Govt grants let rempah maker think of growth

SINGAPORE - Since she started her rempah business a decade ago, Norhuda Rabani has seen demand for her ready-to-cook spice mix grow by more than 20 per cent every year.

Making rempah, however, is a labour-intensive affair, and with just five staff in her firm Asyura, Ms Norhuda, 42, saw a need to automate her operations.

With the help of government grants, she recently purchased an automated gas cooker and a packing machine, which will help the company double its rempah production to 1,000 packets a day in the future.

Asyura was cited by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday as an example of how businesses have benefited from government incentives to raise productivity.

Speaking at the Malay Muslim Business Conference, Mr Lee said that even in an ethnic product, such as satay, or a religious niche, like halal food, companies have to be efficient and well-run to succeed in an increasingly competitive environment.

"You need to be able to differentiate yourself to stand out from the crowd...," Mr Lee told some 450 participants.

Acknowledging the manpower crunch faced by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), he said that while many firms want foreign worker curbs to be relaxed, the Government cannot do so.

"We have to manage the inflow, we have to manage what we can accommodate in Singapore...," he said.

But the Government will lend a hand, to maximise workers' contributions, make jobs more attractive and raise productivity. A talent programme was also launched last year to match polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students to SMEs.

Mr Lee said the best way for companies to attract good workers is to offer higher wages and exciting jobs, and this can only happen if firms climb up the value chain and raise productivity.

Even small firms, which have just two or three employees, will get a leg-up.

He admitted that "when the companies are very very small... it's very difficult to justify investments in automation, and it's very difficult to scale up successful projects".

But he said that the Government will provide grants to get companies to join forces to raise productivity, and smaller firms will also be encouraged to work with bigger ones to learn their best practices.

"By raising productivity and hiring better workers, SMEs will be in a stronger position to venture overseas, whether to sell your products and services, or to expand your production capabilities," Mr Lee added.

SMEs can then take advantage of the lower costs and greater supply of land in Iskandar Malaysia, for example, said Mr Lee.

Izzat Ismail, owner of EDN Learning Discoveries, an educational services provider to schools, said that to boost productivity, staff must also be motivated to come up with innovations.

Together with his four employees, his company has designed an app for mobile devices to replace the paper worksheets used by students during local heritage tours and overseas trips.

"Besides being more engaging, the app has cut down on the time my staff need to grade the assignments," Mr Izzat added.

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