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SINGAPORE's strategy to develop itself as a gold hub has proven successful, as its imports and exports almost doubled in the years after the goods and services tax (GST) was removed for investment-grade precious metals in 2012.
But there is still more work to be done, especially in increasing business flows now that the infrastructure is in place, said the Singapore Bullion Market Association (SBMA).
In numbers released for the first time, statistics from International Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore) show that total imports and exports of gold in Singapore have expanded from 474 tonnes in 2012 - when the GST exemption started - to a peak of 823 tonnes in 2014 before falling to 618 tonnes last year.
"That demonstrates . . . the gold hub strategy has taken shape and has shown itself to be successful," said SBMA chief executive Albert Cheng in an exclusive interview with The Business Times. SBMA worked with IE Singapore to make the numbers publicly available.
The slight decline in Singapore's gold import and export numbers since 2014 was in line with a fall in the global gold market as investors turn to more risky assets amid more stable financial markets, he explained.
Among other signs of progress is the opening of a new refinery in 2013 while banks such as UBS and Toronto-Dominion have stepped up their activities here.
There are also more bullion houses - Thai bullion traders have set up branch offices in Singapore - as well as precious metal logistics companies, said Mr Cheng. As a result, SBMA's membership has risen from 25 to 36.
The next step is for Singapore to help encourage business flows within the region's gold market, said Mr Cheng.
"Although the government has done a few things to remove roadblocks like lifting GST and encouraging refineries to come, those are hardware changes - you really need the business flow," he said. "In order to encourage business flow, you have to create a reason for people to (do) the business here, and to network them to the right people."
This is where the association's inaugural Asia Pacific Precious Metals conference starting on Monday comes into play. SBMA's vision is for the event, which will be held annually, to connect South-east Asian gold players with the global market.
"With this conference, we start to demystify this market to the global players, and also provide access for them to speak with other players." Otherwise, language and cultural barriers often make it difficult for someone from China or London to reach others from markets such as Myanmar, added Mr Cheng.
About 320 participants - more than the association's initial target of 150 - have signed up. While Singapore and Hong Kong delegates make up half the number, the rest of the participants hail from places as far away as Ghana, Russia and United Arab Emirates.
Altogether, some 150 companies from 23 markets will be present at the conference, including 17 refineries, eight bullion banks and 10 exchanges. SBMA will also sign memoranda of understanding with Myanmar Gold Development Public Company to develop its gold market, and with Hong Kong's Chinese Gold and Silver Exchange Society (CGSE) as part of the latter's One Belt, One Road strategy. These will create value for SBMA's members by connecting them to regional players, said Mr Cheng.
In the coming months, SBMA will also be working with independent data providers to improve gold-related information for South-east Asia.
The data available now is sketchy, said Mr Cheng. "We don't have data from every country . . . if we want to aggregate or look at Asean in a holistic manner, we need to have all the data."
Only with proper data can the region be benchmarked against the rest of the world, he added. "Then we'll be plugged into the global picture."
Even without the full data available from all countries in Asean, however, the region's total gold demand last year reached 300 tonnes. In comparison, India and China's gold demand were 675.5 tonnes and 913.5 tonnes respectively, according to data from World Gold Council.
"So the Asean market is half of India and one third of China," said Mr Cheng, pointing out that Asean is not an insignificant market for gold.
Singapore will in turn benefit when there are more gold flows in and out of Asean, he added. Gold is usually traded in places which are safe and have sufficient liquidity, and in these areas, "I don't think anyone can surpass Singapore", he said.