Shift towards Asia offers opportunities
The need for businesses to refocus on Asia is clear, with the region now being looked at as a "rising star" of the global economy, panellists said.
The topic of Asia as a promising region for business opportunities is not new, United Overseas Bank economist Francis Tan told the roundtable.
But there is renewed focus on the region today because "Asia is the rising star right now", he said.
He noted that the global economic focus has shifted through the decades, from Britain to the United States and now to Asia - from a concept of Westernisation to one of "Asianisation".
"We are in the right place at the right time now. This shift towards Asia is also a nudge or a push for our local companies to think hard (about expanding overseas)."
Mr Tan also noted that Singapore's population is the oldest among Asean countries, with a median age of 40.6 years old, while the median age of Asean, as a whole, is only 29.
"At our doorstep is a very young and (increasingly) affluent market. So the shift towards Asia will mean there are a lot of opportunities for us, and that is why there is this push for businesses to go global, for SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) to really move out - because we are ageing," he said.
"Look towards your doorstep because it is quite good - a 647 million population in Asean alone. That's half the population of China today."
SMEs are already looking at potential opportunities in the Asean region, given that going international may be "too big" for some, said Singapore Business Federation (SBF) chairman Teo Siong Seng.
He pointed to a recent SBF survey that showed most firms recognise the importance of expanding their geographical footprint, and that they are willing to grow beyond Singapore.
But companies are also unsure about how to go about tackling issues like regulation, compliance and taxation, among others. That is one area where the Government can do more to help, he said.
Mr Teo added that Singapore can play a key role as the regional headquarters or "brains" of a company's operations in Asia, while its manufacturing activity can be carried out elsewhere.
"Let the 'brains' be here. Let the planning, the financials be here," he added.
"The reality is that we... don't have the resources. So it's really about making use of the free trade agreements - say, between Singapore and Malaysia, or Singapore and Vietnam - to do manufacturing outside, but to control the business from here."
THE ROUNDTABLE PANEL
Mr Francis Tan, UOB economist
Mr Ernie Koh, executive director, sales and marketing, Koda
Mr Melvin Yong, MP and director at NTUC
Mr Teo Siong Seng, chairman of the Singapore Business Federation and managing director of Pacific International Lines
Ms Lee Su Shyan, The Straits Times' Business editor
SMEs need guiding hand to go digital
There are many resources set in place for businesses to get on board the digitalisation wave, but panellists believe that more can be done to show companies the way.
The Government announced a slew of Budget initiatives in a continued push for companies to go digital.
Skills upgrading message must be clear
Workers and industry bodies must be clear on how and why skills upgrading is occurring, or firms could end up in a situation where "the fish is there, nobody goes and fishes it".
Extend skills upgrading to foreign workers
Panellists largely agreed that Singapore faces a serious labour crunch without foreign workers, despite attempts to offset the problem through automation and the retention of older employees.