Investment opportunities despite uncertainties
Eric Tan, Director and Head of Transaction Advisory kicked off the session discussing the impact of recent geopolitical and macroeconomic developments on SMEs.
Panellists noted uncertainties from the impact of new policies following the US election and Brexit, and that of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, they believed that opportunities remain for businesses.
“Without the TPP, relations between the US and South East Asia would continue on a clean slate, with more bilateralism rather than multilateralism,” said Dominik Heer, Principal of The Riverside Company.
“While the TPP is unlikely to happen, China is actively forming trade pacts,” said Gabriel Ho, Director of Dymon Asia Private Equity. “We cannot ignore China as it’s the world’s largest manufacturing hub with an impact on the global supply chain and geopolitics.”
Another uncertainty is the impact of technological changes on businesses. “Because of technological advances, there might not be a need for internal combustion engines in 10 years’ time, leading to a drop in demand for oil and negatively impacting oil prices,” said Jaldeep Sodhi, CEO of Apex Avalon. “The shrinking cost of producing solar energy might also lead to new strategies.”
Geopolitics would shape the region more than it did in the last decade and despite greater volatility, growth of the ASEAN economies and rising intra-regional trade would keep the region attractive for investment.
Opportunities would also arise as Singapore seeks to strengthen its partnership with other ASEAN members to maintain its hub status, while leveraging on the stabilisation of commodity prices and other new trends such as technological advances.
Change is the only constant
Panellists shared several principles that businesses should be aware of to stay competitive in the face of uncertainties. These include taking advantage of Singapore’s geographical access to regional markets and reputation as a pro-business environment, and products and areas that they can tap into easily. Businesses should also have a multilayer plan to map out areas of investment and divestment.
“Change is the only constant and it is more important for SMEs to review their strategies for the future,” Dominik said. “Look at threats in the macroeconomic environment, such as currency risks, commodity price risks, new products, and different customer segments and markets.”
“The mindset is critical and businesses should assess where they are today and where they would be three, five and 10 years later,” Jaldeep noted. “Prepare to accept hard answers, realise change is happening, adapt and seize opportunities in the region.”
“Businesses should ask themselves what their ultimate goal is and be open to the exchange of ideas,” Gabriel said.
Tay Woon Teck, Head of RSM’s Risk Advisory division, facilitated ‘Disruption and Innovation’, inviting panellists to comment on Digital Darwinism — a phenomenon where businesses that do not embrace technological changes and adapt to market and behavioural shifts are at risk of becoming obsolete — and why Singapore has bred few entrepreneurs despite the ease of doing business in the country.
Sharing his views, Victor Tay, Chief Development Officer of Nanyang Technological University, said: “Businesses that compete for the moment simply follow trends and react to customer behaviour, while those that compete for the future are adaptive and proactive to create meaningful experiences for the customer.”
A key takeaway was the need for companies to consider how products and services enhance specific lifestyles and workflows as customer experiences have become more important than products. Businesses should also be aware of important trends, such as the rise of the on-demand economy, difference in mindsets between generation Z and millennial customers, use of 3D printing to create solutions for various industries, and the use of drones.
Commenting on the small number of entrepreneurs in Singapore, Stuart Smith, Chief of Digital Innovation & Design Practice, NUS-ISS, said: “Education needs to encourage critical thinking. Innovation is a human process. It is a skill set that anyone can learn and needs to be practised, and cannot be taught in a classroom.”
Future economy and entrepreneurship
Facilitating ‘The Future Economy’, Dennis Lee, Director of RSM’s Risk Advisory division, invited panellists to share their views on the future of industries and entrepreneurship in Singapore.
“Singapore’s economy has probably changed faster than anywhere else in the world over the past five decades, so nothing is impossible,” said Irvin Seah, Senior Economist/Senior Vice President of Currency Research, DBS Bank. “Banks are becoming more like IT companies, and vice versa, industry lines are being blurred, so competitors may come from anywhere and any industry. Any job can be replaced, so why not take the lead in disrupting your own profession?”
On the issue of innovation in Singapore, the discussion noted that there have been more company closures than formations over the past three years. Singapore’s population is also expected to shrink after 2025, and MNCs would unlikely invest in a country with an ageing population. This would be a clear indicator of the importance of innovation in the Singapore economy.
“While Japan and Taiwan have the same problem, they are doing well because their companies have grown overseas,” Irvin said. “So we have to do the same by nurturing more home-grown companies that venture overseas and grow outside of Singapore.”
Commenting on Singapore’s real estate sector, Alice Tan, Director & Head of Consultancy and Research, Knight Frank, said: “After three years of declining private home prices because of cooling measures, the biggest question is about the price and yield upside.”
She added that despite weakening market sentiments over the last few years, foreign investors remain confident in Singapore’s real estate market due to infrastructural and overall stability, which is the nation’s competitive advantage.
Cliff Go, Founder/Chief Executive Officer of Swaen Capital, shared his insights on Singapore’s financial services industry. “Singapore must make itself attractive by making sure that there is no shortage of capital for incoming foreign entrepreneurs and leveraging on our advantages such as our strong legal system and intellectual property protection,” he said. “We should embrace change as our quality of life is determined by how much uncertainty we can handle.”
The panellists also had advice for entrepreneurs in Singapore. They stressed the need for business owners to expose themselves to those with the capital and capabilities to help them achieve their objectives. While entrepreneurs should look for opportunities that they are passionate about, staying practical is also important.
On the issue of recruitment, Looi Qin En, COO of Glints, said: “We must acquire skills with the end in mind. Companies will need to take the initiative to nurture the skills they want, instead of hiring ready-made talent.”