By Fiona Chan
A LOCAL company that publishes textbooks may not be the most obvious choice of a business partner for the World Bank.
But Alkem Company Singapore, which employs just 12 people here, has won 30 contracts worth more than US$32 million (S$46.7 million) awarded by the international organisation over the last 10 years.
Its jobs have included sending textbooks and educational materials to the Philippines and scientific materials to Indonesia, said Alkem director Melvin Choo.
Another local firm, ST Electronics, was recently awarded a $12 million contract in Bangladesh funded by the World Bank.
Both Alkem and ST Electronics are successful examples of partnerships forged between Singapore companies and international organisations.
Although the number of these partnerships is growing, Singapore firms are still missing out on most of the lucrative opportunities offered by entities such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
These institutions are pouring billions of dollars into developing countries - especially in the current crisis - and are looking for companies to carry out the projects they are funding.
But Singapore firms are not taking full advantage of these deals, according to figures from International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, which is stepping up its efforts to link local firms with the relevant bodies.
Last year, the World Bank lent a total of US$24.7 billion to developing countries to help fund specific projects. Of this, Singapore companies clinched contracts worth only $54.32 million - a paltry 0.15 per cent.
Similarly, the ADB lent about US$12.5 billion last year, of which only 3 per cent, or $556.4 million, went to Singapore firms.
But IE Singapore is hoping that in the current downturn, Singapore firms struggling to find business may be drawn to tender for some of these contracts. And if so, IE Singapore is ready to give them a leg up.
The agency, which set up a division in 2005 dedicated solely to enhancing partnerships with international organisations, is stepping up its matchmaking efforts.
It has already established good relations with, among others, the World Bank and the ADB, and is also reaching out to others, including the United Nations and the Islamic Development Bank.
This means that apart from the usual government-type projects involving infrastructure and water, there will also be deals available in many other sectors, said Mr G. Jayakrishnan, IE Singapore's deputy director for the international organisations division.
For instance, the World Bank's private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), funds deals in the corporate world of developing countries.
This includes banking, agribusiness, manufacturing and tourism. Education is also a huge business these days, with countries eager to learn from Singapore's success in vocational and technical training.
Another perk of working with the IFC is that it is able to help with financing, which has all but dried up in the downturn.
The benefits of dealing with international organisations are plentiful, said Mr Jayakrishnan. Payment is guaranteed and on time, and companies can be introduced to high-level contacts in such organisations.
In addition, having the name of the World Bank or the ADB on a project helps pull in other investors - an important bonus for companies that may have difficulties getting funding.
However, tendering for World Bank projects is not without difficulties. Foremost among them is the 'tedious' approval process, which 'may take ages to materialise', said Alkem's Mr Choo.
Competition for these projects is also 'very tough', according to Mr Jayakrishnan.
But he added that Singapore companies have several innate advantages.
They are known for being transparent and well-run, are conversant in English, and have their own Asian development experience, which makes them a better choice to carry out projects in the region.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.