Singapore firms eye Latin American business

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Mrs Lee being welcomed at the airport by Mexican Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs Julian Ventura Valero on Sunday. PM Lee is in Mexico at the invitation of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Mrs Lee being welcomed at the airport by Mexican Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs Julian Ventura Valero on Sunday. PM Lee is in Mexico at the invitation of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.PHOTO: LEE HSIEN LOONG/FACEBOOK

Republic has several flagship projects in Mexico, where PM Lee is on 4-day visit

The persistent scourge of dengue in Singapore was a key motivation behind Dr Anthony Chua's start-up Stratificare, which invented the world's first test kit for predicting which patients are likely to develop a more dangerous form of the mosquito-borne illness.

But Dr Chua has long set his sights beyond the Republic, on developing countries such as those in Latin America, where dengue outbreaks are more likely to overload hospitals and stretch limited resources.

"Singapore is a very small market: Even though this has been a very bad year for us, with more than 12,000 new cases, we're already looking at about 40,000 reported cases in Mexico as of August," said Dr Chua, 36.

Pushing into the Mexican market - on the other side of the globe, with a foreign language and an unknown regulatory environment - was initially daunting.

But Dr Chua credited government agency Enterprise Singapore (ESG) for opening the door to dialogue with relevant government officials.

The five-man start-up has since been given the go-ahead to conduct a clinical study in Mexico next year, which paves the way for possible regulatory approval for the test kit.

"It would have been really hard for us to do this by ourselves with cold-calling," said Dr Chua.

Singapore firms like Stratificare have a good opportunity to enter Mexico as companies there look beyond traditional trade partners such as the United States to diversify their growth, said ESG.

To capitalise on this, a business delegation is accompanying Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on his four-day official visit of Mexico at the invitation of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Besides meetings with top officials, PM Lee was scheduled to hold a fireside chat yesterday with some 250 members of the Mexican business community.

Among the flagship projects that have been clinched by Singapore entities is a collaboration agreement between the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise (SCE) and Guanajuato state to conduct a study on developing the central region into a logistics hub, and to transfer knowledge on government procurement best practices.

Urban and infrastructure consultancy Surbana Jurong has also secured a masterplanning project to develop a strategic plan for an interoceanic corridor in the isthmus between the cities of Salina Cruz on the Pacific Coast, and Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf of Mexico.

Also known as the Tehuantepec Route, the overland path was a major shipping route before the opening of the Panama Canal, and Mr Lopez Obrador's plan to revive the ancient route has drawn intense media interest in the country.

Surbana Jurong chief executive officer Wong Heang Fine said the interoceanic corridor is more than just a logistics play. It is a plan to invigorate the south of Mexico by linking up two regions with unique strengths - one in agriculture and the other in oil and gas.

"The whole idea, for the Mexican government, is really to activate the economic development of the southern side of the country (to close) the economic disparity between the north and the south," said Mr Wong.

"Our scope for this project includes market positioning, masterplanning, infrastructure development planning, and transportation planning."

SCE chief executive officer Kong Wy Mun called on more Singapore firms, including small and medium-sized enterprises, to consider expanding to Latin America, given that issues such as the language barrier will ease with time.

One way is to plug into inter-government projects, which allow Singapore companies to gain concrete experience on a project basis, he said.

"It's a matter of time that the language barrier is overcome and we should be prepared at that stage," he said.

"If not, we'll be too late into the game, into the market."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore firms eye Latin American business'. Print Edition | Subscribe