From the era of MNCs to today's diverse businesses

From its founding in 1837, the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) has been at the heart of the business community. Its niche as Singapore's longest-serving, wholly independent voice of the private sector is as relevant today as it was 178 years ago.

SICC's mission is simple and unchanged: to represent business interests in the greater interest of ensuring a vibrant economy in Singapore.

From representing first mainly British, and then wider European, business interests up to World War II, SICC represented multinational companies (MNCs) predominantly in the first 20 years of independence. Since then, the chamber's membership has grown much more diverse and more representative of Singapore's business community today.

SICC members represent more than 20 industry sectors and 40 nationalities, and are roughly equally split between MNCs and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is healthy and this diversity of membership is at the heart of its reinvention in the 21st century.

Having started life as a severe critic of the East India Company administration and its successor in the colonial government, SICC has been a constant supporter of Singapore's post-independence governments. This is largely because governments since 1965 have understood just how central continued business success is to Singapore's own continued success.

Successive business-friendly governments in the last 50 years have worked, and continue to work, to build and maintain a vibrant economy. This is because a vibrant economy is a prerequisite for the city-state's very existence and the livelihood of its citizens and residents. Singapore's economic miracle in the last 50 years did not happen by chance and is not on auto-pilot in 2015. It still needs to be worked on by government, business and workers.

This goal is best expressed in, and achieved by, Singapore's unique form of tripartism made up of employers, government and workers represented by unions. This system has provided both fair employment terms and industrial peace, which, in turn, have made possible sustained investor confidence and economic growth.

Importance of defence

Singapore's astonishing economic growth in the last 50 years has also been made possible by ensuring that the country has well- equipped and trained armed forces to protect its citizens, residents and the country's business community.

The chamber and its members support the unspoken work of national servicemen (NSmen) by releasing them for duty and by appreciating them and the reasons for it.

Indeed, SICC has, on occasion, gone further to demonstrate its commitment to Singapore. In November 1966, the Ministry of Defence asked the chamber to finance the equipment and training of a girls' pipe band. This was done in time for 1967's National Day Parade.

More importantly, SICC supported the National Wages Council right at the start because of the value and importance of tripartism to Singapore's success.

There are many examples of how the chamber continued to be part of Singapore's fabric in the years following the country's independence.

In the cultural sphere, this ranges from making a donation to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's Endowment Fund in 1983, to commissioning a gold CD of orchestral music in 1997. This was to celebrate the 160th anniversary of the chamber and was launched by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

In employment, in the 1990s, SICC recommended to the Government that employment for expatriate spouses and children be permitted on the basis that it was good for them and for Singapore. The Government changed the employment guidelines to allow expatriate spouses and children to work if they so choose.

In 1995, the Government announced that Central Provident Fund contributions would no longer be allowed for non-citizens. The chamber appealed over this loss of tax-free savings for expatriate workers. The Government responded by delaying implementation and, in 2000, set up the Supplementary Retirement Scheme and allowed expatriates to contribute.

Medical tests for Employment Pass holders were required but it did not make sense for initial tests to be done in Singapore, especially if long distances were involved for potential job candidates. SICC raised this issue with the Government, which agreed that initial medical tests could be done outside Singapore and all subsequent ones be completed here. This is another example of business- friendly policies and a government prepared to listen. Mutually beneficial private dialogue is the order of the day between SICC and the Government.

The SICC was also instrumental in the establishment of the Singapore Institute of Directors and, in its early days, the institute's staff worked out of the chamber's office.

Mr Lee's prescient words

What about the future of SICC? An example from SICC's past provides the answer.

On Feb 6, 1969, the chamber held a dinner to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles' founding of Singapore in 1819. The guest of honour was then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

SICC chairman R. G. Bennett said: "My chamber, sir, wishes to follow you in looking forward rather than back, in planning and working for the future rather than holding on to the easy prizes of the past."

Mr Bennett went on to praise Mr Lee as Raffles' successor. Mr Lee commented that he was flattered, if a little apprehensive, at comparisons with Sir Stamford Raffles. He went on to say that if in 50 years' time, Mr Bennett's successor would be equally fulsome in his praise, then it would be an immense satisfaction to him even if he should be in some other world.

We all know that Singapore and the SICC are here today because of Mr Lee and his extraordinary team, whose leadership is a textbook case of drive, persistence and focus.

At the same dinner, Mr Lee also spoke about his vision for Singapore's future: "Our future is what we make of it and we will use to best advantage the factors in our favour."

As usual, Mr Lee's words were prescient.

They are as relevant today as they were in 1969 for both Singapore and for SICC, its longest-serving chamber.

The writer is chief executive of SICC.

This article was first published on June 8, 2015.
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