Singapore SMEs stay put in Hong Kong as city's leader urges end to protests

SOME Singapore companies in Hong Kong remain confident of doing business there - even as the city's leader on Thursday appealed for an end to the demonstrations, now that her move to formally withdraw a Bill allowing extraditions to China has failed to satisfy protesters.

Violet Lim, chief executive officer of local firm Lunch Actually, told The Business Times: "We believe that our Hong Kong operations will eventually return to normalcy." 

The dating agency, which generates a quarter of its business from Hong Kong, saw its topline slump close to 40 per cent in June and July, when the protests in the city were in full swing. But there was a "slight recovery" in August, with more dates taking place during the month.

Hence, Ms Lim is hopeful. She said: "Even though some believe that the withdrawal of the extradition Bill is not enough to appease the protesters, we believe that there will always be people who are looking seriously looking for love and for a life companion to settle down with."

Homegrown fashion brand Love, Bonito opened its first pop-up store in Central in July, but had to close the store on some days for its staff's safety during some of the protests. 

The store is slated to be open for business till October, confirmed co-founder Rachel Lim over a phone interview. But already, the company is exploring options to extend the pop-up store. "We’re very heartened by the response from our customers in Hong Kong, not just at the retail store, but online. We’ve received requests to be around for longer," she said. 

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced on Wednesday that she will finally withdraw the extradition Bill that triggered months of violent protests. But whether the unrest will abate is to be seen, as some have deemed the move too little, too late.

Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME), thinks local firms would assess the situation and keep their options open. Looking to the longer term, he said the impact would lie in any potential change in Hong Kong's environment. 

Noting that many of the protesters are young adults who would form Hong Kong's next generation, he said: "If this is the kind of culture that is being built, businesses would not feel that they can put down substantial, heavy roots in a jurisdiction like this."

"I think global businesses would look at spreading themselves out of Hong Kong in fact, and it brings to mind a lot of stability and viability questions for businesses," he said. 

However, Ms Lim is confident that Lunch Actually, which also has a presence in four other cities including Bangkok and Jakarta, can stay put in Hong Kong. 

"Even though we are a regional business headquartered in Singapore, we very much see ourselves as a local SME in every market that we are in," she said.

"As long as we continue to be able to understand the local market, culture and nuances, relate to our target audience and are able to cater to the needs of what the market is looking for, we believe that it is still viable for us to operate in Hong Kong."

Love, Bonito's Ms Lim also said the company continues to explore setting up a permanent, physical presence in Hong Kong.  "We are optimistic about continued efforts to grow our Hong Kong Love, Bonito community and we remain committed to that," she said. 

Ho Meng Kit, chief executive at the Singapore Business Federation, said the group has not received feedback or concerns from member companies about the situation in Hong Kong. However, companies are monitoring the situation.

"Given its role as a key business hub, prolonged disruption to Hong Kong’s stability will inevitably have an impact on the region and businesses," he said. 

Agreeing, Philip Chan, president of the Hong Kong Singapore Business Association and the Kowloon Club in Singapore, said Singapore companies are still taking a wait-and-see approach.

Most of them would find it difficult to withdraw their businesses immediately due to rental and staff commitments, Mr Chan added, while noting that hotels, F&B and retail are among the hardest hit sectors.