Industry awards: Farce or fortune?

Industry awards, created by private firms, see winners end up paying thousands to the firms for lavish dinners and publicity.

The awards come with impressive titles such as "Singapore's Outstanding Enterprises" and "Industry Stars". And recipients attend lavish dinners at top hotels like Marina Bay Sands, where they receive certificates emblazoned with the Singapore lion head symbol from MPs and even junior ministers.

But there is a catch.

The awards are neither handed out by industry associations nor officially endorsed by government bodies. Instead, they are created by private firms with award winners having to fork out as much as $10,000 for publicity and dinners.

In the past five years, the unregulated business of creating and handing out such "industry" awards has burgeoned and there are now at least five firms vying for a slice of the pie, up from just two in 2010.

The biggest player in the field is the Singapore Enrich Group which, since 2010, has created more than 10 awards such as the Singapore Excellence Award and Singapore Trusted Quality Brand.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

"I created the awards so that local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can publicise their stories," said chief executive Alex Yeo.

The publishing and media consultancy firm charges between $7,500 and $15,000 to cover costs like printing and dinners. It has more than 40 staff, a paid-up capital of $100,000 and an annual turnover of more than $1 million, according to company and GST-registration records.

When asked why he felt qualified to create the awards, the 45-year- old former dishwasher turned businessman said: "I overcame difficulties to achieve (business) success, so I can inspire others."

He also refuted any claim that companies can "buy" the awards by simply paying for publicity, and insisted he will let firms keep the awards even without payment.

One of his firm's affiliates is the Singapore Business Incorporation, a sole proprietorship set up in 2013 by Mr Zen Yang, one of Mr Yeo's former staff. The firm created the SME of the Year award and handed it out to 91 firms last year.

  • Awards backed by govt bodies

  • SINGAPORE QUALITY CLASS; SINGAPORE QUALITY AWARD

    Awarded by Spring Singapore as part of a business excellence scheme. Companies are assessed in areas such as leadership and customer service.

    SINGAPORE 100; SINGAPORE SME 100; SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL 100

    These are rankings of firms according to their sales and turnover, based on audited financial statements. They are published by credit and business information bureau DP Information Group. The government bodies that support the rankings include the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), Spring Singapore and International Enterprise (IE) Singapore.

    BUSINESSMAN OF THE YEAR; THE ENTERPRISE AWARD

    Jointly organised by The Business Times and DHL. The panel of judges include the managing director of the Economic Development Board and chief executives of IE Singapore and Spring Singapore.

    ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR

    Jointly recognised by the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises and Rotary Club of Singapore. The government bodies backing it are IE Singapore, IDA and Spring Singapore.

Mr Yeo's longest-running competitor is the Singapore Resource Association. The self-styled association is actually an advertising company set up in 2010 with a paid-up capital of just $1. It was known as Asia's Corporate Regulatory Alliance before it changed its name in 2012.

Solely owned by 28-year-old Leslie Cheng, it has an office in a Yishun industrial building.

It started the Singapore's Outstanding Enterprise award in 2011 and has given it to 539 firms. Winners include car workshops, maid agencies, spas, hair salons and more than 15 moneylenders.

It invited MPs, Dr Chia Shi-Lu and Dr Lily Neo, to its award ceremonies in 2012 and last year.

Mr Cheng did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. But his personal assistant, Ms Shina Toh, said that award winners were nominated by the public and evaluated on criteria such as the number of public complaints and whether they were involved in court cases.

"We rejected a handful of companies that did not fulfil our criteria," she said without giving details.

Once selected, the recipients pay "about $4,000" to cover the cost of the dinner and publicity, Ms Toh said.

With more the 500 firms receiving the award since 2011, this would have worked out to at least $1 million being collected by the company. "All customers are clearly aware that we are a private company," she said.

Mr Cheng also just set up the Singapore Awarding Corporation, which is a new advertising company, with two other partners last month with a paid-up capital of $3.

Ms Toh declined to say more about the new firm.

The only award offered by a private firm that has the endorsement of a registered association is the Promising SME 500 Award given by the company Promising SME 500, which is a public relations (PR) firm set up by four partners in 2012 with a paid-up capital of $100.

  • Not backed by govt bodies Awards backed by govt bodies

  • Singapore Excellence Award; Singapore Trusted Quality Brand; Singapore Business Quality Award; Singapore Entrepreneurs' Award; Singapore Prestige Enterprise Award.

    These are among a list of 10 awards created by the Singapore Enrich Group. Records show the group was registered in 2012 by businessman Alex Yeo with a paid-up capital of $100,000.

    SINGAPORE'S OUTSTANDING ENTERPRISE

    Created by the Singapore Resource Association, an advertising company set up by Mr Leslie Cheng in 2010 with a paid-up capital of $1.

    PROMISING SME 500

    Organised by public relations firm Promising SME 500, which was set up in May 2012 with a paid-up capital of $100. The firm has four shareholders, three of whom also set up the Small Medium Business Association in January 2011. The association, which registered with the Registry of Society in February 2012, shares the same office and contact number as Promising SME 500.

    SME OF THE YEAR

    Created by Singapore Business Incorporation, a sole proprietorship set up in 2013 by Mr Zen Yang, a former staff of the Singapore Enrich Group.

The award is supported by the Small Medium Business Association, which also shares the same Toa Payoh factory building address as the PR company. The association started as a business consultancy firm in 2011, before it was registered with the Registry of Societies in 2012.

Its spokesman, Ms Priscilla Tan, said businesses nominated for the award are assessed on factors such as leadership and innovation. Award winners do not pay for nomination and assessment, but they can opt for a media package for exposure.

"A recovery cost is necessary for such media exposure," said Ms Tan. She would not answer questions on the actual costs, the association's office bearers or its relationship with the PR company.

She dismissed the suggestion that the awards can be bought by firms willing to pay for publicity.

"Participants of the Promising SME 500 brand campaign understand that the fees incurred are meant to offset media costs of running the campaign. Recognition or nomination or acceptance of nomination should not be viewed as something 'bought'."

A check of company records showed Ms Tan, who is in her 30s, is also a shareholder of the PR company Promising SME 500.

When contacted, most award winning firms were reluctant to talk about how much they paid.

Mr Eugene Heng, co-owner of audio equipment rental firm Valor Audio Visual, was surprised when told that the Singapore's Outstanding Enterprise award it received from the Singapore Resource Association this year was from a private company. "It looked official," he said.

He declined to say how much he paid but revealed that the package included two seats at a gala dinner in December this year. He said: "I will just treat it as an expensive dinner."

Mr Liew Kong Nam, managing director of technology firm Nano Equipment, said he was aware that some costs would be involved when he accepted the Singapore's Outstanding Enterprise Award this year. "Nobody would believe that there was no payment made. They need to do printing and other things."

Some firms said the awards help raise their profiles. "It helps in our branding and positioning," said Mr Jerry Singh, owner of cafe chain Chaiholics, who received the Industry Star award last year.

Spring Singapore's director of corporate communications, Mr Chin Sau Ho, advises firms to do more checks before accepting awards. The statutory board, which comes under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, oversees the SME sector.

"While there are some awards that sound similar to those supported by Spring, our advice to companies is to conduct due diligence to assess if the claims made by the organisers regarding the award are reasonable and legitimate."

The awards that Spring supports include the Entrepreneur of the Year award given out by the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises and Rotary Club of Singapore; and the Businessman of the Year award jointly organised by The Business Times and logistics giant DHL.

While the lion head logo may be used by individuals and firms without having to obtain official approval, the National Heritage Board, which regulates its use, said that it cannot be used "to create an impression that the State or the Government is endorsing any goods or service".

The board warned that those who misuse the logo may be told to cease the misuse and may face legal action if they refuse.

While the awards may raise eyebrows, Mr David Leong, managing director of recruitment firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting, said they are generally harmless.

"I will not go to the extent of calling them sham awards," said Mr Leong. "At best, this practice helps the companies get positive reinforcement and recognition in some form," he said. "At worst, it's paid advertisement."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'Industry awards: Farce or fortune?'. Print Edition | Subscribe