Trade chambers plan to fly the Singapore flag abroad

Singapore

FROM the Tokyo Modest Fashion Show for Islamic couture, to workshops on Singapore's network of free trade agreements, trade bodies here have been ramping up their participation in international events of late.

They say that this is to support the growing global ambitions of local companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Dainial Sani Lim, internationalisation committee chairman of the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI), told The Business Times that he hopes to bring members to as many as 16 places this year - up from three or four destinations a year previously, and twice as many as the target of eight announced earlier this month.

Leaders of some major trade associations and chambers (TACs) here told BT that there was greater awareness and interest among members to do business abroad these days.

More than 600 companies took part in the Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF)'s internationalisation programme last year, a spokesman said, and the number "increases by 20 per cent to 30 per cent every year".

Mr Dainial said of the SMCCI's members, which are predominantly SMEs in the retail and food and beverage sectors: "They are really eager to venture, and they see the point because they have seen now more and more success stories of people actually venturing overseas and generating more revenue for their company."

With Singapore chairing the Asean grouping this year, savvy industry bodies also have an eye fixed on this stomping ground.

The spokeswoman for the SMF said that most of its more than 50 overseas events this year are in Asean markets, reflecting small businesses' interest, while Singapore Business Federation (SBF) chief executive Ho Meng Kit said that his group is planning activities "that will dovetail and complement the official programme" of Singapore's Asean chairmanship. These include trade shows and seminars on digitalisation, followed by the Asean Business and Investment Summit in November.

The SBF will also grow its footprint in newer markets such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and parts of Central Asia, Mr Ho said. It even banks on headline news elsewhere: "In 2016, SBF led a 57-strong delegation comprising 48 companies to Iran following its reintegration into the global economy.

"When the United States and Cuba renewed diplomatic ties, it also generated much interest and optimism among the Singapore business community, so we led a mission to Cuba to explore opportunities in infrastructure, logistics and hospitality."

Besides carefully selecting destinations - SMCCI, for example, targets both emerging markets and those open to halal goods and services - another strategy that TACs are adopting is an emphasis on collaboration.

The SMF spokeswoman said that the group previously took a more segmented approach by industry sectors, and focused heavily on government projects and industrial parks.

"But now, our focus has changed to include business matching and we encourage our members and exhibitors to work together, sharing resources to compete with overseas competitors," she said. "It is still multi-sectoral, but we encourage members from different industries to work together as partners. This way, they have a better chance in bidding a project or share their expertise to contribute to the entire value-chain of the project."

Mr Dainial noted that SMCCI business missions are also open to members of partner chambers, and vice versa. "From what I see, I think that the chambers are definitely more in sync in working with one another. We recently met SBF, and they came down and shared where are the missions that they want to go, which is a start."

Another tool is IE Singapore's International Marketing Activities Programme, which funds up to 70 per cent of companies' activities such as exhibition space rental at overseas events.

The statutory board has organised about 1,600 business missions and trade fair pavilions so far this decade, a spokesman told BT. This was in partnership with more than 60 TACs.

Still, geopolitical volatility is a challenge for business worldwide. The SBF went to 17 countries on 22 missions last year - even as it hosted 53 visiting delegations - amid uncertainty from events such as US President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the original Trans-Pacific Partnership, the United Kingdom's "Brexit" from the European Union, and sabre-rattling on the Korean Peninsula. This was a drop from the 46 destinations and 29 trips in 2016.

Mr Dainialalso raised a point that there may be a surfeit of TACs, of which there are 360 in all. He "definitely can see more synergy" among the ethnic chambers, SBF and Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, but "the rest of them, I haven't seen that much involvement".

Mr Ho said: "More companies from different countries are venturing into new markets for the same reason as us, so Singapore businesses will have to constantly review their value proposition in order to remain competitive . . . Our SMEs must adopt a mindset shift to look beyond the horizon and compete in overseas markets, so that they can grow and thrive globally."