Help SMEs seize opportunities: MPs

Singapore's economy dominated the debate on the President's Address yesterday, but the focus shifted from the previous day's theme of weathering storms to thriving in a fast-changing environment.

MPs were keen to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) compete and to encourage new start-ups. Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer), in summing up the challenges of the new economy, pointed to the rise in robotics, the move of services to countries with lower labour costs, and "disruptive technologies" that shake up the status quo.

"Such developments could be viewed as threats, but if we are nimble, they also present Singapore with many new opportunities," he said.

Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon gave examples of how some SMEs had seized such opportunities.

Engineering firm Sanwa Group, for instance, formed a consortium with six local companies to exploit the new growth area of additive manufacturing.

The collaboration worked because the SMEs did not see each other as rivals, said Dr Koh. "In fact, members acknowledged that the competition was global, and that they had to collaborate in order to survive and succeed."

MP Henry Kwek (Nee Soon GRC) gave five suggestions for building a good environment for start-ups.

For instance, he said, research labs here should make their findings available to the market swiftly and affordably, and preferably to Singapore-based businesses.

The Government could set up "sandboxes" where start-ups can test their ideas on a small scale first. Also, it can start an advisory centre to help them with regulatory and public-sector information, he said.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) was blunt about the inefficiency of some schemes, saying: "It is time to do away with generic government support schemes that served more as 'subsidy schemes'... rather than address (the businesses') underlying lack of competitiveness."

She did not name any scheme, but said future ones should focus on helping companies create innovative products.

She also suggested encouraging large Singapore companies - perhaps with tax incentives - to take smaller Singaporean suppliers overseas with them when they secure projects abroad.

To make sure that training is aligned with industry needs, the Government could also take a cue from Sweden's competitive bidding system for government funding of training programmes, she added.

Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Health Chee Hong Tat said that help for start-ups could be extended to the heartland. He suggested taking start-up incubators - similar to the JTC Launchpad@One-North - to Housing Board estates.

But amid the slew of ideas, Dr Koh sounded a note of caution: "Will over-supportive policies stifle the fighting spirit and the desire to succeed, much like how over-watering a plant will kill it?"

As Singapore seeks to help SMEs, this question should be kept in mind, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline 'Help SMEs seize opportunities: MPs'. Print Edition | Subscribe