Going Regional: Pushing Singapore firms to expand overseas

It took a trade mission led by then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew to turn Dr Robert Yap's company from local to global.

Such missions were "new and few" in 1993.

Dr Yap, executive chairman of logistics giant YCH, was head of a homegrown company that had just made its first foray out of Singapore with a warehouse in Penang.

But YCH's multinational clients like Compaq and Hewlett-Packard were urging the firm to service them as they expanded into China.

Dr Yap was hesitant.

He recalled: "We knew China was going to be a growing market, we just needed a sign that it was the right thing to do. Because we were not a big company, we couldn't afford to make too many mistakes."

The invitation to join the mission was just the sign he was looking for.

Mr Lee had invited many businessmen to the trip to expose them to the China market.

"We had a meeting, and Mr Lee said that China is a big market we cannot ignore, because Singapore is too small," said Dr Yap, 62.

"But of course, he cautioned that not all of us would succeed...

"But the whole thing was about encouragement. There was a risk, but we needed to go."

Mr Lee commanded a lot of respect from the Chinese officials and built the Singapore brand by keeping promises and working hard, said Dr Yap.

"Lee Kuan Yew didn't say it that way; he acted that way."

The Ningbo mission gave Dr Yap the courage to take YCH global.

A year later, YCH opened a distribution park in Shanghai.

It now operates distribution hubs in more than 100 cities worldwide.

"Singapore is only 20 per cent of our business now," Dr Yap said.

"(Singapore's) legacy of internationalisation - I would credit it to Lee Kuan Yew."

In his role as Senior Minister, Mr Lee dwelt extensively on the need for Singapore firms to venture abroad to grow and survive.

He told a People's Action Party (PAP) conference in 1992: "We are being left behind by (South) Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, which are developing their external economies.

"All we've got are a few enterprises in Malaysia, mostly in Johor, and a few factories and hotels in Batam and Bintan in Indonesia."

If Singaporeans are "contented to be stuck at home" instead of internationalising, warned Mr Lee, Singapore would be a "failed NIE (newly industrialising economy)".

Mr Lee threw his weight behind the regionalisation drive.

He wanted Singapore firms to develop "guanxi", or close relations, with rising Chinese businesses.

Dr Yap first saw Mr Lee in action in the 1960s, when he was just a lad who went along with his father on a job.

The elder Mr Yap, who owned a lorry transport business, supplied vehicles to the PAP during an election campaign.

"My father had very, very high respect for Mr Lee," said Dr Yap.

Later, when he took up the reins of his father's business and began transforming it into what is now YCH, Dr Yap began to share his father's deep respect for Mr Lee.

"I appreciated him better as a businessman - when you look at the stability in Singapore, and take advantage of the Singapore position," he said.


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