Electronics shipments finally showed some life last month after almost a year of decline, but overall exports dipped, sparking warnings that more declines may be in store if trade tensions escalate next year.
The 2.6 per cent dip in non-oil domestic exports (Nodx) was the first drop after seven months of continuous increase and caught out experts who tipped expansion of 1.8 per cent in a Bloomberg survey.
It is also in stark contrast to October's 8.2 per cent increase.
A reason for the poor numbers was a high base of comparison year on year, given high export numbers in the same period last year, Enterprise Singapore said yesterday.
At least electronics firms, which have endured 11 straight months of contraction, had some early festive cheer, with shipments up 4.5 per cent last month. That followed a 3.6 per cent drop in October.
Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin said: "Electronics exports did improve, but this looks to be driven by semiconductor exports to China, reflecting front-loading before possible tariff hikes."
The increase was led by expansions in shipments of integrated circuits, consumer electronics and telecommunications equipment.
Ms Selena Ling, OCBC Bank's head of treasury research and strategy, said "it still bears watching if the rebound in electronics exports is sustainable into the first quarter of 2019, given the improvement is relatively narrow-based".
Non-electronics shipments declined by 5.2 per cent from November last year after a 12.7 per cent rise in October. Falls in non-monetary gold, specialised machinery and petrochemicals contributed most to the decline.
Nodx dropped 4.2 per cent on a month-on-month seasonally adjusted basis as the decline in non-electronics exports outweighed the rise in electronics. Exports to most of Singapore's top markets slipped last month, except those to the United States, Thailand, Japan and Taiwan. Declines came mainly from drops in shipments to China, South Korea and Indonesia.
United Overseas Bank senior economist Alvin Liew said the export outlook to China continues to darken, noting that shipments to China contracted for the seventh consecutive month.
Mr Liew added that last month's turnaround in electronics exports is unlikely to last in part due to the decelerating global tech cycle.
"We also continue to be concerned about the US-China trade developments, with a March 1, 2019, deadline, which will certainly cloud the outlook for Singapore," he said, referring to the deadline set by the US for wrapping up trade talks with China before new tariffs are imposed.
Non-oil re-exports, a gauge of regional and global trading sentiment, weakened last month too, decreasing about 6 per cent to $22.8 billion, from $24.2 billion in October.
Oil domestic exports grew by 18.9 per cent, given higher sales to Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia, and total trade rose over the year, supported by both import and export growth, said Enterprise Singapore.