SMEs largely support SBF position paper

SMEs largely support SBF position paper

Owners of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have picked up on the Singapore Business Federation's (SBF) proposal for the government to consider having pension funds invested in the local stock market.

But Clinton Ang, managing director of wine merchant Hock Tong Bee, thinks this money might be better funnelled into helping SMEs - specifically SMEs that are owned by Singaporeans and are not listed, and which also are not subsidiaries of multinational companies.

Mr Ang has long advocated for the government to be more active in having a stake in local SMEs. "GIC/Tem- asek cannot invest in every SME. But they can pick promising SMEs that they feel can put Singapore on the map. I think that's very important," he said.

"The key thing here is to make the government a stakeholder in our SMEs. With so many of our national assets and companies being sold, where do SMEs lie in the government's perspective of things?" he asked.

Having the government more proactively take a stake in local businesses would not only reassure SMEs, it would also boost their branding, Mr Ang added.

The other recommendation local businesses picked up on - and indeed lauded - was the recommendation to relook foreign manpower policies.

"Singapore companies are being constrained by their inability to hire foreign workers as a result of the government's recent tightening of its foreign worker and immigration policy," said SBF in its position paper released on Wednesday.

The government should instead consider allowing larger quotas of foreign workers as a transitional arrangement for jobs that Singaporeans do not have skills for, and/or for industries where Singaporeans do not wish to work, said SBF. This would provide time for locals to skill up and/or industries to make their jobs more attractive.

The other recommendation on this front was for the government to consider expanding the Lean Enterprise Development (LED) Scheme to provide different foreign worker policy treatments for different enterprises.

Companies are being squeezed at both ends of the labour market, SBF noted, and if this shortfall is not addressed, Singapore companies will lose their competitive edge.

Kenny Yap, managing director of Qian Hu Corp, agreed: "It's extremely difficult to get enough people to not only expand the business, but also sustain the current business."

Construction firms, in particular, face an uphill battle when it comes to hiring Singaporeans, he noted. "If you restrict them, the progress of building will be slow and there will be a lot of implications. Or, the cost of building might be too high, because productivity (efforts) need time to catch up.

The business community accepts that we need productivity, but with market conditions so challenging, the pace of cutting back on foreign manpower must be adjusted. We're not saying we need a U-turn, but the pace needs to be adjusted."

Mr Ang, on the other hand, feels the foreign quota should be raised for companies with overseas exposure and those that are looking to push themselves in that direction. This is in addition to looking at the manpower needs of specific industries.

"Of course, you can say you don't want there to be industry bias, but you have to - because it's part of the strategic direction. Then you need to look at promising companies that have the potential or already have a presence in the region. (The current foreign labour policy is) too much of a hard and fast rule. There's no one rule that can cover all."

Separately, Wilson Chew, entrepreneurial & private clients partner at PwC Singapore, said that he felt the creation of an economy that is not constrained by geographical boundaries is one of the more effective proposals put up by the paper.

"Many entrepreneurs and family businesses which we serve in PwC are successful because they have strong operations in the region with a solid base in Singapore. It is here where contracts are signed but with products and services made elsewhere in the region and delivered directly to the customer. They tell us that they see ASEAN as one 'country' with Singapore as the capital."

The government should seriously consider putting in place barrier-lifting, technology-fuelling, and liquidity-aiding policies to encourage Singapore-based companies to expand overseas. "Certainly, more can be done to help our companies seize market opportunities in these respects," Mr Chew said.

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