SICCI sets up Covid-19 task force to provide crisis support for SMEs

The chamber wants to help smaller businesses navigate the relief schemes and also nudge them into digitalising and exploring overseas markets


THE board of the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI), which began a new two-year term in the middle of a global pandemic, is prioritising aid for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to help them survive the crisis.

It has identified two areas of focus: Tackling Covid-19 and promoting digitalisation and internationalisation, said re-elected chairman T Chandroo and the newly elected vice-chairman Chandra Mohan Rethnam in an exclusive interview with The Business Times.

When it took office on May 15, the board's first order of business was to set up a SICCI Covid-19 Task Force, which aims to help Indian businesses navigate Covid-19 relief schemes, obtain financial aid, stay updated on new developments and continue upgrading and preparing to pursue new opportunities once business conditions start to improve.

Dr Chandoo, who is also chairman and chief executive of Modern Montessori International, said: "We are in the midst of a crisis. This pandemic has affected the entire business community, and Singapore - being a small nation and a trading hub - has not been spared. It is important that we, as a chamber, help the business community. Our immediate focus is to pay attention to the SMEs."

The idea for a task force was proposed by Mr Chandra, who is a partner at law firm Rajah & Tann. He now heads the task force with assistance from board directors Parthiban Murugaiyan and J. K. Saravana.

Mr Chandra noted that the SICCI had received over 700 calls in April and the first half of May, mostly requesting help to navigate the various government schemes. The task force now has a dedicated e-mail address and telephone number to receive such queries; it has promised a response within 24 hours and follow-up within three to four days.

"We want to help them understand the different schemes, but more importantly, ask them whether the schemes are helpful or if they need them to be tweaked," said Mr Chandra.

"We want to be a conduit between the businesses and the various government agencies ... We want to ensure the people (that the schemes are) aimed at get the full benefits meant for them."

SICCI is encouraging cash-strapped SMEs to explore the government aid schemes as their first resort, followed by checking with their banks on whether they can make payments by instalment, at lower interest rates or defer payments till later.

Mr Chandra added that SICCI has reached out to the banks and requested a dedicated contact person or team it can refer cases to, so that the SMEs know who to go to.

As a last resort, the task force has put together a list of secondary financing options, including some Indian organisations that are able to provide funding. These will likely charge higher interest rates, said Mr Chandra, but SICCI is working to obtain waivers of processing fees or preferential rates for SICCI members.

To help SMEs understand new regulations or developments that benefit them, the task force intends to start disseminating explanatory notes soon after announcements are made. They plan to do so for a Bill on rental waivers for SMEs, which is to be introduced in Parliament this week.

Amid the worries and concerns resulting from the pandemic, however, SICCI does not want SMEs to lose sight of the need to build resilience and lay the foundation for growth in the coming years. It is ramping up efforts like its digitalisation initiative, which was launched about 11/2 years ago, and its International Business Division, which was launched last December to promote internationalisation.

Said Dr Chandroo: "We want to make sure that the companies do not fall, that they can survive and grow. As they do that, they need to relook their current business models."

He noted that the Covid-19 crisis has taught many lessons about the need to re-engineer outdated business models, as the circumstances have compelled many restaurants and retailers to go online.

The SME Centre@Little India has been helping SMEs that are willing to digitalise, but Dr Chandroo believes that more must be done, especially now that the government has unveiled more than S$500 million in incentives for companies to take the first few steps.

Mr Chandra, who chairs the SME Centre, will mobilise the centre's business advisors to seek out the SMEs that they have spoken to but who have yet to digitalise, and encourage them more strongly to get started.

Dr Chandroo said: "Many may not have digitalised, so he will be making sure that the business advisors push those who haven't. Now that the government is giving 80 to 90 per cent grants, I don't see why they can't take advantage of these."

In April, SICCI held four webinars on how businesses can remain resilient, digitalise, manage their finances and tap the Covid-19 relief schemes announced by the government.

A June 11 webinar with the Singapore Business Federation and partners from India will cover the topic of internationalisation and exploring international opportunities.

Another webinar on June 17 will be on how SMEs can upgrade themselves to turn setbacks into comebacks.

On July 9, yet another webinar will feature parties from India sharing their insights into doing business there.

The International Business Division will help companies large and small to go overseas - not only to India, but also to Asean markets.

Dr Chandroo said: "After Covid, companies must be ready to go out of Singapore. That's where the chamber comes in to help. We are trying to see if we can push the SMEs, because the larger companies are already in many countries. For the smaller ones, we need to create that impetus."