EYE ON THE ECONOMY

Should S'pore firms do more to keep local brands?

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Even if local brands are sold, they may not lose their Singapore associations.

Over the past decade, Singapore companies have often taken the pragmatic approach to local brands: They sell them when a good offer comes along, rather than keep them for emotion's sake.

The list of home-grown names now in foreign hands includes such icons as Raffles Hotel, Robinsons department store, Tiger Beer and, most recently, conglomerate Fraser & Neave (F&N).

Each sale sparked a debate over whether this sense-over-sentiment attitude has chipped away at our national identity - a question that has never quite been resolved and that grows louder over time.

The controversy was revived again recently in remarks made by Professor Tommy Koh, the rector of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore.

In a commentary in late March, he said Singaporeans believe in free trade and investment and have no protectionist sentiment.

That is why we have sold iconic landmarks, brands and businesses to foreigners "without compunction", he added. He also wondered if this was the right approach for the nation.

The response to his commentary justified his question. Readers wrote in to The Straits Times arguing that many Singaporeans do feel a great sense of loss and anger over the sale of these brands.

One such writer was Mr Han Cheng Fong, the former chief executive of F&N, which had owned Tiger Beer.

"Iconic brands and businesses are the economic soul of the nation," Mr Han wrote.

"When we raise a can of... Tiger Beer to our lips, especially when we are a long way from home, we feel a sense of attachment to Singapore... Unless we take pride in and protect our national icons and heritage, we will lose our national identity."

How it all began

SHOULD Singapore firms have done more to hold on to local brands? To answer this, we must remember why these businesses were sold in the first place.

The Great Singapore Brand Sale traces some of its roots back to the banking reforms of 2000, when it was decided that local banks should focus on their core businesses and cut their stakes in non-financial assets to no more than 10 per cent.

Many of these stakes were in businesses that the banks had lent to and realised were good investments, says Associate Professor Annie Koh, vice-president of business development and external relations at Singapore Management University.

But as Singapore turned into a financial hub, banks here had to start playing by global rules, which meant focusing on finance.

The side effect of this was that as banks sold off their non-banking businesses - which they had by then nurtured into world-class brands - large global companies swooped in to scoop them up.

In 2003, OCBC Bank and its insurance arm Great Eastern Holdings (GEH) sold their combined 38.4 per cent stake in Robinsons, paving the way for the department store chain - one of Singapore's oldest - to be taken over by the United Arab Emirates' Al-Futtaim Group.

OCBC's associate company Raffles Investments also sold its stake in Raffles Hotel to a unit of CapitaLand, which later sold the hotel to a US fund in 2005. The hotel is now owned by a Qatar sovereign wealth fund, which bought it in 2010.

In 2006, United Overseas Bank sold its stake in property firm Overseas Union Enterprise (OUE), which held the iconic Mandarin Hotel in Orchard Road, to Indonesia's Lippo Group.

And in 2012, OCBC and GEH sold their stakes in F&N and Asia Pacific Breweries (APB), the maker of Tiger Beer, to Thai billionaire Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi's Thai Beverage.

APB was later sold to Dutch brewer Heineken while F&N was bought by Mr Charoen.

Not all of the banks' divestments ended up in foreign hands, though. UOB's stake in Hotel Negara is now owned by UOL Group.

Singaporeans may have preferred the banks to sell their assets to other local firms. But the reality is that there are few with enough spare cash to buy and nurture a Raffles Hotel or an F&N, both of which were sold in multibillion-dollar deals.

F&N, for instance, was close to being bought over by OUE - majority-owned by Lippo but still a Singapore-based firm -until Mr Charoen outbid OUE.

Other Singapore firms with deep pockets may not have seen the commercial rationale in keeping these assets local.

Temasek Holdings, which manages more than $215 billion in assets, bought a stake in F&N in 2006.

But in 2010, Temasek sold its 14.9 per cent stake to Japan's Kirin for a $440 million gain, saying it was "a good opportunity for F&N to work with an established (food and beverage) company with complementary strengths".

While the investment firm may have been originally set up to help grow local companies, its mandate has since evolved to - among other things - delivering sustainable returns on investing Singaporeans' money over the longer term.

Taxpayers might agree, therefore, that Temasek's sales of its stakes in local companies should be a mainly commercial decision.

Corporate strategy

SOME have suggested that the local property giants could make more effort to keep iconic landmarks such as Raffles Hotel.

But CapitaLand, along with other developers such as Frasers Centrepoint, has embraced an "asset-light" strategy. This entails selling its properties to other vehicles or companies, and using the freed-up funds to spread the Singapore brand in its own way.

Singapore-managed hotels and properties under brands such as CapitaLand's Ascott and Somerset, and Fraser Suites, can now be found all over the world.

Associate Professor Lee Boon Keng from the Nanyang Business School's division of banking and finance notes that since divesting their non-banking businesses, local banks have made great strides across the region too.

In fact, they have been going into foreign markets and snapping up the locally owned banks there.

"I think it is not so helpful to focus on 'national entities' - it is better to think in terms of profitable international entities," he said. "Perhaps local lenders have been able to establish a regional reach because of the unwinding of (their) non-core businesses."

Retaining identity

AT THE same time, experts argue that the sale of local brands and businesses to foreign firms does not necessarily dilute their "Singaporean-ness".

Whoever the owner, Raffles Hotel is located in Singapore. Its guests are less likely to associate it with its Qatari owners than with their travels in Singapore.

Tiger Beer, too, will likely continue being marketed as a distinctly Singaporean brew.

The success of these brands - which is what attracted their new owners in the first place - will also help ensure that they are preserved in largely their current form, which includes elements of the brands' longstanding heritage.

Examples from elsewhere include Jaguar, still widely thought of as a British car despite being owned by India's Tata Motors since 2008, and Godiva Chocolatier, famous for being Belgian although it was bought by Turkish firm Yildiz Holding in 2007.

Tiger's new owner Heineken has a good track record in this respect.

It bought Mexico's iconic Sol beer in 2010 and still markets it as "the original Mexican beer".

Mr Graham Hitchmough, the regional director of branding consultancy The Brand Union, notes: "Many a popular national brand has suffered and disappeared from being too narrow in its focus and appeal. In fact, a combination of foreign ownership with strong local heritage and values can actually serve to reinvigorate, refocus and broaden brand appeal to support their longer-term growth."

Mr Allan Chia, head of the marketing programme at SIM University's School of Business, adds that in many cases, the true origin of a brand is complicated by the fact that its products may no longer be made in its so-called home country.

Adidas, for instance, is seen as a German brand but its shoes and apparel may be made in Vietnam or Indonesia.

"Likewise, if the F&N brand is retained even though ownership may have changed, it should still continue to be perceived as originally Singaporean," he says.

There is also the chance that as Singapore companies grow larger and richer, the trend would be reversed one day.

Prof Lee notes that in the 1980s, the United States lost some of its famous local brands to the Japanese, such as Rockefeller Centre and the Pebble Beach resort, but later managed to re- acquire some of them.

In other words, Singapore companies could some day persuade foreign firms to sell back the country's national icons to them. To paraphrase Robinsons' famous slogan: That would truly be a sale worth waiting for.

yasminey@sph.com.sg