Why It Matters

SMEs take cue for deep change

Even as 2016 goes down as a year of uncertainty and soul-searching for bosses of many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), some of them are embracing the productivity push, it seems.

According to tabulations released by enterprise development agency Spring Singapore last week, the number of SMEs that tapped government grants to embark on productivity initiatives fell to 16,300 last year from 20,000 in 2015.

But these 16,300 firms are pulling their weight. Their upgrading efforts are expected to create 21,400 new jobs for PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) and contribute $7.8 billion in value-add to the economy.

This is higher than the 15,000 jobs created from Spring-funded projects in 2015, which had a projected value-add of $6.9 billion.

In other words, the weaker economy did not derail Singapore's economic restructuring agenda and push for job creation, at least not by Spring's measure.

The lower grant uptake last year was also the result of Spring becoming more selective in its spending of grant funds. No more incentives were given for adopting applications like basic accounting software.

So SMEs had to get serious about skills and equipment upgrading, and it looks like they did.

This mindset shift is crucial as Singapore seeks to step up the pace of industry transformation with the release of a new economic plan by the Committee on the Future Economy next month.

Concerns have been raised about how much of a difference big-picture plans will make to SME bosses. A Singapore Business Federation survey last month showed that smaller firms are at risk of falling behind because they do not invest enough to deal with technological change and disruption, as compared with large companies.

But Spring's report is hopeful. It shows that some SMEs are recognising that a downbeat economy might be the best time to carry out deep change, and hopefully more firms will take the cue.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'SMEs take cue for deep change'. Print Edition | Subscribe