While Singapore has signed several free trade agreements (FTAs) over the years, one group of businesses seems to be having difficulties reaping their benefits - small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
To help them, companies could "hunt in a pack", with larger businesses such as multinationals given incentives to work with smaller firms from non-competing sectors, leading the way to enter new markets, industry leaders said at a roundtable discussion yesterday, ahead of Singapore's Budget on Feb 18.
"A lot of the FTAs and high-level government-to-government contracts that get signed seldom filter down to the SME level, and they normally stay at maybe the government-linked company level," said Mr Ang Yuit, vice-president of membership and training at the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises.
"More can be done by having some of the larger enterprises take leadership in doing the hunting as a pack."
Mr Ang was one of 15 panellists who spoke at an Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (ISCA) event on the Republic's future economic progress.
Besides suggesting ways to support SMEs, industry leaders shared concerns about the fallout from trade tensions, discussed the need for companies to go global and spoke on the challenges in understanding Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs), which set out directions for sectors and help them prepare for the future.
Their discussion was co-chaired by Mr Liang Eng Hwa, MP and chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance and Trade and Industry, and Mr Kon Yin Tong, president of ISCA.
Mr Liang said his committee will meet government officials later this month, and will give them businesses' feedback.
But he noted the need for industry stakeholders to take ownership of transformation efforts for better outcomes.
He highlighted the role that trade associations and chambers play in bringing companies, especially SMEs, on board with ITMs, but association leaders said the groups and their members face constraints.
In particular, challenges faced by smaller companies were a recurring topic at yesterday's event at the InterContinental Singapore hotel.
Dr Ahmad Magad, secretary-general of the Singapore Manufacturing Federation, said ITMs need to be clearer and more detailed for SMEs to understand them better.
Asked by Mr Kon why smaller firms are not already "hunting in packs", he said that, apart from being guarded about their activities, SMEs may be unable to spare manpower for collaborations.
To encourage these tie-ups, Professor Sum Yee Loong, board member of the Singapore Institute of Accredited Tax Professionals, suggested giving big companies larger tax deductions if they develop business with smaller firms.
Mr Tay Hong Beng, head of tax at KPMG Singapore, suggested companies could focus on working with "complementary partners" to innovate, rather than be asked to work with their competitors.
Industry leaders also mooted ways to help smaller enterprises thrive.
To boost entrepreneurship, the authorities can consider allowing companies to carry back tax losses for more than a year, said Mr Low Hwee Chua, regional managing partner for tax at Deloitte Singapore.
With SMEs having fewer resources to train workers, cash payouts or tax deductions to defray such costs can be helpful too, he added.
Grants for training workers should apply to more online courses too, said Mr Ang.
Companies also face a labour crunch, with Mr Chia Hock Lai, president of the Singapore Fintech Association, flagging the shortage of talent in areas such as artificial intelligence and blockchain.
Mr R. Dhinakaran, president of the Singapore Retailers Association, suggested seasonal quotas for foreign workers in some sectors, when demand is high.
OCBC Bank's head of treasury research and strategy, Ms Selena Ling, said there is "room for a more fiscally generous Budget", noting that this year's Budget will also see the continuation of existing schemes, such as the ITMs.
"The external environment remains fairly murky," she said, alluding to the United States-China trade war and noting there will be geopolitical uncertainties. "It's a question of how lasting the impact will be. So far, they don't seem to have caused permanent damage."
Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.