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Full circle

"Spread regional wings'' makes a comeback

I moderated a forum earlier this week on the outlook for next year and it was quite an enjoyable experience, notwithstanding the fact that all the projections were gloomy. Trump's surprise win last week has thrown a real spanner in the works and everyone is waiting to see what the man does in the weeks ahead. However, the one key takeaway from the forum was that Singapore companies should do more to tap opportunities in the SEA region, particularly Malaysian and Indonesia. I couldn't help but think when I heard this that we're back full circle to where we were 20 years ago.

In the mid-1990s, the government urged companies to "spread their regional wings'' and move into the region. We at BT even responded with a BT-Singapore Regional Index of stocks that derived a significant portion of their revenues from the region. We engaged an NUS lecturer to help construct the index (it was market cap-weighted) and published it every day, with lofty hopes that if it became widely followed, it could evolve into a money-spinner for BT and SPH. Unfortunately it lasted only a few months - in mid-1997 the Asian financial crisis swept everything lower, in 1998 the local market was devastated by the Clob International crisis and in 2000, attention was diverted to the dotcomm boom (and bust).

This was followed by the 2003 SARS epidemic and from 2004 onwards it was all about China. The influx of S-chips lasted about 4 years until 2008 when Lehman Brothers tanked under the weight of its crooked products, threatening to take the whole rotten US banking sector with it. Between 2008 until now markets have enjoyed massive bouts of QE that have pushed prices ever-higher, though with little in the way of substantive economic growth to show.

Bottom line - there have been plenty of distractions since that early regional push and until now, the "go regional'' imperative had been quietly forgotten. The panel experts at this week's forum seem to think it's time to revive it and who is to say they are wrong? It actually makes perfect sense when you think about it - Victor Mills, CEO of the S'pore International Chamber of Commerce said it best when he spoke of the Singapore brand as still being very relevant and saleable within the region.

 It's full circle then - and back to the drawing board.

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