SMEs 'still face big hurdles in export trade'

The challenges that Singapore SMEs encounter are very similar to those in the West, says WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo, adding that cooperation is key in tackling them and that the private sector has a big role to play.
The challenges that Singapore SMEs encounter are very similar to those in the West, says WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo, adding that cooperation is key in tackling them and that the private sector has a big role to play.PHOTO: REUTERS

Tech to help them is there, but firms tend to be ignorant about rules, procedures: WTO chief

In the digital world, the playing field for big and small companies is supposed to be flat.

In reality, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are still handicapped as ever and face, according to World Trade Organisation director-general Roberto Azevedo, "still very big" hurdles in export markets.

The boss of the global trade watchdog, who was on a quick stopover in Singapore, conceded that problems such as those that used to plague SMEs should have been at least reduced, if not totally licked, with the Internet.

Yet, he pointed out, SMEs continue to be ignorant about the regulations, requirements and procedures when they export to other countries.

"They all recognise the problems, but the question is how do you make the information available, how do you provide more transparency?" Mr Azevedo said recently after meeting representatives from 25 Singapore companies and public agencies gathered by the Government's trade promotion arm, International Enterprise Singapore.

"The big companies can figure it out, but SMEs don't," he said. "So although the technology to make it possible is there, the regulations and collaborative effort on the part of the Government to make it possible are not."

IE Singapore ecosystem development group director Gina Lim said digitisation itself has its own problems, with the standardisation of rules on the fast-expanding e-commerce field being key.

IE Singapore said local companies also face key challenges in digital protectionism, such as forced server localisation, data privacy and censorship.

There are also difficulties with security and ease of online payments, Customs regulation, distribution and shipping, inconsistent digital infrastructure development among countries, as well as trade finance.

Mr Azevedo said the challenges that Singapore SMEs encounter are very similar to those in the West.

"If we can make progress in solving the problems, we will be helping mostly SMEs, which make up a big chunk of the economy," he said.

Cooperation is key and, according to him, the private sector has a big role to play.

Mr Azevedo invited Singapore companies "to be proponents of solutions, come up with ideas, notions of how to standardise, how to provide clarity, transparency in the digital transactions in a way that can be shared by other countries, and embrace countries in a more international effort".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2017, with the headline 'SMEs 'still face big hurdles in export trade''. Print Edition | Subscribe