Singapore firms need to re-engage with their Asean roots

They should regard the region as a franchise through which to grow their brands

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Four panellists discuss Budget 2017, from encouraging innovation to working closer with Asean and embracing technology.

A deeper understanding of Asean is sorely needed if Singapore companies want to take full advantage of emerging opportunities in the region.

This means building networks, remaining open to talent, and developing expertise to become a springboard into the region, panellists at The Straits Times' post-Budget roundtable said.

Encouraging companies to expand and venture abroad was a key thrust of this year's Budget. The newly-announced International Partnership Fund, for instance, will see the Government pledging up to $600 million to co-invest with Singapore companies and help them scale up globally.

Rising anti-trade sentiment has ignited fears that the world is entering an era of increased protectionism, but turning inwards has never been an option for Singapore, noted UOB chief economist Jimmy Koh.

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Four panellists - UOB economist Jimmy Koh, Garena group president Nick Nash, NTUC assistant secretary-general Cham Hui Fong and Gerard Ee, president of the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants discuss the Budget.

"You cannot stop (rising connectivity) - it is driven by economics, by technology. It may slow down as a result of the rise in anti-globalisation sentiment, but it will continue to evolve," he said.

While Singapore companies expanding abroad have traditionally looked to China, Europe or the Republic's immediate neighbours, the fast-growing Asean region is now impossible to ignore.

"Singapore companies should be looking at Asean as a franchise through which their brands can grow," Mr Koh added.

Mr Nick Nash, the group president of tech company Garena, agreed: "Probably the most important theme for Singapore over the next 10 years is a re-engagement with Asean.

"If all we are doing is creating marketplaces for our small island, we'll limit ourselves, but if our small island can be the stock exchange for the region, we have tremendous growth ahead of us," he said.

To tap these opportunities, said Mr Gerard Ee, the president of the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants, Singapore companies and workers should venture out into Asean on study trips as well as to establish contacts and meet potential business partners.

This means developing a deeper understanding of the region.

"What Singaporeans, or at least the current younger generation, do not have is an understanding of the history (in the region)," he said.

"(They) do not understand the cultures and values of different people in the region that we are trying to form a bond with, and we might inadvertently end up making enemies rather than friends.

"So I wish all the schools would go back to teaching the history of all the Asean countries so that we appreciate where they're coming from," added Mr Ee, who is also the chairman of the Charity Council.


Mr Nash agreed, saying that Singapore needs to reconnect with its roots as a society of immigrants from across the region. In addition to venturing out, the Republic must remain open to talent coming in.

"We have one great advantage in that respect - the rest of South-east Asia sends their children to study at NUS (National University of Singapore) and NTU (Nanyang Technological University).

"In our own business, we have found that our best general managers from other Asean countries were NUS-trained - they work in Singapore for two years and then head back to their home country. We must do more of that," he added.

"In some ways, what we're calling for is a Singaporean diaspora, but there's never been a diaspora in history not provoked by a crisis of some form and our lack of crisis in some way is the genesis of this problem. It's very comfortable to live here."

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can also benefit from these regional opportunities, said Mr Ee, noting that the digital economy is one way for small firms to go global.

There is also scope for larger, government-linked companies to partner or form consortiums with SMEs when venturing overseas.

"That will accelerate the process," Mr Ee noted.

Some might see an emerging Asean as competition, but the panel thought otherwise.

"We need to be a more of a 'glass is half full' sort of country. And it is really more opportunity than competition," said Mr Nash.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline Singapore firms need to re-engage with their Asean roots. Subscribe