SMEs to be given help to digitalise and venture abroad earlier

Enterprise Singapore wants to give holistic, enterprise- centred help, and go beyond disbursing grants


ENTERPRISE Singapore (ESG) said on Thursday that it will embark on a new strategy to grow and develop local businesses, with an emphasis on helping a broader base of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to embrace digitalisation and take wing abroad at an earlier life stage.

Another fresh priority will be to foster market-led innovation, so that tech solutions are developed based on the needs of industry instead of being driven by technology players, said the government agency in its first year-in-review briefing.

ESG, formed through a merger of Spring Singapore and International Enterprise Singapore last April, announced that in 2018, it supported about 7,000 capability-upgrading projects that helped businesses access new markets. This is estimated to have generated S$10.2 billion in value-add and 10,500 skilled jobs.

Altogether, some 76,000 companies in Singapore, ranging from startups to larger enterprises, received help last year.

ESG chairman Peter Ong said the government agency had made "good progress" and delivered "good outcomes" for local enterprises despite the challenging external environment and organisational integration.

The merger had created an opening for ESG to re-examine its past strategies and efforts.

"We took the golden opportunity to have a fresh look at our priorities and ask ourselves how we can fulfil our refreshed priorities in a different way," said Mr Ong.

He said that the three priorities ESG will be focusing on for local enterprises - raising productivity, accelerating internationalisation and strengthening innovation - are not new, but that the government agency's approach towards them will change.

For raising productivity, he said the key difference will be on helping "a broad swathe" of SMEs to embrace digitalisation as a means to uplift productivity from the start, instead of waiting till they are of a certain size.

In other words, ESG will go upstream to ensure that firms digitalise early on, so that they can continue to grow digitally.

In a similar vein, he said that the government agency will invest more efforts to help a broader base of SMEs to go overseas for the first time.

"Despite the uncertainties, the external economy remains critical to their growth and expansion," he said. "We want more companies to internationalise, and for them to do so earlier in their life stage."

Finally, he said ESG would now focus on market-led innovation - getting tech solutions developed with the needs of industry in mind, rather than let this be driven primarily by the supply side, that is, by the technology players.

This will enable companies to develop new technologies or adopt tech solutions, and create their own intellectual property to leverage on innovation as a differentiator.

ESG's chief executive Png Cheong Boon said that, to help firms in these three areas, the agency will adopt four key strategies:

  • Build enterprise capabilities;
  • Develop human capital;
  • Enhance the enterprise ecosystem;
  • Establish strong networks and partnerships.

He highlighted that what is different now is the "holistic enterprise-centric approach" that the government agency will take to support businesses, as well as its focus on enhancing the enterprise ecosystems and driving partnerships so that firms can work together and grow.

When asked what the biggest challenge faced by SMEs here was, Mr Png said it was the lack of expertise in terms of skill sets and the know-how to drive expansion. He said that this is where ESG comes in, as the agency has networks and contacts to link businesses up with the right partners or industry players who can support their needs.

Mr Ong agreed that human capital ability is "one of the key impediments" facing SMEs. He added that he hopes for SMEs to see ESG as a bridge connecting them to the right people and markets, and not a "grant-disbursing agency".

On the outlook for 2019, Mr Png said the agency has no fixed forecast or targets when it comes to value-add or number of projects facilitated; this is because companies' timelines are affected by business conditions and projects could drag on longer than expected, he said.

But he expects that ESG will likely sustain the same level of support for businesses this year: "We will continue to sharpen our strategies and initiatives so that they remain relevant and effective in supporting the growth of our SMEs."