Putting a spring in Singapore enterprise, regardless of size or sector

THE merger of International Enterprise Singapore and Spring Singapore - announced last September and formalised with the passing of a Bill on Enterprise Singapore earlier this week - is just one facet of the government's response to rapidly shifting global economic dynamics and changing business needs.

But it is one that now sends a clear message on what the government believes a Singapore company committed to growth looks like: it will be one with ambitions to grow beyond Singapore's shores, one that can be globally competitive.

Come April 1, there will no longer be small businesses that work with Spring alone on developing capabilities, but never with IE on foreign market access because overseas plans aren't on their cards. A company's single point of contact in the government for all matters relating to business growth will be Enterprise Singapore - one agency for both enterprise development and internationalisation.

And as the names of IE and Spring (which had 16 years to grow on businesses here) join predecessors such as the Trade Development Board and the Productivity and Standards Board in Singapore's history books, the new Enterprise Singapore will stand for more than being a one-stop-shop for Singapore's businesses seeking government support.

Greater efficiency was indeed the main cause for cheer among businesses when the merger was first announced. But as the government has fleshed out Enterprise Singapore's mission over the past few months, it has become clear that this merger will also establish internationalisation even more firmly as a central pillar of enterprise development.

All the three trends that Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S Iswaran described as driving this "different approach" to developing Singapore's companies, centred on global competitiveness: 1) the rise of Asia and the accompanying opportunity for Singapore companies to internationalise, 2) how e-commerce and digital technology make overseas expansion possible even for young enterprises, 3) companies needing to be productive and innovative in order to compete globally, particularly in the face of disruption. This also ties in with last year's Future Economy report, which highlighted the need to "provide high-growth and promising enterprises with focused support to help them scale up and become global leaders".

The perceived sharper emphasis on getting local enterprises ready to succeed globally has raised valid concerns from some quarters, highlighted by members of parliament during debate over the bill this week. Will micro-enterprises, mom-and-pop shops be overlooked or neglected? What about companies at more basic stages of growth, with different needs, or entrepreneurs with less ambition? Mr Iswaran assured the House that the new agency would be "enterprise-centric" and support companies whatever their stage of growth, size, sector and needs. He has also said that care will be taken to preserve all the expertise, networks and culture that Spring and IE have built up over the years, to ensure a smooth transition for business.

The new entity has its work cut out. "Enterprise Singapore's mission is central to Singapore's long-term economic strategy. The scope of its work is wide and the scale can be daunting," Mr Iswaran said. In a way, its formation also speaks of how Singapore's businesses too, have their work cut out. Are companies ready to innovate and become more productive in order to expand abroad, and venture overseas in order to gain new capabilities?

One nugget that emerged in written reply to a parliamentary question this week was that Singapore as at 2016, had 800 enterprises with annual revenues of over S$100 million, up from 580 in 2009. Given that the target, set back in 2010, was to double the number of such large local enterprises to 1,000 by 2020, there is still some way to go.