SMEs call for more govt help ahead of Budget

Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon speaking at the annual Singapore Business Federation's conference on Business Continuity Management.
Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon speaking at the annual Singapore Business Federation's conference on Business Continuity Management. PHOTO: SINGAPORE BUSINESS FEDERATION

Business costs among issues raised; Teo Ser Luck says foreign worker levy will stay

Business owners and policymakers must work together to meet shared goals, according to the Minister of State for Trade and Industry yesterday.

Dr Koh Poh Koon was responding to recommendations from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) yesterday that called for greater government support ahead of the Budget in March.

Dr Koh, a colorectal surgeon, gave the example of a patient who once asked him what medication he could give to build stronger muscles.

He said at a press conference at the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) office yesterday: "My answer to the patient is... what the doctor can do is to perhaps give you some supplements.

"But to build muscles, you need to exercise. You need to also put in the hard work to get to the end point. It's really all about working together as an ecosystem. You cannot just depend on one single party to get to the end point."

The SBF's SME committee urged the Government to use the Budget to help firms tide over immediate cost constraints, find a "winning formula" to drive development and provide more financing and infrastructure for companies to innovate and test their technologies.

Committee chairman Lawrence Leow said: "In Budget 2015, the Government deferred the planned increases to the foreign worker levy by one year.

"Here, we are suggesting to defer the increases further and conduct a review to reduce the levy quantum, taking into consideration the latest inflow of foreign workers."

The committee also urged government landlords - which manage a good part of industrial and commercial space - to take the lead in adopting a fair tenancy framework to help SMEs work out fairer rents, which make up a huge part of their business costs.

The framework, developed by the SBF last year, pushes for more transparency in rental data.

The SME committee now wants government-owned business premises' rental data to be made available, on top of what is published by JTC Corporation and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Mr Teo Ser Luck, Minister of State for Manpower who co-advises the committee with Dr Koh, said: "The foreign worker levy will stay put. I don't want to raise expectations because the manpower policy we implemented is ongoing and there's a lot of refinement along the way, so we have to look at the situation."

One idea that caught Mr Teo's interest was the committee's recommendation for the Government to study the South Korean model of a national intellectual property (IP) bank to perform IP valuations and loan guarantees to support SMEs.

"If you look at Singapore's investing-in-innovation model... We like to give grants, we like to put investments into companies we think are promising," noted Mr Teo.

He visited the Korea Technology Finance Corporation with the SBF last year. Mr Teo said: "(The South Korean model) is to make the company a bit more self-sufficient. It means that you co-share the risks with the private sector banks because the government actually co-guarantees you.

"The valuation can be done by the expert panel. When we checked the default rate when we were there, it was quite low. It means their valuation is quite accurate. It's a new way of thinking."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'SMEs call for more govt help ahead of Budget'. Print Edition | Subscribe