Bangladesh wants Singapore investors


BANGLADESH is rolling out the red carpet for foreign investors, and is interested in attracting Singapore investors into areas such as energy and technology.

Speaking to The Business Times on Monday, Standard Chartered Bangladesh chief executive officer Abrar Anwar, gave assurance that the country has no shortage of skilled workers, although 10 million Bangladeshis have left their home and are working overseas.

"About 70 per cent of the population is of working age. ... A lot of them go abroad as either unskilled or semi-skilled workers, in construction and ship-building in Singapore, for example. A lot of them also return home as skilled workers," he said.

And as skilled workers, they are able to work competently in areas such as infrastructure development and implementation of power plants, he added.

Mr Abrar was in Singapore for a seminar in the South Asia Market Insights series, titled "Business Opportunities in Bangladesh"; the event, attended by more than 100 Singapore companies considering investments in Bangladesh, was organised by the Singapore Business Federation, the Bangladesh Business Chamber of Singapore and the Bangladesh High Commission in Singapore.

Bangladesh has consistently registered a gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of more than 6 per cent since 2005, and its poverty level has fallen sharply since 2000. It is Singapore's second-largest trading partner in South Asia.

International Enterprise (IE) Singapore says bilateral trade between the two countries in 2015 came in at S$3.5 billion, and rose to S$3.9 billion last year.

Singapore's major imports from Bangladesh are agro-products, knitwear and garments; its principal exports to the South Asian nation are mineral fuels, lubricants and related materials, and machinery and transport equipment.

Mr Abrar said: "Singapore is considered a good friend of Bangladesh and the government is very interested in single investors from Singapore. Not only will these investors bring in new technology, but also a lot of funds."

Singapore companies already operating in Bangladesh are in sectors such as power, energy and food services.

Sembcorp Utilities, a Sembcorp Industries subsidiary, secured a long-term power-purchase agreement with the Bangladesh Power Development Board last year for the supply of 414 megawatts of power over a period of 221/2 years. The power will be supplied out of Sembcorp's upcoming power plant in the country's Sirajganj district.

"Singapore is also considered the best health destination for Bangladeshis, so health is also another big opportunity for investors from here," Mr Abrar added.

Standard Chartered Bank has been in Bangladesh for 112 years and last year, it handled 13 per cent of its total trade.

"We have been a pioneer not only in the retail space, but also in the corporate space, bringing in new products to the market. In that sense, we have seen a potential in that market from close proximity and now the situation has come that the country needs investments and there is potential for all types of investors to make a decent return in a safe way."

When asked about the risks such as the political environment and the country's vulnerability to natural disasters, he replied said these are "the underlying risks in any emerging market".

"There has been sporadic political violence, but with per capita income doubling in the last five years, people are looking for their own economic emancipation. These days, everyone wants a better life. People who used to demonstrate are now trying to find good means of economic emancipation. They want their children to go to good schools, so in fact, in the last four to five years, we haven't seen much political disturbance," he said.

Mr Abrar said the government has developed 100 special economic zones, so finding land to set up business will not be an issue for new investors.

Ten 10 mega projects - bilateral, multi-lateral and also government-owned - worth US$40 billion (S$56 billion) are underway.

"They are ports, powerplants, roads, bridges - major bridges - and highways that are absolutely required in supporting the incremental GDP growth that is coming up.

"There is also potential for investors to put in projects for energy plants, transmission and distribution. Today, only about 35 per cent of the people have access to electricity. Many are still running one bulb and one fan," he said, but added that the country is on the cusp of a boom in demand for televisions, fridges and computers.

"The government will always say the good things, but when the rubber hits the road, it's the people who are operating there, who, I think, will speak much louder than just me, talking at seminars."