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MANY smaller, older companies here are now at a fork in the road to survival, and the newly-installed president of one of Singapore's largest chambers of commerce knows that in order to help them, his chamber must "strike a balance" between their worries and the government's push for economic restructuring.
And the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) will be reorganising itself to help its members improve, while continuing to raise the issues of rising business costs to the government, said president Roland Ng, 64, in an exclusive interview with The Business Times on Tuesday at the SCCCI's new premises at the Trade Association (TA) Hub in Jurong.
SCCCI counts more than 4,000 firms and 153 trade association as its members, representing 40,000 firms of different sizes.
"We got to strike a balance. While we understand the concerns of the SMEs (small and medium enterprises), we also have to look at the overall structure of the economy," said Mr Ng, who is also managing director and group chief executive of crane supplier Tat Hong Holdings.
But he also acknowledged that many issues are now converging to form a huge, even unsurmountable, challenge to SMEs here, and a little compassion can go a long way for these struggling SMEs.
"Survival is a real concern. And if we can prolong (their survival), help them go through this period, they may be able to survive."
SCCCI thus gives feedback to the government to keep costs under control, Mr Ng said.
It was Mr Ng's first media interview since being sworn in as the chamber's president for the 59th council two weeks ago. It was also only SCCCI's second day at the new location.
Mr Ng's inauguration comes at a milestone in the 111-year-old chamber's history.
Singapore is undergoing economic transition and is expected to see slower growth. Global value chains are seeing structural shifts. The economy is now at its advanced stage of development.
The government is thus imbuing trade associations and chambers with more responsibilities to help the sectors and companies that they represent in tackling these challenges.
And then there's the increasingly more emotive aspect of how some generations-old SMEs are struggling.
These are the ones that have eked out a niche and a market during Singapore's early years of development, but are now facing new disruptions that Mr Ng fears their elderly founders may be unable to cope with.
"Some of the companies are very traditional businesses; the bosses themselves have built their businesses over the last 50 years," said Mr Ng.
"They now reach a point where the younger generation don't want to take over their businesses. So the founders don't know what to do."
For a start, Mr Ng wants to take them overseas to find new markets, and this is where chambers can play a crucial role in.
Time is a factor for many firms, he said. Firms normally have to first spend three to five years in a new foreign market to understand the culture and the business environment.
"Chambers can cut the time period short, make it easier for them to take off; some of our council members are very familiar with the countries."
The chamber is already stepping up its efforts in helping firms internationalise. Two weeks ago, it secured approval from Chongqing authorities to run a representative office there. This can help Singapore firms gain deeper insights into this south-western Chinese megapolis.
SCCCI is also helping SMEs enter overseas markets.
In May, Mr Ng will lead a delegation of 40 persons to Cambodia and Laos to explore opportunities in infrastructural projects.
However, Mr Ng recognises that SMEs may not have the resources to step out of Singapore successfully.
But he says that there is another easier approach for those looking to keep up with the times: using digital technology to refine business processes.
His advice to the technophobic bosses: approach technology in a piecemeal way; get acquainted with how it works in a segment of their business processes, then expand it up and down the value chain.
"There are many, many ways," he said. "You can fully computerise. You can go for e-commerce. Use it to do your marketing, your surveys, your analytics, databases.
"But the older generation -they're not ready, they don't have a clue. So there's a gap between the founder and the technology."
These challenges that the SMEs face are also what the SCCCI has to address itself, said Mr Ng. As such, the chamber is reorganising itself.
It is putting more younger members into its higher echelons to pave for succession planning.
More crucially, their presence can help inject fresh ideas to tackle challenges, notably in the area of technology adoption.
SCCCI also recently set up the Trade Association Committee, a business-led platform to solve challenges faced by each trade association.
The move to TA Hub is a tangible way in which SCCCI is helping trade associations. Twelve of them are already in various stages of moving to TA Hub, with 30 expected by the end of the year. Mr Ng said that this pools resources such as facilities and manpower to help smaller trade associations.
But even as SCCCI reorientates itself to meet future economic challenges and help companies improve, Mr Ng said that the chamber must stay rooted to its core.
"It is the hua shang jing shen," said Mr Ng, using a Mandarin term to refer to the essence of being a Chinese businessman. "What we benefit from society, we give back to society. That is the essence."