Asia's bright spot

The economic outlook for most of Asia has been weak but some Singapore companies are seeing a bright spot in India.

Investment by firms in India is on the rise, and companies with a presence there say the region's second-largest economy is a challenging market to break into but offers rich rewards.

India's gross domestic product exceeded US$2 trillion (S$2.8 trillion) in 2014, according to World Bank data. After taking 60 years to reach the US$1 trillion mark, the Indian economy added the next trillion in just seven years.

Singapore's direct investments in India have been rising steadily every year, going up from $9.56 billion in 2009 to $15.24 billion in 2013.

Firms in the construction and wholesale and retail trade sectors contributed most to the increase, said trade agency IE Singapore.

Manufacturing, financial and insurance services, as well as professional, scientific and technical administrative and support services firms, have also been taking big strides into the Indian market.

Singapore and India have been strengthening their economic links in recent years.

Singapore is helping to design and develop the new capital of Andhra Pradesh, which is 10 times the size of Singapore and the single-largest infrastructure project attempted by Singapore in India.

Many large Singapore companies already have a presence in India - utilities group Sembcorp Industries, for instance, has a presence in seven Indian states and is on the lookout for opportunities, especially in the energy and urban development sectors.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with operations in India are optimistic that its economy is on the brink of lift-off, even as the rest of Asia remains mired in a slowdown.

Oil and gas equipment supplier Chase Resource Management, for instance, sees India as a bright spot amid the downbeat oil market.

The company set up its India office in 2008 "as a back office to support the business", said director Jayanthi Manian.

But its operations have since expanded substantially, and 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the company's business is now churned through India.

"There is still a lot of (oil and gas) work happening on the east coast, and a lot of tenders that we have been bidding for and winning," said Ms Manian.

"It is not as bad as the market elsewhere in Asia."

The company, which has about 20 employees in its Mumbai office, also hopes to start supplying its products to more sectors, such as infrastructure, water and waste management, and renewable energy.

"India is an interesting market and shaping up well for us... We are open to teaming up with other Singapore companies keen on the infrastructure sector there," added Ms Manian.

However, she noted that Singapore firms tend to hesitate over venturing into India.

She said: "A lot of Singapore companies are scared of moving into India. It is a totally different working culture, and it takes a lot of patience to work there.

"For instance, there is tons of paperwork to be done... Even setting up a company and getting an office takes a lot of time and documentation."

Mr Vivian Singh, president and chief executive of PC and flash memory manufacturer Strontium Technology, said other hurdles include different tax rules across states and poor infrastructure.

But the payoffs can be significant. The company has sold its products in India since it was founded in 2002, but business has taken off in a big way since the advent of e-commerce.

"In the past, it was important to have a warehouse in every state, but e-commerce is growing fast in India and this helps companies like us. We are in four Indian cities; we don't need to be in 100 cities," said Mr Singh.

India contributes about 30 per cent to 35 per cent of the company's sales, which came in at about $350 million last year.

The company, which started making memory modules for PCs, is now venturing into wearable technologies and the Internet of Things, and is launching its first products in the second quarter of the year.

"We believe these have huge potential in emerging markets like India," said Mr Singh.

This article was first published on February 15, 2016.
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