A single cross-border trade today can involve more than 25 parties, generating 30 to 40 documents and requiring 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the data to be re-entered manually at least once.
But a new online trading service, which combines all Customs and trade-related services onto one platform, aims to cut back on such onerous paperwork.
The Networked Trade Platform (NTP), launched yesterday, brings together four government certification services required for trading in and out of Singapore, as well as 25 value-added services by third-party firms geared towards trade. Three more government services will be moved to the new platform in the coming months.
The service will eventually replace the Government's existing TradeXchange and TradeNet platforms. It aims to digitalise the paper trail, offer more accurate data analysis and create opportunities for third-party service providers.
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, who launched the NTP at the Orchard Hotel, said many digital solutions have sprung up around the world to address the problem of repetitive data entry. But many of these work as a purely regulatory or purely commercial platform.
"If we can stitch the disparate standalone systems or digital islands together, and bridge the government agencies and business community, the potential value to the economy is significant and transformational," he said.
About 800 companies from various industries have signed up to use the platform since it went live in December last year.
Originally called the National Trade Platform, it was renamed at the launch event attended by nearly 700 representatives from the trade, logistics and public sectors.
The NTP was developed by the Singapore Customs and the Government Technology Agency of Singapore over four years, and supported by more than 20 ministries, government agencies and working groups.
The Government held discussions and workshops with more than 400 industry experts and 200 organisations, said Dr Tan Kim Siew, co-chair of the National Trade and Logistics Inter-Agency Steering Committee.
Many participants highlighted the industry's paper-based processes, which require time-consuming manual data entry. Coordination with multiple business partners, including banking, insurance and logistics services, also led some traders to develop expensive proprietary digital systems.
Dr Tan said: "The NTP must help to achieve paperless trade and greater operational efficiency for our traders. Traders must be able to transact digitally with all their partners."
The digital platform can also enable cross-border trade linkages through technology. Mr Heng said Singapore Customs is now in talks with China to link both nations' trading systems, and with the Netherlands on trade regulatory processes.
Businesses interviewed hailed Singapore as a pioneer of digitalising and standardising the trade process, but some added that other countries should follow suit too.
Mr Michinori Ishihara, general manager of Japanese trading house Mitsui & Co, said if other governments continue to require original paper documents, companies will be unable to change their processes completely to paperless trading.
Mr Iain Morrison, HSBC Singapore's head of global trade receivables finance, said that with 31 per cent of intra-regional trade executed here, the Republic has "a leadership role to play in enabling a more frictionless flow of trade".
The NTP is a paradigm shift for how trade can be managed across South-east Asia, he added.
Mr Shamir Rahim, who founded fleet management firm VersaFleet, said the inefficiencies of traditional paper-based processes had given rise to middlemen who take on clerical work from traders.
"With the NTP, hopefully, there is no longer a need to work through these intermediary brokers. The likelihood of errors is higher when a single trade has the hands of many parties on it," said Mr Shamir.