The vital role that SBF plays

Chairman Lim Ming Yan explains how the apex chamber helps to create an environment for businesses to thrive.

There are growth opportunities to seize even as challenges abound for Singapore businesses, which have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic and now face issues such as rising business costs and a manpower crunch.

This is the mindset that Lim Ming Yan, chairman of the Singapore Business Federation (SBF), hopes companies here will embrace. “Looking forward, there are still many challenges, but there are also a lot of opportunities,” says Mr Lim.

And SBF, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, will continue to do its utmost to help the local business community navigate challenges to reach new heights.

Mr Lim sees two new opportunities for businesses here to grow: by embracing new technologies and digitalisation, and sustainability.

Many companies jumped on the digitalisation bandwagon during the Covid-19 pandemic as remote working became the norm. For several retailers and food and beverage operators, it was key to business survival as online platforms became their main sales channels.

They should not stop there, according to Mr Lim. “They should make use of this momentum and continue to push for their operations to be fully digitalised and be a lot more efficient in their operations.”

“We are quite glad to see that during Covid, quite a lot of companies were able to very quickly switch to remote-working mode. That is a blessing. Imagine if this happened 10 years earlier. I think companies would be caught, they won’t be able to work, and many would have to shut down. But because we were all able to switch to remote working, we continued to be able to operate at high efficiency.”

SBF has been making a huge push to encourage digitalisation.

Among the initiatives it has spearheaded on this front is MAP – a 3-stage drive which focuses on helping firms rethink their business models and transform their operations. Partners that are working with the SBF to help firms along their MAP journey include DesignSingapore Council, GIC, Infocomm Media Development Authority, Institute for Human Resource Professionals, Institute of Technical Education, Korn Ferry, Republic Polytechnic and Singapore Polytechnic.

Through MAP, companies have been able to identify new overseas business opportunities even during the Covid-19 pandemic, while others have sought to digitalise by leveraging data and analytics into their decision-making process when it comes to setting prices for products. Others were able to enhance their online and offline customer journeys to better serve customers’ needs.

On sustainability, some may see it as a burden to adopt such practices. But one can also see it as an opportunity, notes Mr Lim. This is especially relevant, given the growing global focus and prominence on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.

“You can see sustainability as an obligation, as a burden, for businesses, but you can also see sustainability as a new way of doing business. I think this trend has reached a point where it is very hard for it to reverse, so companies will have to look at it, embrace it and make use of it.”

“Some businesses are aware that their customers are seeking sustainable options. “So if they don’t do it, they will be out,” adds Mr Lim.

Take, for example, the building and furniture industry in Singapore. Seeing the ESG wave as a potential growth opportunity, the Singapore Furniture Industries Council and the Singapore Green Building Council came together with SBF to form the Alliance for Action (AfA) on Sustainable Spaces – which seeks to create and enhance sustainable spaces.

An area of focus is formaldehyde – a colourless, strong-smelling, flammable chemical that is produced industrially and commonly used in furniture and building materials. Heightened exposure to formaldehyde can cause breathing problems or irritation of the eyes, nose, throat or skin. Studies of workers exposed to high levels of formaldehyde, such as industrial workers and embalmers, have also found that formaldehyde causes myeloid leukaemia and rare cancers, including cancers of the paranasal sinuses, nasal cavity, and nasopharynx.

The AfA on Sustainable Spaces has therefore been working together with members of the furniture industry in Singapore to implement standards limiting the use of formaldehyde in their products, which in turn presents a new business opportunity for the industry as increasingly, consumers in countries such as China are rejecting the use of high amounts of formaldehyde in building materials and furniture.

Opportunities aside, Mr Lim recognises that businesses here are grappling with numerous challenges, key being rising costs, and manpower – a critical challenge for industries such as retail. Last month, SBF published a 32-page manpower policy paper calling for, among other things, a more nuanced approach in classifying business activities in the wide-ranging services sector, to allow for more differentiation in foreign manpower policy.

It noted that there are diverse industries falling under the sector currently that range from professional services to retail and wholesale trade, and hotels and food services, yet all are subject to the same work permit requirements, such as source countries, maximum period of employment, the dependency ratio ceiling or quota, and the corresponding levy rate.

“This does not reflect labour market dynamics such as the nature of work, education level, job demand and resident labour force supply across the significantly different services industries,” says SBF.

Mr Lim notes that it will take time for the government to study the recommendations and make the necessary adjustments. “We also understand that from the government’s perspective there are certain considerations. They have to balance all the different segments within society, while from the business angle, they do encounter problems.”

Herein lies the importance of building trust among all the key stakeholders, namely the businesses, the trade associations and chambers, the unions and the government, to ensure that win-win outcomes can potentially be achieved.

Mr Lim believes that SBF has succeeded on this front. “The relationship has reached a stage where a lot of trust has been built up between SBF and all the stakeholders. That is crucial because you need trust… for businesses to tell you their issues and problems. If there is no trust, there is no way they will tell you because they want to look good from a business point of view to build confidence, therefore they may not want to tell people their issues and problems.”

Within the government, Mr Lim believes that there is an understanding that SBF undertakes a role to create an environment for businesses to thrive. “When businesses thrive, they create good jobs for Singaporeans… so we work quite closely with the different agencies within MTI (Ministry of Trade and Industry), MOF (Ministry of Finance) and the different ministries.”

Over the years, SBF has sought to help Singapore companies grow by focusing on three areas: by acting as a bridge connecting the business community, trade associations and the government to allow for a better understanding of business concerns and government policies among the stakeholders; by supporting businesses in their growth journey through internationalisation, business transformation and enhancing jobs and skills; and by forging collaborations among diverse stakeholders to increase the competitiveness of Singapore businesses.

Moving forward, Mr Lim believes that SBF will continue to play a key role as a facilitator to bridge the gap between policymakers and Singapore businesses, in order to create a thriving business environment.

“Without SBF, it will be very hard for the government to reach out to all the businesses,” he says, noting that individual companies too, may find it hard to raise issues pertaining to policymaking. “But collectively as a business community, it is okay to raise some of these issues because it becomes less about doing something for individual companies, and more about doing something for the entire business community to thrive.”

“When the business community thrives, we can provide better jobs, and when we can provide better jobs, society is better off, the country is better off. And SBF, as a third party, can provide that perspective.”

Click here for more articles on SBF’s 20th Anniversary.

Source: [The Business Times] © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.