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Singapore must remain open to talent, new ideas

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Mr Campbell: Says Singapore should also remain open to tech services providers from abroad.

SINGAPORE needs all the talent it can get, especially as companies invest in new technologies and spread their wings abroad, according to small business leaders at a recent roundtable.

The participants expressed disappointment that Budget 2018 did not contain measures to ease Singapore's tight foreign manpower rules.

How Budget 2018 impacts small business

Convened by leading online accounting platform Xero, the post-Budget roundtable sought to discuss the impact of Budget 2018 on small businesses.

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"As a business owner I want to ensure that I get the best talent I can hire - regardless of nationality," says roundtable panellist Lelian Chew, the founder of couture floral design house The Floral Atelier, and a Xero customer.

"Hiring is hard enough - I don't want it to cause even more of a bottleneck in the company's growth by limiting the talent I can access," she adds.

Fellow panellist and Xero customer Lynly Fong said there should be more scope to bring in highly skilled foreign talent to train locals in key skills. The director at footwear distributor Spirit Sports said that people with the right skills -- such as entrepreneurs -- can create more jobs in the local economy. "Resources should be global," she says.

The ingredients of a centre of digital innovation

Ultimately, Singaporean businesses need to convince Singaporeans that more flexible foreign manpower rules are necessary for growth, says panellist Julian Wright, who heads the economics department at the National University of Singapore.

Singapore must remain open to new talent and ideas if it wants to be at the forefront of innovation, he adds.

"The challenge lies in making Singapore a centre for digital technology and innovation, and having enough creative buzz here. Singapore has the ingredients to be that - for example, it is cosmopolitan and business-friendly. But we also need to have enough creative types and disruptors here."

Besides talent, Singapore should also remain open to tech services providers from abroad, says Xero Asia managing director Alex Campbell.

"From a platform perspective it might not make sense to build from Singapore. Xero's online accounting platform is global in nature and has 1.2 million small businesses running on it around the world.

"There are strong network effects involved - the more small businesses, accountants, banks and third-party applications we have on the platform, the more useful and valuable it is for everyone."

Support succeeding in new markets

Company leaders on the panel acknowledged that overseas expansion can catapult growth but say that Singapore companies need more on-the-ground help to succeed in new markets.

"There are many risks and expenses involved in conquering a new market," says Ms Chew, who contemplated expanding into regional markets beyond Singapore and Hong Kong, but decided to focus on further local expansion first.

"Singapore is not a big enough market for our ambitions, but I'm hesitant to establish our next overseas presence for now," she adds. "It is prudent to first ensure we're the No 1 key player locally and that we've taken advantage of every opportunity here before we make the jump into the next market."

Meanwhile, Spirit Sports is exploring the Malaysia market.

"We've been doing what we've been doing for 10 years in Singapore and we are ready to venture abroad with our know- how," says Ms Fong. "Malaysia feels less foreign than some other regional markets and is more comfortable for us."

The company is looking into the new Enterprise Development Grant (EDG) unveiled in Budget 2018. The grant aims to help companies internationalise and innovate by providing up to 70 per cent of co-funding to build a range of capabilities.

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