Parliament: 'Picking winners' not the way to help companies grow, Iswaran says

Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S Iswaran said that Singapore's economic growth strategy does not revolve around cherry-picking high-potential companies.
Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S Iswaran said that Singapore's economic growth strategy does not revolve around cherry-picking high-potential companies.PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES

SINGAPORE - Singapore's economic growth strategy does not revolve around cherry-picking high-potential companies and helping them grow.

Instead, the Government aims to build a conducive ecosystem for innovation, while extending help to those firms - especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - that are prepared to take steps to transform and expand, Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S Iswaran said during the Budget debate yesterday.

He also noted that Singapore is a mature economy which means it will grow more slowly than it did in the past. However, its location in the heart of a rapidly urbanising Asean means there are significant opportunities for companies to tap on.

Mr Iswaran's speech in outlined the various measures available to help SMEs expand overseas, innovate and deepen capabilities. This came after six of the 10 MPs who spoke before him expressed concerns that the Budget did not provide enough aid for small firms hit by the economic slowdown.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) said companies were hoping the Budget would offer some financial relief.

"However, it seems that their hopes will not materialise....For most of the smaller businesses, this year's Budget is a non-event," he added.

It will be tough to strike a balance between businesses' short-term concerns about operational costs and the government's longer-term considerations about the country's economic competitiveness, said Nominated MP Thomas Chua, who is also president of Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera said the Budget "has not made a decisive shift towards building local enterprises as an engine of value creation, alongside multinational companies and government-linked companies".

"This is a huge missed opportunity," he said, noting that Budget 2017 contained some new measures but "is this enough to uncage our local firms?"

Mr Perera also said funding support provided to local enterprises should be more selective and results-driven, "with much more generous support and higher caps given to companies who truly have a track record of results and...the ambition to succeed globally".

In his speech, Mr Iswaran said SMEs are at the centre of Singapore's economic transformation push and are receiving support through both broad-based and targeted programmes.

He noted that the Budget contained short-term relief for the hardest-hit industries, such as marine and offshore engineering, and construction.

Beyond immediate challenges, however, Singapore must "invest in the capabilities of our economy, people and enterprises, especially our SMEs" to seize longer-term opportunities.

"We do not pick winners, but will support companies that are prepared to make these important transitions. And in all of these efforts, SMEs are our central focus," the minister said.

Responding to Mr Perera, he added: "The companies that are prepared to move further and go faster will be better, and will receive more support. But that does not mean that we are picking winners. The winners are picking themselves and adapting to our schemes."