Sunday 9 December 2012

SMEs voice their fears in Singapore Conversation

Concerns include costs, labour woes and being edged out by big players
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 8 Dec 2012

FOR some small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the Singapore they see in 2030 is one with no room for them.

High costs and labour shortages make it hard to compete with bigger players who have the resources to weather such storms.

"We are worried about our survival," said consultant chef Yogesh Arora of Design A Cuisine.

The fear of an economy dominated by larger companies was one of the themes that emerged last night in the first Our Singapore Conversation event to gather the voices of business people.

About 160 bosses from 120 SMEs attended the session held at ITE College East by the North East Community Development Council and the Enterprise Development Centre at the Association of SMEs.

The businesses ranged from two-man operations to companies with more than 100 workers, and from Chinese medical halls to contract manufacturers. But half were small businesses with fewer than 10 workers.

During the session, bosses in similar industries gathered in groups of 10 to 20 to discuss what Singapore should preserve or change in business. They also envisioned Singapore's economy in 2030, and what they could do to achieve or avert such scenarios.

Later, they came together to share their groups' views.

The mood in sectors like food and beverage was sombre as they see the large chains edging out smaller players. Costs were a big issue. Some called for rent controls, or at least for landlords to be reined in.

Mr Guillaume Pichoir, chief executive officer of Italian restaurant business Da Paolo Group, said that in his native France, landlords have less power to raise rents than they do in Singapore.

But bosses in other industries were more sanguine.

Ms Cherilyn Tan, a director at marketing firm Yuan Associates, told The Straits Times that fears over survival were absent in her group's discussions.

Rather, the conversation was about business trends and strategies, like how firms could best position themselves in the region.

Still, some themes recurred across industries. One was the need for greater differentiation of policies according to industry - for instance, in the case of foreign worker quotas.

Companies also wanted government policies to focus more on the smallest firms, and for government help and information to be more centralised and easier to understand.

But there were also things the SMEs said they could do for themselves, from banding together to win contracts to mentoring new business owners.

Closing the session, North East Mayor Teo Ser Luck said some of the ideas were "really quite feasible and worth considering in terms of reviewing policies".

He was "particularly encouraged" by suggestions for greater partnership between the Government and businesses, and among firms. SMEs could share resources to reduce costs, he suggested, like jointly outsourcing backroom services such as their accounts.

Mr Teo, who is Minister of State for Trade and Industry, also agreed with suggestions to reduce bureaucracy and give greater consideration to SMEs during policy-making.

Speaking to reporters after the event, he noted that concerns over issues such as manpower and costs "have been there for a while". What was heartening, he said, were the ideas put forth.

Asked if these might feature in his ministry's plans for next year's Budget debate, Mr Teo would only say that some of the suggestions "are quite in line with some of the plans that we have".

Meanwhile, the encouraging response is prompting him to plan "at least" one more chat with SMEs.

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