SICCI wants SMEs to digitalise, explore markets beyond Singapore

Its chairman also hopes to see more women taking up entrepreneurship and leading roles

The chairman of the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI) has his work cut out for him, but is relishing the challenge.

Dr T. Chandroo took over the leadership in April last year with the aim of pushing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to innovate and digitalise. He also wants to get more women involved in entrepreneurship and leadership.

"As we look after the big boys, the companies that have been members for a long time, we also need to focus on our local SMEs," said Dr Chandroo, 65.

The chamber has around 1,000 members and most are SMEs, with many in the service industry, which includes lawyers, accountants, information-technology professionals and retailers.

About 30 per cent of the members are family-owned businesses in sectors such as food and beverage, retail and commodity trading.

Dr Chandroo said: "We are also pushing them to digitalise, because if you don't transform, you will be left behind. You have to go online and look at e-commerce and e-payments.

"Small retailers can leverage e-commerce to widen their markets, launch new products and services online to reach a much wider audience and customer base that is not limited to only Singapore.

"They can also use data analytics to enhance their marketing efforts at lower cost."

He added that Indian SMEs can be very traditional because they are used to certain ways of working.

UNIQUE SELLING POINT

Entrepreneurs make the difference to a business. It is about creativity that is unique to you and not adopting technology wholesale. A business cannot survive long unless it has a unique selling point.

DR T. CHANDROO, chairman of the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"We have to tell them the benefits and slowly shift their mindsets."

He cited the Indian belief that handling money physically brings luck. "Some feel that if they don't actually see the money, something is wrong. But this will not be a problem as they hand the business down to their children. The younger generation is IT-savvy and, five years later, things will have changed.

"It is an era of technological advancement where everyone will be moving forward."

These progressive moves are necessary even as the businesses seek to preserve their traditional roots.

Dr Chandroo said: "As a chamber of commerce and industry, we want the businesses to move with the times. The preservation of culture is for the community themselves. We need to help SMEs to go online and push them to grow."

He also acknowledged Enterprise Singapore, which has assisted SMEs by guiding them in adopting new technology.

There are also schemes and subsidies available to help businesses digitalise their operations.

The chamber itself is going digital. It launched the mobile app in February, giving members access to the latest information, allowed them to pay membership fees and worked with around 50 vendors.

Dr Chandroo also wants SMEs to venture beyond familiar shores. "I want to encourage them to look outwards. Singapore is a small domestic market. We have been conducting trade missions and, next year, we want to bring in at least one business association from each Indian state to sell that state and help our SMEs network and meet them."

But exploring markets beyond Singapore also means facing risks, he noted. "To identify good partners is a challenge and money is involved, so it takes trust."

Another challenge for businesses is the foreign workers quota cut for the services sector announced at this year's Budget. The Government tightened the Dependency Ratio Ceiling, or the proportion of foreign workers a firm can employ, from 40 per cent to 38 per cent from next year, and to 35 per cent from 2021.

The quota for the subset of S Pass workers - mid-skilled foreigners earning at least $2,300 a month - will be cut from 15 per cent to 13 per cent from next year, and to 10 per cent from 2021.

"Many of the merchants and restaurants were affected, with some like cooks and waiters impacted," Dr Chandroo said.

"But they are also looking at solutions now like central kitchens or having basic ingredients prepared in a factory. A restaurant also bought a machine that can peel onions for multiple eateries. Merchants need to adapt and cope with manpower shortage."

He added that some processes, like cooking food, cannot be replaced. But what eateries can do is to have a common pool of ingredients before they add their own sauces or touch that make their recipe special.

"Prata stalls can use the same dough, but then they will add their own oil and gravy. They also offer their own range of flavours, such as adding ice-cream or bananas inside.

"Entrepreneurs make the difference to a business. It is about creativity that is unique to you and not adopting technology wholesale. A business cannot survive long unless it has a unique selling point."

Dr Chandroo's other aim is to raise gender diversity in the chamber and to encourage more women entrepreneurs. He set up the SICCI Women Entrepreneur Network when he took office.

This year, the chamber launched the Indian Women of the Year 2019 awards to recognise the achievements and contributions of women in the community.

There are now three women on the chamber's 18-member board.

Dr Chandroo also noted that one of the SICCI members is a woman who leads a scaffolding business, while another works in the oil and gas industry.

He said: "The girls of tomorrow will be different and our job is to provide the platform to push them up, encourage and motivate them."

The chamber celebrates its 95th anniversary this year.

It kicked off festivities with a charity golf tournament that donated $100,000 to the Children's Cancer Foundation.