NON-OIL domestic exports (NODX) surprised the market with an 18.5 per cent jump in March, the biggest monthly increase in more than three years.
Private-sector economists had forecast a 1.1 per cent dip, following the 9.7 per cent fall in NODX in February.
They were off base in their month-on-month forecasts: International Enterprise (IE) Singapore's latest trade numbers released on Friday showed that March's NODX rose a seasonally adjusted 23 per cent over that for February, far more than the 3.5 per cent rise they predicted.
The month- on-month increase came after a 9.4 per cent decline in February.
IE Singapore, the government's trade promotion agency, said the surge in March's NODX reflected strong electronics and non-electronics shipments.
The electronics NODX jumped 10.4 per cent on-year in March, reversing the 12.5 per cent tumble in February. The non-electronics one surged 21.6 per cent, led by pharmaceutical exports, which shot up 65.9 per cent, following a 8.5 per cent slip in February.
The spike in March's NODX raised the NODX levels to the highest since February 2012, Citigroup's Kit Wei Zheng said in a brief note.
ANZ's Daniel Wilson and Devik Mehndiratta said they will revise gross domestic product (GDP) growth upward for the first three months, adding that the increase in March's NODX brought domestic shipments up 4.8 per cent on-year in the first quarter.
But they held back from predicting that the latest NODX growth pointed to a new trend ahead.
This week, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said that based on preliminary indications, GDP was estimated to have expanded 2.1 per cent year on year in the first quarter.
Francis Tan of UOB Bank said: "We advise caution against being overly jubilant on Singapore's March export performance.
"The key reason is that the two main export segments - electronics and pharmaceuticals, comprising 23 per cent of overall NODX in 2014 - saw strong on-year growth only due to a very weak base in the same month a year ago."
Going forward, UOB expects a slowdown in PC-related electronics exports and manufacturers to shift their focus to the export of services, rather than goods.
Mr Tan added: "We also expect the exports of petrochemicals to come under pressure, as the current oil price weakness persists at least in the first half of 2015."
Domestic exports of petrochemicals slipped 13.4 per cent on-year in March, following a 17.5 per cent drop in January and a 30.9 per cent one in February.
Nomura's Euben Paracuelles and Brian Tan were more upbeat in their report: "Although exaggerated by volatile pharmaceuticals and ship exports, the pick-up (in March) nonetheless hints at a more broad-based improvement in the manufacturing sector."
They do not think the jump in last month's NODX came from the effects of a "favourable base".
Still, everyone agreed with OCBC's Selena Ling that the NODX's showing would be in line with MTI's 2 to 4 per cent economic growth forecast for 2015.
The NODX's strong performance in March was in stark contrast to the spate of poor export figures in a number of Asian export economies for that month: China (minus 15 per cent on-year), South Korea (minus 4.3 per cent), Taiwan (minus 4.5 per cent) and Indonesia (minus 9.8 per cent).
NODX shipments to 10 major markets except Indonesia and Japan rose in March, with the EU, US and Malaysia the three biggest contributors to NODX growth.
Exports to the EU, Singapore's biggest market last month, surged 56.2 per cent, possibly reflecting the jump in pharmaceutical shipments.
Shipments to the US, which was staging a strong economic recovery, rose 19 per cent.
Exports to Malaysia rose 10.7 per cent, perhaps on the back of a rise in demand ahead of the goods and services tax which took effect there this month.