Steering the Business Community Through Stormy Seas

Immediate Past Chairman of SBF, Mr Teo Siong Seng has played key roles in helping local businesses through challenging times

Whether it was dealing with the fallout from the global financial crisis, the US-China trade tensions or the current COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Teo Siong Seng has seen his fair share of turmoil and disruption as the Immediate Past Chairman of the Singapore Business Federation (SBF).

During his tenure as Chairman, SBF launched a raft of initiatives to help and motivate the local business community to adapt to a fast-changing landscape at home and abroad, even as the Federation embarked on its own transformation journey to be more relevant to its members and stakeholders.

Under Mr Teo’s stewardship, SBF grew the number and range of activities offered to its members and stepped up its engagement efforts with the Government, local business community, as well as regional and global business chambers and networks.

And after six years at the helm of Singapore’s apex business chamber serving the maximum of three terms (of two years per term), Mr Teo stepped down on 30 June 2020. He has been succeeded by Workforce Singapore’s Chairman Mr Lim Ming Yan.

BiZQ speaks to Mr Teo about his key contributions, the challenges facing local businesses and what he would miss most about his time at SBF.

What were the key challenges faced by the local business community during your time as SBF’s Chairman?

My term was from 2014 to 2020. Soon after the financial crisis in 2008, we had the European debt crisis, followed by the US-China trade war, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. The external economic and geopolitical environments have been and continue to be challenging. Our local businesses have had to deal with curbs to foreign labour, the rising cost of doing business, and technological disruptions.

Despite the challenges, there have also been many opportunities. I have seen the business community making the effort to innovate and digitalise so that they can better manage their operations and reduce their reliance on foreign labour.

How has SBF helped businesses overcome some of these challenges?

One key area we have supported businesses in is internationalisation and business expansion. We have a small domestic market, but right at our doorstep is ASEAN, a region which is expected to be the fourth largest single market in the world by 2030.

We have encouraged our companies to expand overseas and I am happy to note that we have successfully set up GlobalConnect@SBF with Enterprise Singapore before I stepped down. Companies can leverage this platform to gain valuable insights, make useful connections in overseas markets, and more.

In the area of business transformation, SBF has partnered with the Government to help promote the Industry Transformation Maps. We also formed committees to help our members with their digitalisation efforts, and promote our infrastructure sector to take advantage of China’s Belt & Road initiative.

As the apex business chamber, SBF’s close collaboration with other trade associations and chambers (TACs) is crucial. We have been working closely with the other TACs for better synergy to help further our local business community’s interests. In 2017, SBF announced the formation of the TAC Alliance, which is made up of different TACs and business groups.

What were some memorable achievements during your time at SBF?

I take pride in the fact that we produced two position papers with many proposals to improve Singapore’s competitiveness. We started work on the first one, “SBF Position Paper for a Vibrant Singapore”, before the General Elections in 2015 and presented it to the Government in 2016.

The paper laid out recommendations to address the business community’s immediate concerns as well as longer-term issues that could impact Singapore’s future. The Government has since adopted some of these recommendations, such as doing away with quarterly reporting for listed companies.

A second paper, titled “Sustainable Employment: Achieving Purposeful Business Success Together”, was presented to the President of Singapore Madam Halimah Yacob in November 2019. Included in the paper are recommendations for businesses to adopt sustainable employment practices. This issue has become even more pressing since the COVID-19 outbreak, as businesses try to preserve jobs during this crisis so that they are well-positioned for growth when the recovery comes.

How has SBF itself evolved in the recent years?

In recent years, SBF has taken on a greater advocacy role, serving as a platform for different interest groups to collaborate in many areas. For instance, SBF’s Infrastructure Committee brings together different stakeholders, such as financiers and service providers in the infrastructure space to connect and collaborate.

Meanwhile, a group of young entrepreneurs from the SBF Young Business Leaders Network partnered with an investment platform to provide financial help to small and medium enterprises affected by the pandemic.

SBF also worked with the Ministry of Manpower to set up SBF ManpowerConnect to help employers manage their foreign manpower needs amidst the COVID-19 situation. The scheme allows companies to hire work permit holders from other companies, including those of different sectors, with the agreement of their current employers.

Amid this uncertainty, what are the priorities for Singapore businesses now?

Businesses must continue to identify new opportunities by coming together to collaborate and engage in strategic partnerships. This requires them to interact with the wider business community. They can do so by taking part in SBF’s seminars, networking sessions and other events where they make new contacts and exchange ideas with like-minded individuals and businesses. I also encourage companies that have been doing well to volunteer their time to help others.

What will you miss most about your time at SBF?

I will miss my frequent interactions with members, whether at local seminars or overseas trips and engagements. I will also miss working with my SBF colleagues. Many of SBF’s milestones would not have been achieved without their commitment and dedication to serve the members. But I am heartened that a new Council has been formed under a very capable chairman, Mr Lim Ming Yan, and I urge our businesses and members to continue supporting SBF’s work in the years ahead.