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China remains key market for local firms, says Enterprise Singapore

CHINA will continue to be a key market for Singapore companies, an Enterprise Singapore official said on Wednesday morning.

Eunice Koh, assistant chief executive of the government trade promotion agency, cited the Chinese consumer market as a major draw in remarks at a Singapore Business Federation (SBF) media briefing, a day after China cut its annual growth target.

The SBF is again leading a delegation to the China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai in November, and now plans to bring more than 100 companies - up from the 80 businesses that it took to the inaugural expo in 2018. It wants to set up pavilions for trade in services, food and agriculture, and "quality life" at the event.

The SBF has booked some 2,000 square metres of exhibition space, up from 1,425 sq m in 2018, with more space to go to the food and beverage industry. It also plans to hold business-matching sessions to help promote Singapore businesses to Chinese partners.

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About 50 companies have already signed up for the upcoming fair, according to the SBF - with two-thirds of those being returning participants. The association added that interest has been particularly strong when it comes to small- and medium-sized enterprises in the services, food and agricultural products and consumer goods sectors.

SBF chairman Teo Siong Seng told the briefing that "increased consumer purchasing power in China remains the biggest attraction for Singapore firms who wish to deepen their market penetration in Asia", alongside "continued demand for high-quality goods and services".

And "China has been, and will continue to be, a key market for our companies", Ms Koh said at the briefing, noting that Chinese consumption rose year on year in the first 11 months of 2018 despite slower global growth.

She also noted that Singapore was China's top foreign investor from 2013 to 2017, while China is the Republic's biggest trading partner.

Ms Koh said that Singapore businesses "must persist with their internationalisation efforts in order to scale up" and called platforms like the CIIE "a good avenue to reach out to the very savvy Chinese consumers".

"Beyond simply looking at China as an end-market, we would also like to encourage companies to seek out Chinese partners to co-innovate and create customised products and services for specific groups of the market," she added.

The Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry is among the trade associations and chambers now eyeing the CIIE, with president Shamir Rahim noting at the briefing that about two-fifths of its 700-odd members deal in food and beverage.

"If you look at the global halal economy... China obviously constitutes a big part of that opportunity," he said. "Definitely we'll push our members forward to go international.

"Right now, they're already going regional, into Malaysia and Indonesia, so this will be a big step forward and we'll encourage it."

Calling China "a huge economy", Ms Koh said: "Even if the growth slows, it is still a lot of opportunities for a small country like ourselves. So we're still positive.

"If you talk about specific sectors like food and beverage, people always need to eat. Lifestyle - it's a way of life, so there still remains a lot of opportunities."

Mr Teo shrugged off China's official growth forecast of between 6 per cent and 6.5 per cent in 2019, which is below the 6.6 per cent gross domestic product (GDP) growth achieved in 2018.

"6 per cent to 6.5 per cent is a remarkable figure, looking at the GDP as a whole," he said, comparing the projected drop of around half a percentage point against "the volume, the size of the economy".

He added in a statement: "Trading with China can open doors to other opportunities, including the Belt and Road Initiative.

"We urge Singapore companies to take advantage of this valuable platform that could put their business at the heart of the world's fastest-growing economy."

The CIIE, which was announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017, will this year span 300,000 sq m of floor space across five domains: equipment, consumption, food, health, and services.

Zhong Manying, minister-counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Singapore, said that more than half of the upcoming exhibition area has already been booked.

Representatives from the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry were also present at the SBF briefing on Wednesday.