop your company's capabilities, build your reputation and your brand at home, maybe do a listing and only after that, venture out into the world.

This was the path trodden by many of Singapore's established corporates, including government-linked companies such as Keppel, Sembcorp and Singtel, and some large private companies, which took several years to take wing overseas.

And so it was that when it came to providing official support for companies, Singapore set up two separate entities, each with its own mandate.

One was SPRING Singapore. Its mission statement is clear. As stated on its website: "SPRING Singapore is an agency under the Ministry of Trade and Industry responsible for helping Singapore enterprises grow and for building trust in Singapore products and services."

After tapping SPRING's expertise and perhaps also its financing for a few years, the entrepreneur would have felt ready to next turn to IE Singapore.

Its website is also explicit about its brief: "IE Singapore is the government agency that promotes international trade and partners Singapore companies to go global."

But companies of today neither think nor move sequentially, compared to their peers of 20 years ago.

Consider Xmi Pte Ltd, which makes portable audio equipment such as capsule speakers. Just 11 years into its history, it already has its products distributed in more than 80 countries. Osim, famous for its massage chairs, started out in 1993 and is in more than 100 cities. Relatively new Singapore companies Breadtalk and Charles & Keith were also fast off the blocks; gaming companies like Razer and Sea (formerly Garena) went global almost from Day One.

We can only speculate on what made this possible: a combination of the Internet, the proliferation of international supply chains, the availability of global financing - or just their founders' cold, hard ambition of becoming global players from the get-go.

Whatever the combination of forces in play, the point is that building capabilities and brands and taking these to the rest of the world are tasks companies now undertake simultaneously, not one after another.

The trend is likely to accelerate. More companies are going global every year, and helping them do so has become part of the mission of some tech giants with a presence in Singapore: Microsoft is reaching out to Singapore's small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with its cloud and digitisation services; Google, which is expanding its "Go Global" initiative, aims to train 2,500 SMEs to be fully digital and export-ready by 2019.

This is why it makes sense to merge SPRING and IE Singapore. Serving Singapore Inc now requires the two agencies to work together as one, seamlessly, under the same roof.

It also makes sense to transfer the consumer-protection function from SPRING to the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS). Consumer protection was never a good fit in SPRING, the core constituency of which is the business sector - producers, not consumers. The CCS, with its mandate to promote fair trading, acts for consumers and - as is the case elsewhere - is the most appropriate agency to undertake consumer protection in all forms.

The merged entity, to be called Enterprise Singapore, will need to work closely with other agencies as well as the Trade and Industry Associations. The Ministry of Trade and Industry has noted in particular the need to collaborate with the Economic Development Board (EDB), the job of which is to attract foreign investment (mainly MNCs) to Singapore.

Today's global economy is criss-crossed with synergies among multinational corporations (MNCs), SMEs and start-ups; increasingly, innovations that MNCs license, adopt or acquire come from smaller companies. Indeed, a case can even be made for the EDB to eventually join the Enterprise Singapore stable.

Just as the structure and the way companies operate evolve, so should government agencies and institutions. Singapore Inc should be encouraged to see this process continuing to happen.

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