Singapore businesses encouraged to explore opportunities in Cambodia, Laos: President Tan

President Tony Tan Keng Yam (left) and Lao President Bounnhang Vorachit share a toast during the state banquet at the presidential palace in Vientiane, Laos, on Jan 12, 2017.
President Tony Tan Keng Yam (left) and Lao President Bounnhang Vorachit share a toast during the state banquet at the presidential palace in Vientiane, Laos, on Jan 12, 2017.PHOTO: MCI

LUANG PRABANG - Cambodia and Laos have plenty of opportunities to offer Singapore companies, and their leaders have encouraged Singapore to do more to trade and invest there, President Tony Tan Keng Yam said on Saturday (Jan 14).

He urged Singapore businesses to venture into these budding markets early, before competition grows too stiff. But those taking plunge will need the grit to stick it out.

"Businessmen who come here have to be prepared to take a long-term view, and put in the hard work now before the situation is settled," Dr Tan told Singapore reporters in an interview at the end of his state visits to Cambodia and Laos.

While Laos and Cambodia are still in the early stages of economic development, they have great potential and abundant natural resources, Dr Tan noted.

Their economies, for one, have grown at a rapid pace of about 7 per cent a year in recent years, and the wider region remains a bright spot amid a sluggish global economy.

"Singapore is fortunate to be located in South-east Asia," Dr Tan said. "Asean - with its population of 600 million, with the Asean Economic Community - will be a major growth engine for the world. And Singapore is well-placed to take advantage of that fact."

Singapore's chances in Cambodia and Laos are promising, he added.

"We have a very strong brand here, and we should take advantage of that. And the main areas of interest in Cambodia and Laos also fit in very well with our expertise."

Both countries are keen on developing the tourism sector - an area in which Singapore can lend its experience.

Over the past week, Dr Tan met his counterparts in Phnom Penh and Vientiane, and also visited the heritage-rich tourist destinations of Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor Wat temple complex, and Luang Prabang.

On Saturday, Dr Tan also recalled his last trip to Siem Reap two decades back, and said he found the town transformed on this visit - bustling,and buzzing with first-class hotels.

"It shows how much one industry can do for a country," he said.

And while Luang Prabang - Laos' former royal capital - has come a long way, more can still be done, Dr Tan noted.

Singapore can work with both countries on the human resource aspect of tourism, such as in training hotel and service staff, he said. "That's something Singapore has a lot of experience in. We have Shatec, and the ambassador here is working with the Lao government here to see whether we can start something here," said Dr Tan.

Singapore is already involved in human resource development in both countries, which are among the top recipients of technical assistance under the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP).

The programme counts Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, who was in Singapore for a three-month English language course in the late 1990s, among its alumni.

Mr Thongloun shared his SCP experience with Dr Tan when he hosted the president to lunch this week.

"It's a small investment for us, time for him, but it pays off dividends in the long run and this lasts a lifetime. This gives an example that we don't need a lot of resources and money, but target areas where they are in need," said Dr Tan.

Other areas Singapore can look into include healthcare, logistics, real estate and food processing, he added.

Some Singapore companies are thinking of transferring their food processing facilities to Cambodia or Laos to be closer to food sources. Dr Tan cited how one businessman has already transferred part of his facilities to Laos.

Dr Tan also shared his thoughts on Asean, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Singapore will assume the chairmanship of the regional grouping next year.

Asean is one of the most successful grouping of countries in the world, he noted, adding: "The world ahead is uncertain but with the goodwill generated between our governments and our leaders, I am sure we will continue on this progressive path."

Cambodia and Laos are at a different level of development, but they are committed to the Asean Economic Community, and Asean integration will benefit all 10 member countries, Dr Tan said.

And Singapore, as a small country, must continue to reach out to its region and beyond, he said: "We are a price-taker, not a price-maker, so to make our way in the world, we have to make ourselves relevant to Asean, to Asia, and the rest of the world," he said. "In that way, we can make an impact which is disproportionate to our small size and population."